Federal Politics

Published — September 27, 2000

Media firms buy their way to political access

Introduction

WASHINGTON, D.C. September 27, 2000 — The largest media firms have gained the kind of access to the political process that only money can buy, according to a new report from the Center for Public Integrity. “Off the Record: What Media Corporations Don’t Tell You About Their Legislative Agendas” documents the influence that the large broadcasting, cable and publishing conglomerates wield in Washington.

In all, media corporations have pumped $75 million into the coffers of federal candidates and parties since 1993. Since 1996, they’ve spent $111.3 million lobbying lawmakers and federal regulators. They’ve lobbied on issues ranging from protecting intellectual property to eliminating the estate tax. They’ve fought against restrictions on tobacco advertising in print and alcohol advertising on the air, for eliminating the Federal Communications Commissions rules designed to prevent the concentration of the public airwaves and the press in too few hands. They’ve fought against campaign finance reform measures. They’ve even blocked non-binding resolutions expressing the sense of Congress that television programming featuring graphic violence shouldn’t be aired when young children are likely to be watching.

Deepest pockets: Time Warner

Time Warner Inc. has the deepest pockets, the Center found. The company spent nearly $4.1 million for lobbying last year, and since 1993, Time Warner and its employees have contributed $4.6 million to congressional and presidential candidates and the two political parties. On Nov. 17, 1999, to great fanfare, the company announced it would no longer make “soft money” contributions to the political parties.

(In the broadest sense, “soft money” is raised through party committees, interest groups, corporations, labor unions or the wealthy. It is supplied in limitless chunks, and is beyond Federal Election Commission regulation.)

Apparently, Time Warner’s top executives felt no need to follow their company’s new line. Last Feb. 28, Timothy Boggs, the company’s senior vice president for global public policy, gave $20,000 to the Democratic National Committee, Federal Election Commission records show. On April 28, Robert A. Daly, an executive with the company’s Warner Brothers subsidiary, gave the DNC $50,000. On June 30, Richard Parsons, the company’s president, gave $50,000 to the Republican National Committee.

The second heaviest media spender in Washington is the Walt Disney Co., which paid $3.3 million for lobbying and just under $4.1 million in political donations during the same times. Disney’s top executives have been cozy with Vice President Al Gore, who was a guest of Michael Eisner, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer, at a 1994 screening of The Lion King. In 1995, staffers for Gore and his wife, Tipper, requested and received two “Beauty and the Beast” costumes worth $8,600, custom-made in Los Angeles to the Gores precise measurements, for their annual Halloween party. The day before the event, the costumes arrived in Washington, along with a makeup artist to apply the mask that the vice president would wear. At the time, Disney was awaiting Justice Department and FCC approval of its $19 billion acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC Inc., which owned the American Broadcasting Co. (The deal was approved months later.) Disney is among Gores most generous media supporters, having contributed $68,000 over the course of the politicians career.

Media gave $1 million each to Bush, Gore

Regardless of who wins in November, the next president will have gotten to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with more than $1 million in political donations from media interests, the Center found. Gore has taken in $1.16 million; Texas Gov. George W. Bush has received $1.07 million. Gores media money comes mostly from the larger media conglomerates, such as Disney, Time Warner and Viacom Inc.; Bush draws more heavily from smaller, regional broadcast and cable companies.

Topping the list of Bush’s media patrons is AMFM Inc., owned by Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst, Inc., of Dallas, a firm that specializes in leveraged buyouts. AMFM, the nations largest chain of radio stations, and its various subsidiaries have contributed $80,250 to Bush’s presidential campaign. Thomas Hicks, the firms chairman, bought the Texas Rangers baseball team for $250 million in 1998 from the ownership group that included Bush. (The high sale price for the relatively small-market team was due in no small part to the taxpayer-financed stadium, the Ballpark at Arlington, which was built for the team while Bush, whose portion of the profit on the sale was $14.3 million, was an owner.) The Rangers arent Hicks only sports property — he also owns a hockey team, the Dallas Stars. In 1997, Gov. Bush shepherded a bill through the state legislature that allowed a sales tax increase to fund a new arena for the team, as well as for the city’s NBA franchise, the Dallas Mavericks.

