Death of Discourse

excerpted from the book

Fixing Elections

The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics

by Steven Hill

Routledge Press, 2002, hardcover

Campaigns, ideally, should be a time for the entire nation to contemplate ideas, policy, and principle. Campaigns should be times when voters become more informed and most acute about policy differences between the candidates and parties, and make a deliberative decision that, in its aggregate, decides the direction of the nation. Campaigns ought to be a high civic moment when the nation's best and brightest debate and make a bid for our democratic allegiance and our vote.

Yet this is hardly what happens on Election Day. Unfortunately, Winner Take All politics in the United States, led by the nose by campaigning and targeting technologies masterminded by mad scientist consultants and pollster-geists, is running headlong in the wrong direction. Between the precise targeting of swing voters, swing districts, and swing states, most voters are sliced and diced right out of the election. As the nation becomes more polarized-regionally, racially, culturally, and by partisan identification-more and more people are ignored because they are either in "locked-up" states and districts, because they are in the wrong demographic, or because they aren't "likely" enough to vote.

To understand how far we've fallen, it is instructive to recall previous historic watersheds in our nation's political history, such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In 1858, U.S. Senatorial candidates Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln from Illinois engaged in seven debates, each lasting approximately three hours, debating hot button issues of the day like slavery, states' rights, and the Dred Scott decision. By all accounts the debates were electrifying and artful, attended by large crowds who witnessed two master orators at the peak of their abilities. The toughest issues of the day were debated head-on without waffling or evasive rhetoric, issues like slavery, westward expansion, states' rights, and economic protectionism. In 1860 the transcript of these debates was published and used as an important campaign document in the presidential election that launched Lincoln to his date with destiny. The Lincoln-Douglas debates are now a revered part of American political folklore.

Similarly, during Franklin Roosevelt's thirteen years as president, he delivered some thirty fireside chats by radio, averaging two or three a year-and only one during a presidential campaign. Yet, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written, each fireside chat commanded a huge audience-more than 70 percent of the home audience. To understand the magnitude of that figure, says Goodwin, one need only realize that America's top-ranking radio comedy shows-Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Fibber McGee and Molly, Amos 'n' Andy-were then garnering what were considered fabulous ratings of 30 to 35 percent. Novelist Saul Bellow recalls walking down the street while Roosevelt was speaking. Through lit windows families could be seen sitting at their kitchen tables or gathered in their parlors, listening to the radio. Drivers had pulled over and turned on their radios to listen. "Everywhere the same voice. You could follow without missing a single word as you strolled by."

But it's hard to even imagine listening to today's candidates debate for three hours at a stretch, with their sound bites, sneers, and scripted slogans substituting for substance. And absent a frightful war or foreign attack like that on the World Trade Center, it is extremely difficult to envision either of the two major parties' candidates addressing the nation with such dignity, gravitas, and a sense of national purpose that the nation is compelled to tune in. The debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore were considered snoozers by everyone except the professional pundits, with TV ratings dropping with each debate. The national conventions for both parties, pale infomercials for the already-anointed, were similarly bereft.

In fact, few voters actually voted for either Gore or Bush as much as voted against the other side. They voted their fears instead of their hopes-to keep someone out of office rather than get someone in. Indeed, playwright Arthur Miller has written that by the end of the presidential campaign "it seemed like an unpopularity contest, a competition for who was less disliked by more people than the other, a demonstration of negative consent." More and more, that kind of adversarial temperament and negative consent defines our Winner Take All politics, from top to bottom, from the parties and their candidates right down to most voters. Most voters in Bushlandia and New Goreia are locked-up; no matter how bad their candidate, they are united in how much they detest the other side's candidate. Our politics has been reduced to a hollowed-out, rotten vessel of negative consent and fakery.

