Friday, August 20, 2010
Blurring the Lines a Little More I've long been a believer that the best defense against what is often referred to as "the nefarious influence of money in politics" is the disinfectant that comes with vast amounts of sunshine. In short, let the sunshine in and disclose, disclose, disclose. As long as the Supreme Court equates First Amendment rights with essentially unlimited political contributions, even from corporations and unions, full disclosure is about all the assurance anyone has that we have the means to judge who - or what - is bankrolling a campaign. My personal preference would be for even more disclosure, including more frequent requirements for reporting and more disclosure of the ultimate sources of political action committee, union or corporate contributions. If money in politics is poison - even Teddy Roosevelt said it was - then tighter limits on the amounts of individual, corporate and union contributions seems like a sensible approach. But, thanks to a tangled web of laws, regulations and court rulings, we have an increasingly wide-open system where every election cycle the money flows farther and faster and the candidates spend vast amounts of their time, as the campaign language goes, "dialing for dollars." Leave it to Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, as his recent biographer described him, to add a new wrinkle to the long-running saga around campaign finance. Murdoch, owner of the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal and, most importantly, Fox News, just had his News Corporation write a $1 million check to the Republican Governors Association. Perfectly legal, properly disclosed by all accounts, but a further and unmistakable blurring of the lines between news and politics. The News Corporation contribution to the Republican governors is certainly not unprecedented. GE, Disney and other "media companies" have been players in this space for a long time. What is unusual is the size of the check and the partisan implications. News Corporation maintains the corporate side of the house made the contribution with no involvement from the guys who run the cable network where Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck hold court nightly, almost always in high dudgeon about the latest Democratic action, and where a sort of GOP shadow government - Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich - gets paid to comment. Predictably, Democrats were outraged and demanded disclaimers on future RGA sponsored ads taking on Democratic gubernatorial candidates. It was also widely noted that the News Corporation donation some how didn't generate much coverage on Fox News. I wonder how Fox might cover a million dollar contribution from the New York Times to a Democratic committee? The trouble with the News Corporation explanation that this was simply a corporate decision with no connection to the hot house cable network - and let's assume for the sake of argument that News Corporation is giving us the fair and balanced truth here - is that it just doesn't pass the old smell test. As a friend regularly reminds me, the Murdoch explanation lacks the quality of verisimilitude. That ten dollar word is defined as "the appearance or semblance of truth; likelihood; probability" As in "the play lacked verisimilitude." This play lacks. It reminds me of the newspaper that editorially endorses one candidate over another and then says, as I almost always believe, that the editorial opinions of newspapers are totally walled off from the newsroom and news coverage. Few readers believe such explanations. They have become as cynical as many reporters. In the age of a more and more sharp edged, opinionated, point-of-view media, Fox News, or anyone else playing at the million dollar level in partisan politics, shouldn't be surprised that the explanation of separation between the corporate side of Murdoch's empire and the news side just doesn't pass the basic test of seeming to reflect, well, the truth. Here's the real issue, I think, with Murdoch and his approach. The guy is a businessman, and a very successful one by most accounts, and he is also a committed conservative. In keeping with his personal politics and political philosophy, why not just drop the pretense of "fair and balanced" and engage in the market place of ideas in a fully transparent, genuine manner. If Murdoch would just acknowledge what everyone believes - detractors and fans, alike - that Fox is the conservative opinion network, it would be liberating. Well, on second thought, that may be a poor choice of words. It would be honest. As I've noted in the past in this space, the news business - and it is a business - that we once knew is as dead as a dodo bird. We are going back to the future with "news" organizations becoming more and more identified with a point of view and a partisan agenda. In my perfect world - I remember Walter Cronkite - I think this is a bad trend, but it is also not likely to be reversed. It was, after all, good enough for the days of Hamilton, Adams and Jefferson and it is going to have to be good enough for the days of Obama and Palin, Fox and MSNBC. Rupert Murdoch's big check to the RGA is all right by me as long as he plays by the rules of disclosure. I just wish he'd take the next step, conduct himself like a Hearst, a Pulitzer or a McCormick (partisan news moguls of the past) and drop the pretense that his politics and his cable news operation is anything but a major political player, in both opinions and money, in American conservative politics. Fox News regularly wins the ratings battle against left-leaning MSNBC and CNN, which finds itself in the ill-defined middle, so why not just admit that Fox is the home of conservative opinion and will support conservative causes with its really big checkbook and its really big megaphone. I happen to think Murdoch is brilliant from a business standpoint in occupying a space where he can shape opinions and influence policy completely in sync with his own views. That is the American way, even if you are Australian. Just go the final step and admit that is what you're doing. Jon Stewart - he of the obvious truth - said what lots of folks must be thinking: "This (the News Corporation contribution) is a travesty. I really think if anything Republicans should be paying Fox News millions and millions of dollars. Not the other way around." Now, there is some verisimilitude for you.