Is there too much money in politics? That question is a
rhetorical one for much of the media. They simply assume that there
is. So far this campaign season, network newscasts have reported
numerous times about the costs of running a presidential campaign
and the alleged problems this raises for candidates. Because
reporters assume private money hurts politics, they report on every
reform option except the one conservatives champion -- raising (or
eliminating) the limits on individual donations to candidates.
Case in point: ABC News. On January 17 and 18 ABC's World News
Tonight devoted a total of five stories to the role of money in the
presidential campaign, under the title "The Greenback Primary."
These stories followed a January 15 Nightline broadcast about
campaign-finance reform. The assumption in all of these stories was
that money has -- as Peter Jennings put it -- a "corrosive effect"
on the political process.
Various correspondents contributed to the World News Tonight
series. Jim Wooten pointed out that front-loaded primaries meant
candidates have to raise a lot of money early. "None of the
Republicans except Senator Dole has actually reached his fundraising
goal," Wooten reported. "He's ahead. There could be a connection."
John Donvan illustrated the elaborate means candidates must employ
to raise enough money to compete. Bill Blakemore noted the rise of
"soft money," such as contributions to political parties and
independ-ent expenditures. According to Blakemore: "It's how
corporations and unions can snub the law that forbids them to give
to presidential campaigns."
While many of these stories were informative, none questioned the
common wisdom that too much money is the problem with the current
campaign finance system. None cited the mainstream conservative
argument, made by law professor Bradley Smith in a Cato Institute
study, that more money would improve politics. Smith wrote:
"Considering the importance of elections to any democratic society,
it is hard to believe that the expenditure of less than $10 per
voter for all local, state, and national campaigns constitutes a
crisis requiring government regulation and limitations on spending."
Ignoring this argument led to biased coverage of possible
reforms. On the January 15 Nightline, Jeff Greenfield reported,
"We'll be hearing a torrent of words about campaign-finance reform
this year, but every proposal for change raises some big questions.
Complete public financing? Well, skeptical voters might see that as
just another taxpayer rip-off. Force television stations to provide
free air time? Who would qualify and who wouldn't? Say to
multi-millionaires they can't spend as much as they want on their
own campaigns? No, the Supreme Court says that would be
While Greenfield skillfully raised objections to all the reform
ideas he cited, he didn't mention "every proposal for change." David
Frum, in the January 15 Weekly Standard, suggested one proposal
conservatives have long advocated -- "a sharp increase in the
maximum permissible personal donation." Frum argued that "if
[candidates] could raise their money in bigger chunks, they could
spend much less time at the task" and that "once large donations
could be made directly to the candidate -- which every candidate
prefers -- the evil of unaccountable and undisclosed soft money
would tend to wither away."
Reporters are correct to sense that something is wrong with the
campaign-finance system. And the liberal view that private money
always corrupts political campaigns should be reported fairly. But
journalists shouldn't assume liberals are right and report liberal
reform plans as if they were the only ones being proposed.