Transcript of America On-Line Chat with Hedrick Smith on

September 4, 1996

Copyright 1996 America Online, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

AOLiveMC9: Welcome Mr. Smith!

HSmithProd: Welcome to the audience. We've had a wonderful response on e-mail to our series, "The People and the Power Game." Many in the audience were especially interested in the public voters' participation.

Question: Why is "People and the Power Game" Special?

HSmithProd: First, we gave a very strong criticism of the media and got Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, among others, to admit that they were uneasy about what the media is doing these days. In the lobby section, we had some very graphic admissions from lobbyists and telemarketers about how they develop astroturf. And finally, we have people from all other country giving their views on Washington and how to fix the problems in the American political system. So we linked the beltway politicians with the people in America.

Question: I heard that President Clinton made a deal with the unions to make it appear that Newt Gingrich was shutting down the government, and that the unions would take the shut down to make the Republicans look bad. Do you know anything about that?

HSmithProd: No, when you see Newt Gingrich next week in the second installment, you will see that he admits that he miscalculated and that he did not figure Clinton would be so tough. He did not say anything about the unions.

Question: Do you think the negative tone the media projects has contributed to people losing faith in their government?

HSmithProd: Yes, as you can see from what we reported in the first installment of The People and the Power Game you will see several stories about how media negativism affects the public. Check the website.

Question: Is it true that the tobacco industry is the leader in increasing money to the Republican candidates?

HSmithProd: Yes, the tobacco industry was the major contributor to the Republican party in 1995, showing a big shift from the previous years when the industry was giving heavily to Democrats.

Question: I recently read an article about "front groups". Could you explain that term please.

HSmithProd: Front groups used to apply to various communist fronts during the cold war, where the Communist Party was the core of a group but had other organizations involved to give it cover. In more recent times, it has been used as a term to refer to any organization that hides the real core. In other words, if the tobacco industry or some other group wanted to mount a political campaign or a lobbying campaign, but wanted to hide its hand, it would set up a front group with other organizations.

Question: Have always appreciated PBS work on television, thank you! As for lobbies, which do you believe are the more prevalent: U.S. backed lobbies or foreign backed lobbies?

HSmithProd: In the late 80's and early 90's, we suddenly became very conscious of foreign backed and financed lobbyists, especially former U.S. officials working for Japanese, European or other foreign interests. But the really powerful lobbies in Washington now are the U.S. lobbies -- the retired lobby, AARP, the gun lobby, the health care industry lobbies, the Thursday group, which is a pro-business coalition led by the U.S. chamber of Commerce, and other such lobbies.

Question: Many, many people feel that our government is totally subservient to special interest groups and lobbyists and they don't even bother to vote. What will change that?

HSmithProd: The main way to reduce the exaggerated influence of lobbies is to push campaign finance reform that separates the practice of lobbying from the financing of political campaigns. The main lobbies today get much of their influence from giving money to political campaigns. So cutting that connection is one of the main goals of reformers such as Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, a Democrat and Chris Shays, a House Republican, and Linda Smith, another House Republican.

Question: I, too, have become extremely disappointed with the media's attempt to "tell" you what the news means. For instance, they report something and then tell you what they think it means. It is insulting to the American public. Why does the media do this?

HSmithProd: Someone has to make a judgment on what news is, and for busy people, that often means providing context and background for the news. You need to know, for example, what has been going on in Iraq to understand the importance of the new raids there. Where the press gets in trouble is when they move from providing background and context into opinion. And that has been happening too much.

Question: Neither party, when in power, shows any inclination to pass campaign finance reform. What will force the issue?

HSmithProd: Only strong public pressure will have real impact. The problem is that all the politicians in both parties won their seats in Congress, or won the White House, under the present campaign finance laws. So they don't really want to change things, that is most of them. So, only if the public really puts a lot of pressure on individual Congress members to commit themselves to real reform, such as separating lobbying from campaign donations, will the politicians do something. But public pressure is building now. Join the movement, if you feel strongly about it.

