Jeff Cohen Lecture

Money, Media and the 2008 Campaign

(from remarks at SUNY New Paltz “Money in Politics” forum, 10/30/08)

I don’t normally make predictions, especially about the future. But I can confidently predict the big winner in this year’s election: It’s the TV and broadcasting industry.

In a time of economic crisis and recession, the TV and broadcasting industry is filthy rich from political ads – sleazy attack ads, dishonest “I-fight-for-the-middle-class” ads and ads that are so ubiquitous that the most famous weatherman on TV is now Bill Ayres. You have to feel sorry for NBC’s Al Roker.

Sneak across the border into Pennsylvania, a swing state, if you want to subject yourself to a horrific advertising propaganda barrage that masquerades as American democracy.

This ad revenue is why the TV/broadcasting industry has long been one of the main obstacles to campaign reform – it benefits most directly from our corrupt, debased campaign system.

When he was a U.S. senator from New Jersey, Bill Bradley declared that campaigns “function as collection agencies for broadcasters. You simply transfer money from your contributors to television stations." This election is shattering records in the amount of money pocketed by the TV/broadcasting industry.

Obama this year is way outspending McCain, who accepted federal spending limits with the $84 million in public financing. In my view, it’s unfair when any side is allowed to drastically outspend all other sides on ads, message, TV time. Historically, Republicans have had the advantage.

Most European countries have a simple solution: They don’t allow campaign ads. Instead, they award free TV air time to all parties – not just two – either equally or in proportion to their strength in numbers.

A decade ago, when President Clinton half-heartedly proposed free airtime for candidates, the powerful National Association of Broadcasters lobby through a huge fit. Clinton reacted by showing the backbone of a slinky toy – he retreated and never brought up the idea again.

Obama has broken records with three million individual donors – many of whom are small donors, giving $10, $20, $50 or $100. But it is wealthy donors, corporate interests and corporate bundlers that are key to Obama’s money advantage. They’re delivering money in bundles of $50,000 and $100,000 and more to the Obama campaign – as was done by bundlers to the McCain campaign.

How many of you in this room who’ve given small donations to Obama are expecting a face-to-face meeting with him if he’s elected? Maybe you have concerns about his policy on nuclear power plants or Afghanistan or the Middle East. You won’t get your meeting, but these bundlers will. You can find their names by going to the website and clicking on “presidential race” and then the word “bundlers.”

OpenSecrets shows that no candidate in history has raised more money from Wall Street interests than Obama – which should concern us at a time that Main Street keeps bailing out Wall Street.

The most important change in media policy in many decades was the 1996 Telecommunications Act – which enriched a few big companies like Sinclair Broadcast Group, Clear Channel and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. It helped them expand their control over the public’s airwaves, which is every bit as much public property as a national park or national forest. The bill was written in secret by and for telecommunications conglomerates. These companies were heavily funding the campaigns of Democrats like President Clinton and Republicans like Speaker of the House Gingrich, who shoved the bill into law with virtually no debate.

FAIR and other public interest groups spoke out against the bill, but there was almost no critical mainstream coverage. So little that a consumer group tried to buy 30 seconds of time on CNN for a spot criticizing the bill. CNN refused to sell the airtime. A few months after the bill was signed into law, the federal government under Clinton approved CNN becoming part of Time Warner conglomerate.

So the next time your cursing the ridiculousness of TV news, you can largely thank corrupt campaign finance for propelling media corporatization and infantilization. (Few are as cozy with big med lobbyists as former Senate Commerce Chair John McCain – whose proposed tax breaks for large corporations would enrich Disney by over $500 million and Time Warner by close to that.)

Campaign coverage has indeed been clownish – one long reality TV show with previously obscure characters who rise and fall or get voted off the island. Just as Rev. Wright is disappearing, we get Bill the TV Weatherman and now we have Joe the Plumber – Joe being one of the biggest media hoaxes in recent history.

