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The powers that be lobbying; one special interest the press doesn't cover: itself.

One special interest the press doesn't cover: itself Sheila Kaplan is a Washington writer Research assistance for this article was provided by Roger Baker, Katherine Boo, and Michael Weeks. Financial support "'as provided by the Project for Investigative Reporting on Money in Politics.

It usually doesn't take much to get a bill introduced in Congress. This past session alone brought proposals to establish Snow White Day, protect kangaroos, and bestow tax breaks on imported cantaloupes. But amid the frivolity, lawmakers never quite found time to consider a slightly riskier proposition: a plan to limit the number of newspapers that media conglomerates can control. Each year, the idea gets pushed by critics concerned about the increasingly concentrated ownership of the press. And each year, the notion gets about as far as, say, a plan to recall every hand gun in America. This year, Rep. Edward Feighan, an Ohio Democrat, actually owned up to "thinking about" introducing a bill. But that's all he's done.

Why the skittishness? Credit one of Washington's most powerful lobbies and one that typically escapes the press's notice: the press itself. Washington's media lobby-broadcasters, publishers, and their trade organizations-has the distinction of being perhaps the most formidable and invisible lobby around. And as the stillborn chainownership bill shows, it usually gets what it wants.

How? The media exercises part of its clout in the usual way-giving out donations and honoraria, schmoozing with legislators at resort hot spots. But unlike lobbyists pushing guns or butter, sugar or insurance, the media is its own secret weapon. Every congressman has hometown television stations-and, perhaps even more important, a hometown newspaper that endorses politicians-and none of them wants to anger the people who carry them to the public. The media lobbyist, of course, need never be so vulgar as to raise the specter of editorial retaliation. Even the dullest congressman can catch on to that possibility. "The clout that the newspapers and broadcasters exert is the desire of every elected official to have favorable press attention," says Lionel Van Deerlin, who served as a California representative from 1953-81. "When you hear from these guys, you listen."

So what does the media lobby for-First Amendment safeguards? Open meeting laws? Freer access to public information? Sure, occasionally. But the day-to-day work of a Washington media lobbyist focuses not so much on the front page as the bottom line. That means media muscle gets flexed behind such dubious propositions as giving cigarette companies tax breaks for their nice ads. Or writing loopholes into bills meant to sweep the highways of billboards (owned, often, by media conglomerates). [See sidebar.] Or freeing the TV stations that control the public's airwaves from the responsibility of providing candidates with the air time they need.

If this behind-the-scenes maneuvering is news to you, there's a reason. For all its skill in portraying the influence of money on politics, the establishment press is less zealous in looking at itself. When The Washington Post trained its sleuthing powers on the gun lobby, it detailed the honoraria and campaign contributions the National Rifle Association showered on members of Congress and showed how those congressmen voted to weaken federal gun control. It even profiled the media consultant who designs the NRA's ads. That's precisely the kind of scrutiny the press fails to apply to itself.

The $175 mystery meal

"Follow the money," counseled Deep Throat as modern investigative journalism was born. Lots of good reporters have taken the advice. Large papers like The Washington Post even purchase computer tapes from the Federal Election Commission that list campaign contributions. But one of the trails you're unlikely to see reporters follow is the one that leads to the front office. What they would find is the usual bag of Washington tricks. Media corporations-whose holdings include not only newspapers but television and radio stations, magazines, and billboards-peddle their influence with familiar tools: PACS, honoraria, junkets, and revolving-door lobbyists.

FEC records show that executives at most of the top media corporations have written checks as well as editorials. Contributions have come from top executives at Gannett (134 newspapers, ten TV stations, 16 radio stations, billboards); Times Mirror (seven newspapers, 15 magazines, four TV stations); The Washington Post Company (two newspapers, four TV stations, and Newsweek magazine); KnightRidder (37 newspapers, eight TV stations); Cox Enterprises (20 newspapers, nine TV stations); Time Inc. (17 magazines, HBO, Cinemax, and cable affiliates in 32 states); U.S. News and World Report; Capital Cities/ABC (eight TV stations, 39 newspapers and "about 80 magazines," said a spokesperson); NBC; and many others.

