The Lonely Centrist

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Monday, July 11, 2005

The Meaning of Campaign Finance Reform: Part III: Bloggers and the Press Exemption

A big story in the blogoshpere over the past few months has been the Federal Election Commission's (FEC) coming "crackdown" on bloggers. If you've missed it, there's been good coverage at RedState, the Skeptic, More Soft Money Hard Law, the Democracy Project, and Daily Kos, among others. Basically, the FEC is preparing to start regulating the internet, and a key question is whether or not blogs get the exemption from the law that normally goes to the press.

Now comes Zachary Roth, writing at the on-line publication Salon. Roth is concerned that if any old blogger can get the press exemption, then we'll all be press, and pretty soon free speech will be busting out all over. You might think this would be a good thing, but think again. You see, if any old blog site gets the press exemption, then Halliburton could spend "millions" on a blog to try to influence elections. Holy Confidential Sources, Batman! The campaign finance system would fall apart. Chaos would reign.

Or would it? It may come as a surprise to Mr. Roth, but major corporations such as GE, Turner, Time-Warner, and Disney already own big press outlets. Others, such as Sinclair Broadcasting and Rupert Murdoch, own numerous broadcast stations or newspapers across the country. Nothing prohibits Halliburton today from buying a newspaper, or radio or TV station. (Ever wonder why it's always Halliburton? Would they be so concerned if it were, say, Ben & Jerry's that started a blog?) The only difference with the internet is that anyone can afford to blog, and to be just as influential as a Halliburton blog - or even a Ben & Jerry's blog.

Besides, I've got news for you. Corporations - and unions - can and do spend millions to influence elections now. They can spend all they want to campaign in favor of candidates for their membership (or in the case of a corporation, management employees and stockholders), and both corporations and unions spend millions on this type of activity. Of course, Aunt June can't spend millions to send campaign info to tens of thousands of union members or shareholders and employees. Nor, for that matter, can Pete's Pizza, Inc. But with blogs, they can compete - if given the freedom to do so.

Large corporations and unions have other ways to influence elections. They have large political action committees (PACs), which take voluntary contributions from members and shareholders/managers, and then make contributions directly to candidates. Many corporate and union PACs distribute over $1 million a year in direct political contributions. They can spend millions on get out the vote activities. And of course they spend even more on lobbying - their lobbying expenditures dwarf their direct campaign activity.

In short, corporations and unions spend millions now. There is no "ban" on corporate or union activity, only limits on certain types of activity. And no one seriously thinks we can limit all private political participation and still have a democracy. So the question is, what type of activity should be allowed, and what should be limited. Once we understand that that is the question, the case for construing the press exemption broadly to include bloggers is overwhelming.

First, efforts to limit who gets the exemption, to "professional journalists," are contrary to the First Amendment, which makes no such distinction. Second, such distinctions will inevitably lead to inconsistent and biased enforcement. Third, such distinctions will tend to favor the already rich and powerful. Surely the New York Times website will get the press exemption. Probably Zach's site, Salon, will get it. Slate probably will, too, even if it was started by Microsoft, which I understand is a very large corporation. How about Andrew Sullivan? After all, he's an Ivy Leaguer who also writes for "real" publications. But Aunt June? Not under Roth's rationale. So the result would turn the law on its head, giving power to those already powerful, and denying it to those without big budgets and power. Finally, holding that the "press exemption" is the exclusive preserve of a few professional journalists, who on the whole earn more than the average citizen, is a sure way to undercut popular support for a free press.

A final word - Roth argues that bloggers don't need the press exemption, because they have an exemption already for "volunteer" activity. The Skeptic takes this argument apart, but beyond the points she makes, why shouldn't Aunt June be allowed to try to make a little money on her blog. We know Salon is.

In short, the "Halliburton blog" scare is just that - a scare tactic by the "reform" lobby. The "reformers" always like to pose as "good government" types who want reason and debate, not money, to dominate politics. They would help their case with a little intellectual honesty.

  • The Skeptic
  • Andrew Sullivan
  • Michael Barone
  • The New Republic
  • National Review
  • Democracy Project
  • Bob Bauer
  • Center for Competitive Politics
  • Ryan Sager
  • Going to the Matt
  • Professor Bainbridge
  • Volokh Conspiracy
  • Mystery Pollster
  • Amitai Etzioni
  • Alexander Chrenkoff
  • Middle East Media Research Institute
  • Right Democrat
  • Democrats for Life