Media in the Campaign Crosshairs

Presidential contenders will likely target industry issues
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With two dozen candidates either off and running or still kicking the tires on presidential campaigns, it won’t be long before they begin boiling down their pet issues into tidy sound bites for campaign ads. “Each one of these candidates has to find some issues to distinguish themselves,” says Dan Jaffe, executive VP of the Association of National Advertisers.

That’s good news for the electronic media, which stands to make millions from such ads. But it’s also cause for concern among media companies likely to be on the business end of issues that several candidates have already begun to stake out. Expect to see across-the-aisle front runners, from Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, pump up the volume on TV violence and indecency, emergency communications, media ownership, food and drug marketing, and campaign-finance reform.

With the next president scheduled to take office only four weeks before the switch is set to be thrown on the digital conversion, the status of the DTV-converter program will no doubt be an election issue as well.

And the debate over network neutrality—or how much control Internet providers should have over access, content, and bandwidth—could interest top Democrats, given the push it has gotten from left-leaning political-action group

Clinton has been a vocal media critic at least since she blamed “a vast right-wing conspiracy” of conservative talkers for fomenting her husband’s impeachment travails. But she has also lashed out at the marketing of food to kids and the impact of sexual and violent TV content.

Focus on TV and Children

In a speech to the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2005, Clinton likened media exposure to “a kind of contagion,” adding, “We are conducting an experiment on this generation of children, and we have no idea what the outcomes are going to be.”

She has teamed with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), another candidate for president, in pushing the CAMRA (Children and Medical Research Advancement) Act to create a National Institute of Health study program on the affects of media on children. She has also urged boycotts of violent or sexual programming.

According to a source, in private conversations with industry representatives, Clinton has recognized “the impetus that advertising provides the economy” and has prefaced her public criticisms with acknowledgement of the upside of advertising, including underwriting more viewing choices.

An attempt to revive the fairness doctrine by another contender, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), could gain traction among candidates, like Clinton, with a better shot at the Oval Office. Kucinich has made clear his intent to put media concentration issues in the “center” of Washington via a series of hearings.

Patrick Maines, president of industry-backed First Amendment think tank The Media Institute, argues in a sternly worded memo obtained by B&C that Kucinich’s push for the fairness doctrine means that a “years-long assault on freedom of speech is gaining traction.”

Maines—who refused to comment on the memo—argued that the media is losing the war against speech freedoms. “Should the Democrats hold on to the Congress and win the White House,” he states, “this fact will become apparent to everyone.” Maines’ memo can be read at

Obama, trailing Clinton in the polls for the nomination but her equal in star power, has also lashed out at TV. Invoking the “vast wasteland” slam on the medium in a 2005 speech to the Kaiser Foundation, he dubbed the media culture “more vast and more wasteful than ever before,” posing the question, “What do we do when bad television becomes the enemy of good parenting?”

More parental control and limits on TV watching by kids are only the start of Obama’s answer. Among his other suggestions: full-screen TV ratings with better descriptions, keeping promos for violent and sexual programs out of family shows, and outlining public-interest obligations for broadcasters, including PSAs in prime slots and better campaign coverage.

Campaign Reform at Issue

Like Obama, Republican favorite McCain could also be a marquee name for campaign reform and get behind free airtime for candidates. That would upset broadcasters—who’ve long benefited from this expenditure playing field—more than the cable and satellite industries.

McCain, who will likely battle new entrant Giuliani for the nomination, has been a thorn in the side of cable and a harsh critic of broadcasters. He has pushed for cable à la carte as a way to give parents more control of both content and their cable bills and has hammered broadcasters for not vacating the digital spectrum sooner, which he wants reclaimed for emergency communications.

Giuliani, with his tough-on-terrorism stand and history with the communications problems of 9/11, could raise DTV-transition issues as well.

Obesity and marketing food to kids are on the docket of Brownback, whose government-industry task force planned a first meeting Feb. 14. Also, it was his bill that raised FCC indecency fines tenfold.


To: Board of Trustees

From: Patrick Maines

Subject: The Growing Assault on Freedom of Speech

Those of you who attended our last Board meeting know that we were not at all surprised to read that Dennis Kucinich, in his role as head of a new House Domestic Policy Subcommittee, plans hearings aimed at reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine.

Never mind the relative political puniness of the gentleman, or the long odds of congressional passage of legislation at this time. The unmistakable (and unavoidable) significance of this development is that the now years-long assault on freedom of speech is not only not abating, it is gaining traction.