Giving money isn't necessarily improper. Media employees, like others, have the right to make contributions. Where the press goes wrong is in its failure to disclose the contributions it's making. Given the media's role as watchdog of others' disclosures, this failure is a pointed one. After all, they're the ones who always decry the insidious influence of money on politics. A Los Angeles Times editorial, published last winter, is typical: "In return for their money, contributors clearly get favored treatment. All they get is access, the members always protest, but access is the most important thing that a senator or congressman can provide, short of selling a vote outright."

But many media reps try to obscure their identity on FEC campaign and lobbying forms by failing to identify their employer. From the FEC forms alone, you'd never know that the William F. Gorog who channeled $12,000 to Republican candidates through a fund called "Victory 88" (formerly the Jack Kemp Super Bowl Committee), is the same William F. Gorog who was president of the Magazine Publishers Association and who oversaw its Washington office. Nor would you know that the Fred Drasner who gave $1,000 to Michael Dukakis last year also happens to be Fred Drasner, CEO of US. News and World Report. You wouldn't know it from calling his office either. Drasner failed to return repeated phone calls in reference to the donation. The final call to his office said The Washington Monthly would assume the two Drasners were the same unless he called back, He didn't.

The lobbying forms that media representatives must file show a similar zeal for full disclosure. If a lobbyist spends any money pushing his position, the forms ask for th"name and address of recipient, purpose." It doesn't take a J-school degree to figure out that the point of the form is to disclose the name of the congressman or staff member being feted. Newspaper lobbyists usually comply. (Lobbyist Robert Brinkmann noted that his $49.91 lunch at La Brasserie was"Chuck Parkinson of Senator Abdnor's staff, re: postal rates and costs.") But not the broadcasters. Media General representative Terese Colling had no problem finding a loophole after her May 22, 1986 night on the town. Her recipients are $122, Theater Guild, Kennedy Center and $174.85-Dominique's. Never heard of old Senator Dominique? It's a restaurant. As for who was there gobbling up that $175 meal, the form gives no clues. Lobbyist Jim May of the National Association of Broadcasters says with a "That's all we have to do." Keep that in mind the next time you hear a self-righteous, Mike Wallace-type intoning the words "failed to disclose. . . ."

Rather than embrace the responsibility of disclosure, some media moguls grow indignant at the very idea. Hal Brown, a vice president of Gannett's billboard division and chairman of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, dished out $4,500 to congressional candidates during the 1985-86 election cycle; but a Gannett spokesman huffed at the idea that the donations might be newsworthy. "Employees of the company can make contributions to anyone they like," said the spokesman, Sheila Gibbons. "That's acting in their private interest."

It's a coincidence, no doubt, that Brown's private interests happened to reflect the political interests of the members of the Senate public works committee, which regulates billboards. (Isn't it grand when you and your friends are interested in the same things?) Brown was privately interested in giving $1,000 each to Republican committee members Jim Abdnor and Steve Symms, and $500 to Democrat Patrick Leahy. His private interests also included $500 checks to Republican Bob Dole, then the Senate Majority Leader, and Democrat Jim Wright, House Speaker-to-be. Gannett's interest in billboards may have something to do with the fact that they brought in revenues last year of $200 million, mostly from alcohol and tobacco.

Of course, individual contributions are nickel-anddime stuff compared to the PAC money and honoraria handed out by the media trade organizations. Ten years ago, there was little media money going into federal elections. But that changed with the advent of cable television. Knowing they'd be heavily regulated by Congress and the FCC, cable operators burst on the scene with a sizable PAC and generous honoraria, starting a bidding war of sorts with broadcasters. Each tried to outdo the other in campaign contributions, speaking fees, and allexpense-paid convention trips for their favorite congressmen to places like Hawaii and Las Vegas-seeking, as it is euphemistically known, to "participate in the political process." Between 1985 and August 1988, the National Cable Television Association donated $446,240 to federal candidates. The NAB gave $307,986 during the same period. Last year, the $114,300 the NAB disbursed in speaking fees was more than any trade group except the American Trucking Associations. A nice sum to chat.

