When it comes to today’s important public policy issues, the opportunity to be heard depends on whether you can afford it. In this program, Bill Moyers and key legal and public interest advocates examine how industries with deep pockets use their access to the media to overwhelm the public debate, from North Carolina’s hog industry to the defeat of the McCain Tobacco Bill to the passage of the Telecom Act of 1996. This Act, all but ignored by the newspapers and TV outlets owned by megamedia, amounted to a massive giveaway of the public’s airwaves. What consequences does this control over the flow of information have for our democracy, and how can individuals and public interest organizations counter the growing dominance of big media?
BURT NEUBORNE: I don't consider democracy to be really functioning when one side's got a loud speaker and the other side is being forced to whisper.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: How have we managed to create a system in which a major voice or voices in a policy debate is not able to be heard because it doesn't raise enough money to buy the access to talk to the American people?
CHARLES LEWIS: Our democracy is drowning in free speech that's paid for by all these interests that have enough money to pay for the microphones and the airwaves to get their message out.
MATTHEW MYERS: It's who has the money to frame the issue, because if you don't have the money to frame the issue, then whether you're right or wrong isn't going to matter in the long run.
GENE KIMMELMAN: The government may still be a major threat to free expression, but commercial interests consolidating, particularly in the media business, could be an equal threat.
BILL MOYERS: If we have to rely on the media to at least analyze what the corporations are doing and the media don't do that, how do we level the playing field?
JOHN MCCAIN: I don't know. I don't know Bill.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] I’m Bill Moyers. The guarantee of free speech in the first amendment to our constitution is a great idea. It means government can’t keep you from getting your two cents worth into the public debate. But what the framers of our government didn’t reckon with is that two cents doesn’t buy much free speech these days. You can say anything you want to say, but if you really want to be heard today, we’re talking big money. The framers didn't reckon on the mass media. And they didn't reckon on the rise of huge corporations, private empires with the money to buy the kind of free speech that guarantees a hearing. In this program we'll look at what this means for democracy through three stories of powerful industries who knew what they wanted and got it. And we'll hear from some voices in the growing chorus of those who worry that corporations no longer simply take part in the public debate – they buy it. Duplin County, North Carolina. Home to Cindy Watson. She made a name for herself here, and a living, selling ruffled curtains. She had never planned to go into politics. She was busy raising three children. And besides, only Democrats won elections in Duplin.
CINDY WATSON: I've always been a Conservative and I've always been a Republican. And when my third district chairman just asked me to put my name in to run, I had no desire. I had never been involved with government, local or any other ways. I was the first woman, and certainly the first Republican, in a hundred years that was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly from this area.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] She was elected in 1995 to serve a small rural district. Her platform stressed tax reform and help for agribusiness. Her concerns included typical constituents, and some not so typical. CINDY WATSON: In 815 square miles, we have a lot more hogs than people.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Hog farming has exploded in North Carolina. It's now the state's largest agricultural industry, larger even than tobacco.
CINDY WATSON: The swine industry has been extremely good financially. We have car dealers that are selling fleets of trucks. We have restaurants here. When I moved here in 1976, there was not a Pizza Hut, there was not a Hardees, there was not a MacDonald's.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But Watson found out all those pigs brought more than just jobs and prosperity – the massive growth of hog farms meant massive growth of hog waste. She began to hear from constituents who told her that hog waste is definitely not a good neighbor...especially when you live downwind.
LOCAL CITIZEN #1: I really can't explain the odor. It's a nausea, almost a burning sensation to the eyes and nose and it creates a tremendous amount of flies.
LOCAL CITIZEN #2: We don't have central heat and air in our house. In the summertime we depend on cross ventilation, if you know what that is. All of a sudden our bedroom is filled with this terrible stench and it wakes me up with asthmatic bronchitis attacks. I have screamed, I have kicked, I have cried, and nobody listens. In fact, if you tell 'em how it affects you – the hog growers – they laugh. They think it's funny. They say: "It doesn't stink, it smells like money."
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The hog population in Duplin County increased a staggering 1400% in the last 20 years, to about 2.3 million. But the corporate hog farms still dispose of the waste the way it had been done on independent farms like this one before hogs here numbered in the millions: collecting it in lagoons, then spraying it onto nearby fields.
LOCAL CITIZEN #3: If you're spraying hog fields, alright, that water's going down in the ground. Your water that you drink comes out of the ground. So, it's going down to your ground, to that water that you're going to drink sooner or later, if you spray enough of it out there.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Ammonia gas evaporates from the lagoons and the spray fields, then falls back on the landscape.
CINDY WATSON: How do you like this? This is algae. At one time, this entire creek was clear. On weekends or late in the afternoon, you could come through and families would be out here fishing. And as I've come back, we see all of our creeks that have a green covering over them, from, I believe, thousands of the lagoon systems and the spraying of ammonia and nitrogen into the air.
BOB HALL: She was seeing people, being victimized by business interests that she had thought were, you know, trying to help America.
BILL MOYERS: Bob Hall is research director at Democracy South, a North Carolina public interest group. He's followed what happened after Cindy Watson began listening to her neighbors.
CINDY WATSON: And I was asking those questions that you asked to me.
BOB HALL: She was a feisty advocate for her people, who were being inundated with this massive contamination from the hog factory farms.
