The story may be apocryphal. I've never been able to document it. A candidate had purchased an hour of television time the night before the election. It was the very cheapest airtime he could get, near the end of the broadcast day. The election was close and both candidates were almost out of money. He figured if he could use that one big hour to persuade just a few voters, it might tip the balance to him. One big hour in a last minute push.
Shortly before his ad was to air, he found out his opponent had bought the five minutes of broadcast time just before his big hour. His campaign thought that was pretty funny. Five minutes for his opponent, followed by his entire hour hammering the other fellow.
The candidate and his staff gathered around their television to watch the opponent's five minutes, to be followed by their own hour. The opponent's time came on. A voice said "thank you for watching tonight." Then a flag was shown flying as the national anthem was played. The remaining four minutes was static and snow. The simulated end of the broadcast day reduced viewers to about zero. Nobody watched the big hour long political message.
Okay. Probably never happened.
But TPM's Muckraker guides us to a local story in a Gannett publication with a similar ending. Less creative, it seems to me, more brute force. But just as effective. And this one actually did happen. Really.
A heavily moneyed incumbent was invited by a local television station to debate his challenger. The incumbent didn't see any reason to give his opponent an equal platform, so he declined. The station taped the debate without him. It was a classic Clint Eastwood empty chair kind of deal. The challenger was interviewed in a debate format, with the empty chair reminding the television audience that the incumbent had decided not to face his opposition directly.
That made the incumbent pretty sore. He contacted the station in person and really let them have it. He told them he would stop running ads with the television station, and that his "level of cooperation in the future" with the station "could be affected". The station obediently withdrew from hosting the segment.
The incumbent is Congressional Representative Richard Hanna, a Republican from the Utica, NY, area. The television station, WUTR-TV Channel 20, is managed by Stephen Merren. Merren sent a very frank email message to a staff member of the Democratic opponent, Dan Lamb.
“We are going to have to back out of this taping on Friday and deal with our relationship with Congressman Hanna on our own,” Merren said in his Wednesday e-mail, which described Hanna as “angry.”
It has been more than three and a half decades since the Supreme Court, in Buckley v. Valeo, decided that money is the same as speech. You can't limit free speech, but the court did allow for some campaign limits. It's independent expenditures by individuals that were let loose. You can't keep those individuals with lots and lots of money from essentially buying the only megaphone in town. Conservatives have since been appointed to the Court who feel the decision didn't go far enough. Justice Antonin Scalia is the main voice on the court for eliminating even the thin sort of what now passes for regulation.
One unanticipated effect of the philosophy of money-is-speech turns out to have been pretty much inevitable. Those with enough money can not only buy up all the microphones, they can buy enough duct tape to gag dissenting voices. They can do this through intimidation. At least they can if a newspaper decides, as corporations can be expected to decide, that profits come ahead, way ahead, of freedom of the press.
The announcement by email to the Democrat was honest, at least. The station needed to protect the relationship with the incumbent member of Congress. Station Manager Stephen Merren explained the announcement this way. He had sent the email to the Democratic staffer by accident. He didn't intend to let anyone know the station had been threatened. That part was supposed to have been kept secret. Oops. Sorry about that.
You see, money is speech. And the principle is that we have to protect free speech. Even if the free speech that is money pretty much crushes the free speech that is actually speech.
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