McCain and the media barons

It doesn’t pay, if you’re running a media empire, to annoy the chair or the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, especially not one who has presided over the media consolidation that has made you richer and more powerful.

It’s a commonplace that John McCain has long been a media darling. The kid-gloves treatment of the Iseman story by most of the broadcast media reflects that. The usual narrative is that McCain makes nice to reporters, makes himself accessible, and gives good quote, so reporters love him and give him every possible break.

No doubt there’s truth in that. But I doubt it’s the only relevant truth.

John McCain was also the chair, and is now the ranking minority member [Update: This is an error. McCain was indeed the Commerce Committee chair, but Ted Stevens, not McCain, is now the vice-chair (which seems to have replaced the old title of “ranking minority member”)] of the Senate Commerce Committee. As Chair, he presided over the massive media consolidation of the past fifteen years, a process that has greatly restricted citizens’ access to diverse points of view while greatly enriching the media barons who own the networks, TV stations, and cable companies. Moreover, as the Paxson Communications story illustrates, he had, and has, the power to help his media friends and punish his media enemies both by shaping legislation and by pressuring regulators.

Take one big example: campaign finance reform. The easiest way to reduce the cost of running for office would be to require that holders of over-the-air TV and radio licenses &#8212 who, let’s recall, squat for free on publicly-owned bandwidth &#8212 donate, rather than selling, time for political advertisements. That could be written into the terms of their licenses, as the (sole) “rent” they pay for the bandwidth. If they don’t like it, they can choose not to renew; there are always more applicants for licenses than their are available channels.

Yet McCain, who has made campaign finance reform one of his key issues, and just about his sole actual legislative accomplishment in 24 years on the Hill, has never used his role on the Commerce Committee to push for free TV/radio time for political ads.

So it is in the interest of the media barons collectively that McCain succeed politically (because he’s largely in their pocket) and it’s in the interest of each individual media baron to remain on McCain’s good side (because of his power to help and hurt). Owners are not without influence over the media they own. And, due to changes over which McCain has presided, the same media barons that own the airwaves also own newspapers.

That’s worth considering the next time you’re wondering why McCain is such a media darling.

Update Drew Clark at Technology Liberation Front has the details on McCain’s power to enrich or impoverish FCC licensees, and how he used it to stave off financial ruin for Paxson.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: