- Chicago Newstips by Community Media Workshop - http://www.newstips.org -

Super PACs: Bad for democracy, good for TV stations

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Super PACS “represent much of what is wrong with American democracy rolled neatly into one package,” said Marites Velasquez of Illinois PIRG [2], announcing a new report showing that fundraising monsters suddenly dominating our elections are funded by a very small number of very rich people.

Of itemized contributions by individuals to Super PACs in 2010 and 2011, 93 percent came from 726 individuals giving $10,000 or more, and more than half came from just 37 people who gave over a half-million dollars each, according to a new report [3] from Illinois PIRG Education Fund and Demos [4].

Super PACs are “tools for powerful special interests” that work by “drowning out the voices of ordinary Americans in a sea of sometimes-secret cash,” Velasquez said.

“They undermine core principles of political equality in favor of a bully-based system where the strength of a citizen’s voice depends upon the size of her wallet,” said Adam Lioz of Demos.

Noting that 17 percent of Super PAC money came from businesses, the groups recommend the Illinois General Assembly pass legislation requiring shareholder approval for corporate political spending, among other reforms.

A bonanza for broadcasters

At the Nation [5], John Nichols and Robert McChesney (co-founders of the media reform group Free Press [6]) detail the cost to democracy — and the bonanza for TV stations.

TV stations will take in up to $5 billion from political advertising this year – nearly twice the $2.8 billion they got four years ago.  The amount being spent on TV ads for House races is up 54 percent since 2008; for Senate races it’s up 75 percent.

Political ads accounted for 1.2 percent of total ad revenue in 1996; this year it’s likely to be 20 percent, and more in key states.

Super PACs specialize in scorched-earth, no-holds-barred negative advertising which actually aims at depressing turnout, and succeeds: research shows “the main consequence of negative ads is that they demobilize citizens and turn them away from electoral politics.”

And, of course, the prospects of a candidacy that doesn’t represent the interests of big-money donors becomes increasingly remote.

Meanwhile, with news staffs cut and much less time devoted to political coverage, TV news increasingly focuses on horse-race and cat-fight aspects.  “Such coverage is cheap and easy to do, and lends itself to gossip and endless chatter, even as it sometimes provides the illusion that serious affairs of state are under scrutiny,” write Nichols and McChesney.  But it is “as nutrition-free as a fast-food hamburger.”

Naturally, the National Association of Broadcasters fights any campaign finance reform that would cut into station revenues, most recently opposing legislation requiring Super PACs to fully disclose their donors.

NAB has also opposed what might be the simplest reform: requiring TV stations to provide free airtime to candidates as a public-service requirement.