The folks over at the Wall Street Journal editorial page think they've discovered a really neat argument against campaign finance reform. New restrictions on special-interest money, they fret, would only enhance the power of the press. An editorial published this week entitled "Media Self-Love-in" argues that the "pundit overlords" are sympathetic to John McCain and Bill Bradley for just this reason. "The Media wants to help [McCain] or Bradley become president," the piece contends. "Then they will help the media become the overwhelming arbiter of what the political system spends its energies on."
It's always a pleasure to see the Journalistas applying their special brand of right-wing Marxist analysis to politics. But I fear that they have not been rigorous enough in exposing the press's hidden interests. If the media is intentionally promoting the cause of campaign finance reform, it is doing so despite the clear benefits it derives from the current system--and that it stands to lose under a reformed one. There are three arguments that support this.
Argument No. 1: Both McCain and Bradley would require that as a condition of FCC licenses, TV stations be required to provide free airtime to candidates. This would cost media companies some significant fraction of the estimated $600 million that will be spent on televised political advertising in 2000. And it could run them even more, because mandated free airtime might preempt other programming and/or non-political paid advertising. To a lesser degree, newspapers and radio broadcasters would also suffer under a reformed system, especially one that restricted lucrative "independent expenditure" campaigns that tend to buy all those full-page ads.
Argument No. 2: A friend of mine says that all reporters are members of the anti-boring party. We thrive on conflict and corruption, and suffer amid harmony and good government. Just ask any journalist, Which would you rather cover: the Minneapolis City Council or the Chicago City Council? Watergate or the National Performance Review? If reporters are biased in favor of campaign finance reform, it's not because it will do us any good personally but because we're high-minded Mugwumps at heart.
Argument No. 3: If it's true that campaign finance reform would give the editorial pages such awesome power, it's darned impressive that the Journal alone is immune to this temptation. How admirable of them to show this kind of selfless restraint and idealism when the rest of us are disingenuously promoting our class interests. Unless, of course, it's the other way around.