Teach the media a lesson in reform

May 25, 2001|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, supports, with almost erotic heat, the McCain-Feingold campaign regulation bill to intensify government restrictions on political speech and other activities.

The bill devotes three pages to stern directives regarding enhanced prison terms for violations of campaign laws. If this bill had been law when Mr. Schumer ran in 1998, he might now be spending time with a defense attorney who specializes in white-collar crime.

Auditors from the Federal Election Commission say Mr. Schumer took excessive contributions, totaling $999,879, from individuals, partnerships and political committees. McCain-Feingold calls for "sentencing enhancement" for violations by "a candidate" when there are a "large number" of infractions, or infractions involve a "large aggregate amount."

Mr. Schumer's ardor for McCain-Feingold's additional restrictions and penalties may seem to tempt fate. However, similar clamors from the New York Times, the Washington Post and other media are understandable: Those entities would remain totally exempt from the regulations they advocate for all rival sources of political communications. But why should they be exempt?

The law restricting the expenditures for political communication already says: "The term `expenditure' does not include any news story, commentary, or editorial distributed through the facilities of any broadcasting station, newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication, unless such facilities are owned or controlled by any political party, political committee, or candidate."

And McCain-Feingold, pandering to its only real constituency, the media, says regulated communications do not include "communications appearing in a news story, commentary, or editorial distributed through the facilities of any broadcasting station, unless such facilities are owned or controlled by any political party, political committee, or candidate."

But, again, why? Why are journalistic operations that are owned by mega-corporations exempt from restrictions that "reformers" promiscuously multiply for ordinary people who associate for the purpose of political advocacy?

FEC advisory opinions state that what is called "the media exemption" does not exempt from government restrictions the spending on newsletters, magazines, other publications or broadcasts by non-journalistic organizations -- e.g., Exxon, the National Abortion Rights Action League. Why should political communications by those three corporations be rationed by government, but not identical political communications by Disney (owner of ABC)?

Is it the principle that journalistic organizations have a pure purpose that serves the public good -- that they have different understandings of truth and justice, but they are all in the truth and justice business? Fine. Then surely the media/journalistic exemption from the campaign finance reformers' restrictions should not be bestowed indiscriminately.

It should be reserved for free-standing journalistic enterprises whose only income-producing business is journalistic. So, the following should be written into law:

Any expenditure by a corporation for a news story, commentary, editorial or broadcast shall not qualify for the media/journalists exemption -- for example, no journalism may (in McCain-Feingold language) "mention or depict" a candidate for federal office within 60 days of an election -- if any of these conditions apply:

The journalistic corporation is owned, operated or controlled by another entity;

The journalistic corporation derives income from sources not directly related to journalism;

The corporation receives funds directly or indirectly from government;

The corporation makes expenditures on lobbying government.

Such provisions would cause campaign finance "reform" to limit -- and at the peak of each political cycle, virtually to silence -- more than just independent citizens groups, from the Sierra Club to the American Conservative Union. Those provisions would do the same to almost all major media entities.

The First Amendment protects five freedoms -- of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. All are precious, but why is the political class so piously careful to exempt the press -- the journalists who cover the political class -- from restrictions the political class writes for others? The question answers itself.

Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, has proposed the above repeal of the media exemption. Someone in Congress should introduce it, thereby provoking a clarifying debate. Repeal the media exemption from the burdens of campaign finance "reforms," then see how many in the media remain reformers.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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