< Fee and Fair Elections


Friday, May 12, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: Of course, for U.S. political consultants, the biggest bucks are made here in the U.S. Walter Shapiro is the Washington bureau chief for Salon. He says that with the trend toward "netroots" fund raising, it's not just high rollers but average earners who contribute to campaigns. And if they knew how much of their check was going to high-priced image makers, they just might close their checkbooks. So how much is going to the consultant? According to Shapiro, a media consultant for a candidate in a House race may get as much as 10 to 15 percent of the total spent on television ads. It's enough to break a candidate's bank. Walter, welcome to OTM.

WALTER SHAPIRO: Thank you, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: In the piece is the suggestion – and this is an eye-opener – that, had Al Gore in the year 2000 not had to dole out 15 cents or, let's say, you know, 10 cents on the dollar to political consultants, he might not have run out of money in Ohio weeks before the election and that the results in that critical [CHUCKLES] swing state could have been very different, and the election outcome as well. Did his political consultant, Bob Shrum, cost the Democrats the White House?

WALTER SHAPIRO: I'm not going to say that greed, per se, cost the Democrats the 2000 election because they had to pull out of Ohio, but in a political campaign where resources are finite, the more money you spend on consultants, the fewer ads you can afford to put on television. And it is the ads that swing voters, not the big payments to consultants.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, you could make the argument that this is something that's sort of been hidden in plain view, but you note in your piece that the FEC, the Federal Election Commission, actually, while paying very strict attention to campaign receipts, pays almost no [CHUCKLES] attention to campaign expenditures.

WALTER SHAPIRO: The Federal Election Commission rules allow a campaign to lump together their TV spending with the fees given to the media consultant. So one doesn't know if this is paying for 30-second spots attacking the opponent or it's paying for a beach house for the consultant.

BOB GARFIELD: So what's the solution?

WALTER SHAPIRO: I wish I could just say if we could only pass regulation 673C to the Federal Election Commission Act, this would be solved. But much more importantly, it is a climate, and to a large extent, donors, particularly donors who understand that through the Internet they can join with other donors, should have the right to ask campaigns - I don't care what the FEC requires, I want to know what percentage of the TV buy is going to your media consultant. And if the number is too high, there should be donor pressure for campaigns to renegotiate with their consultants, because, without trying to overplay the Howard Dean "you have the power" line, in the case of the funding of campaigns in both parties, these people have rights, and they are not exercising their rights to make sure their money is spent well.

BOB GARFIELD: Reporters are reluctant to talk about this because the political consultants are also their best sources. Now, there's a conflict of interest. How serious is that problem?

WALTER SHAPIRO: Well, I think it's a real conflict of interest, and I'm not being holier-than-thou; it applies to me as well. This is a rare piece that I've done. The only really in-depth, multi-part newspaper series on how the consultants make their money was done in The Washington Post six years ago by Susan Glasser, a woman who was about to leave the political beat to report overseas from Moscow. So, in other words, for the most part, the only reporting done on this is by people leaving the political beat.

BOB GARFIELD: Hey, how rich are these guys?

WALTER SHAPIRO: I don't know. I mean, two media consultants I consider are close friends, and I really cannot guess within a half a million dollars how much they make a year.

BOB GARFIELD: What do they drive?

WALTER SHAPIRO: Let's merely say that they live in very nice houses.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Walter. Well, thank you very much.

WALTER SHAPIRO: Thanks so much, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: Walter Shapiro is the Washington bureau chief for Salon. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, battling speed bumps on the information superhighway.

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.