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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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February 1996


ABC's Missing Campaign Reform Idea
Network Assumes Private Money Is Corrupt, Ignores Conservative Argument

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 unconstitutional."

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.


Rich Noyes


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