CINDY WATSON: Ten parts per million is the EPA acceptable level of drinking in this state. This is 17.18 however.
BOB HALL: She went back to her core values and said: this is wrong, what you guys are doing – these big hog people – and you're my neighbors, and some of you even donated to help elect me as a Republican. But I can't do what you want me to do. I have to say no to you.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] "No" meant challenging the hog industry to clean up its act. But the corporate farmers had other plans. They wanted to expand even more – and they were used to getting their way. Many of the state's zoning laws were written, in part, by a former legislator named Wendell Murphy, who just happens to be the chairman and CEO of Murphy Family Farms, one of the biggest hog producers in America. BOB HALL: He's on the Forbes list and so on. But he was a state senator for a number of years, and in that role he passed, and made sure it got passed, a number of crucial pieces of legislation, one of which was that local counties couldn't zone hog factory farms. So that really created the framework that allowed those farms to expand without anybody saying no, no, you're getting a little too large; no, no, the amount of waste you're putting here is too dangerous.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But Cindy Watson wouldn't back off. In 1997, she helped pass a moratorium to limit the growth of hog farms until the industry figured out a better way to dispose of all that waste. When she was up for re-election, she anticipated a tough campaign…but she never imagined what was about to hit her. It started just before the primary, when Duplin area voters began receiving probing phone calls.
POLLSTER: Do you consider yourself to be pro-life or pro-choice?
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] At first they seemed like objective opinion polls. They weren't.
POLLSTER: Cindy Watson is letting her personal attitudes affect her judgment, and often doesn't have her facts right.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Political pros call them "push polls" – loaded questions designed to prejudice the voter's opinion of a candidate.
POLLSTER: Cindy Watson flip-flops on the issues.
BOB HALL: It was clearly not, "Do you know that Cindy Watson is trying to regulate the hog industry." That wasn't what they wanted. They were looking for any possible way that they could embarrass, intimidate, undercut her credibility.
POLLSTER: Cindy Watson is misleading people about her record on the environment.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Along with the telephone polling came a blizzard of ads.
ANNOUNCER: Representative Cindy Watson ...
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Ads in newspapers, on the radio, on television.
ANNOUNCER: Public trust is lost when politicians mislead people
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] They all had the same theme: condemning Cindy Watson and shifting focus away from hog-industry pollution. And they were costing somebody a bundle. But who was spending all that money? The ads said they were paid for by a group calling itself Farmers For Fairness.
BOB HALL: It's a wonderful name, Farmers for Fairness. You think of, you know, here's Old McDonald and all the other Old McDonalds, they've gotten together and they're fighting for fairness. Oh, it's wonderful.
ANNOUNCER: Here at home Representative Cindy Watson is ...
BOB HALL: Well, it turns out – you know, it's not at all that way.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It turned out that Farmers For Fairness was a cover for a consortium including Murphy Family Farms and other corporate hog interests. It's what's known as a front group.
CHARLES LEWIS: These are groups that to any ordinary citizen, you have no idea what the group is for. You certainly don't associate them with some powerful interest.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Charles Lewis runs the Non-profit Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.. His most recent book documents the influence of big money in politics.
CHARLES LEWIS: The idea of the front group is it's got to have a high-falutin' nice sounding name, it's got to invariably not release any of its information about who funds it. And the reason that's valuable to that industry is it's another voice. It's another entity in the political process saying this is a good thing or a bad thing, whatever the subject is. And so you'll create the sense that there's a chorus, a growing chorus of concern over some issue.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Farmers For Fairness' spokesperson is Lu-Ann Coe.
BILL MOYERS: What's your operating budget? LU-ANN COE: We don't release that. It has been – 1 can tell you this. It has been more than we ever wanted to spend. BILL MOYERS: Your own consultant said Farmers for Fairness spent $10,000 a week in the months before the May primary in that one little district. Why was that district so important to you?
LU-ANN COE: That is the heart of hog country. That's the heart right there, and that's where Ms. Watson is. BOB HALL They mounted a massive campaign, an almost unbelievable campaign for a Republican woman from a very small county. Trying to get rid of her, trying to just abolish her from the scene.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Here's an important distinction to keep in mind. Federal election laws strictly regulate ads that tell you to vote for or against a candidate. These ads can only be run by the candidates themselves, by political parties, or by political action committees – PACs – all subject to strict limits on corporate contributions. The idea is that candidates should know who is financing their opposition, that you the voter should know who's putting money up to influence elections. So if you buy an ad that does advocate voting for or against someone, you have to file disclosure forms. But there's a gaping loophole in the law. If your organization buys an ad that doesn't use those exact words – vote for or against – it's considered "issue advocacy." And issue ads are not regulated by campaign laws.
ANNOUNCER: Representative Cindy Watson blames hog farmers for polluting rivers... KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: In other words, it can walk right up to the line of telling why you should vote against someone or for someone. It just can't take that last step and make it explicit.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Kathleen Hall Jamieson is dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She writes extensively on how so-called issue advocacy has become a funnel for unregulated money in politics. KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The practical matter is this: when you get into an election season, and you see an ad that shows a candidate's picture, and it’s an unflattering picture, and it tells you a lot of things about the candidate that are hostile, that are not friendly to the candidate, and the ad then closes by saying call this number. For practical purposes everything up to that last moment has looked like it's an ad that's going to tell you how to vote. Why else would people spend money to show you unflattering pictures, and give you hostile information in a context in which the election is about to occur?