Question: We know that lobbies affect the government, is this true for the media as well?

HSmithProd: Sure. As the old smoke filled rooms of old fashioned politics were forced into the open, and as old time political bosses lost influence, the media took their place. Now media biggies evaluate the politicians.

Question: How can the American voter really learn about candidates and issues if the media continues to offer interpretive/analytical coverage?

HSmithProd: Interpretive coverage is the mark of good reporting if it is done well and with balance. It has to be fair. That helps the public learn. Otherwise, how would you keep up with all the changing positions of politicians or the complexities of laws and debates. The problem is when the media strays into giving horseback judgments, snap opinions on speeches, votes and other actions.

Question: How can progressive forces, environmentalists, Common Cause, etc., -- all of us -- get together to bring about campaign finance reform. Something like what Sen. Bradley suggested last night?

HSmithProd: This is going on in various states, such as Maine. The state level is the easiest level on which to organize. But you can contact pro-reform politicians such as Bradley, Chris Shays of Connecticut, Linda Smith of Washington, to push for reform at the federal level too. It's also possible to contact organizations like Common Cause, the Center for Responsive Government in Washington, and various foundations such as the Joyce Foundation of Michigan or the Schumann Foundation of New Jersey and give them your support.

Question: But why should the media "teach" adults anything about politics? Can't they just lay out the facts and let folks make their own decisions? Of course not. We might elect someone the media doesn't approve of.

HSmithProd: I don't think that is the problem. Most of the people who get elected are not known to the national media. We don't have to teach. We like to get engaged in a debate like this one. Take a look at The People and the Power Game. There's lots of dialogue between the ordinary people and the politicians. The moderator just keeps the talk flow going, but it is the public's views that matter. Again, see the web page for details.

Question: What is "stealth" lobbying?

Question: What is the "Million Dollar Gang" and what did they do?

HSmithProd: That's lobbying where the lobbying organization or group is hiding its hand. For example, in The People and the Power Game, part one, you see the tobacco companies hiding their hand in a fight over Proposition 186 in California, making it look as though that is a proposition for smoking restrictions when it actually weakens existing restrictions. Some of the backers were amazed to discover tobacco companies were behind that proposition and then they switched sides.

Question: There is a morning anchorman who makes it very clear, with his questioning style, who he likes politically and who he does not. Do you consider this irresponsible?

HSmithProd: Not irresponsible, but not very solid journalism. The reporter/anchor has to be able to talk with everyone, no matter whether he likes them or not - he or she.

Question: I'm more concerned about media bias posing as objective analysis, especially PBS which subsidizes programming with my tax dollars that can't get enough support in an open market. At least most lobbies are admit they're advocates and spend own money.

HSmithProd: Well, you know, most of the money for our PBS documentaries comes from the marketplace, either from business corporations or from foundations, and believe me, there is a real competition for those dollars.

Question: People don't have the money the lobbyists have. How can they effectively fight for campaign finance reform without it?

HSmithProd: That is one of the toughest questions facing American Democracy today. There is so much money in U.S. politics. About $1.5 billion will be contributed to the 1996 election campaigns, and almost all of the contributions of more than $200 will come from less than one half of 1% of the voters. That means ordinary folks don't get into the money and politics game. Only by organizing to go out and vote, can ordinary people offset the money advantage of wealthy organizations, whether businesses or unions, or other groups.

Question: In one person's opinion, without some major revolutionary event in this country the original hopes of the Founding Fathers is finished. Do you see any major upheaval to change the political status quo in this country?

HSmithProd: No, I don't see a major upheaval coming, but I don't agree that it will take a revolutionary change to fix things. Campaign finance reform would help. Reconnecting the media with the real questions of the voters would help. Strengthen the hand of party leaders over independent political operators would help by getting parties to work as units. Also, it would help if we did not have divided government -- the White House in the hands of one party and the Congress in the hands of the other party. That makes for gridlock. We did not use to have this so much. Now it happens most of the time.

