blank.gif (51 bytes) Media

Media Bias and
Campaign Finance

by J. Peter Mulhern

he biases of the elite media are too well documented to make good column fodder. Most journalists have a tribal attachment to the Democrat Party that transcends even ideology. This attachment permeates political reporting, reducing most of it to the sort of silly propaganda Tass and Pravda churned out before the Soviet Union crumbled.

Normally there’s no point in harping on media bias. It is a fact of life. Every now and then, however, the press tells a story that demonstrates its political tribalism with particular force. Such stories are worthy of attention. They deserve particular attention whenever campaign finance reform is under discussion.

A recent Newsweek contains a story about the private papers of the late James Reston who wrote a column for a newspaper based in New York. Reston was the epitome of the establishment journalist. The bulk of Newsweek’s story is devoted to arguing that Reston was too principled to act as an unthinking conduit for any information the great and powerful chose to drop on his plate.

To buttress this argument Newsweek mentions that Reston refused to publish what he heard when “Lyndon Johnson summoned [him] to the Oval Office in 1964 and started dishing dirt about Barry Goldwater (right out of Goldwater’s FBI file).”

Using information gathered by the FBI to discredit a political opponent is a felony. It was a felony in 1964. Lyndon Johnson committed a serious crime in the presence of Washington’s leading political reporter and apparently Reston never considered that this might be news. Newsweek is only interested in Johnson’s crime because it gave Reston an opportunity to show that he was above aiding and abetting. It never hints that Reston had a duty to let the nation know that the man in the Oval Office was a crook.

Nothing Richard Nixon was ever accused of in connection with Watergate posed as great a threat to the integrity of the American political process as the crime Lyndon Johnson committed in James Reston’s presence. But Johnson was a Democrat. He could rely on Reston to ignore his crime. He could also rely on Newsweek to continue ignoring it 35 years later.

Johnson’s crime isn’t too stale to be newsworthy. Journalists understand the contemporary significance of both Republican and Democrat political heritage. Nixon’s presidency is nearly as remote as Johnson’s, but journalists continue to kick Dick Nixon around with gusto.

Anything that might help to discredit Nixon is still front-page news. Not long ago fresh evidence that Nixon viewed Jews with some hostility and suspicion got substantial media play. Nixon was Johnson’s ideological twin. He worked to consolidate and even extend Johnson’s “Great Society.” But he was also a Republican (and an anti-Communist).

Johnson belonged to the tribe; when his sins are noticed at all he gets cheap absolution. Nixon did not belong to the tribe; he is consigned forever to the outer darkness. This is what passes for “objective” journalism. History’s first draft is badly in need of revision.

By treating Johnson’s abuse of the FBI lightly, Newsweek demonstrated its commitment to Democrat mythology. It shares this commitment with almost all of the major American news organizations.

Republicans can only hope to shape our political debate by using paid media. The “free” media is inalterably hostile.

This is one of the many facts that John McCain and the other Republicans devoted to achieving the Holy Grail of campaign finance reform don’t seem to grasp. Every effort to restrict the amount of money spent on political campaigns is an effort to amplify the biased reporting of the media elite. The less candidates can spend, the more they must rely on free media to broadcast their message.

Reformers want to keep people and organizations with money from exerting undue influence on money-hungry politicians. They worry about giving too much power to the relatively few people who control significant wealth. What they don’t understand is that we can only diminish the power of wealth by increasing the importance of other, more dangerous, sources of power.

Millions of Americans have the money to support political candidates and causes. Very few of us have any control over the content and tone of the evening news. Is it really a threat to democracy to let money play an important role in shaping our political debates if the alternative is to leave those debates entirely in the hands of a few reflexively leftist infotainment executives?

This is the sort of question that should answer itself. Unfortunately, the lingering effect of Marxist rhetoric on mainstream opinion leads many people to see the power of wealth as a significant threat to democracy. The hideous history of socialist experiments in the 20th century should have taught us that concentrating power in the hands of a narrow intellectual elite is far more dangerous than letting money talk, but learning from the past isn’t our forte.

Any Republican politician who wants to restrict his party’s access to money is either a masochist or a fool. It’s a tough world out there for anyone who doesn’t belong to the tribe. Republicans need to arm themselves with every dollar they can get.  NJ

J. Peter Mulhern practices law in Washington, D. C. and writes regularly for The Washington Weekly ( This analysis is reprinted with his permission.


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