BILL MOYERS: Were you trying to get people to vote against her?
LU-ANN COE: We were trying to change opinion. And if people out there looked at our message and said, "Well now that makes sense, I haven't heard that side of it before, and maybe what Ms. Watson is saying isn't quite all there is too it," then if they voted against her fine. If they didn't, that was fine.
CINDY WATSON: They were using these issue ads, and this is something new to me and new to all of us, I think. This is the way to do it. It's First Amendment speech; they can say anything they want to as long as they did not say for or against me.
LU-ANN COE: We are not a political action committee. We are just exercising our First Amendment right to free speech and we even were so conscious of following the letter of the law that we had an attorney who was an electoral expert to vet each one of our ads and our polls to tell us: is this correct? Can we do this or not?
BOB HALL: They use all this legal trickery to, you know, issue ads or independent – you know, all these different things that are very calculated. But at its core, it's politics and it's companies who can't vote using their treasuries, their resources, to influence voting.
BILL MOYERS: So one would assume there are corporate donations in Farmers for Fairness?
LU-ANN COE: Oh yes, absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Exercising their free speech. And that's the way you see it?
LU-ANN COE: That's the only way they could get it.
BILL MOYERS: Is to buy it?
LU-ANN COE: That's to buy it, that's the only way we could get it. We don't like to spend money so we wanted to make sure that every dollar we do spend – it's on target.
BILL MOYERS: Was it?
LU-ANN COE: Seemed to be. BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Cindy Watson lost the Republican Primary to a hog farmer. Her campaign budget did not include a single television ad. No exact figure is available on how much the hog industry spent to defeat her. But records show Farmers For Fairness spent 2.6 million dollars on media activities in the year leading up to the primary. The state board of elections eventually challenged the group's tactics but a federal court ruled they'd done nothing illegal. The courts have generally sided with corporations on issue advertising, essentially saying that limiting spending is limiting speech. But some legal scholars say it's how huge companies influence politics in ways the constitution never intended. BURT NEUBORNE: You could do a Ph.D. thesis in the law on the strange way we treat corporations, sometimes as though they were human beings and sometimes as though they were not.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Burt Neuborne, once the national legal director of the American Civil liberties Union, is now legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. BURT NEUBORNE: For example, for the Fifth Amendment, we never gave that to corporations. Corporations don't have the right to be free from self-incrimination. People working in corporations do, but if the corporation were to come into an American court and say I take the Fifth Amendment, the judge would laugh. The judge would say you don't have any Fifth Amendment rights, get out of here. But with the First Amendment, we went exactly the opposite way. We said no, corporations are going to be treated as though they are a human being and they're going to given the same rights to speak that human beings are given.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In 1978, a Supreme Court ruling effectively gave corporations some of the same free speech rights previously reserved for individuals. BURT NEUBORNE: The people who will defend the decision say look, what the 1978 decision did is unleash this great machine for the generation of information and that we are richer as a political culture now because we have the corporations able to put ideas and information out into the public. That's the one side of the debate. The other side of the debate would say yes, but the one thing that corporations do better than anybody else is to accumulate money. And for the corporation then to dump that money into the democratic process is to unbalance the market in ideas in a way that yes, it's richer, but it's richer in one direction.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It's long been the case that money talks. But in the modern electronic square, where rich corporations exercise "First Amendment rights" through unregulated spending, big money can shout from one end of the country to the other. It happened most recently in a major policy debate in congress – powerful corporations using their resources to not only mislead the public, but to intimidate the United States Senate. Spring, 1998. After months of negotiations congress is moving toward passing the McCain bill, legislation to hold the tobacco industry accountable for the effects of smoking. The bill had been passed out of committee by an overwhelming majority, and looked like a sure winner.
STEVEN GOLDSTONE: Under the agreement we have reached...
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Even tobacco industry leaders were willing to sign on. But when the bill was amended to threaten their exemption against future lawsuits, they left the table.
STEVEN GOLDSTONE: The extraordinary settlement that could have set the nation on a dramatically new and constructive direction, is dead.
MATTHEW MYERS: Seven days after the Senate Commerce Committee passed a bill far tougher than the tobacco industry ever thought they would pass, Steve Goldstone and RJ Reynolds bolted from the process and with them took all of the other tobacco companies.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Matthew Myers is general counsel for the non-profit group Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
MATTHEW MYERS: Then all hell broke loose.
ANNOUNCER: Washington has gone cuckoo again. Instead of doing something about youth smoking, Washington wants to raise half a trillion dollars in new taxes, spend billions on federal programs…
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Tobacco companies didn't have public opinion or a majority in Congress on their side. But they did have one thing their opponents didn't...they had money…all they needed to wage a massive propaganda war.
ANNOUNCER: It's Christmas in Washington, and they're piling big presents…
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] They began with air attacks – a bombardment of issue advertising.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Over $40 million was spent on this campaign – the highest amount ever spent in a sustained issue advocacy campaign in the United States.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In a study for the Annenberg School, Kathleen Hall Jamieson examined the claims of tobacco's ad campaign.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The underlying themes of that issue advocacy campaign were that this bill is a big tax-and-spend bill for special programs – the implication is, "and you wouldn't approve of them," – that will result in a black market, and will not actually produce a reduction in youth smoking, but will produce very expensive cigarettes. That combination of appeals, aired at saturation level across cable in the United States, increased the likelihood that people were misled about the content of the bill.
