As Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain twisted briefly in the wind kicked up by that New York Times story suggesting he had swapped political favors for the personal favors of an attractive lobbyist for the telecommunications industry, I kept waiting for the public policy punch line. Surely the Times would spell out just what it was that McCain had delivered to big media beyond what the paper originally reported: an all-too-typical congressional request that the FCC speed up its review of a broadcast licensing dispute.
Vicki Iseman, the lobbyist in question, is praised on her company’s Web site for her “extensive experience in telecommunications, representing corporations before the House and Senate Commerce Committees,” and for “her work on the landmark 1992 and 1996 communications bills.” Now that’s a biggie, because the 1996 legislation, although you would never have learned this from the mainstream media at the time, opened the floodgates for massive media consolidation, thus rewarding media moguls for their many millions in campaign contributions. McCain was a big player on that Commerce Committee at the time, and I expected a Times revelation as to just how Iseman got McCain to help gift the media barons with their dream legislation.
The revelation never came, because the annoying reality is that McCain was one of the rare Senate opponents of the telecom bill that Iseman was pushing–as opposed to the New York Times, which, like every other major media outlet pushed for the legislation (in the case of the Times, without ever conceding its own corporation’s financial bias in the matter). McCain was one of five senators (and the sole Republican) who, along with Democrats Russ Feingold, Patrick Leahy, Paul Simon and the great Paul Wellstone, who voted against the atrocious legislation, which President Bill Clinton signed into law.
The Times, which now has the temerity to question McCain’s integrity on telecommunications policy, ran a shameful editorial back then, under the headline “A Victory for Viewers,” insisting after the passage of the legislation that “there was one clear winner–the consumer.” Seven years later, the paper’s “Editorial Observer,” Brent Staples, bemoaned one direct consequence of the passage of the Telecom Act, under the title “The Trouble with Corporate Radio: The Day the Protest Music Died.” Noting that “corporate ownership has changed what gets played–and who plays it,” Staples observed that the top two radio owners went from having a total of 115 stations before the act was passed to 1,400 between them afterward.
This concentration of ownership in all media was the inevitable result of the legislation that the media moguls sought. That far-reaching impact was obvious only one year after the act’s passage, as Neil Hickey noted at the time in the Columbia Journalism Review: ” … far and away the splashiest effect of the new law during the last year has been the historic, unprecedented torrent of mergers, consolidations, buyouts, partnerships, and joint ventures that has changed the face of Big Media in America.” He then offers a staggering list of massive, multibillion-dollar mergers consummated during that first year.
One of the early winners was Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which quickly became the biggest owner of television stations, bolstering its lineup of media properties such as TV Guide, HarperCollins and Twentieth Century Fox; quite a gift from legislation signed by President Clinton, which perhaps explains the warm relationship that subsequently developed between Murdoch and Hillary Clinton. Murdoch sponsored a fundraiser for Clinton’s senatorial re-election campaign in 2006, but when asked during the Iowa primary about Murdoch’s vast media holdings, including Fox News, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, Clinton ducked the question. Avoiding any reference to Murdoch, she conceded that “… there have been a lot of media consolidations in the last several years, and it is quite troubling.”
It’s not easy to maintain an evenhanded appraisal of McCain as he appropriates the Bush mantle. Of course, I wouldn’t vote for him; he is willing to let the Iraq war go on for a hundred years, and at the rate of at least $200 billion a year, that makes a mockery of his efforts to defeat earmarks and other wasteful government spending–beginning with the massive waste in the Pentagon budget that he has done so much to expose. His capitulation on President Bush’s use of torture is even more appalling. But it is absurd to attempt to pigeonhole McCain as a patsy for corporate lobbyists when he has been in the forefront of key efforts to challenge their power.