"Where in the past individual broadcasters were reluctant to go to make their cases-or make contributions-as they've watched the realtors and the bankers and everybody else, they've realized that they can't be passive," says NAB lobbyist Susan Alvarado. "Those days are over."

While the American Newspaper Publishers Association has no PAC, many executives at news conglomerates channel contributions through their broadcast divisions or other subsidiaries. Times Mirror doesn't have a PAC, but in April 1988, five Tiines Mirror cable employees gave $4,000 to the National Cable Television Association's CABLE PAC. Similarly, Knight-Ridder has no PAC, but broadcast executive Daniel E. Gold contributed $2,000 to the NAB's TARPAC, which channeled it to congressional candidates.

The newspaper publishers shy away from honoraria. Then again, they have a more potent weapon: editorial endorsements. "I believe when your local newspaper publisher calls up, no matter how gentle they are, you think 'oh jeez, am I going to get an editorial?'" says Rep. Al Swift, who sits on the House telecommunications subcommittee.

The luau lobby

Without that edge broadcasters have to work a littie harder. "It's not that they're nicer people," Swift says, "it's just that they don't have editorials." Last spring, NAB brought about 45 members of Congress, key committee staff, and a bevy of FCC officials to their annual meeting in Las Vegas (that nerve center of broadcast journalism). The main attraction was none other than that old broadcaster himself, Ronald Reagan. A few months earlier, it was off to Hawaii for the NAB's "legislative forum" where key players like Strom Thurmond, ranking Republican on the Senate judiciary committee, and House communications subcommittee members Fred Boucher, John Bryant, Dan Coats, Carlos Moorhead, AI Swift, Thomas Tauke, and Billy Tauzin got to mull those First Amendment issues luau-style. Most took home a $1,500 or $2,000 check for the hardship of leaving Washington for Honolulu in January.

To help the industry stay in touch with Congress between those yearly casino-side exchanges on press freedoms, an increasing number of media companies, including Time and Gannett, keep lobbyists on staff. While Times Mirror has two lobbyists on staff, it also orders out for specialists. It hires the firm of Gold and Liebengood , Inc., generally for what it describes as "First Amendment issues." Gold and Liebengood's First Amendment credentials come from its work for that hotbed of constitutional zeal, the Tobacco Institute. Patrick Butler, a vice president in Times Mirror's Washington office, says the company "is quite willing to take a more public position and aggressiveness in the freedom of the press issues." But otherwise, he said, Times Mirror likes to lie low "On corporate issues, taxes, we are quite low-key and that's why we retain some of our outside people."

Blowing smoke

With the flexing of all that media muscle, you might think the Constitution never had it so good. Sometimes this phalanx of power brokers actually takes on an issue that's good for the Republic-like the successful 1986 effort to save the Freedom of Information Act. But more often, the business of the media is business.

Most shameful is the media lobby's lapdog defense of cigarette ads, under the phony umbrella of First Amendment rights. The only legitimate free speech issue would concern items like the occasional advertorials sponsored by the Tobacco Institute, expressions of a point of view. Newspapers, which regularly refuse ads for products like pornographic films, know they've got no legitimate First Amendment obligation to peddle cigarettes with pictures of a seductive woman who invites readers to "Light My Lucky'" The next time one of those publishers starts boasting to the Rotary Club abou"family newspaper," he might think about all the young lungs his glamorous ads help lure into addiction.

But media lobbyists pulled out the stops last year after Reps. Mike Synar and Robert Whittaker tried to extend the ban on televised tobacco ads to cover newspapers and magazines. Another proposal, introduced by Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark, would have allowed the companies to retain the ads but would have barred them from deducting the ad expense from their taxes. Whittaker received an outpouring of telephone calls and letters from publishers throughout his state, including many on the letterhead of the National Newspaper Association, which represents mostly suburban and rural papers. "They were not very cordial," said one Whittaker aide. Whittaker made a public apology to the Kansas press for implying they were in the pockets of the tobacco lobby. Synar, however, is less circumspect. "The ANPA are the water carriers for the tobacco industry," he said.