Media have wide influence

The close ties of media firms to the top two presidential candidates are just one measure of their clout in Washington, as documented by the Center. On virtually every issue of concern to the industry, from oversight by the FCC to the allocation of the digital spectrum, from regulating violent content on the airwaves to campaign finance reform, the media wield tremendous influence, the Center found. Media firms have even gotten into bed with the tobacco industry to protect their interests.

In its June 9, 1997, issue, Time magazine ran a cartoon depicting an emaciated Joe Camel lying in a hospital bed on life support, a victim of respiratory illness. At the time, the tobacco industry wasn’t feeling particularly well, either. The big cigarette manufacturers were negotiating the terms of the settlement agreement with the state attorneys general that would result in billions of payoffs from the industry and the end of Joe Camel advertisements for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.s products and Marlboro Man billboards touting Philip Morris Cos. Inc.

At one point, the companies offered to drop the full-page advertisements they ran in glossy magazines, pulling the Marlboro Man from the pages of Sports Illustrated and “You’ve come a long way, baby” from Vogue. Although the settlement was still two years away, magazine publishers began panicking immediately. The lost revenue would have amounted to an estimated $1.1 billion. MediaWeek, a trade journal that tracks trends in that industry, wrote that while the agreement might get tobacco companies out of their legal difficulties, “the deal would also sell magazines that carry tobacco ads right down the river.”

Companies publish tobacco magazines

MediaWeek also reported that, shortly after news of a self-imposed magazine advertising ban had leaked out, representatives from Philip Morris met with officials from Time Inc., the Time Warner subsidiary that publishes Time, Fortune, People and Sports Illustrated, and the Hearst Corp., which bills itself as the largest publisher of magazines in the world. The Philip Morris executives soothed the fears of the magazine publishers. They assured them “that the alleged proposal was nothing to worry about.”

Joe Camel might be gone, but his replacements generate serious revenue for publishers who depend on ad dollars to survive, and the media are eager to protect that revenue source. Since 1996, the Magazine Publishers of America has spent $1,742,000 to lobby for the interests of its members, specifically to halt such tobacco legislation as the Healthy and Smoke Free Children Act of 1998, which would have given the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate cigarette advertising. The magazine publishers spent thousands of dollars to help the tobacco companies escape FDA regulation, all in the name of advertising revenue.

Now some publishers have gone further. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds all have launched magazines of their own. They’ve contracted with Time, Hearst, Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, Inc. (publisher of Woman’s Day, Elle and Car and Driver), and EMAP Petersen, Inc. (which counts Teen, Hot Rod and Motor Trend among its titles), to produce their publications. The tobacco firms paid upward of $650 million in 1999, according to the New York Times, to the four publishers to produce the glossy magazines, complete with ads for Marlboros, Camels and Kools.

Brown & Williamson has teamed with Hearst to produce three titles, including Flair, aimed at women (which suitably carries ads for the company’s “female-oriented brands Capri and Misty and the ultra-low tar product Carlton,” and Real Edge, a men’s magazine patterned after Maxim and directed at young men. Time Inc.‘s Wink Media division produces CML: The Camel Quarterly, for R.J. Reynolds.

Nonetheless, the publishers have been remarkably silent in their pages about their own financial interests in the tobacco settlement. A Lexis-Nexis search of Time Inc.‘s publications found just a single reference in Fortune to the money the company earned from carrying tobacco ads. Indeed, their ability to shape coverage is what makes the media such effective lobbying forces on Capitol Hill. Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt told the Center that the medias power stems “from its near ubiquitous, pervasive power to completely alter the beliefs of every American.”

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