Fifty years ago George Or ell anticipated the caliber of candidates and campaigns that plague the United States today. "When one watches some tired hack on the platform," said Orwell, "mechanically repeating the familiar phrases . . . one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy." Indeed, in the toxic soil of Winner Take All, the quality of political leadership has declined and the idea of serving one's nation or community via politics has become a dubious career track. Large numbers of intelligent and gifted people eschew politics altogether, particularly rejecting any type of career in formal politics. Ideas and policy have become anathema to politics, and elections now are more akin to a con job. Unsurprisingly, increasing numbers of voters have come to actively detest the whole business as a meaningless and undignified charade that requires political leaders to compromise and debase their integrity.

Moreover, because of the way they now conduct Winner Take All campaigns, the two major parties have lost the ability to articulate real conflicts of interest in society. The packaging of politics and the gaming incentives of Winner Take All have led candidates to target such a narrow, non-ideological swath of voters that even strong policy disagreements often aren't discernable in rhetoric. "Compassionate Conservatism," "New Democrat," these are terms meant to blur partisan differences as a means of attracting targeted swing voters. Consequently, campaigns are no longer a vehicle for defining or articulating thorny national problems or issues, nor are they a step toward national resolution, particularly when following the election the presidential winner abandons the center and lurches back toward his party base.

Nor are campaigns any longer a time for the ascension of dynamic national leadership. Indeed, it has been said that neither Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, nor Teddy Roosevelt-three of them revered faces on Mount Rushmore-could ever make it to the White House today because they were too much orators for today's sound-bite campaigns. On the contrary, Winner Take All is producing McCampaigns of "crafted talk," contrived images, and "simulated responsiveness," repeated like mindless advertising jingles as a substitute for real debate. Lincoln and Douglas would be lost in the world of politics today, and politics is lost without the Lincolns, the Douglases, and the Roosevelts.

But it is important to recognize that this contour of the political landscape is not the result of politicians or the political parties being evil or base personalities, unwilling to rise above self-interest or partisanship. Rather, it flows from the Winner Take All, two-choice dynamic which provides peculiar incentives

and ultimately rewards those who wage the zero-sum game best. At a basic level, a battle is occurring between voters' belief in the legitimacy of our political system, on the one hand, and modern campaign methods of gaming and targeting, on the other. Will image permanently triumph over ideas? Will campaign technology trump face-to-face political engagement? Will cynicism permanently move into the house of American democracy, like termites gnawing away its foundation? Only time will tell, but the prognosis under Winner Take All is not encouraging.

James Madison
And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power that knowledge brings.

Carol Miller of New Mexico who ran as a Green Party candidate for Congress in 1998

"The Democratic Party had sold out. I watched them sell out, throughout the' 90s. It turned my stomach.

Every election cycle, hundreds and sometimes thousands of independent candidates as well as third-party candidates from the Libertarian, Reform, Green, Working Families, and Natural Law parties run in races all across the country, fighting an uphill battle with a lack of resources. But what's even more damaging to their efforts is the lack of media coverage. In 2000, the Libertarian Party ran more than 1,430 candidates nationwide. They fielded candidates in 255 of the 435 House races, as well as twenty five of the thirty-three U.S. Senate seats up for election, the first time in eighty years that a third party has contested a majority of the seats in Congress.

Yet an informal e-mail survey of their candidates revealed an appalling pattern of exclusionary treatment at the hands of the media, particularly television broadcasters and daily newspapers. Libertarian Party candidates were routinely excluded from media campaign coverage, televised debates, and editorial board interviews, with reasons that ran the gamut from "sorry, we don't cover third parties, it's just our standard policy" to a cavalier "maybe next time." For instance, in Colorado's sixth congressional district race the daily newspapers printed dozens of daily reports about the Democratic and Republican candidates, day after day, but could not find a single column inch for any third-party alternatives. In New Hampshire, the state's largest newspaper not only gave zero campaign coverage to the Libertarian Party's candidate for U.S. Senate, but also the editorial page editor kept postponing publication of an op-ed from the candidate (a tactic similar to that foisted on Carol Miller by the New Mexican editor). In Seattle, KING 5 TV and KIRO Radio 710, two of Washington state's largest media outlets, excluded from broadcasted debates the Libertarian Party's candidate for U. S. Senate, Jeff Jared, even though Jared arguably was the kingmaker in the race and his vote totals ultimately spoiled the tight race for the Republican incumbent, Sen. Slade Gorton.