Media representatives insist that their interest in the matter is purely constitutional, dismissing the idea that $460 million in newspaper and magazine ads (1986) has quickened their First Amendment concerns. Forget for a moment the irony of those news organizations that take such pride in baring the nation's health hazards throwing their weight behind the country's chief cause of heart disease and lung cancer. And savor instead how the media treats the cherished principle of full disclosure when they're the ones doing the disclosing.

David Starr, publisher of the Union-News and Republican in Springfield, Massachusetts and senior editor of Newhouse Newspapers, chairs the ANPAs committee on the First Amendment and freedom of information. Starr introduced what might be called the Red Meat Doctrine, predicting that as cigarette ads go, so go other advertisements: those for beef, which contains cholesterol; contraceptives"which prevent life"; and wine, since it increases the chances of breast cancer. "Absurd?" Starr asked. "I don't think so." Starr assured Congress that cigarette ads were an insignificant pan of newspaper revenues and that his interest was purely constitutional. "We oppose a ban because it threatens free speech," he said.

But what Mr. Freedom of Information failed to mention is that the media companies that own the newspapers usually own magazines, where, as Senator Bill Bradley testified, tobacco conglomerates can account for as much as 30 percent of ad revenues. (Starr also failed to note that the conglomerates that own the top cigarette companies have sometimes punished the enemies of tobacco by withdrawing other ads as well, such as those for food products.) Those economically insignficant tobacco companies spend about $2.4 billion a year on tobacco promotion. In 1985, Starr's bosses at Newhouse raked in $3,403,617 in tobacco ads at Vogue; $2,666,439 at Glamour; $2,902,248 at Mademoiselle; and $2,188,192 at Self-bastions of First Amendment freedoms, all. But that's just spare change compared to The Washington Post Company's Newsweek, which that year inhaled $20.5 million in tobacco ads.

Don't expect Newhouse News's Washington bureau-or virtually any other news agency, for that matter-to clear up Starr's smokescreen. The bureau, which covers D.C. for the 3.5 million people who read the chain's 26 papers, didn't report the issue. It was 'Just another hearing," says Robert Fichenberg, the D.C. bureau chief. Fichenberg said he knew Starr was in town, but, "I didn't even know what he was testifying on. . . .If indeed there is any [lobbying], we don't know about it until after the fact."

But if the threat to First Amendment freedoms is as dire as the newspaper publishers contend, what accounts for the short shrift that most news organizations gave the hearings? The Los Angeles Times, one of the few newspapers that has covered the issue, neglected to note the lobbying role of the ANPA. Jack Nelson, chief of the 40-member bureau, said the omission may have occurred because the story was written by an intern. "The fact is, had I known they were lobbying on it, I would have said, 'Put it in.'" Nelson says he tries to keep a firewall between the Times Mirror business interests and his reporters. But, good intentions notwithstanding, this head-in-the-sand approach won't do; his bureau ought to know what the media is lobbying for, and ought to report it.

The Times bureau's subsequent stories on the tobacco industry continued to omit the publishers' alliance "Big Tobacco Buying New Friendships," was the headline over a May 1988 story. The reporter, Myron Levin, is an enterprising critic of the tobacco lobby. He spent a year investigating the industry as an Alicia Patterson fellow (and received a Washington Monthly journalism award for one of his thoughtful pieces). But his dispatch on tobacco's new allies failed to mention the role of either the ANPA or Times Mirror itself, which shares one of the Tobacco Instiutue's lobbying firms. Levin said he thought about including his publisher's role in his research, but recent academic studies and journalism reviews had covered the territory. "It didn't seem new," he said. Speaking of the mainstream press, Levin agreed that "we don't cover ourselves right '"

One related story that ought to be considered a textbook case of intelligent reporting belonged to The Washington Post's Morton Mintz. In a story on the refusal of Canadian publishers to accept tobacco ads, he acknowledged the Post's financial interests and pointed out that American papers routinely decline ads for other lawful products, like X-rated films. Where did the Post play this piece of work? Page H4.