WOMAN IN COMMERCIAL: This tobacco tax some in Congress are talking about doesn't make any sense…
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The propaganda was carefully targeted to influence not just the public, but the senators who'd be voting on the bill.
WOMAN IN COMMERCIAL: …just more taxes for more big government. I'm going to remember this fall what the politicians do this summer.
MATTHEW MYERS: The $40 million advertising campaign was designed to change the framework of the debate, not so much 'cause they were going to change American public opinion, but because they were going to make it acceptable to vote against this bill by making a vote a vote against big government, big spending, and big taxes and not a vote for Big Tobacco. ANNOUNCER: These are the real heroes of the American economy. Men and women across this country who work hard for their families...
MATTHEW MYERS: Suddenly the tobacco industry became the protector of the blue collar worker, the bastion against big government.
ANNOUNCER: Last June, there was a historic resolution of tobacco issues.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The ads launched salvo after salvo of half-truths and distortions.
ANNOUNCER: Now politics has taken over. Instead of a reasonable debate on the resolution, Washington has gone haywire, proposing the same old tax and spend.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well the interesting question is, what are the taxes on? And the answer is cigarettes. And what's the spending for? And it’s a list of things that most people, if asked, would approve of, such as paying the states back for the Medicaid expenditures they've incurred by providing insurance coverage and health care for those who otherwise couldn't afford it but who were ill because of tobacco use.
ANNOUNCER: And who will pay the majority of these taxes? Working people, people earning thirty thousand dollars a year or less.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Will the bulk of the cost of this bill be paid by people making under thirty thousand dollars? Yes it will, but with one important qualification: all of those people are smokers. And so it's not you the person making under thirty thousand dollars who's seeing the ad, it's you the smoker. And the reason for taxing is in fact not the government's appetite for additional money.
ANNOUNCER: Cigarettes up to jive dollars a pack…fifty dollars a carton.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The reason for additional taxing is to create an economic disincentive for teenagers to smoke.
ANNOUNCER: There 'II be new federal spending: 17 new government bureaucracies.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Seventeen new government bureaucracies is simply false. There's no evidence in the bill that there are 17 new bureaucracies. Not even the source that's cited, Morgan Stanley, would argue that there are 17 new bureaucracies. And these sources up on the screen suggest to you that some neutral source did a study to conclude here that there are 17 new government bureaucracies. But when you look at the source, what you're going to find out it is, first, it isn't a Morgan Stanley study. It's a Morgan Stanley employee, and he's summarizing a speech by a tobacco company executive. As you move claim by claim through this ad, there are very few claims in the ad that don't have some need for contextualization.
ANNOUNCER: …big taxes, big government, big job losses…
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The tobacco companies used more than just advertising to manipulate the congress.
MATTHEW MYERS: What the tobacco industry successfully did was used phone banking to call people around the country, and they would then describe this bill in a way that had no resemblance to what the bill looked like, and say to the individual on the other side, if you want to tell your member of Congress how opposed you are to it, we'll patch you through for free. Members of Congress got phone calls from people who didn't even know what bill it was they were calling about sometimes. But you can't get away from the fact that members of Congress count the number of communications they get from their constituents.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: What is John McCain thinking? He and President Clinton want to tax fifty million adult Americans.
BILL MOYERS: They also went after the conservative Republican senator who sponsored the bill: John McCain of Arizona.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: We thought Senator McCain was for lower taxes and less government.
JOHN MCCAIN: Well, I've got to say that the tobacco companies raised my name ID according to a poll to around 70%. It became a household word, McCain. Unfortunately, more like four letters in some households. But I really became aware of it, really graphically aware of it, when phone calls to both my home and office, and being stopped in the street by people parroting the tobacco ads which said, "What's happened to John McCain. He's become a big tax and spend liberal and a big government liberal." People literally would stop me in the street and say, "What's happened to you John?" Like as if I had experienced some accident or illness.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: It's the largest consumer tax in history. It hits lower and middle income Americans the hardest.
JOHN MCCAIN: It was a dishonest campaign. No one requires that it be an honest campaign. But it was patently false.
BILL MOYERS: So does the First Amendment give corporations the right to lie?
JOHN MCCAIN: The First Amendment, I think, gives corporations the right to lie, but I also believe that one of the lessons here is that when journalists and media see that there is a lie being perpetrated on the American people, that it also deserves coverage. And the media in this case, in my view, probably did not do as much in informing the American people about these ads as they could have.
BILL MOYERS: Well the news media, in this case owned by large corporations who profited enormously from those ads. I mean the profits from the ads went to the television stations which are owned by, as you know, corporations…
JOHN MCCAIN: I would not like to make the accusation that there was a connection, but I do believe that the media, especially television news could have done a lot more in covering this if only in the fact that it was unprecedented in its scope and expense.
BILL MOYERS: Jamieson's research showed that during the months of the debate over the McCain bill, while big tobacco was spending millions on TV to defeat it, only one nightly network news show, ABC’s, ran a story examining the claims of the industry ads. Coverage was minimal as well on cable television, which raked in the much of the campaign's millions in advertising revenue.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The larger question then is this: if you're getting that kind of income out of this advertising process, don't you have some obligation to provide some alternative access to the alternative points of view?
