The campaign advertising that wasn't reformed

Posted: Mar 27, 2002 12:00 AM
Liberals like to accuse conservatives of being obsessed with money and inclined to threaten freedom of speech, accusations that came to mind last week as a result of the campaign-finance-reform crusade's triumph in the Senate. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) claims that because of the reforms, "the political landscape ... will be filled with more people and less influence, more contributors and smaller contributions, more democracy and less elitism." Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a co-sponsor of the reform legislation, proclaimed not long before it passed that "particularly after Sept. 11, all of us in this chamber hope the public will look to the Capitol ... with reverence and pride, not with derision. Our task here today is to restore some of that pride." The esteemed senators' lofty twaddle aside, what we are witnessing is a delicious exercise in liberal hypocrisy. We know they are just as money-obsessed, of course, but what makes the rhetoric so outlandish is this "less influence" business. With severe limits placed on paid advertising, they are left with an enormous political advantage. And they know it. The campaign-finance-reform (CFR) package limits not only certain types of monetary contributions but also certain types of paid advertising. But it does nothing about the other form of advocacy programming, the kind with the market value in the millions and millions of dollars, yet free of charge to Democrats. CFR focuses on paid 30- or 60-second ads, but does nothing about 30- and 60-minute entertainment television programs that are just as passionately, just as deliberately pushing liberal candidates and causes. Hollywood has been using television for years to promote its agenda. In the late Reagan years and during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, plenty of prime-time series routinely made liberal statements on behalf of a candidate or on an issue. The most prominent advocacy producer of that era was Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who, toward the end of the run of her hit "Designing Women," also was among the most ardent and outspoken Friends of Bill. "Designing Women" commonly featured liberal speechifying, and Bloodworth-Thomason made no bones about it. "It's 23 minutes of prime-time television ... to address any topic I want," she told the Associated Press in 1988. "I put my personal opinions in. I do get my own propaganda in." According to TV Guide, one day during the '92 primary season, Bloodworth-Thomason told the show's writers, "Think up some images for Bill's campaign, and don't worry about 'Designing Women.' Nobody here is working on scripts today," and until she was advised she was violating FCC regulations, she frequently had a "Designing Women" character mention that she knew Clinton personally. While Bloodworth-Thomason was touting Clinton, Diane English and "Murphy Brown" were bashing Republicans, most notably, of course, Dan Quayle. This wasn't just a matter of two sitcoms. In the late '80s and early '90s, series such as "L.A. Law," "thirtysomething," "Head of the Class" and "MacGyver" pushed the left's positions on all manner of issues, including abortion, Central America and SDI. Sometimes it was done in a major way. The creator of the short-lived comedy "City" admitted he devised a wacky Cuban-American character to "lampoon our whole policy toward Cuba and the CIA's ... various plots (there) over the years." Sometimes it was trite, as when a character on "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill" once snapped, for no reason, "My first cousin Leo died last month ... I despised him. He was lazy, dishonest -- a Republican." Prime-time politicking fell off for most of the Clinton years, but it's coming back in vogue now. NBC's "The West Wing," now in its third season, has beaten the drum for gays serving openly in the military, gun control and, yes, campaign-finance reform. It has also attacked and caricatured conservatives. In the series premiere, one religious-right representative was portrayed as anti-Semitic and another, supposedly a clergyman, couldn't even keep his Commandments straight. In another episode, President Bartlet essentially called a Dr. Laura-like character an "ignorant tight-ass." Moreover, "West Wing" mastermind Aaron Sorkin plans a plotline in which, he says, "to an extent we're going to rerun the last election and try a few different plays than the Gore campaign did." Bartlet's general-election opponent, Sorkin relates, will be a Republican governor of Florida "who's raised a lot of money and is very popular with the Republican party," but is "not the sharpest tool in the box." "The West Wing" reaches an average of 17.7 million viewers each week. It's the best political advertising the Democrats don't need to buy.