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Friday, November 14, 2008

Freedom of speech is not freedom of advertising

No sooner do I praise Barack Obama for saying there was no place for lobbyists in his administration than I hear that he has "softened" his ban on lobbyists. ("Softened" is a soft way of saying "rescinded.")

But Obama's honeymoon with the media is still on (it's lasted four years thus far), so no major news outlet has labelled him a flip flopper. He wasn't even called that when he opted out of the public financing system (which he was once strongly in favor of) when it turned out that he could raise much more money (a record $750 million) by ignoring those limits. Where did he get all that money? It's not clear. But some of it obviously came from special interests.

Any lobby -- rich or poor -- has the right to be heard. But no lobby should be allowed to compromise the integrity of a politician by paying him. As it stands right now Congress (and to a lesser extent, the Presidency) are for sale.

The solution is staring us in the face. Just ban all campaign contributions and substitute public financing.

Is this unrealistic to hope for? Yes. What Congressman would willingly vote for a bill to cut off his own supply of campaign funds, and all the other perks that go along with being courted by special interests? Congress is about as likely to vote for imposing a draconian system of eugenics.

But that doesn't mean it's not the best solution. Fundraising takes up an inordinate portion of every politician's time, time which would be better spent working in the public interest. The need for cash also tends to make Congress, especially the Senate, a rich man's club. Instead, simply use public financing to pay local newspapers to print a concise list of each candidate's stances on the issues (concise enough so that the electorate might actually read it.) This would eliminate most of the legalized corruption from politics. (The illegal variety would doubtless continue to flourish, but that could be prosecuted, as with Ted Stevens.)

Some say that this abrogates freedom of speech. But freedom of speech simply means that you can state your beliefs and not be persecuted for it. It does not mean unlimited television and radio buys. (As Joe Biden might say, The Founding Fathers specifically said that freedom of speech did not entail the right to run a cheesy half hour television special on yourself on all the networks three nights before the election.)

If every candidate gets to list his stance on every issue, they still get their say. And all the candidates get an equal say. They could still run advertisements with public financing, just no more than the other fellow, and politics would become a contest of ideas rather than one of money.

On a related note, I keep hearing rumors that the Democrats, led by Obama and Pelosi, are going to mount an attempt to stifle conservative talk radio under the Fairness Doctrine, which states that any radio station which has a conservative talk show host will have to give equal time to a liberal talk show host. (The reason there are so few liberal talk show hosts now is because they attract such small audiences, and radio stations are, after all, in the business of attracting advertisers.) The Fairness Doctrine might seem in spirit to be similar to the public financing of campaigns, meaning equal time for both sides, but asking a business to make less money is not the same as asking a politician not to sell his office.

If the Fairness Doctrine is to be invoked, let it be applied to television stations as well. Right now Fox, despite its "fair and balanced" claim, in facts leans rightward (though they invite plenty of liberals on their shows to debate). But the other three networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as cable outlet CNN, all lean left. Shall we balance them?

For that matter, extend the doctrine to newspapers: for every leftward editorial in the New York Times, there should be a right-leaning one as well. And by all means balance the newroom. The vast majority (roughly 90%) of reporters are Democrats. Fire 40% of the reporters who happen to be Democrats, and hire Republicans in their place. Would this be near impossible to implement? Of course. But if Obama and Pelosi intend to implement the Fairness Doctrine, be completely fair about it. Anything less would be hypocritical.

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