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Alarm over 'Unfair' Campaign Money

By Jeff Cohen
June 22, 2008


There was real emotion in his voice when ABC News anchor Charles Gibson used Friday night’s newscast to stand up for little-guy McCain against online-fundraising-powerhouse Barack Obama.

By opting out of public financing, Gibson intoned, the Democrat could obtain “two times, three times, four times, as much money as John McCain.”

“Let me ask you a question about basic fairness,” Gibson implored of chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos. “People in this country like to believe that people play on a level playing field and that a campaign will be about ideas and personality; if you start with that much more money, is it basically fair?”

It was more a statement than a question, like Brit Hume anchoring at Fox. (ABC has gone Fox-like in crusading over “Obama’s Switch” and “Back Flip” and “Flip-Flop” on public financing.)

Gibson’s egalitarian “fretting” about fairness was too much for right-wing media critic Brent Baker, who belittled the anchor and McCain:

“If Obama can raise more than his opponent, it just reflects greater enthusiasm for him. And there's hardly any nobility in taking taxpayer money when you know you'll be challenged to raise a larger amount voluntarily.”

To me, the good news is that a network anchor was giving prominence to the plight of underfinanced candidates.

The bad news is that it’s taken years to see an anchor make such a stand. And that Gibson (like other media voices in recent days) is making his stand for “fairness” against a candidate who has attracted 3 million contributions from 1.5 million donors giving an average donation of $91.

In other words, against a candidate who is arguably less beholden to big-moneyed interests than McCain. (The Gibson clip is at Crooks and Liars.)   

I have mixed emotions about big media’s newfound concern for under-funded candidates.

Beginning in 1992, Norman Solomon and I used our nationally-syndicated column to criticize mainstream media for their failure to focus on campaign spending inequities and the elite funders of corporate-friendly politicians.   

Days after the 1992 election, we wrote that “national media seemed almost clueless to explain the triumph” of endangered U.S. Senate incumbents – with the New York Times blandly noting that many incumbents “somehow managed to survive.”

We mentioned several narrowly victorious Senators like corporate-backed sex-harasser Bob Packwood of Oregon, who outspent his Democratic challenger by more than 3 to 1.  And ethically-challenged Al D’Amato of New York, who outspent his liberal opponent 2 to 1.

Our column – titled “We Need Term Limits for Political Pundits” – concluded that “big bucks special interests dominating Washington are almost a taboo subject.” 

In that column and others, we urged political journalists to calculate and report which candidates won more “votes per dollar spent” – arguing that the “VPDS count would make it clear that many incumbents would have been defeated if not for their advantage in dollars.”

So here we are in 2008, and we’re witnessing an apparent flip-flop in mainstream news – with bleeding-heart appeals to “fairness” on behalf of the less-funded McCain enough to make a right-winger cringe.

From the same outlets that spent decades worshipping a politician’s corporate fundraising prowess as a sign of that candidate’s strength, seriousness, viability.

When longtime media lapdogs on campaign inequities transform into fierce watchdogs in the face of Obama’s online fundraising clout, the public is wise to be suspicious.

Are these elite voices truly upset because Obama shifted his position? Are they upset all of a sudden that one candidate has a financial advantage over another? 

Or is this just the fear and loathing of the Netroots resurfacing – like when establishment pundits went hysterical as Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic primary in 2006?

Here is a fresh, outsider candidate – like Dean in 2003 – with a powerful grassroots funding base that goes way beyond the corporate sponsors of the nightly news. To the old-line media establishment, that’s scary.   

If network anchors want to be taken seriously on campaign “fairness,” they might propose common-sense reforms. For starters: free TV and radio airtime to candidates.

Jeff Cohen is the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. In 1986, he founded the progressive media watch group FAIR.

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