With liberal gains in the House of Representatives, there’s talk of bringing back the issue of campaign finance reform. It’s usually presented in terms of making politicians accountable and preventing special interest groups from manipulating the outcomes of elections. But some proposals would limit the amount of money candidates can spend on their own campaigns and would prevent independent groups from running educational or advocacy ads. In this context, campaign finance reform means giving more power to media organizations to shower favorable coverage on their favorite candidates.
To understand this danger, consider what happened in Nevada during its recent Senate campaign between incumbent Senator Harry Reid and Republican challenger John Ensign. Just five days before the election, the editor ran a so-called interview with President Clinton in which he gave a big plug to Senator Reid and said that, if Reid didn’t win, Republicans would make Nevada into a nuclear waste dump. The interview, packaged as a news story, included no comments from John Ensign. It amounted to an editorial endorsement of Reid masquerading as news.
As Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post has pointed out, what the story didn’t make clear was that the interview was conducted by a big donor to the Clinton campaign who is also the editor of the Las Vegas sun. His name is Brian Greenspun, and his name appeared on the story of the Clinton interview as if he were just another fair and objective staff reporter. Indeed, Greenspun referred to himself as “this reporter” in the story about the interview. This story included Clinton’s comments made to Greenspun after a previous column in which Greenspun had endorsed Senator Reid’s position on the nuclear issue.
Greenspun’s column usually runs under the title, “Where I stand.” But his article about the Clinton interview was presented as a news story. Howard Kurtz commented that “a newspaper’s top executive interviewing a president he has financially supported on behalf of a senator he has endorsed would seem to set a new standard.” This standard is nothing to be proud of; it represents shameful partisan politics by a media organization trying to throw its weight around.
On the matter of financial contributions, they are substantial. Kurtz noted that Greenspun and his family members donated $11,000 to Clinton campaigns, almost $200,000 to the Democratic National Committee, and $6,000 to Senator Reid. Asked to defend his so-called interview and news story, Greenspun said it was perfectly acceptable because “there are no such things as objective news reporters.” He claimed the story about the interview was a “straight story,” even though it included absolutely no reaction or comment from John Ensign just five days before the election. Greenspun said that Republicans criticizing his story were “nuts.”
The response of Ensign or any other candidate to this kind of electioneering has got to be to spend more money on his own behalf, to get out his own message. But campaign finance reform could make that more difficult. A candidate might have no effective way to respond to such an attack just days before the election. In Ensign’s case, he lost by only 459 votes out of 400,000 cast, although a recount of some ballots has been underway.