BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week the president signed the long-awaited and much debated campaign finance reform bill, but immediately after its passage, the media let fly a barrage of critical coverage as political columnists and pundits searched for loopholes and weak points in the legislation. In a recent article for Slate.com, USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro wrote that "not since Elvis Presley went to the White House to enlist in Richard Nixon's war on drugs has a Washington event inspired so much cynicism as the passage of campaign finance reform." He says this resounding Bronx cheer can be traced to a single source.
WALTER SHAPIRO: I hate to be one of these people who has one-size-fits-all explanations, but I think a good chunk of it is that campaign consultants are the best sources of every political reporter. When you are looking to figure out what something that touches on politics means, you call your friends the consultants. And on background, off the record, 80 percent of the consultants are devastatingly against campaign reform. And they will explain to you either how it will drive money from the pristine nature of the current system underground; how it will set off an avalanche of unintended consequences. But what nobody seems to pick up on is that campaign consultants, particularly media consultants, are not exactly disinterested observers of the passing scene. They are people who can lose money directly from the passage and the signing into law of McCain-Feingold.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well I'd like to explore the two points you raised, the first one being from the journalists' perspective -- do you really think it's a question of keeping their sources in their pockets that keeps them so dark and gloomy on campaign finance reform?
WALTER SHAPIRO: I know how the game works! You know, if you're trying to write about the outlook for the Senate elections, you call 6 consultants -- 3 Democrats and 3 Republicans -- and you assume that their opinions will balance themselves out! On campaign finance reform, 5 of them or all 6 of them will come up with new cynical explanations! So to some extent you're a prisoner of your sources in the sense except for calling political science professors or the -- another interview with John McCain, there are not too many voices you're talking to who talk about how this legislation will work. You know I'm not saying the bill is, you know, handed down from Mount Sinai, but for someone who covered the 1996 Clinton fundraising scandals and has seen the way soft money has dominated politics ever since, it is a major step in the right direction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let's go to the second point which is that all these sources that you say journalists are prisoners of stand to benefit from all the money that flows into elections.
WALTER SHAPIRO: Okay. Most people, even in Washington, are pretty naive about how campaign consultants make their money. They think that most consultants get the bulk of their money on a fee-for-service basis. Pollsters do generally get paid that way, but for media consultants, which is where the real money is, they get a percentage of the overall advertising buy called an "ad placement fee." This is a tradition borrowed from Madison Avenue. The more money that's put on television in a campaign, the larger the fee going to the media consultant and his team.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how much money are we talking about?
WALTER SHAPIRO:Scads. It's very hard to know, because federal election commission rules don't reveal how much the consultants make, but there's one California gubernatorial campaign in 1998 where the losing candidate, Al Checchi [sp?], let his contracts be made public, and in that case the media consultant and the pollster would have made 2.8 million dollars. And this is just one of about 5 to 50 campaigns both were involved in, in that political cycle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's a lot of scratch. Is this new news or is it widely known but little discussed in Beltway circles?
WALTER SHAPIRO:It is-- semi-unknown and virtually never discussed. There's sort of a rule of etiquette in Washington -- it is really impolite to ask anyone, particularly a campaign consultant or a lobbyist, exactly who they earn their money and exactly how much do they make. And they are covered by a political press that makes them seem like they have no motivation in life other than their partisan identification as either a Democrat or a Republican -- and that's nonsense!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now this isn't explicit in your article, but one could derive from what you wrote that since campaign strategists get paid a percentage of ad buys that that very fact could skew the whole system -- I mean TV ads are so expensive, the need to raise all that money drives the political process. What if the only reason that ad buys are so valued is that it enriches the strategists?
WALTER SHAPIRO: If you stop a media consultant, they will talk about the effectiveness of television. But the fact is that, for example, getting out the vote drives, voter education, is a area where you cannot make money on, and the result is that in the last 20 years there has been almost no volunteer presence in politics and often television costs eat up 70 or 80 percent of the budget! At the same point voters tend to be more and more turned off by campaigns, and there certainly has been no upsurge in voter turnout, because they are so thrilled that the television ads bring them so much closer to true democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well it was a pleasure having you on the show. Thank you.
WALTER SHAPIRO: Well, thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Walter Shapiro wrote the recent article Campaign Reform's Real Losers in Slate, and he is a columnist for USA today. [MUSIC]
"Down with It"
by The Amazing Bud Powell