What is the one topic that reporters usually love to discuss? The
First Amendment. Threats to free speech (especially their own) are
usually big news, but recently there has been one glaring exception:
campaign finance reform.
Many news outlets, such as the Washington Post and the
television networks, have yet to comprehensively report at all on
the campaign finance bill sponsored by Senators John McCain and
Russell Feingold. And news outlets that have reported on the bill,
such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times,
have left out of their stories the argument that by limiting and
regulating what citizens can spend to air their views, reform plans
restrict free speech. Many of the stories have left out opponents of
the bill and their arguments altogether.
In a February 7 New York Times story by Francis X.
Clines about President Clinton's support for the bill, for example,
only Clinton and Senator Feingold were quoted. No arguments against
the bill were mentioned. Washington Bureau Chief R.W. Apple, in a
February 12 front-page story for the New York Times, saw
only rank self-interest in opposition to the bill: "The McCain
bill...would erode the advantage that current law gives to
incumbents, and the incumbents, whatever their party and whatever
their seniority, are resisting."
The next day, the Times' Leslie Wayne focused on the
efforts of Common Cause, a campaign finance reform advocacy group,
and also failed to mention any arguments against the bill. Wayne
wrote that there are "few in Congress backing the McCain-Feingold
measure to eliminate soft-money donations and lessen the advantage
given incumbent office-seekers."
Readers on the other coast were given similar one-sided coverage.
In a February 10 Los Angeles Times profile of McCain and
Feingold, both senators were given plenty of space to call for
reform, and the Times' Edwin Chen announced, "If enacted,
[the bill] would represent the most significant reform legislation
of the post-Watergate era." But no opponents of the legislation were
Robert Shogan's February 3 Los Angeles Times story on
the bill at least mentioned the First Amendment: "Compounding these
problems are federal court decisions severely restricting
congressional authority to regulate campaign spending, which the
judiciary maintains is shielded by the First Amendment." But Shogan
saw this as more a problem with implementation than principle. He
ran quotes from two sources who said that restrictions were futile,
because people would find loopholes. He didn't interview anyone who
opposes government restrictions of political speech and believes
more spending on such speech would be a positive trend.
And it's not as if such sources would be hard to find. An
alliance that includes groups as diverse as the American Civil
Liberties Union and the National Right to Life Committee has formed
to oppose the legislation. They believe, as a February 17 Weekly
Standard editorial charged, that the bill "would place severe
constraints on any federal campaign activity that costs money. It
would expand the realm of campaign-related speech subject to those
constraints to include `any suggestion to take action with respect
to an election,' even by a nonpartisan public interest group. And it
would authorize the Federal Election Commission to make unilateral
guesses about when such `suggestions' are about to occur -- so that
the commission might quickly muzzle the talk with a restraining
order." This, the magazine argued, makes the bill "blatantly
unconstitutional on any number of levels."
Reporters, for some reason, may not like this free speech
argument against the McCain-Feingold bill. But wouldn't a balanced
reporter insist that such arguments be included in their stories?