Let’s count the shapes, over the last few years, that this assault has assumed.

*“McCain-Feingold, most notably its restrictions on political speech through advertising; an unequivocal rape of the speech clause of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court’s virtually unintelligible decision notwithstanding.

*Proposals ranging from onerous fines to license revocations for “indecent” (and now violent?) speech on TV and radio.

*Proposed restrictions on the advertising of all manner of legal products that are out of favor with single-issue “consumer” lobbies.

*Campus speech codes, extant despite the fact that the Supreme Court has never upheld them in cases that have reached it; which codes drive a stake through the heart of virtually every argument ever made in favor or robust and unfettered speech.

* Proposals to regulate, through FEC regulations, political speech on the Internet.

*Efforts, like that of the late and unlamented “Gore Commission,” to mandate “public interest” obligations on digital broadcasters, specifically to include requirements re election/political news.

*Anti-consolidation strategies whose transparent motive is to affect the political content of news organizations.

*And now, the prospective return of the Fairness Doctrine, a law (or regulation) which, if enacted and upheld by the Supreme Court, would immediately jeopardize the editorial freedom of an entire industry (talk radio).

As some of you will remember, in 2004 I sent three memoranda to the Board. These memos warned that the assault on freedom of speech and of the press was not going away, that in fact it was accelerating; that it tapped into a large base of foundation support; that it reflected diverse kinds of unhappiness with the media; and that, for all these reasons and more, this was a war we were losing.

Let me repeat that now: We are losing this war. And should the Democrats hold onto the Congress and win the White House in 2008, I think this fact will become apparent to everyone.”

Which is not, of course, to suggest that the GOP has been such a great friend, or wise steward of our constitutional rights. Although the vote in Congress was very close, George Bush signed McCain-Feingold into law.*

And Kevin Martin’s campaign, in opposition to broadcast indecency, threatens to provide both a precedent and a blueprint for additional ways to regulate content in this industry. Is there any doubt that the proponents of a reinstated Fairness Doctrine will borrow liberally from the FCC’s indecency playbook? Kevin, of course, won’t himself be in favor of a new Fairness Doctrine, but that’s beside the point; in a very practical sense the damage has already been done.

In a recent Broadcasting & Cable piece, I argue that one of the problems with free speech advocacy is its parochialism. Let me expand on that.

On January 18th of this year ASNE [the American Society of Newspaper Editors] hosted a conference at the National Press Club called the First Amendment Summit. Many distinguished speakers discussed the issue of “compelled disclosure” and a federal shield law for reporters. Shield laws, like access to information through FOIA [Freedom of Information Act requests], are timely and even compelling issues for journalists, and it is neither wrong nor surprising that a group like ASNE would host a conference on this subject. But are they, strictly speaking, First Amendment issues?

I think the answer to that question is that they are, or may be, but I am struck by the fact that this conference addressed just the question of reporters’ rights—and did so moreover without including discussion of any of the issues mentioned above—in what was said to be an emergency “First Amendment Summit.” One hopes that the attendees and sponsors of this affair do not believe that they are doing more to protect the First Amendment than they really are.

Sitting over here in our little aerie in Arlington [VA], we sometimes get the impression that people think there are many First Amendments: one for political speech, one for citizens, one for commercial speech, one for entertainment, etc. The reality, of course, is that there’s only one First Amendment, and that if you weaken it anywhere, you weaken it everywhere.

Which is why it would be not only refreshing, but very helpful as a matter of policy, if media companies and their lobbies would occasionally stick up for the First Amendment rights of their competition in other media industries, and of people in all walks of life outside of the media.

I began this note with a reference to the likelihood of congressional hearings in re the reinstatement of a Fairness Doctrine for broadcasters. Let me end it with this observation: Nothing could be worse. Not only would it impose all kids of drastic “reforms” on much of the electronic media, it would fuel the already substantial feeling on the part of many Republicans that the First Amendment is just a tool in the hands of their political enemies, rather than an objective guarantor of freedom of speech for all.

*In 1987, Ronald Reagan vetoed legislation, passed overwhelmingly, that would have reinstated the Fairness Doctrine. Reagan said he thought the Doctrine was inconsistent with the First Amendment. In 2002, George Bush signed McCain-Feingold, which passed Congress very narrowly. Bush said he was worried about the constitutionality of the bill, but signed it anyway. And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between Reagan and Bush.