WASHINGTON — "Advocacy Groups Blur Media Lines," thundered a recent Washington Post headline. "Some Push Agendas By Producing Movies, Owning Newspapers," blared the subhead.
To an increasing extent, advocacy groups are establishing new media outlets. As reported in the Post story, the US Chamber of Commerce now runs the Madison County Record in Illinois. The National Rifle Association has its own national radio show, and is considering buying its own radio stations. The National Threat Initiative is bankrolling a made-for-TV movie.
Expect to see a lot more of this, now that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002, a.k.a. McCain-Feingold, is in place. Just as that law spurred the creation of lots of "527 groups," BCRA will accelerate efforts by agenda-driven groups and individuals to get into the media business.
While the examples cited in the Post are not necessarily a direct result of BCRA, the logic of avoiding BCRA's stringent regulations by utilizing the press exemption loophole is nevertheless compelling. The press exemption applies to news media, provided they are not owned or controlled by any candidate, political party, or political committee.
BCRA bans soft money contributions to the national political parties, and restricts the ability of corporations (including non-profit corporations) and labor unions to run ads containing the names and/or likenesses of political candidates close to an election or a primary. Those are on top of a host of other limits, mainly passed under the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) Amendments, on politicians' ability to spend money on their campaigns and donors' ability to contribute.
When one thinks of the institution of freedom of speech, what usually comes to mind is freedom of political speech. But in America of all places, that institution is being chipped away. You are completely free to disseminate information on practically anything, except pornography, profanity, and political speech.
Freedom of speech not only means being able to say anything you want, but also being able to say it to as many people as you want. To reach a mass audience, the best tool at one's disposal is the existing media. Apart from being lucky enough to publish an opinion piece or get quoted by a friendly reporter, the only means of using the media is through paid advertisements. But politicians and interest groups are hamstrung by BCRA and FECA. They do not enjoy the same freedom of speech that owners and employees of the media enjoy.
So the logical alternative is to start your own media outlet. That gives you complete freedom to say anything you want, endorse or oppose any candidate, and spend as much money as you please in distributing your information. What you can't say in an ad, you can say in the very same newscast or in the very same newspaper.
Michael Moore, after all, produced what was essentially a two-hour anti-Bush campaign commercial while being subject to no campaign-finance restrictions whatsoever. At least one group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, but to no avail, since the movie was deemed to fall under the press exemption.
There is a strong temptation by others to get into the act. The more that happens, the more demands there will be to plug this loophole.
Journalists generally have been champions of BCRA, but they certainly will not support any new legislation that could jeopardize their own ability to express their opinions. So it is conceivable that there will be efforts to legislate against media that are owned by groups and individuals deemed to have a political agenda.
But that would get very messy. Every owner of a traditional media outlet, every editor, every anchorman, every reporter, and every columnist has political viewpoints as well, which are often reflected in their work. So differentiating between what is advocacy and what is not would be exceedingly difficult.
BCRA demonstrates why freedom of speech (for non-journalists) is not as robust as it is often touted to be. If and when the campaign finance "reformers" start going after the media itself, it will be an even sadder day for the First Amendment.