SENATOR ASHCROFT: The tax falls upon the American people.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] While TV news offered scant critiques of the tobacco campaign, the message of those ads were echoed verbatim on the senate floor.
SENATOR ASHCROFT: There is a requirement in the bill that the money be collected from these hard-working, low-income Americans.
SENATOR CRAIG: ...and to create more Federal bureaucracies and big government than we've ever created by one vote.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Among the most vociferous was a politician for years had been one of the top recipients of campaign contributions from big tobacco.
SENATOR MCCONNELL: What the tobacco bill is about is tax and spend.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Kentucky's Mitch McConnell did more than carry the industry's message. He flexed its muscle.
MATTHEW MYERS: Hours before the Senate was to take the most important vote on the McCain Bill – a vote whether to go forward or not –Senator Mitch McConnell, who was then and still is the Chairman of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, had a closed door meeting with his fellow Republican Senators. And he's acknowledged that at that meeting he told them that if Senators voted to kill the McCain Bill, they didn't need to worry that their political constituents would see it as a vote for big tobacco, because the tobacco industry had promised that they would continue to run the ads that they had been running for months long after the vote and well into the campaign season.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: In other words, translated into simple English, the industry's advertising is going to help you get reelected.
SENATE ROLL CALL: Mr. Eiden…Mr. Bingaman…Mr. Bond…
BILL MOYERS: Tobacco won there. Corporate spending had turned the tide against a popular bill.
JOHN MCCAIN: I would remind you that we passed this bill out of a 20 member committee, one-fifth of the United States Senate by a vote of 19 to one. Everyone predicted that the bill would then pass through the Senate after some debate and amendments. Ended up not making it.
MATTHEW MYERS: Every corporation, every special interest, whether you like them or not, is entitled to insure that its message is heard. But you can't get away from the fact that the influence of money so distorts the free speech that it's no longer an honest and fair debate among competing ideas. It's who has the money to frame the issue, because if you don't have the money to frame the issue, then whether you're right or wrong isn't going to matter in the long run.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I'm not suggesting that one point of view doesn't deserve access. It does. In fact, that's a premise of democracy. Views that we find abhorrent have access to our system. That's protected speech. But what happens if we inadvertently create a situation in which by virtue of privileging those with money, we make it very difficult for those without to be heard at all.
BURT NEUBORNE: You know, up until 1978, we lived quite well as a free society, with good free speech law, without saying that corporations would have an unlimited amount of power to spend any amount of money they want to on politics. It seems to me now that we could say to corporations, look, you've got a pretty good deal. You've got limited liability, you have unlimited life, you can collect as much money as you want, but you can't spend it on politics unless one of two things happens. Unless you agree to cap it at an amount that won't totally distort the democratic process, or unless we find some way to fund the voices on the other side, so that we can then have a full-scale debate. But I don't consider democracy to be really functioning when one side's got a loud speaker and the other side is being forced to whisper.
BILL MOYERS: I know that the American Civil Liberties Union, your own colleagues and friends, remains fundamentalist on the First Amendment, no abridgement whatsoever of corporate speech or anybody's speech. You clearly don't see eye to eye with them.
BURT NEUBORNE: No. I mean, I don't think Madison put that First Amendment in there just as a device to protect rich people's ability to dominate the political discourse. I think Madison put the First Amendment in the Constitution because he was aspiring toward an ideal democracy, toward a democracy of equals in which individuals could speak, in which the polity would be a polity of free-standing individuals who could exchange information and have that information be used as the mechanism for voting choice.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: When the Founders were conceptualizing freedom of speech, if there were the tobacco industry and there were the anti-tobacco folks, the tobacco industry could take its stump and stand up on the stump and say to the audience, "Its a tax and spend bill that will create huge government bureaucracies in order to pay for special programs in a Federal Christmas tree with a black market, and it won't help kids stop smoking." And the anti-tobacco people could stand up and say, "Smoking is killing our children; this bill has money to reimburse the states for the cost of absorbing the costs of the deaths caused by the industry; we want a campaign to minimize children's use of a product that has been advertised to them. Even when the tobacco industry said they weren't advertising it. And the tobacco industry could get up and rebut that position, and the audiences could come and listen both or listen to either, but they each would have a stump. We're now in an environment in which the tobacco industry buys its stump and gets up and makes its statement. The anti-tobacco people don't have the money to buy the stump, and in effect the tobacco industry has bought the access that the other side can't afford. We've now made freedom of speech, freedom of speech if you can afford to buy the access to speak.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Buying media time your opponents can't afford is certainly one way to monopolize the public debate. But it's not the only way to use "free speech" to advance and protect your interests. Some corporations don't just buy media time. They buy the media.
MUSIC LYRICS: It's a media-opoly, a media-opoly. The whole media's controlled by a few corporations thanks to deregulation by the FCC
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This was a satire from Saturday Night Live. MUSIC LYRICS: They own networks from CBS to CNBC. They can use them to say, whatever they please. And put down the opinions of anyone who disagrees.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Was it a vision inspired by paranoia? Or a cogent look at the future of free speech?