In Ohio, the Dayton Daily News listed all candidates running in various elections, but refused even to mention any third-party candidate. When the Libertarian Party candidate called and asked for an explanation, he was informed, "We are only including Republicans and Democrats, because they are the only ones with a fighting chance of winning." In Pennsylvania, the Knight-Ridder owned Centre Daily Times refused even to accept paid advertisement from the Libertarian Party candidates, specifically $4,600 for about a dozen political advertisements that touted Libertarian candidates as well as prison reform and medical marijuana. In New Hampshire, the Libertarian Party's candidate for governor in 2000 was excluded from all debates, both televised and in public, and during one event when he tried to protest his exclusion he was escorted out by the state police. The specter of law enforcement officials silencing political candidates should make one balk, no matter how nonviable the candidates or what one may think of their opinions.

The smaller, alternative weekly press tends to be somewhat better than the dailies and the TV broadcasters. But the public broadcasting stations, both television and radio, despite their broader mandate to be a public resource, can be just as rigid as the for-profit media. They routinely snubbed third-party candidates and excluded them from debates. In Iowa, the public broadcast station chose to bar a Natural Law Party congressional candidate from its televised debates because he was not considered "newsworthy." A PBS station in Illinois, WILL-TV, barred a Libertarian Party candidate because, he was told, "it would be too confusing for the voters" to have more than two choices. NETV public television in Omaha, Nebraska, hosted a congressional debate for Nebraska's second district-a strongly Republican district that the Democratic candidate could not possibly hope to win-and barred the Libertarian Party candidate. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Arkansas Educational TV v. Forbes that a public broadcast station can legally bar certain candidates from participating in a debate, prompting many First Amendment supporters to ask, "What happened to the 'public' in the Public Broadcasting System?"

The media's ostensible reasons for these exclusions [of third party candidates] vary, but most often the reason cited is that these candidates are not viable-they can't win. But as we have seen, most legislative races across the country are safe seats for one major party or the other, and not competitive for either a Democratic or Republican candidate in those races either. If that truly were the criteria for coverage, the media only would cover the obvious winner in each race. But they don't do that. Instead, in every district across the country both Republicans and Democrats receive most of the media coverage, however locked-up the seat and whether or not the challenging Republican or Democrat has a chance of winning. Only the independent candidates and minor party candidates are excluded. What can we conclude from such a persistent pattern? It would seem that most TV producers, editors, and reporters are in the thralls of a sometimes unconscious and other times appallingly conscious loyalty to the two-party system. Yet because they also see themselves as having a warm fuzzy affinity for a kind of Jeffersonian vision of the free press, and perhaps some journalistic standards of objectivity, they cannot come right out and crassly say they are cardcarrying members of the duopoly. Thus, they concoct their transparent ruse: "We don't cover these candidates because they can't win."

Lacking news coverage of a range of political viewpoints, voters do not have the opportunity to hear from candidates who may excite them or bring fresh new ideas into the political arena. Is it any wonder that voters are so turned off to politics, with the media's ignoring of fresh political alternatives, the proliferation of poll-tested blandness substituting for campaigns, and the resulting dearth of stimulating political debate?

In fact, the Winner Take All media's refusal to cover political alternatives should be reasonably viewed as an in-kind donation to the Democrats' and Republicans' campaigns, subject to federal and state campaign finance disclosure laws. It raises disturbing questions about the tight relationship between the Winner Take All media and the Democrats and Republicans, crushing all political dissent and opposition in a way that is not altogether different from the relationship between the Soviet Politburo and its communist propaganda machines. In fact, a highly respected British think tank, the Electoral Reform Society, observing American elections in 1998, noted this cozy relationship between the duopoly and the American media's duopoly devotees. Their report, called "State of American Democracy," stated that "the media pays little if any attention to third party or independent candidates.... On all counts, the voter is restricted in the number and diversity of ideas expressed to him or her, thus negatively impacting the quality of representation a voter receives.... A vicious cycle is created, alternative parties cannot get their message to the voters, and the voters cannot expand their limited options."