A Byrd's-eye view

Broadcasters, of course, got cut out of the cigarette money years ago when Congress banned televised ads. But the broadcast lobby is no less greedy than die newspaper publishers in pushing for profits while ignoring the public interest. If anything, the broadcasters act more like a typical lobby in their use of junkets, honoraria, and contributions to strengthen their inherently substantial clout. At every turn, the broadcast lobby has done all it can-which is usually quite a lot-to stave off measures that would require a more public-spirited use of the airwaves. They are, after all, the public's airwaves. And the licenses to control them are handed out for free. The corporate beneficiaries of this largesse reap huge profits, while voicing indignation at the thought of giving something back.

One recent example concerns the NAB's successful effort to torpedo the Fairness Doctrine, which dates back to the early days of broadcasting, when the FCC required television stations to present balanced views on matters of public concern. Congressmen have typically supported the doctrine since it sets limits on a station's ability to attack them. Ernest Hollings thinks it helped him win his 1959 governor's race in South Carolina, when television stations were required to provide him with a forum while the state's newspapers were arrayed against him.

The broadcasters, eager to run their money machines with no strings attached, argue that with the advent of cable and other sources of information, media voices are sufficiently diverse to render the doctrine obsolete. What this argument ignores is the stunning concentration of media ownership, which leaves fewer corporations calling more shots than anyone could have imagined when the Fairness Doctrine began. In 1982 a study by Ben Bagdikian showed that a scant 52 corporations controlled about half the media outlets in the country; by 1988 he found that number had shrunk to 26. (Not that the broadcasters' free market faith doesn't have its limits: The diversity argument is especially ironic given the broadcasters' zeal to require cable franchises to carry the networks. If it's a competitive, diverse world out there, why the need for special protection?)

There is some merit to a second criticism of the Fairness Doctrine- that it promotes a bland nonpartisanship in which broadcasters quote Longwind Expert Number One and Longwind Expert Number Two, while leaving the dulled viewer no way of knowing who?s right. But the assurance of some broadcast balance outweighs that flaw. Since the Reagan FCC repealed the doctrine, broadcasters have had virtually no public obligations in exchange for their public monopoly. (Stations can now renew their licenses merely by sending in a postcard.) Surely this gives the lucrative industry new appreciation for the term free enterprise,

Hollings tried to reinstate the doctrine-and got clobbered. Edward Fritts, president of the NAB, called the lobbying effort "the greatest outpouring of broadcaster concern in modern history," which, sadly enough, may be true. The NAB organized what it calls "a grassroots campaign," flying in TV execs, both network and affiliate, from around the country. Leaving nothing to chance, the NAB called in lobbyists from both sides of the partisan aisle. Reagan vetoed the bill that would have reinstated the doctrine, and, despite its decades of support for the principle, Congress lacked the votes for an override.

"The Fairness Doctrine has such overwhelming support on Capitol Hill, it's a recognition of the tremendous power of electronic media that it didn't go through," said Charles Ferris, a former FCC chairman-turned-lobbyist. Hollings agreed. "Our broadcaster friends are the most powerful I know of. . . ," he told the Senate. "They can change votes right and left, and that is quite understandable. We live and breathe by TV, and that is our reelection. If the local broadcaster calls, you are going to do him a favor. You are not worried about a veto by the president."

If this sounds like blackmail, you won't get the broadcasters to deny it. "There is a lingering apprehension on the part of elected officials, without saying so, that you are wielding a club and could give them some hell," said Robert Brunner, chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which lobbied against the doctrine. Brunner, executive news editor of WSAZ-TV in Charleston-Huntington, West Virginia, credits the current success in part to his personal relationship with West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, the Senate Majority Leader. "I think Byrd would vote the other way," Brunner said, "but partially because of my personal lobbying he's moved it from a high-priority must-do thing to something Congress might not get to. . .a victory [for the broadcasters]." When asked about Brunner's comments, Cindy Huber, a press aide to Byrd, said, "Senator Byrd does know Bob Brunner very well and they do talk, and I'm sure they talked about the Fairness Doctrine." Brunner's not alone in seeking to apply the personal touch. "There are people within our own industry who have personal relationships with members of Congress," said Jim May of the NAB. "We encourage that."