Joe doesn’t own a small business, can’t afford to buy it, isn’t licensed to buy it, couldn’t earn over $250,000 a year if he did somehow buy it. But if Joe the Plumber miraculously became Joe the Millionaire (I fear it’ll happen thanks to a Murdoch best-seller or talk show), how badly would Obama soak the nouveau-riche? By raising the top marginal tax rate from 35 to a mere 39%.

If that’s socialism and redistribution, then Republican President Dwight Eisenhower during the middle-class boom of the 1950s must have been a Communist. Because the marginal tax rate on the rich was 91% -- which Eisenhower strongly supported.

Talk to mainstream journalists from other countries, and they’re stunned by the narrowness of our national debate. We’ve had an endless campaign, it gets louder and louder, but the mainstream debate is from the 27 yard line to the 30 yard line, with the 30 yard line Obama position portrayed in some media circles as extreme.

In this whole campaign, have you seen any mainstream media debate on the racially-biased drug war and the fact that our country has more people behind bars than any country in the world today and the highest rate of incarceration?

In this whole campaign, have you seen any mainstream journalist raise the fact that our country spends as much on the military as all other countries in the world combined – and more than any country in the history of the world?

During a national campaign, when state and federal budgets are in deep deficit, shouldn’t the biggest ticket items get some scrutiny?

I know mainstream TV pundits pretty well, and I used to be one. For months they told us Obama’s an elitist: “He’s not one of us.” He can’t bowl, doesn’t wear a flag pin, asks farmers about arugula, can’t mingle with the regular folks. These well-paid pundits are experts on the American working class – though they didn’t seem to know of its existence until about nine months ago. Their working class is basically white.

The ubiquitous conservative pundit David Brooks – from the New York Times and public TV – offered these words of wisdom this summer: "Obama's problem is he doesn't seem like the kind of guy who can go into an Applebee's salad bar and people think he fits in naturally there. He has to change to be more like that Applebee’s guy."

Bloggers did some research and agreed that it would indeed be difficult to fit in naturally at an Applebee’s salad bar because Applebee’s restaurants do not have salad bars.

Thank goddess we have bloggers and the Internet and independent media and outlets like Democracy Now!

Day after day, Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! are probing stories and presenting experts you can’t find in corporate media. It was Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill who exposed the Blackwater mercenaries, while mainstream media slept.

It was Josh Marshall and the bloggers at Talking Points Memo doing investigative reporting – aided by their active readers, “the people formerly known as the audience” – that turned the story of the politically-motivated firings of US attorneys by the Bush White House into a national scandal that led to the resignation of the Attorney General, and earlier this month, a special prosecutor.

A key campaign story this August broke thanks to bloggers and a hugely successful viral video from Robert Greenwald called “McCain’s Mansions.” Soon after, a mainstream reporter finally asked the question: “How many houses do you and Mrs McCain have? Sen. McCain’s now famous answer: “I think – I’ll have my staff get to you.”

Everyone in this room can help build independent media by spreading the word, by donating, by producing content or research, by getting Democracy Now! on more TV and radio outlets. A key to independent media growth is preserving the Internet from the clutches of the big phone and cable companies. We need the principle of Net Neutrality/Net nondiscrimination put into law. A major victory may be coming out of the Federal Communications Commission, which is apparently on the verge of opening up new spectrum (around broadcast frequencies) for wireless internet services. The National Association of Broadcasters is throwing another fit. To learn more about these issues, go to the website

And remember FAIR’s original slogan from 1986, which never gets dated: “Don’t take the media lying down.”

JEFF COHEN is the founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, where he is an associate professor of journalism. In 1986, he founded the media watch group FAIR.

For more information, contact:

Cable News Confidential
My Misadventures in Corporate Media

Wizards of Media Oz
Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News
w/Norman Solomon
Common Courage Press

The Way Things Aren't
Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error
w/Steve Rendall et al, New Press

Through the Media Looking Glass
Decoding Bias and Blather in the News
w/Norman Solomon
Common Courage Press

Adventures in Medialand
Behind the News, Beyond the Pundits
w/Norman Solomon
Common Courage Press