Frederick the Great, King of Prussia

My people and I have come to an agreement which satisfies us both. They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.

Sometime in the 1990s, the Winner Take All media, particularly television broadcasters, discovered an extremely lucrative mother lode of revenue that augurs poorly for the future of political discourse. As political campaigns and the candidates themselves have become mere vapid displays of poll-tested sound bites, and as citizens have become alienated from most things "political," television broadcasters in perennial search of higher ratings have slowly reduced their political coverage. This has produced at least one unfortunate side effect: increasingly, politicians in a campaign season have no choice but to buy more television ads. Lots of television ads, bringing in an estimated $1 billion in revenue to broadcasters. Some media analysts have theorized that this has been a brazenly conscious move on the part of television broadcasters to increase advertising revenue-decrease political coverage, forcing candidates to buy more TV time. Others dispute this, claiming that broadcasters are merely chasing viewers who are turned off to politics. Either way, the move has been a veritable gold mine that has dramatically enhanced TV broadcasters' bottom line and has pushed our nation another notch along its political race to the bottom.

According to Wall Street analysts, an estimated $1 billion of the more than $3 billion raised and spent on political campaigns in 2000 went to pay for ads on broadcast television. That's a fivefold increase over what the television industry raked in during the 1980 campaign, even after adjusting for inflation. This cascade of cash has been gathering steam throughout the 1990s; revenue in 2000 from political spots was up 40 percent from 1996. Political commercials, which only appear for a few months out of the year, nevertheless were the third-largest source of TV advertising revenue for broadcasters, trailing only automotive and retail ads, according to an analysis by investment company Bear Stearns. The prospect of such a cash cow caused Broadcast ~ Cable Magazine to gush a euphoric headline at the time of the 2000 primaries: "Happy Days Are Here Again." Said one campaign consultant, "The stations are salivating.'' Without question, the broadcast industry has become the biggest beneficiary of the "business of politics." Whatever the initial motivations of the broadcasters, now that they have discovered this lucrative new revenue stream, there is little incentlve to decrease it by increasing political coverage.

Not surprisingly then, over the same time period that political ad revenue has been surging, the amount of campaign coverage by the broadcasters has been decreasing. Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs said, following a study his organization conducted of the 2000 election, "Coverage is way down from eight years ago. That means, if you work out the numbers, two elections ago the three networks together gave you about 25 minutes a night of election news, or about eight minutes apiece. This election they gave you about 12 minutes, or four minutes apiece per night.'' Of that reduced amount of election news, a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only an average of sixty-four seconds per night was quality "candidate-centered" time during which the candidates themselves had an opportunity to discuss issues or their views. The rest was heavily filtered reporting about the suspense of who might win the horse race-in other words, entertainment. In 1968, the average presidential campaign sound bite on network news was forty-three seconds. In the 1996 election, it dropped to 8.2 seconds. As Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, commented, "Third graders communicate in longer segments than that.''

So not only has the raw amount of election news decreased dramatically, but the quality of the coverage also has taken a nosedive. Thomas Patterson, professor at Harvard's Kennedy School and director of the Vanishing Voter Project, which studied the 2000 presidential election, wrote that the "news coverage that is provided too often serves to discourage or misdirect the public. Both Bush and Gore had more bad press than good press, in both television and newspapers, in the closing weeks of the campaign, and the stories told often were trivial." The Annenberg study found that only one in four campaign stories aired in the month before the election were issue-oriented; the rest focused on the bumps and dips of polls and campaign strategy. Lichter, assessing the quality of the coverage, commented, "If you actually add up the airtime, journalists talking about the election accounted for 74 percent of the airtime. Candidates actually shown speaking accounted for 11 percent of the airtime. So the news is highly mediated, and I think that's what's driving candidates into talk shows. To give them time just to present themselves more as full human beings to the public."

