Media & Campaign Reform Panel

Bob McChesney. These issues are not even first cousins, they’re brothers and sisters, joined at the hip, they rise and fall together. John Nichols was organizing on the Arizona elections. He got into media reform because he realized the media wasn’t covering his and other issues. Media reform is part of what’s called a democracy movement. Those structures necessary for self-government. Campaign finance, electoral, and media reform are all predicated on a fundamental idea that these are necessary structures to make informed self-government possible.

On one hand, these are nonpartisan movements. Yet at the same time, they are progressive. Not everyone wants informed self-government. Most of those who run the society oppose it, rhetoric notwithstanding. Because informed self-government benefits those on the outside. And that’s why success invariably comes from grassroots organizing. 4 years ago, conventional wisdom was that all politicians are in the pocket of big donors and we got no media coverage. Campaign finance is similar, very poor, limited coverage. [Broadcasters’] number one source of revenue—12-13%—comes from candidate TV ads. In 1992 it was only 2.5 %. The big TV companies are the number one lobby opposing meaningful campaign finance reform; they’re like the NRA.

Why isn’t conventional journalism sympathetic? Those who can’t buy ads are “illegitimate.” Donald Trump got more media coverage in one day than Ralph Nader got for his whole campaign. Because he can buy $3 billion in TV ads. If you have 40 years of public service but a thin bank account, you’re a loser according to mainstream journalists.

Instant Runoff: people tell us it’s too complicated. They said the same thing about media reform, net neutrality. If you treat people as smart, they’re smart. You CAN organize people on these issues, but only if you engage with them, talk to them.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Hop-Hop Caucus

In 2000, I said there’s a whole generation of people that no one want s to mobilize, organize, and energize. But we will move the youth from hip hop politics to electoral politics. They laughed at me.

But they didn’t laugh when we registered a million people. Last year, we registered another 700,000, and now they call us the new soccer moms. They said we’re the ones who change the policy.

After Katrina, I don’t want to register another 1.7 million people and have it mean nothing if we don’t end this disastrous, illegal war. People of faith, Christians—you put this madman in office; you could put him out of office. Give sermons on peace, in the streets, call on this person to step down.

2006 election stopped the Bush era in its tracks. Their agenda is in disarray. Even if many Democrats did not run on good principled programs, the direction for change was laid by your work. Antiwar candidates won in New Hampshire and Iowa. Voters rebelled against big money, against meanness—and Latinos reacted hard against the border wall.

No Democratic candidate for president has carried the white vote since 1964. The elections show big structural changes. The non-white majority can become the focus of electoral strategies. It may well become both coasts and the Latino south. Progressives are strong in urban areas (large numbers of people of color).

I was an Air Force chaplain candidate. I gave sermons at the base: Who would Jesus bomb, the president is lying. So the brass said, this might not be the thing for you. You never know who you’re going to touch. I received a speaking truth to power award from the Civil Rights Center in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was shot. I met a young mother whose son was killed in Iraq [who was wondering how to become an activist]. His name was Casey Sheehan. Two months later, Cindy Sheehan was in the ditch [at Crawford].

The average incumbent in Congress raised $1.6 million; challengers raised only 225,000. In 2006, there were only 25 House and Senate seats where the winner spent less than the loser. Within that 25, antiwar candidate Cheryl Porter stands out. She won with expenditures of only $123,000, beating an opponent who raised $625,000. There IS hope. The people can still trump. Organize people With reform, this will not be the exception but the norm. People can trump organized power.

Chellie Pingree, president, Common Cause, former Maine state legislator

35 years ago, John Gardner (founder) believed that these issues were linked. He even spoke out against corporate ownership of the media. He understood that the most essential part of democracy is information.

Why we think these are linked: the fundamentals of democracy have to be working with us. They say it is the one issue that makes all other issues possible. We’re also very involved in issues around voting, making sure everyone eligible is able to vote and all those votes are counted. And we were talking about Instant Runoff Voting, redistricting—in 2002, there were more contested elections in Iowa than in California and New York combined. This year was nothing like the landslides we could have had with more contested elections, and that has to do with how the districts are drawn.

Help America Vote Act: who knows what really happened when Bob Ney was negotiating that? There’s a potential link between the influence of makers of certain voting machines; these issues can be linked.

Free airtime for candidates: if we own the airwaves, why can’t we have a voucher system so everyone can get their message out there. In top markets, there’s virtually no coverage of down-ballot issues. It’s all about the horse race; we very rarely hear about how candidates feel about who’s paving the roads, health care.

Democracy is dependent on all of us feeling a level of confidence. I come from Maine, everything happens in Town Meeting. It’s one of the greatest forms of democracy; we can debate all day. We have all the information, we have a paper ballot and you know darn well whether it was counted. At every level, in every one of these systems, we’ve had a major breakdown in confidence, and people say, why should I bother to go vote?

I served in the Maine State legislature and was the Majority Leader of the Senate. I had so many first-hand experiences. I proposed a bill about regulating drug prices. We got a little amendment passed and the next day, six pharma lobbyists are sitting in my office, saying you’ll never get another penny. And then my colleagues started calling. Sometimes it’s US that stand in the way.
In Connecticut, they passed campaign finance reform because they knew the governor would veto it. But then Rowland went to jail and Republican Gov. Jody Rell signed it and upped the ante. And Connecticut was the most recent state to pass full public financing for the governor and legislature. And this year Senator Durbin will introduce [federal legislation]. But it won’t go anywhere in Congress if all of a sudden all our friends who just got elected [don’t want to stop the gravy train].

It takes a lot of money to run for Congress, and until you change the system, you can’t blame those who benefit but [ourselves for allowing it].

I ran for US Senate in 2002. What it’s like for every member of Congress. You have to raise $13,000 a day and it doesn’t come by itself, it comes out of this little room. You’re telemarketing for $1000, $2000 hour after hour. You don’t spend a lot of time at the mill gates, you have to match your opponent and be on TV. That is no way to run a democracy. But Maine has public financing. My oldest daughter Hannah came back to work on my campaign, and she got recruited to run for the legislature. She had to find 100 people in her district who would write her a check for $5, and then she could have enough to be on a level playing field. But once you agree, you can’t take any other money. All you do is go to the fish pier, go door-to-door. And she became a state legislator, and she’s now the youngest woman majority leader of the house. Today, over 80% of legislative candidates in Maine run as publicly financed. And we’ll have a Federal bill, and we’ll take back our Congress.

Questions: How to pressure mainstream media to cover? McChesney: Our web-based alternative media is the only reason we have an actual movement.

Linda Miller, Sunlight Foundation. Key reforms:

Online filing of all disclosure forms, full disclosure, database of spending and earmarks. A lot of information is being digitized by private nonprofits, but the government has put a firewall around themselves, operating with three-ring binders in the basements of Washington. Almost everyone we’ve asked about these transparency measures has said sure. Senator Cardin will introduce online filing, Senator Dement is introducing one on earmarks.

Pingree: Free airtime for candidates tied to FCC license renewal: included in Durbin bill, strongly opposed by National Council of Broadcasters.

McChesney: I think the prospects of passing this are better than they’ve been. But a former FCC commissioner under Clinton [was career-threatened when he brought it forth], it was a career killer.

13,000 different voting jurisdictions in U.S.