The Media-Lobbying Complex
Democratic lobbyists and corporate consultants have also made appearances to discuss health reform with no reference to their pharmaceutical or insurance company clients. On September 24, 2009, Dick Gephardt appeared on MSNBC's Morning Meeting, where he labeled the public option "not essential." Gephardt was asked by host Dylan Ratigan to discuss healthcare reform in light of his experience as a Congressman during the Clinton effort in 1993 and now simply as "an observer through this process." There was no mention of his work advising insurance and pharmaceutical interests through his lobbying firm Gephardt Government Affairs, nor any mention that Gephardt is a lobbyist for NBC/Universal.
Likewise, Tom Daschle dropped by MSNBC on May 12 and July 2, 2009, and NBC's Meet the Press on August 16, 2009. At each appearance he discussed healthcare reform with no mention of his work on behalf of lobbying firm Alston & Bird, which advises insurer UnitedHealth Group. Only during a December 8 appearance on MSNBC's Dr. Nancy was Daschle finally confronted, albeit with kid gloves, about how his simultaneous work for lobbying firms on behalf of health insurers and meetings with administration officials on healthcare reform appeared to be at odds. "I certainly want to be appreciative of perception, so we're going to take great care in how we go forward," Daschle promised. A month later, on January 11, the former Senate majority leader returned to MSNBC to discuss healthcare with Andrea Mitchell. In the nearly ten-minute interview, his insurance work went unmentioned.
As of this writing, healthcare and financial reform legislation have largely stalled. And although it would be foolish to argue that Daschle's TV appearances sank the public option or that Dana Perino's punditry fatally wounded a proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency, there can be no doubt that there is a cumulative effect from hundreds of appearances by dozens of unidentified lobbyists and influence peddlers that helps to drive press coverage and public opinion.
Janine Wedel, an anthropologist in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and author of the new book Shadow Elite, told me in a recent interview that while these influence peddlers are not necessarily unethical, they "elude accountability to governments, shareholders and voters--and threaten democracy."
"When there's a whole host of pundits on the airwaves touting the same agenda at the same time, you get a cumulative effect that shapes public opinion toward their agenda," she said.
Frequent television news commentators are also often given access to policy-makers, who may find that they are meeting with not just a TV pundit but also a paid lobbyist. This past March, for example, the White House held an exclusive "communications message meeting" for high-profile Democratic strategists with top presidential aide David Axelrod. Of the eighteen attendees, almost all television regulars, a third were lobbyists or public relations flacks, such as Kelly Bingel, a lobbyist for AHIP and a partner at mega-firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, and Rich Masters, a partner at PR/lobbying outfit Qorvis Communications, where he works on behalf of trade group Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).
Ultimately, no matter how often or how cleverly lobbyists and PR operatives have used cable news appearances to their business advantage, it is hard to fault them for the practice. In many cases, they have made no attempt to hide their work for corporate clients; some, like Terry Holt, have gone out of their way to inform producers and bookers of the work they're doing on behalf of clients.
This leaves final responsibility in the hands of the cable news networks that invite lobbyists and corporate flacks on the air and fail to identify their affiliations. This past fall Aaron Brown, host of CNN's NewsNight from 2001 until 2005, when the network pushed him out, and currently a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, told me that he didn't think the problem was a lack of standards but a lack of enforcement. Bookers--"young, inexperienced people under a lot of pressure"--are unlikely to ask guests about potential conflicts of interest. "I think they're often derelict in vetting," says Brown.
For Brown, though, the lack of disclosure is symptomatic of larger problems in cable journalism, rooted in the shift to putting numerous analysts and strategists on television as an easy, inexpensive way to fill time. It's "a lot cheaper than sending a correspondent to Afghanistan," he says.
"What I find unconscionable about this is that it's not like a struggling newspaper is looking for an inexpensive way to do journalism because they have no money. These are highly successful profit centers for the corporations that they're spawned from," Brown said.