Question: One issue Power Game did not address is the effect of advertising dollars on the various media. Automobile companies in the print and TV markets have enormous influence, if only in subtle ways, but often with huge impact? Will this be addressed in future?

HSmithProd: Not in this series, any more than it has already. You saw Dan Rather saying that he's in a competitive pit. What he means is that the CBS News Division has to produce a profit for its owners. That did not used to be so important. So corporate ownership of the media is affecting the way the news is handled. We showed that.

Question: The beginning of Clinton's term the democrats did control both houses and tried to stuff their agenda through. People rebelled. Would you like to see Clinton and the dems in control of both houses again?

HSmithProd: I'm a reporter. As a newsman, I don't make that judgment as a party backer. But one thing was clear in the 1994 elections. The Democrats had been in control. If you did not like what they did, you could at least decide to vote in the other party. You knew who was accountable. But now, with the government divided, how do you know whom to blame for the government shutdown or other deadlocks.

Question: As a conservative, I like Sen. Bradley's approach to campaign reform. What are the chances of bi-partisan support of such legislation?

HSmithProd: There is growing backing for ideas like Bradley's. People like you need to get in touch with him, let him know there is bi-partisan support. Also let the republican leadership of the Senate know that you back his approach. That's how to influence them.

Question: What do you propose as alternative to commercial TV? An official government board deciding what gets broadcast?

HSmithProd: No, I prefer an open marketplace. Let me add to that last answer. It also takes a public that is interested in substance and issues. In our voters' forum, a Mississippi woman said that if there were two stories about Clinton -- one about his private life and one about how he would save Social Security, most people would watch the sex story. Well, if so, politicians are going to pay less attention to substance and so is the media. After all, the media is following the market, and you are the market.

Question: Would a Bradley reform plan pass muster in the courts re: the requirement of TV and radio to supply air time to candidates?

HSmithProd: No one knows for sure, but the courts have let the Federal Communications Commission regulate equal time requirements for political debates and other such political requirements. So there is a strong presumption that Congress and or the FCC could continue to impose such rules. This year, of course, there is a private, voluntary effort to get the networks, CNN, Fox, and PBS to offer free time to candidates, and that is gaining momentum. Presumably that will help pave the way for a law.

Question: What is "soft" money?

HSmithProd: Soft money is political donations made directly to political parties rather than to individual candidates. There are no limits on soft money, which is why it has become so important in campaigns. For example, this spring when the Dole campaign ran out of its own money, Dole traveled the country using Republican Party "soft" money to finance his travels, rallies, and even generic political ads which said everything but "vote for Bob Dole" which soft money cannot do. Clinton did some of the same stuff last year. So both parties do it as a huge loophole in our campaign finance rules.

Question: Is it true that President Clinton raises more soft money then anyone else?

HSmithProd: Yes, typically the incumbent president is the best soft money raiser in either party. but as an "out" party, the GOP has done remarkably well these past two years --better in raising money for congressional races than the democrats.

AOLiveMC9: We have time for one more audience question.

Question: Do you think the press has any inclination to "heal" itself? Or will the slide towards total tabloid journalism continue?

HSmithProd: Yes, a lot of important journalists are worried about the latest trends. Dan Rather and Peter Jennings expressed concerns. The new leadership of CBS is trying to reduce its tabloid content and to hook back up with its public viewerships. Also, there is a whole movement of civic journalism which is moving away from the tabloid to community service reporting. So there are some encouraging signs, but not enough of them yet.

AOLiveMC9: Thank you so much for joining us this evening, Mr. Smith.

HSmithProd: I hope that those who are really keen about these issues will join us at our web page and at the next installment of The People and the Power Game. All the best. Hedrick Smith.

AOLiveMC9: Thank you for joining us audience! Good night.

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