Broadcast lobbying tops $186 million

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A new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity has found that the broadcast industry spent more than $186 million* lobbying the federal government from 1998 through June 2004—a period of increasingly intense battles over ownership rules.

In addition, television and radio companies contributed more than $26.5 million to federal candidates and lawmakers during the same period. The companies and their principal representative organization—the National Association of Broadcasters—also sponsored 84 trips for lawmakers and regulators at a cost of $165,474, bringing total spending to affect policy and elections by the industry to at least $210 million.*

The volatile political climate also saw 24 individuals with close ties to both the industry and its regulatory overseers make lucrative moves back and forth between the two.

Since 1998, lobbying expenditures by the broadcast industry grown*, from more than $20 million* to a high of more than $37 million* during 2003. It was during that last year of record lobbying that the FCC proposed significant relaxation of the ownership rules, which would have allowed corporations to own more media outlets than ever before and reach a greater percentage of the national audience.

The top spenders:

  • General Electric Co., which owns 80 percent of NBC Universal in addition to a number of cable networks, topped the lobby spending list for broadcasters at more than $85 million.* The total includes all lobbying. The giant conglomerate draws only a portion of its revenue from broadcast operations, but broadcast-related lobbying numbers are not reported separately.
  • Second in broadcast lobbying is the National Association of Broadcasters, an influential trade group that represents the interests of free, over-the-air radio and television broadcasters. The NAB spent more than $39 million* lobbying, according to records.
  • Walt Disney Co., owner of the ABC television network, is third at more than $22 million.*

The steady rise in lobbying dollars followed the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which stipulated that both caps on station ownership and the percentage of the national audience a broadcast company may reach directly be reviewed every two years. Since 1998, the industry has responded by steadily increasing spending on lobbying.

As for contributions, in the three election cycles between 1998 and 2004, broadcasters contributed more than $26.5 million to federal candidates and sitting officials.

President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry, rank first and second, with donations of $523,000 and $386,000, respectively. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the freshman from New York and former first lady, ranks third with $347,000.

The current cycle's Democratic primaries and subsequent presidential campaign have been a boon to both Bush and Kerry, who raked in unprecedented amounts of contributions.

Broadcasters gave nearly identical amounts to Republicans and Democrats during the period analyzed. Of all contributions, 50.1 percent went to Republicans and 49.6 percent went to Democrats.

Almost half of the contributions went to the national party committees—$6.4 million to Democrats and $5.7 million to Republicans—which then redistributed the money to affect local elections. Contributions made directly to individual candidates, such as Kerry and Clinton, made up the roughly $2 million difference between the two parties.

Once again, the industry's top donors of federal campaign dollars were major broadcast owners, with General Electric leading the way ($6.7 million), followed by Viacom Inc. ($4.0 million) and Disney ($3.5 million).

Broadcasters have also sponsored $165,474 in trips and junkets for members, family and staff of the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce and Transportation and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

First on the list by a large margin is Rep. Billy Tauzin and his staff, who accepted 18 trips valued at $25,006, according to records. The Louisiana Republican is the former chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

The NAB has been by far the greatest sponsor of such outings, having paid for 43 of the 84 industry-sponsored trips over the past six years. During that time, the trade association accounted for two-thirds of all broadcast-industry junket and trip spending. News Corp. and Disney followed the NAB with 15 and 13 trips, respectively.

As lobbying has increased and campaign contributions and industry trips have continued at a steady clip, some two dozen individuals have moved through the lucrative "revolving door"—that is, between the broadcast industry and the government offices and agencies that regulate it.

  • Marsha MacBride, currently the NAB's executive vice president for legal and regulatory affairs, has ping-ponged at a dizzying clip over the last 13 years: she went from the industry to the FCC, back to the industry, and then back to the FCC before landing—at least for now—at the NAB.
  • Clear Channel Communications Inc., which had virtually no Washington lobbying presence for years, got into the influence business in a big way when it hired Andrew Levin. Levin was Minority Counsel for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, where virtually all broadcast legislation is heard, before moving on to become senior vice president of government relations for the radio giant.
  • Finally, David Goodfriend, interim executive vice president and general counsel for liberal radio network Air America, was at one time deputy staff secretary at the White House under President Bill Clinton, director of legal and business affairs at satellite television broadcaster EchoStar, legal advisor to Commissioner Susan Ness and a telecommunications lawyer with Willkie Farr & Gallagher.

The report is part of the Center's ongoing examination of the companies that control the nation's airwaves, telephone and cable lines and the hundreds of millions of dollars they spend to influence policies that affect how electronic communications are regulated in the United States. The survey took roughly eight months and involved the work of as many as a dozen researchers.

Note to readers: This story has been reposted. Since the report was originally released, the Center for Public Integrity has changed the way it calculates lobbying expenditures to reflect a more stringent methodology for determining the total amounts. The change was made to correct the potential overstatement of totals. Figures or relevant text that have been changed are indicated with asterisks. (2/28/2006)

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