Follow the money back to the media

by Sebastian Benthall

I once cared passionately about the impact of money in politics. I’ve blogged about it here a lot. Long ago I campaigned for fair elections. I went to work at a place where I thought I could work on tools to promote government transparency and electoral reform. This presidential election, I got excited about Rootstrikers. I vocally supported Buddy Roemer. Of course, the impact of any of these groups is totally marginal, and my impact within them even more so. Over the summer, I volunteered at a Super PAC, partly to see if there was any way the system could be improved from the inside. I found nothing.

I give up. I don’t believe there’s a way to change the system. I’m going to stop complaining about it and just accept the fact that democracy is a means of balancing different streams of money and power, full stop.

There is silver lining to the cloud. The tools for tracking where campaign donations are coming from are getting better and better. MapLight, for example, seems to do great work. So now we can know which interests are represented in politics. We can sympathize with some and condemn others. We can cheer for our team. Great.

But something that’s often omitted in analysis of money in politics is: where does it go?

So far the most thorough report I’ve been able to find on this (read: first viable google hit) was this PBS News Hour. It breaks it down pretty much as you would expect. The money goes to:

  • Television ads. Since airtime is limited, this means that political ads were being aired very early on.
  • Political consultants who specialize in election tactics.
  • Paid canvassers, knocking door-to-door or making phone calls to engage voters.

Interesting that so much of the money flows to media outlets, who presumably raise prices for advertising when candidates are competing for it with deep pockets. So… the mainstream media benefits hugely from boundless campaign spending.

Come to think of it, it must be that the media benefits much more than politicians or donors from the current financing system. Why is that? A campaign is a zero-sum game. Financially backing a candidate is taking a risk on their loss, and in a tight race one is likely to face fierce competition from other donors. But the outlets that candidates compete over for airtime and the consultants who have “mastered” the political system get to absorb all that funding without needing any particular stake in the outcome of the election. (Once in office, can a politician afford to upset the media?)

Who else benefits from campaign spending? Maybe the telecom industry, since all the political messaging has to run over it.

Maybe this analysis has something to do with why generating political momentum around campaign finance reform is a grueling uphill battle. Because the more centralized and powerful a media outlet, the more it has to gain from expensive campaign battling. It can play gatekeeper and sell passage to the highest bidder.

Taking it one step farther: since the media, through its selection of news items, can heavily influence voters’ perception of candidates, it is in their power to calibrate their news in a way that necessitates further spending by candidates.

Suppose a candidate is popular enough to win an election by a landslide. It would be in the interests of media outlets to start portraying that candidate badly, highlighting their gaffes or declaring them to be weak or whatever else, to force the candidate to spend money on advertising to reshape the public perception of them.

What a racket.