I am the WNC volunteer coordinator for Cynthia Brown’s campaign for the Democratic nomination in the race to replace Jesse Helms — now retiring from the U.S. Senate. Never having been heavily involved in electoral politics, I’ve found the experience a real eye-opener — on many levels.
One lesson, however, stands out and will keep on burning long after the polls close: Don’t trust big media. At all.
I know a lot of readers will probably shake their heads at this point, clucking: “What’s new, Bothwell? You trusted them before?”
Yeah, well, right. But until I took the time to track one specific tale, it never really, truly sunk in just how seamless the web of lies has become. This is partly my candidate’s story, but it’s really much bigger than that. It reaches into the heart of our purportedly democratic system of governance.
At the moment, 16 candidates are vying for the Senate seat Helms is vacating. Seven Republicans and nine Democrats are slugging it out in their respective primaries — scheduled for Sept. 10. If you listen to broadcast news or read stories in daily papers or news magazines, however, it’s easy to get the impression that the struggle is solely between Elizabeth Dole and Erskine Bowles. Virtually every report casts this as a two-way race.
What’s the basis for such bias? On the Republican side, Mrs. Dole has been anointed by George W. Bush. The Bush team has been funneling buckets and barrels of money to her campaign, and he has hosted pricey fund-raising dinners to fill her war chest. It’s highly unlikely that the Republican party would nominate anyone other than the candidate already blessed with the official seal of approval of the White House’s current occupant, so the pundits in their wisdom have already crowned her the GOP standard-bearer.
In the Democrats’ race, Mr. Bowles has been credited with the lead. In story after story — from the Asheville Citizen-Times to The News & Observer of Raleigh to the Charlotte Observer to the Washington Post — Bowles has been described as the front-runner for the nomination. Television stations have followed suit. The average citizen would assume that Bowles is now ahead in the public-opinion polls.
That average citizen would have been misled.
The most recent statewide poll available anywhere was conducted back in March. This fact is almost impossible to discover. I’ve spent hours searching news sources, political Web sites, political-science data bases, information from polling firms, and so on. No polls. Yet the news media keep intoning “front-runner … front-runner” like a meditative mantra, its very repetition imbuing it with deeper meaning.
I spoke with a newsperson at one of the two local TV stations. She confirmed that she hasn’t seen a poll since early last spring. “Why do the stories keep referring to a front-runner?” I asked.
“I guess because of the money,” was her answer.
And that, of course, is the real deal. In the modern era, elections almost always go to the highest bidder. Mrs. Dole and Mr. Bowles are clearly far ahead of their competition when it comes to fund raising. According to a June 3 Associated Press story, the two big-money candidates enjoy heavy support from New York- and Texas-based political action committees, bankers and oilmen. Because Jesse Helms has been a notorious political lightning rod, his Senate campaigns have always drawn big bucks from across the country — both pro and con — making his races extremely high-dollar affairs. The contest to replace him is presumed to be no exception.
This cash-stash equation explains why our noble elected officials — who finally passed a half-hearted campaign-finance-reform law earlier this year — have spent every spare minute since then taking full advantage of the old rules. They want to collect every last dirty penny they can possibly scrounge before the new law takes effect. So much for high moral purpose.
That means that a candidate like Cynthia Brown — who believes that the best way to reform campaign finance is to start with your own campaign, and who accepts no corporate or PAC money and no individual contribution over $1,000 — is automatically relegated to the sidelines. The media decree that the election will be purchased, and one look at her checkbook informs them that she can’t afford to buy their ticket. In other words, megacorporations tell us who our candidates will be, tell us who’s ahead in their imaginary polls — and then anoint our leaders. Welcome to democracy in the 21st century, folks, where you can’t even peddle your own vote to the highest bidder.
It has already been sold.
[Bothwell is author of The Icarus Glitch: Another Duck Soup Reader, and associate editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone.]