Of course, I– like many social critics– am dismayed at the Supreme Court ruling striking down elements of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act, and essentially giving corporations carte blanche to pay for attack videos against candidates they do not like and to release them late in a campaign.
But some of the hand-wringing about the decision seems to me excessive for a number of reasons. Here I am going to put on my hat as a blogger and as someone who has been deeply involved in the rise of internet communication, if in the narrow corner of foreign policy blogging.
The first thing to say is that it is not as if corporate interests were not already deeply involved in the electoral process. For instance, it has come out that five insurance companies funneled big money into attack ads against insurance reform. How? They just gave it to the Chamber of Commerce, which shares their view that 37 million Americans shouldn’t get sick and if they do they should die quickly (as Rep. Alan Grayson correctly put it). Since there are so many already-existing work-arounds, the SCOTUS decision is less of a change than it might seem.
Moreover, the difference between Goldman, Sachs making a video and buying time for it on television, and a group of middle managers at firms like Goldman, Sachs forming a PAC and doing the same thing is not entirely clear to me. Because the top one percent of individuals in the US owns over 40% of the country’s privately held wealth and takes home 20% of its income every year, those roughly 1.3 million persons already had lots of means of influencing campaigns. Videos are not that expensive to make and even television time is inexpensive for executives in a firm that gives out $40 billion in Christmas bonuses. In other words, given the extreme maldistribution of wealth in the US, the corporate sector already had things stacked in its favor through wealthy persons employed by corporations. Jeffrey Toobin on CNN pointed out that in a congressional race, a million dollars is a lot of money, but would be chump change for a corporation. But it would be chump change for a lot of corporate executives, too.
Then, corporations don’t all agree with each other. We still have Net Neutrality in part because Google lobbied for it even as some of the telecoms lobbied against it. Some industries have an interest in polluting, others have an interest in a clean environment. They will fight each other with their political infomercials. But I think most Americans like their drinking water sludge-free, so over time the pro-pollution commercials will let us say lose a certain persuasiveness.
I agree that the danger is greatest where, e.g., war industries have an interest in an Afghanistan surge whereas few other corporate sectors care about it one way or another. But the public can still after all vote on whether it likes continued war.
Under the ruling as I understand it, corporations cannot give more money than before directly to candidates. They can just produce commercials, whether in favor of a candidate or attacking her opponent.
But there is a real question about the influence of commercials even in traditional television. At most, some experts estimate that only 19% of traditional advertising shows a return on investment. The conclusion is that great numbers of insecure corporations are wasting billions on those ads. Lots of wealthy people have entered politics and spent a great deal of their own money on commercials, and lost. That large numbers of voters are going to be swayed by infomercials flies in the face of what we know about how few people actually buy those fancy Japanese knife sets advertised at 3 am.
And then there is the question of the future of the commercial. Nowadays, 90% of viewers who can TiVo or DVR television shows do so, and more than half then skip through the commercials. Knowledge of this practice is increasingly taken into account in the ratings. NBC’s Heroes increased its ratings by 22% when delayed viewing was taken into account. I share Businessweek’s skepticism that 46% of TiVo viewers are watching the commercials, and my suspicion is that younger more media savvy viewers are less likely to be so passive. The future of the television model of local broadcast affiliates of big networks, with the whole thing driven by commercials, is in real question. As it is, ‘push’ media like television is becoming a thing of the past.
In Web 3.0 consumers will likely download content via the internet at will. Media is becoming pull media– individuals pull down what they want when they want it. Television may have to go to an iTunes model of charging per episode. In a pull-media world, for advertisers of any sort, whether pushing products or candidates, to get their message out and control it will become more and more difficult. Pull-media allows a fracturing of viewership (or participation– many consumers will be playing games rather than watching passively). The fact is that viewership for the 4 networks has already plummeted, and the advertising rates that companies now pay them to air commercials are unrealistically high, and appear to be a function of habit. What else could you do? There are hundreds of channels, then you add in the video blogs, the online gaming, and the blogs. Even if a network only pulls in a household share of 9 for the evening rather than the household share of 65 that that Gunsmoke used to on CBS, at least you’ve got that many households in one place, which is rarer and rarer. One of the few things Rupert Murdoch is right about is that there is not enough advertising to spread throughout the internet so as to support any particular newspapers or magazines.
The buy of a half-hour attack ad by e.g. Morgan Stanley on CBS dissing Obama on October 25, 2012 just may not mean then what it would have meant in 1960 when CBS had a large proportion of television viewers and most Americans were television viewers, and there were only 3 networks. And if the attack ad is inaccurate, it will be shredded on social media or just ignored. All the vicious attacks on Obama, after all, did not prevent his landslide victory, since voters were tired of Republican shenanigans. Reality is still more important than media depictions of it.
In a world of pull media, Morgan Stanley may just not be able to get our attention very easily (as if we like them much anyway).
Moreover, in an internet society, organizations such as Moveon.org can provide means of accumulating small sums into very large ones. The 99% still do have marginally more money than the 1%. A mobilized public has the potential to at least compete seriously with corporate advertising money. A group of middle class but extremely influential twitterers might be better positioned to get a message out than a corporate boardroom.
For all these reasons, a much greater danger to the republic than the anointing of corporations as persons with the right to flood our airwaves with propaganda is any attack on Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality is the principle that my blog is inexpensive to publish and to access, so that I and my readers have the same advantages in this regard as a corporation would. If the Right Wing ever manages to scale the internet and make me pay $70,000 a year to put up this blog and have it easily available to my readers, it will kill it and would signal a return to push media like the networks. And a push-media world where corporations own the Web and can push at us what they please, including their weird ideas about political reality, really would be Orwellian and dangerous.
This horrible ruling, bad as it is, is not the Waterloo of democracy. The abolition of Net Neutrality would be.
End/ (Not Continued)