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Jewish World Review March 11, 2002 / 27 Adar, 5762

George Will

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NYTimes/WashPost guilty of corruption? | The New York Times and The Washington Post are guilty of corruption. To be precise, they probably are guilty only of the appearance of corruption, as they define it. But as they so frequently tell us, the appearance of corruption is the equal of actual corruption as a justification for campaign finance reform, for which they have tirelessly campaigned.

The Supreme Court has said that preventing corruption or the appearance of it is the only constitutional justification for limits on political contributions, most of which finance the dissemination of political speech. So advocates of the House-passed Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill and of its close cousin, the Senate-passed McCain-Feingold bill, pretend (we shall come in a moment to what they are really doing) that their aim is merely to prevent corruption and -- this is more important because it is more ubiquitous -- the appearance of it.

Well. Shays-Meehan, which the Senate will accept as a replacement for McCain-Feingold, no longer contains a provision that is in McCain-Feingold that would have strengthened the requirement that television stations sell time to candidates at the low rates the stations charge their best customers. The House dropped this provision from the bill.

Broadcasters lobbied hard for this action, which will be worth many millions of dollars to television stations. But that probably was not the primary reason the House did it. Nor was the reason just gratitude for the media's cheerleading for Shays-Meehan. Rather, the House probably did it primarily to help incumbents: Challengers usually have less money and hence are hurt more by high broadcasting rates.

However, our concern is not with the motives of the House in removing the provision, but with the appearance the removal creates regarding two passionate advocates of Shays-Meehan. The New York Times Co. owns eight network-affiliated television stations, and The Washington Post Co. owns six such stations. Shays-Meehan is potentially a windfall for both companies. Gracious.

The Times and The Post incessantly instruct their readers that the appearance of corruption exists when someone who has benefited an elected official with a campaign contribution then benefits from something the official does. But contributions are not the only, or even the most important, benefits that can be conferred upon elected officials. The support by powerful newspapers for a political official's legislation can be much more valuable to the politician than the maximum permissible monetary contribution ($2,000 under current law, $4,000 after Shays-Meehan becomes law) to his campaign.

It probably would be unfair to ascribe the Times' and The Post's support for Shays-Meehan to corruption. But it would be no more unfair than are the Times, The Post and other reform advocates in routinely impugning the motives of politicians who are conservative (or liberal) and hence support particular conservative (or liberal) policies after, but not because, they have received contributions from people who support those policies.

Still, the appearance of corruption on the part of the Times and Post, which are exquisitely sensitive about (other people's) appearances, is compounded by this fact: The media, which comprise the only intense constituency for campaign finance reform, advocate expanded government regulation of all political advocacy except that done by the media.

Many reformers' ostensible concern about the appearance of corruption is just for appearances. The politicians' real concern is to silence their critics. Recently John McCain gave the game away.

He was discussing the bill's provision that puts severe -- for many groups, insuperable -- impediments on any group wanting to run a broadcast ad that so much as refers to a candidate within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. He said:

"What we're trying to do is stop" -- note that word -- "organizations like the so-called Club for Growth that came into Arizona in a primary, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in attack ads. We had no idea who they were, where their money came from."

McCain's attack was recklessly untruthful. He knows perfectly well what the club is -- a mostly Republican group formed to support fiscal conservatives. The only ad the club ran -- a radio ad -- contained not a word of attack: It was an entirely positive endorsement of a candidate's views, and it did not mention or even refer to anyone else. All contributions to the club over $200 are disclosed.

But on one matter McCain, who wishes he could criminalize negative ads, was candid. He -- like the Times and Post -- is trying to stop others from enjoying rights they now enjoy.

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