I spend way too much time blogging, and when asked how I can afford it, I usually rationalize away the financial hardship by saying I am investing in my future. At some point I hope to make a living in politics or media — or in that nether-world that lies in between — and to that end I have made no secret of my desire to pursue a career in talk radio, a medium to which I am ideally suited for all the right and wrong reasons.
And so with this career goal in mind, it was with some ambivalence that I approached the controversy over KVI’s shameless promotion of I-912, the anti-road maintenance initiative. On the one hand, I was one of the first “media watchdogs” to publicly express outrage over how blatantly John Carlson and Kirby Wilbur used their shows to actively advertise, organize and fundraise for I-912; without them, the initiative campaign simply would not exist. On the other hand, I’m no dummy — when I get my own radio show I plan to take a page from the KVI playbook and be just as active in promoting progressive initiatives, causes and candidates. It’s not only good politics, it’s damn good for business.
Last week Kirby and I discussed this issue on the air, and I admitted that I had great empathy for his situation, and certainly wouldn’t want the hassle myself of filing PDC reports based on my on-air activities. And before Judge Christopher Wickham ruled last week that KVI would indeed have to report their efforts on I-912’s behalf as an in-kind contribution, I expressed strong reservations to a fellow activist, that such regulation would skate dangerously close to violating the First Amendment.
That said, I think today’s editorial in the Seattle Times defending John and Kirby totally misses the point… perhaps intentionally. [“In support of free speech, and KVI“]
Two years ago, when the federal campaign-finance law reached the U.S. Supreme Court, dissenting justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas warned that something like this would happen. We doubted it; it seemed clear to us that the law applied to ads, not editorial content. We thought Thomas was over the top when he said campaign-finance law was leading toward “outright regulation of the press.”
Judge Wickham has made a step toward just that. It is a dangerous, unconstitutional ruling. The losers need to appeal it and the appellate courts need to reverse it.
But this case is not simply about freedom of the press, for two reasons. First, John and Kirby are neither journalists nor editorialists… they are partisan political operatives who just happen to have their own radio shows. And second, it appears to reasonable people (like an elected, Thurston County judge) that in so blatantly promoting I-912, John and Kirby crossed the line from editorializing — or even advocacy — to advertising.
John and Kirby actively organized the I-912 campaign, using the public airwaves to raise the money and sign up the volunteers needed to get the initiative onto the ballot. In so doing they turned long segments of their radio shows into little more than extended, political infomercials. Now that’s their right. But the people also have a right to demand full disclosure of political advertising, as required by the Public Disclosure Act… which was enacted by initiative with an overwhelming electoral majority.
To uniformly deride Judge Wickham’s decision, as the Times does, as “outright regulation of the press,” is to argue that corporations or wealthy individuals should be exempt from our campaign finance and public disclosure laws, by virtue of owning a TV or radio station… or even a “family newspaper.” Which may explain why the Times is so vociferous in their defense of KVI.
Disturbed by the financial implications of his own mortality, Times publisher Frank Blethen is one of the nation’s most vocal and angry opponents of the
death tax estate tax… every time Frank sneezes, his snot shows up on the op/ed page in the form of an editorial demanding the tax’s repeal. Now we learn that a conservative business group is planning an initiative for the 2006 season to repeal Washington’s estate tax. (Or so the Times wants us to believe.)
As it is, the Times editorializes monthly for the tax’s repeal, and there isn’t a reporter or editor on staff who doesn’t know that the quickest way to the boss’s heart is to pander to his pet political project. So we can only imagine what kind of support an estate-tax-repeal initiative might garner from Frank and his minions.
Should such an initiative receive a disproportionate amount of flattering, biased coverage, well, that wouldn’t be all that unusual for a newspaper of the Times’ stature. And of course, a steady stream of anti-estate-tax editorials is already the status quo.
But where might the Times be tempted to cross the line in support of an actual initiative? Frequent sidebars instructing and encouraging readers to contribute time and money, or informing them of the locations where petitions can be signed or picked up? A daily tally of the campaign’s fundraising target or signature gathering totals, with a call to action? Actually printing a copy of the petition on the op/ed page itself?
While I admit that the line between advocacy and advertising is blurry, and that I am uncomfortable at the thought of a bureaucrat or even a judge having the power to determine when this line is crossed, there is no question that the line exists, and to ignore it is to open our system to inevitable abuse. If media outlets can use their enormous power to run political campaigns outside the established regulatory framework, they will.
And in fact… KVI has. John and Kirby crossed the line, and to make matters worse, they used the public airwaves to do it. The people of Washington have a right to know the true value of KVI’s in-kind contribution to the I-912 campaign. Filing these reports may be a hassle, but then, so is democracy.
Initiative 912 has apparently qualified for the ballot with over 420,000 signatures, which just goes to show the political power and influence a station like KVI can have. This is just another example of why progressives need their own local talk radio hosts who are willing to be just as entertaining, just as partisan, and just as politically strategic as John and Kirby. It’s time to even the playing field.