If you expected these cozy relationships to come to light in the brave new world of diverse media, think again. At least The Washington Post's editorial attacking the Fairness Doctrine acknowledged that, with four TV stations, the Post Company is not disinterested. That's more than can be said for the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, which ran an editorial entitied "Misnamed Fairness Doctrine is actually anything but fair," while failing to note that its owner, Cox Enterprises, Inc, owns TV stations in Atlanta, Oakland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Orlando, and four other cities.

Gannett's USA Today, flagship of the 134-newspaper chain and an emblem of corporate consolidation, also chirped in about diversity'" Calling the Fairness Doctrine "stinkweed," the editorial offered some a"If you don't like what you see or hear on one channel, nip the dial." It failed to point out that Gannett owns ten TV stations. (If you flip the dial you might still be watching Gannett.) The paper did reassure its readers that the doctrine's demise was nothing to worry "No changes for news, broadcasters predict," crooned the headline.

While newspapers disguised their corporate interest, the networks seemed to ignore the issue altogether. Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales said he did not see one television story on the Fairness Doctrine b"I would call up these guys and say, 'why don't you cover this?' " he said. "They just said that no one could possibly understand this issue and didn't get it on the air."

Junk-food democracy

With that kind of public-mindedness, you can imagine how the broadcast lobby reacted to Rep. Samuel Stratton's proposal to give free air time to political candidates. What's that? You've never even heard of such a proposal? Only a cynic could suspect the fact that most major newspapers also own TV stations-which one consultant estimated took in more than $300 million in paid political ads during the 1986 congressional races alone-helps account for the silence.

With an average senator now raising $10,000 a week, every week, the importance of this reform is hard to overstate. The cost of campaigns boosts the role of PACs, strengthens the hands of special interest groups, and deters talented outsiders from running for office. And in the electronic age, nothing drives the campaign inflation like the cost of televised ads.

What to do? Make the stations give free air time to the candidates. The stations are sure getting free air time-24 hours of it a day. With political ads accounting for no more than 4 percent of ad time (even in major markets), it's not much to demand of the profit-rich industry in return. It would allow politicians to attend fewer fundraisers and more legislative hearings. It would loosen the grip of PACs. And by allowing challengers to broadcast their message just as much as incumbents, it would help make democracy more democratic.

But rather than give free time (or mere discounts, as one bill proposes), broadcasters typically hike the rates 30 days before the ballots are cast.

In response to recent proposals to require discounted time, the broadcast lobby tried to convince Congress that the cost of TV ads wasn't so much afterall. "There is nobody up here in this body who runs for political office in a contested race who would believe that for a minute," said Senator Mitchell McConnell to a broadcaster's claim that TV and radio ads account for only 34 percent of a campaign's cost"I think, with all due respect, it is kind of insulting to our intelligence." Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, examined the most competitive Senate races and found the average broadcast expenditure to be about 80 percent.

With their study rebuffed, media lobbyists took a philosophical tack. "Is the cost of campaigning too high?" mused NAB president Ed Fritts before Congress"In the eyes of some, probably, But when one considers its importance to the functioning of our democracy, others would say, probably not." (Particularly if they own a TV station.) After all, Fritts went on to note in a little consumer products lesson, the $400 million that politicians who made it to the general election spent campaigning in 1986 "is less than what Americans spend each year on popcorn at movie theaters alone. Four hundred million is less than what Americans spend on soft drinks each week of the year. Four hundred million is what Americans spend on candy each quarter." Appealing, no doubt, to the would-be Churchills in the crowd, Fritts concluded reassuringly"Certainly the value received in our democracy from electing all members of Congress is at least equal to that given by our consumption of popcorn, soft drinks, and candy."

Aside from his jaunt into political theory, Fritts offered some practical advice. Stop worrying about the cost of TV ads, he told the legislators, and "focus. . . [on] improv [ing] the quality of education which voters receive. . ." The broadcast lobby, he said, vigilant citizens ever, was "prepared to make some constructive suggestions to those ends."

McConnell, for one, is on to the game. "Why should we work extra time raising money to make them richer?" he said. "I do think it's excessive greed '" Then again, the senator's not surprised that the broadcasters-with their profits, PACs, and lobbyists-see no problem in the marriage of media, money, and politics.
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Author:Kaplan, Sheila
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1988
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