GENE KIMMELMAN: When it is the media itself that decides not only what advertisements to take that are political in nature, but what free information to provide the public called news, and we have then deregulated, allowed them to own more within their industries, we've let loose a giant here.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Gene Kimmelman, Co-Chairman of Consumers Union in Washington, D.C., has tracked the growing imp act of media conglomeration on public policy.
GENE KIMMELMAN: It is dangerous in an open free society like ours because we rely on the media so much for public discourse for the expression of democratic values.
BILL MOYERS: Well what does it matter that Disney owns ABC, or that General Electric owns NBC? What does it matter to us?
GENE KIMMELMAN: The danger is not just when it's Disney, GE. It's when there are very few companies that control the most popular media outlets, and there is a policy issue that comes up that could hurt them financially, it is very unlikely we are going to get a full airing of that kind of an issue.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Case in point: the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In February of that year, industry leaders – from phone to cable to satellite to broadcast –gathered alongside government officials to celebrate a revolutionary revision of America's communications law.
GENE KIMMELMAN: This was a love-fest. This was the President and the Vice President getting together with the Speaker and Majority Leader and the leaders of the committees that had moved this legislation. After all, this was historic. This was a major overhaul of telecommunications policy, first time in sixty years, since 1934.
BILL CLINTON: Today with the stroke of a pen, our laws will catch up with our future.
GENE KIMMELMAN: There was talk of millions of jobs, tremendous GNP growth, competition, choice for consumers, new services never dreamt of, lower prices. It was a panacea.
BILL CLINTON: This bill is an indication of what can be done when Republicans and Democrats work together in a spirit of genuine cooperation to advance the public interest…
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] What the president didn't say was that the bill's real beneficiaries included the media giants themselves, who had lobbied long and hard for the bill's passage.
JEFF CHESTER: Here you have the broadcast industry actively working to transform television.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Jeff Chester runs the center for media education in Washington, D.C..
JEFF CHESTER: Television's going to change. Consumers are going to have to buy a new TV set. There are going to be many many more channels. The rules that determine how accountable local broadcasters are to their community are being weakened. Station license periods are being extended. In essence, the Telecommunications Act was like giving the broadcasters a blank check with television – "Do with it what you want."
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] One thing television broadcasters, wanted – and got – was the lifting of restrictions on the number of stations one company could own. But it was another provision, buried deep within the act, that stood to make them billions: the free use of something called the digital spectrum.
JOHN MCCAIN: The average American does not know what digital spectrum is. They just don't know. Nor frankly should they have to know. They're working and being with their families, et cetera. But here in Washington, their assets that they own were being given away.
BILL CLINTON: Again let me thank you from the bottom of my heart, every one of you, for making this great day for America possible. Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] What was being given away amounted to a set of new channels over which it's possible to bring us a much better, high definition picture. But broadcasters see in these new channels something more: marketing opportunities never before imaginable over the publicly owned airwaves.
JEFF CHESTER: Having a piece of the digital spectrum is like having the keys to Fort Knox. Digital technology will allow broadcasters to take the one channel that they have right now and turn it into five, ten even twenty or more channels. Digital technology will allow broadcasters to create interactive channels which allow you to click on a commercial to buy a product. They want to take that piece of free spectrum, chop it up into a lot of little channels, and make piles of money from this valuable resource.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Now since we as the people own it, you might ask; why aren't we selling it to the broadcasters and using that money for all sorts of social goods? Well that's a whole other question, and it might speak to the lobbying power of the broadcast industry.
CHARLES LEWIS: These people that bring us the news, that objectively cover the news, are out there trying to influence Congress and Washington as much as anybody.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Like the other telecom industries, broadcasters had been pouring millions into campaign contributions to congress. But that wasn't all they were doing.
CHARLES LEWIS: The broadcasters had hundreds of lobbyists spread all over the Hill for a couple of years leading up to that period. But the reason they're so powerful is they don't just give a lot of money out and they just don't have a phalanx of lobbyists smothering Capitol Hill with their positions. But they have one advantage that no one else has. They control the fate of all politicians. JOHN MCCAIN: Let me tell you how they do that. There is an issue before the Congress which affects their industry. Call in the station managers from the congressman's district or the senator's state. They all come to Washington. They sit down in a room with the senator or representative. Now there's never any threats made. There's never any statement that if you don't do this, we're going to say bad things about you in our newscasts. But they are the messengers. They are the messengers. They portray you and your work here in Washington to the people of your state or district. That's incredibly powerful.
JOHN MCCAIN: (on Senate floor) In the language of the bill that we will be considering...
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] John McCain was one of the few senators who opposed the giveaway of the digital spectrum. Another was Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.
BOB DOLE: (on Senate floor) Now let me get this straight. America lends the broadcasters a national resource so they can increase their profit margin, but they don 't think it's fair to pay rent.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But Dole and McCain were lonely voices. JOHN MCCAIN: I heard and saw many of the members of Congress who said, “look, this is good for America, all Americans are going to get a much better picture on their TV set, things are going to be great.” And I agree with all that. But why should a profit making corporation get that asset for free and not have to pay for it?