Not surprisingly, the broadcasters have fought any legislative or public interest attempts to curtail their billion-dollar cash cow. Following the passage of the deeply flawed Telecommunications Act of 1996, which further deregulated the media market to allow for even larger mega-mergers, the Clinton Administration doubled the amount of spectrum space it licensed to television broadcasters in order to facilitate the industry's transition to digital technology. Estimates of the value of this additional spectrum space ranged up to $70 billion, and once again it was given to the broadcasters for free, provoking cries of "corporate welfare." As a sop to critics, Clinton appointed an advisory panel to "assess and update" the long-abused "public interest obligations" of television broadcasters in the wake of this valuable gift of the public's assets. The panel, composed of scholars, public interest advocates, and broadcasters (including the president of CBS), recommended among other things that all television broadcasters voluntarily dedicate a minimum of five minutes a night in the thirty days before the presidential election to what was called "candidate-centered discourse"-news coverage where the candidates are discussing their views and issues, either via interviews, mini-debates, or other formats-as opposed to election news about the Winner Take All horse race or the latest dips in the polls.

But still the broadcasters balked. In Election 2000, over a million political ads ran on 484 local stations, the equivalent of 595,468 minutes of ads, 9,924 hours or 413 solid days of advertising-and yet nearly all broadcasters were unwilling to dedicate even a minuscule amount of air time to such "candidate-centered discourse." In fact, the networks mobilized to undermine the White House commission's proposal. But aware of the public sentiment (and legal reality) that in fact the airwaves are owned by the public, and that they had taken a pledge "to serve the public interest," the broadcasters worked behind the scenes to kill the plan. They even employed newspapers owned by them to do their dirty work.

A study of forty-one newspaper editorials from thirty-three newspapers weighing in on the "five minutes per night" proposal found that seven of ten newspapers owned by media conglomerates with television broadcast holdings editorialized against it. The same ratio, seven out of ten newspapers, owned by media companies without TV broadcast properties favored it. The study found that economic self-interest was more closely linked to a paper's stance than its political leaning: papers that endorsed Clinton in 1996 were no more likely to support the White House plan than papers that did not endorse him. But even more troubling, as the study's author pointed out, "in no cases did the [opposing] newspapers divulge their ownership interests in their editorials." Instead, the broadcasters stealthily hid their conflict of interest behind their newspaper mouthpieces.

Given that hostile posture, not surprisingly only a handful of TV stations committed to "candidate-centered" time. The Annenberg study found that ABC, NBC, and CBS "failed to meet the recommended public interest standard that they air five minutes-300 seconds-of nightly candidate issue discussion in the final month of the campaign." Instead, on average, there was just sixty-four seconds of candidate-centered discourse per night per network, the study found. Sixty-four seconds. Barely a minute. That's one minute per night for democracy and political debate, in exchange for the $70 billion in additional spectrum space given for free by the Clinton administration to the corporate media, which is in addition to the $367 billion giveaway they already had received.

The surging greed of Winner Take All media corporations in a deregulated media market has created a commercial bazaar in which TV stations sell to the highest political bidder what the government has given them for free. The $367 billion plus $70 billion corporate welfare giveaway from the public to huge media conglomerates in exchange for a commitment to the public interest is being grossly abused. Paul Taylor, director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, has said, "When it comes to serving as public trustee, the industry doesn't see beyond its own bottom line." Said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit organization working for campaign finance reform, " The industry has a sweetheart deal, and is not interested in making any moves to open the door to make it work better."

Yet when the Communications Act of 1934 granted broadcasters free and exclusive licenses to the public airwaves, it did so on the condition that they agreed to serve "the public interest." The value of the public airwaves has been estimated by a leading media analyst to be worth currently $367 billion-that is a $367 billion giveaway, corporate welfare, from the public to huge media conglomerates in exchange for a commitment to the public interest. But obviously the latter part of the equation has been entirely lost in the ensuing sixty-plus years.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated the telecommunications industry and made takeovers and mergers even easier. Many experts predicted the Telecommunications Act would inevitably result in increasing media centralization, and since its passage corporate media takeovers have proceeded apace. Disney's subsequent takeover of ABC created the world's largest media company at the time, until the $100 billion AOL-Time Warner merger came along. And the Australian magnate Rupert Murdoch, probably the closest we know to a modern-day William Hearst, has been slowly adding to his media empire.

