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Jewish World Review May 25, 2001 / 3 Sivan, 5761

George Will

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With almost erotic heat -- Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, supports, with almost erotic heat, the McCain-Feingold campaign regulation bill to intensify government restrictions on political speech and other activities. The bill devotes three pages to stern directives regarding enhanced prison terms for violations of campaign laws. If this bill had been law when Schumer ran in 1998, he might now be spending lots of time with a defense attorney who specializes in white-collar crime.

Auditors from the Federal Election Commission say Schumer took excessive contributions, totaling $999,879, from individuals, partnerships and political committees. McCain-Feingold calls for "sentencing enhancement" for violations by "a candidate" when there are a "large number" of infractions, or when infractions involve a "large aggregate amount."

Schumer's ardor for McCain-Feingold's additional restrictions and penalties may seem to tempt fate. But similar clamors from the New York Times, The Washington Post and other media are understandable: Those entities would remain exempt from the regulations they advocate for all rival sources of political communications. But why should they be exempt?

The law restricting the expenditures that are necessary for political communication already says: "The term 'expenditure' does not include any news story, commentary, or editorial distributed through the facilities of any broadcasting station, newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication, unless such facilities are owned or controlled by any political party, political committee, or candidate." And McCain-Feingold, pandering to its only real constituency, the media, says regulated communications do not include "communications appearing in a news story, commentary, or editorial distributed through the facilities of any broadcasting station, unless such facilities are owned or controlled by any political party, political committee, or candidate."

But, again, why? Why are journalistic operations that are owned by megacorporations exempt from restrictions that "reformers" promiscuously multiply for ordinary people who associate for the purpose of political advocacy?

FEC advisory opinions state that what is called "the media exemption" -- actually, it is the journalists' exemption -- does not exempt from government restrictions the spending on newsletters, magazines, other publications or broadcasts by non-journalistic organizations -- e.g., Exxon, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, the National Right to Life Committee. Why should political communications by those three corporations be rationed by government, but not identical political communications by Disney (owner of ABC)?

Why should Microsoft suddenly acquire special political privileges when, in a joint venture with NBC, which is owned by General Electric, it acquires a broadcasting property, MSNBC? What principle justifies AOL Time Warner (owner of CNN) having more freedom of commentary and advocacy than does a committee of citizens who gather for political expression?

Is it the principle that journalistic organizations have a pure purpose that serves the public good -- that they have different understandings of truth and justice, but they are all in the truth and justice business? Fine. Then surely the media-journalistic exemption from the campaign finance reformers' restrictions should not be bestowed indiscriminately.

It should be reserved for free-standing journalistic enterprises whose only income-producing business is journalistic. So, the following should be written into law:

Any expenditure by a corporation for a news story, commentary, editorial or broadcast shall not qualify for the media-journalists exemption -- for example, no journalism may (in McCain-Feingold language) "mention or depict" a candidate for federal office within 60 days of an election -- if any of these conditions apply:

• The journalistic corporation is owned, operated or controlled by another entity.

• The journalistic corporation derives income from sources not directly related to journalism.

• The corporation receives funds directly or indirectly from government.

• The corporation makes expenditures on lobbying government.

Such provisions would cause campaign finance "reform" to limit -- and at the peak of each political cycle, virtually to silence -- more than just independent citizens groups, from the Sierra Club to the American Conservative Union. Those provisions would do the same to almost all major media entities -- ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, the New York Times, The Post, Time, Newsweek, National Public Radio and many more, including many supporters of McCain-Feingold who assume that its "reforms" would restrict only the behavior of others.

The First Amendment protects five freedoms -- of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. All are precious, but why is the political class so piously careful to exempt the press -- the journalists who cover the political class -- from restrictions the political class writes for others? The question answers itself.

Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, has proposed the above repeal of the media exemption. Someone in Congress should introduce it, thereby provoking a clarifying debate. Repeal the media exemption from the burdens of campaign finance "reforms," then see how many in the media remain reformers.

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