JOHN MCCAIN: (on Senate floor) Mr. President, when something is owned by the taxpayer, and is of great value, and we have a way of taking that very valuable commodity that's owned by the taxpayers and auction it off…
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The digital spectrum could bring the public up to 70 billion dollars at auction. But the broadcasters didn't want an auction. Basically, they wanted the spectrum for free. JOHN MCCAIN: If we'd said, look we've got 10 billion dollars worth of public land out there in the West and we are going to give it to various corporations in America for them to use, and they are going to give us back some other land which really isn't nearly as good in exchange for that, the American people would never have stood for such a thing ever.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It had all the makngs of a major news story. Were powerful corporations picking the pocket of the taxpayer? It's the very kind of thing broadcast journalism often investigates…after all, TV news loves a scandal.
DEAN ALGER: We have on NBC – what is it called? "The Fleecing of America." Where were they when their own networks and other TV stations were in fact lobbying and getting what they wanted out of the Telecommunications Act?
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Dean Alger is author of the book Megamedia, a study of corporations and mass media. He examined the coverage of the Telecom Act on the three nightly network news broadcasts, from the beginning of the senate debate until the night before the bill was passed.
DEAN ALGER: The Telecommunications Act was introduced roughly in May, 1995, and was finally passed in early February 1996. During that nine months, the three network news shows, NBC, ABC, CBS, aired a sum total of only 19 minutes on this Telecommunications Act.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] None of that nineteen minutes included a single mention of the debate over whether broadcasters should pay for use of the digital spectrum.
BOB DOLE: (on Senate floor) If five senators took a legitimate trip somewhere overseas to investigate something that might be costing the American people money, that would be a junket, costing thousands and thousands of dollars, and that would be news. And maybe it is news. Maybe it should be reported. But when it comes to a billion dollar giveaway to them, mum's the word.
JOHN MCCAIN: (on Senate floor) You will not see this story on any television or hear it on any radio broadcast because it directly affects them…
BILL MOYERS: You said from the Senate floor, "We will not see this story on any television or hear it on any radio broadcast because it directly affects them." Did you hear anything on…
JOHN MCCAIN: No I never heard…I saw a few print stories about it, but never did I see a television program. Later on there was one, I believe, on CBS. But the coverage, as compared with what any other story of this magnitude would have gotten, was miniscule.
CHARLES LEWIS: The media did not want to discuss what it was doing. It would be like a bank robber stopping the bank robbery and saying, "look what at we're doing here. Let's have a press conference in front of the bank while we're doing it." I mean, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, everyone, who wanted to discuss this? They're all going to make hundreds of millions of dollars, billions of dollars over the next several years. The last thing they want to do is have a discussion.
BOB DOLE: (on Senate floor) I do think we should resolve this spectrum issue before the bill is considered.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Dole finally agreed to support the telecom act in exchange for a promise that an auction might still be possible. In the months following, broadcast news paid scant attention to the issue…meanwhile, the broadcast lobby sprang into action…
ANNOUNCER: Air is a wonderful thing…
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] …with issue advertising. Ads like this were careful not to mention the spectrum auction. Instead, they claimed congress was planning to tax viewers.
ANNOUNCER: Now Congress has a new idea. They tax everything else, why not the airwaves? You'll have to pay more to watch your favorite shows and we could lose them all together. Call toll free and tell Congress not to tax the airwaves.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In the spring, Congress gave the broadcasters what they wanted. There would be no auction.
CHARLES LEWIS: They got 70 billion dollars worth of free airwaves. The then-head of the Federal Communications Commission called it the biggest corporate giveaway this century. So, this industry has been dumping obscene amounts of money – tens of millions of dollars – into the process, around the time of this key legislation and we've had no public discussion about it. The public can't get upset about it because they don't know about it. Because these guys control the airwaves, they have – quote unquote – free speech. They're protecting our First Amendment rights, and I feel much better when I go to bed at night knowing that.
GENE KIMMELMAN: I do a lot of interviews on consumer issues. I have news crews coming in all the time to talk about a variety of issues and they always ask, "What aren't we covering, what else could we cover?" And I always say, you know, there is one very important issue out there. There is enough money involved in this issue that you could probably provide health insurance for everyone in this country who doesn't have it, or you could provide a major tax cut to the middle class and low income people. The broadcasters then always show interest…what is the issue? I mean, that much money on the table, there is that much, this is such a big issue, what is it? I say it's if we just charge fair market value for the spectrum broadcast companies receive for free from the public. Usually there is silence, maybe a grin. Most say, "Oh come on, there's no way we're ever going to get to do that kind of a segment." BILL MOYERS: Are you suggesting some deep, dark, mysterious conspiracy at work here?
DEAN ALGER: Absolutely not. You don't need to cook up some dark, deep conspiracy. This is an age-old phenomenon of willful people wanting to acquire wealth and power, whether the power is formal governmental power, or in this case, building enormous empires.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It's not easy to get on the air criticizing the media giants. On stories affecting their interest, no news is good news.
GENE KIMMELMAN: Jim Hightower had a syndicated radio show on ABC.
RADIO PROGRAM: Jim Hightower on a Saturday, coming…
GENE KIMMELMAN: The Disney Deal came down to buy Cap Cities/ABC and Hightower challenged it, said it was Mickey Mouse.
RADIO PROGRAM: Ah, Jim, ah, ah, I've got news for you. Who's this? Well this is your new boss. I'm the chairman of the board. Mickey Mouse?
GENE KIMMELMAN: And then he challenged the whole Telecommunications Act and said this is not good for the public.