For the corporate Winner Take All media, the Telecommunications Act has been a kind of "free trade" agreement to increase profits. Like our politics, where the winner takes all, our Winner Take All economy similarly rewards the biggest winners in a disproportionately lucrative fashion, as outlined in economists Robert Frank and Phillip Cook's superb The Winner Take All Society. In the specter of the modern media cartel we see a monopolistic convergence of Winner Take All politics and Winner Take All economics, using First Amendment arguments to attack any barriers to its present lucrative existence or future growth. In an era when effective speech is equivalent to how many TV stations or radio stations you own, the First Amendment itself has become like a free trade agreement for media corporations. It keeps the government at bay, creating a deregulated media market no less than NAFTA or GATT. Within this "free trade-free speech" zone, corporate speech can gobble up competitors and, ironically, decide who will speak and, more importantly, who will be heard in our Winner Take All political system.

As legal and media experts like Yale law professor Owen Fiss, Robert McChesney, and others have pointed out, the First Amendment paradigm of the political dissident standing on their street corner soap box, inveighing against politicians and society's ills until hauled off by the cops, is mostly an anachronism. The terrain of the First Amendment today is dominated by huge media conglomerates who have a lot more and a lot louder speech than everyone else. It's as if they have turned up their volume and drowned everyone else out. It's not that others cannot speak, it's just that we cannot hear them, their speech is not effective, compared to the booming speech of the Winner Take All media. And traditional, civil libertarian-type First Amendment defenses protect this status quo. The paradigm has dramatically shifted, but civil libertarians and First Amendment fundamentalists are still stuck in the old "individual autonomy" paradigm, refusing to recognize the new reality.

All of this, of course, has huge ramifications for politics and political discourse. In its customary, dissembling fashion, the Winner Take All media pick and choose what to air, and the evidence is overwhelming that their criteria for choosing America's information fare has little to do with the public interest or stimulating political discourse. With a Winner Take All media saturated by the values of sensationalism, entertainment, and profiteering, there is little room on the dial for the values of "robust public debate," discussion of ideas and policies, or political pluralism. Their motto is, "If you can't pay, you can't play," and only a shrinking number of players can afford the price of admission. With a hundred channels of laugh tracks, home shopping infomercials, and pay-for-view, the information necessities of democracy and a free-thinking society are swallowed up in the unregulated, free-for-all regime dominated by the corporatized Winner Take All media.

John Peter Zenger must be rolling over in his grave. Arrested for libel on November 17, 1734, for publishing a newspaper criticizing the British colonial governor of New York, Zenger was imprisoned for nearly ten months. When finally brought to trial he was represented by the young Alexander Hamilton, and to the acclaim of the public the colonial jury acquitted Zenger on the grounds that his charges had been based on fact-a key consideration in libel cases since that time. Zenger became a champion, setting a standard for the gallant free press standing up to autocracy. The Zenger case struck a tremendous blow for freedom of the press and a classically liberal tradition that eventually led to the First Amendment.

How far we have traveled in 260-plus years. Today, the Great Free Press, the corporate Winner Take All media monopoly, is the embodiment of autocracy. Soaking off the fat of a public dole for their own enrichment, in a very real sense the corporate media has become a threat to free speech, certainly to political speech and to political campaigns. Broadcasters, in essence, are guardians of something precious-the modern-day equivalent of the public square. Except they decide who will address the "assembled" audience. The specter of the media, particularly the corporate media and its values, deciding the viability of political candidates-and, by extension, which issues and policies voters will hear about during campaigns-should be utterly offensive to a democratic society. A congressional district now contains over 600,000 people, making grassroots campaigns impractical in most cases, so television and radio campaigning have become near-essential in most congressional elections, and even in state elections, particularly the most high-profile, and close races. The corporate media has its own agenda, which is not unexpected, but every candidate should not have to squeeze her or himself through the pinhole of corporate media preconditions.

