LAST week saw an outcry over the unfairness and content of MoveOn.org's New York Times ad belittling Gen. David Petraeus as "General Betray Us." But the episode also illustrates a much more fundamental problem with campaign-finance regulations - the advantage that these laws give to the institutional press over ordinary citizens. It's time to admit the unenforceability and hidden favoritism of campaign-finance regulations.MoveOn clearly thought it was running a political message that might influence the '08 elections - paying for the ad via its Political Action Committee, and even including a disclaimer like those mandated by federal campaign-finance law that the ad was "not authorized by any candidate."
As The Post reported, MoveOn may have received a massive and illegal in-kind contribution from the Times. The group paid some $65,000, but Abbe Serphos, director of public relations for the Times, told The Post that "the open rate for an ad of that size and type is $181,692." Another reporter who called the Times was quoted a rate of $167,000 for a full-page ad run on a Monday (as MoveOn's was).
Meanwhile, an official for the pro-Iraq policy group Freedom's Watch told ABC that his group was charged "significantly more" when it bought a full-page Times ad. Rudy Giuliani's ad on Friday also received the same preferential treatment - but only, it appears, because MoveOn's preferential rate was discovered.
Any way you cut it, MoveOn got a sweet deal from the Times. Indeed, the American Conservative Union has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, charging MoveOn and the Times with violating the campaign-finance laws.
This is an obvious campaign contribution. If any corporation not in the news business gave a contribution like this to MoveOn.org, it would be subject to all the limitations of federal law. Dr. Lott explains why, in practice, it will be impossible to make the New York Times obey the law on this, even though AT&T or IBM would be required to do so. This is why I have no confidence that real campaign finance reform is even possible--even if you could deal with these advertising discounts.
News media organizations simply because they are reporting news and running opinion pieces, can provide an immense amount of free publicity for a candidate. They can do enormous damage by how they choose to slant the news. Since the national news media are overwhelming on the side of the Democrats, this means that the Democrats get an enormous amount of free media support that Republicans don't get. The Supreme Court has decided (correctly) that the First Amendment's protection of freedom of the press means that a law requiring that newspapers print a candidate's response to a negative editorial was unconstitutional. The net effect is that news organizations enjoy an unlimited right to promote or denigrate political candidates.
Campaign finance "reform" measures such as McCain-Feingold limit freedom of speech by independent political committees in the 60 days before a general election--while explicitly protecting the right of news organizations to do as they wish. Other proposals seek to "level the playing field" by requiring Democrats and Republicans to spend equivalent amounts of money--and yet leave the news media free to continue their cheerleading on behalf of Democrats. This is hardly fair.