RADIO PROGRAM: Now bear in mind, we're not talking monopoly here over toasters. We're talking about monopoly over your access to news and information. And its information that you and I need if we are going to have a democracy in this country.
GENE KIMMELMAN: Well he was off the air fairly quickly. Now ABC said they didn't like the ratings at that point in time, the program just wasn't successful. Now that may be true. The problem for the public is, we'll never know.
RADIO PROGRAM: We're threatened here not just as consumers but as citizens. It's our democracy that's at stake.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Now you might say to yourself, well, the media have never reported on their owners or their behind-the-scenes dealings. And you'd be right…there was no golden age of self-scrutiny by the press lords. What's different today is that never before have so much media been controlled by so few owners. For example, whether you're watching ABC News, a History Channel documentary, sports on ESPN, a Lifetime movie, or commentary on E!, you're watching Disney. And that's just scratching the surface. Disney brings you information via newspapers, magazines, radio stations, local TV stations, and, of course, movies. If you watch Fox News, The FX Channel, or The Family Channel, you’re watching a tiny fraction of Rupert Murdoch's powerful News Corporation. A global media empire controlling newspapers, book publishers, regional sports networks, even the satellites capable of delivering programming to 75% of the world. When you watch CBS News, The Nashville Network, or listen to any one of more than 170 radio stations, including several in the same cities, you're hearing from CBS, Inc. And just consider this: not only do these corporations have more media outlets to protect and promote their interests, they've never had so many different interests to promote and protect. Take just one example…
DEAN ALGER: The ultimate industrial media conglomerate is General Electric that controls NBC and MSNBC and CNBC, et cetera. What isn't General Electric involved in besides media? Well, in fact, they're in everything from jet engines to abrasives, to nuclear and other electrical generating systems, hotels, insurance and finance. When NBC reporters come upon some issue involved in those industrial areas, are they going to think twice about what they cover? There's a built-in profound conflict of interest.
CHARLES LEWIS: It means that you're not going to be investigating certain subjects. It means that you're not going to see NBC investigating General Electric. You're not going to have ABC doing a big, lengthy investigation about Disney.
BILL MOYERS: I heard Michael Eisner, head of Disney, on National Public Radio say, "I don't want ABC News covering Disney. I don't want Disney covering Disney."
GENE KIMMELMAN: If ABC doesn't cover Disney, maybe for some good reasons, we may not have enough other people to cover Disney.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The media giants are making so many deals with each other that companies that might normally be considered competitors are instead becoming partners.
JEFF CHESTER: This very exclusive club has developed that determines, you know, what we see on TV. This club goes to Congress and gets whatever they want for the most part, n terms of access to the media system, but we're all left out of the picture.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The picture is even murkier than you think. Look at the case of Tele-Communications, Inc., known to its 14 million cable subscribers as TCI. The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and Animal Planet are all joint ventures between TCI and Cox Communications, itself a media giant. With Comcast, another cable giant, TCI owns the shopping channel QVC. Then there's Bravo – TCI owns a piece of that channel, but so do G.E. and Cablevision, which is even more complicated than it sounds, because TCI also owns a third of Cablevision! TCI’s ten per cent stake in Time Warner – whose cable operation ought to be TCI's fierce competitor – gives them instead an interest in Time Warner's vast holdings: over 24 book publishers, 30 cable and satellite networks, film studios like Warner Brothers, and music and magazine holdings that link up with the likes of Sony. And that's not all. TCI even owns two thirds of the company that produces the Newshour on public television. All this must make TCI one of the true big fish of telecom, right? Well yes, but not too big to be swallowed up by an even bigger fish. In 1999, TCI was bought by AT&T – the very monopoly regulators once broke up, to spur competition!
GENE KIMMELMAN: This is a tremendous danger for our society because if it's the car business and there is mergers and consolidation, we fear higher prices. Less choice, concentration of ownership and we try to monitor it. But if we make a mistake, we can break it up, challenge it. The facts are out there to the public. If it's a media company merging with another major media company, once it has occurred, who is going to take it on?
MUSIC LYRICS: But the big shots don't care…
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] And what about that Saturday Night Live satire on NBC that did take on the media giants? Well it ran only once, on a live broadcast. Then it mysteriously disappeared from the show during reruns. The executive producer said – quote – "I don't think it worked comedically."
MUSIC LYRICS: Please stand by, please stand by, means there's technical difficulty…
BILL MOYERS: You have said that money and speech is the – the issue of the 21st century. What do you mean by that?
BURT NEUBORNE: Well, I mean the relationship between money and speech. I mean whether people who have the money are going to so dominate the ability to express their opinions that people who don't have the money are going to be turned into listeners, not speakers. I'm not satisfied with that. I'm not satisfied with a two-tier First Amendment that says a relatively small slice of the world gets to decide what gets said and all the rest of us sit like groundlings in the audience and grunt about whether we like it or not. Because that's what we're going to, unless we can find a way to increase the ability of people without large amounts of money to either get access to the media, to get access to the political process, to in some way break through the huge screen that money creates these days, so that they can get their voices heard as well. The First Amendment is aspirational. It's romantic. It says that the purpose is to create a world in which people can speak freely and equally to one another. And therefore there's an obligation to step in at some point and even the playing field so that individuals can actually have real discussions and real debates because what we've now got is not a real democracy with real debate, but we've got a plutocracy in which money talks.
Air Date: June 8, 1999
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