Moreover, as we have seen, broadcasters, having been the recipient of ridiculously generous corporate welfare, have managed to wrest control of the people's airwaves from the people and their representatives, and now have huge financial incentives to keep political coverage of campaigns and candidates to a minimum. That allows them to sell back to candidates the airwaves that they have been given for free. The Winner Take All media conglomerates were not elected or even appointed to act as the arbiter or the mediator of our democratic process or our national politics, yet the crucial telecommunications technology they control has allowed them to assume this position, uninvited. Now in custody of this crucial infrastructure of our representative democracy, the Winner Take All media has become a powerful special interest that uses the public's airwaves to perpetuate its domination, a kind of self-fulfilling cycle. It seems a sort of collective stupidity, an implacable insanity, that no one knows how to stop.

The evolution of the Winner Take All media has reached a fork in the road. Voters are being robbed of the fullness of a debate of ideas and policies, and the challenging viewpoints that a Perot, a Ventura, a Benjamin, a Miller, or a Howell brings to a campaign. The fork in the road can go only one of two ways-either toward reform or toward further deform. It has already cut political coverage down to the bone-only sixty-four seconds per night-and raised advertising rates to exorbitant levels. There's not much more profit to be wrung out of the system. So the logic of reform makes more and more sense, even to those who profit from the system. Many broadcasters say privately that they are appalled by the soaring amounts of money spent by candidates on TV ads. CBS President Leslie Moonves co-chaired the White House panel that recommended five minutes per night of candidate-centered time. A sales manager for KTNV-TV in Las Vegas said, "Speaking as a citizen, the system screams for reform."

But lacking serious and profound reform, the current trajectory of the Winner Take All media does not augur well for the American future. Indeed, it is one of the most disturbing trends contributing to our downward spiral into a voterless and internecine post-democracy. An ominous dark cloud moved over an already-gloomy horizon in September 2001 when the largest media conglomerates, including Fox, NBC, CBS, and AOL-Time Warner Inc., filed suit in federal court to overturn FCC rules that bar a company from owning television stations that collectively reach more than 35 percent of viewing households or that prevent one company from owning television stations and cable systems in the same market. The court challenges, if successful, will allow big media companies to become even larger through mergers and acquisitions-and to further garrotte the free flow of information. Ironically, the corporate plaintiffs are employing civil libertarian-type First Amendment/free speech arguments, claiming that "every day the rule is in effect, we are being deprived of our ability to speak to 65 percent of the nation's households"-the First Amendment as "free trade" agreement for the Winner Take All media.

If the media corporations prevail in this audacious gambit, that may initiate the first steps toward what might be called the "Berlusconization" of the American media. Silvio Berlusconi is the Italian media magnate who managed to gobble up nearly all private media in Italy, and then used that resource as a personal steppingstone to a political career. The exquisitely dressed Berlusconi's campaigning method consists of sailing up and down the Italian coast in his private yacht, and pulling into ports where his TV stations cover his press conferences, beaming his perennially tanned face to Italians all over the country. Berlusconi's intertwined political and media careers culminated diabolically in 2001 with his winning the prime ministership of Italy, a kind of Italian version of a William Randolph Hearst.

If the U.S. corporate media plaintiffs succeed via the courts in overturning the rules preventing even greater media mergers, or if the FCC waives these rules, it moves us a giant step closer to a Berlusconi-type figure lurking on America's horizon-a demagogue like Hearst with political aspirations, who personally controls huge portions of the electronic media infrastructure and programming, all on the public dole-a person who is part Rupert Murdoch and part Newt Gingrich. Given the current trajectory of the Winner Take All media-of the corporate media monopoly immersed in the Winner Take A11 political system-such an American future is not outside the pale of possibility.

Our economy has become an information economy, and consumer choice is one of the mantras of the times. Yet our politics is running headlong in the opposite direction-toward less choice, less quality information, and less innovation. Winner Take All is producing lackluster, undistinguished, even lifeless politics that fails to inform or inspire. At a time when the need for reliable and well-presented information is at a premium, new political ideas and innovation are having more and more difficulty percolating to the surface.

Fixing Elections

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