The Powers That Be Lobbying; One Special Interest the Press Doesn't Cover: Itself

By Kaplan, Sheila | The Washington Monthly, December 1988 | Go to article overview

The Powers That Be Lobbying; One Special Interest the Press Doesn't Cover: Itself


Kaplan, Sheila, The Washington Monthly


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. …

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