No matter how distressing it was to watch the federal government grind to a halt this month, it has been encouraging to hear a growing chorus of foundation and nonprofit leaders call for intensive efforts to fix our broken government. 
But we won’t make any progress on that goal until we change the way media and politics intersect, so it’s time for everyone in philanthropy to make that a high priority of their advocacy.
As long as shadowy donors are able to make undisclosed and unlimited contributions to sway elections and as long as those donations are used to fill our airwaves with false and negative messages, fixing our political system will be impossible.
Yet very little grant money goes to dealing with such issues. While overall spending by foundations on media projects has increased, just under 4 percent of all media grants in recent years have gone to efforts that focus on media policy advocacy.
The reason for changing the balance—and putting more grants into advocacy and shaping policy—are clear when looking at what happened in the 2012 election cycle.
In the first presidential campaign after the Supreme Court issued its Citizens United decision, political contributions across the United States at all levels of government reached $10-billion, according to Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America, by John Nichols and Robert McChesney. And the vast majority of that money goes to finance the broadcast of political advertisements.
In the presidential race, that influx of money has resulted in a bumper crop of negative advertisements. From June until November of 2012, more than 1 million television ads were placed by the two major candidates, their party committees, and supporting interest groups, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. That figure represents a 40-percent increase over the 2008 election cycle; more important, the ads in 2012 were increasingly negative, with fully 65 percent of them focusing solely on the opposing candidate. By contrast, in the 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, less than a quarter of the ads were negative.
“It will come as no surprise to those who have been bombarded with advertising in key markets, but 2012 is another record-setting year in terms of the amount of negativity we’re seeing in the presidential race,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which has been supported with grants from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
That’s why it is equally important for nonprofits to press for sensible changes in media policy, like the campaign by Common Cause to call on the Federal Communications Commission to require that television stations disclose the identity of sponsors of political advertisements.
If the Supreme Court is going to permit a flood tide of political contributions, voters should at least know who is paying for them. Federal rules require disclosure of the source of funds for political ads, but nobody has enforced those requirements for more than 20 years, according to Michael Copps, former commissioner of the FCC.
Writing in The Nation, Mr. Copps stated, “When our public dialogue is short-circuited by deep-pocketed individuals, corporations, and other groups operating on the smug premise that elections should be bought by the power of big money rather than fought over the power of ideas, something is amiss in our democracy.”
That isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who is one of the principal architects of the pointless and reckless government shutdown, recently engaged in another act of obstructionism when he placed a hold on the nomination of Tom Wheeler to take up the vacant position as leader of the FCC. Senator Cruz says he relented only after Mr. Wheeler promised he would not immediately pursue changes in the way the commission enforces disclosure of political contributions. The Senate voted this week to confirm Mr. Wheeler’s appointment.
The FCC is not the only media-policy issue nonprofits should focus on to enhance our political culture. And there are many organizations working successfully to advance the public interest in media and telecommunications.
Groups like Free Press and Public Knowledge have spearheaded efforts to demand that access to information remain open for all citizens through advocacy for an open Internet, among many other issues. Often referred to as net neutrality, the principle is that all content carried on the Internet should be permitted to flow freely to all customers. Of particular concern now is a case before the D.C. Court of Appeals in which the telecommunications giant Verizon is challenging the FCC and its rules requiring Verizon to treat all content and customers equally rather than providing preferential treatment to privileged customers and publishers.
Big media companies often prevail in Washington, where they enjoy a vast advantage in resources for lobbying and advocacy. But there have been several notable victories for public-interest advocates.
A signal achievement in media-policy advocacy has been the passage of the Local Community Radio Act, which requires the FCC to expand licenses for low-power FM radio stations for nonprofit community groups. The leading advocate for low-power expansion has been the Prometheus Radio Project, which continues to provide guidance to nonprofit organizations that want to obtain a radio license.
One other bit of good news: The FCC has extended the deadline for nonprofit groups to apply for these low-power radio licenses to November 14, thanks to the government shutdown: One small bright spot in an otherwise bleak disruption of the workings of the federal government.
Published in (Chronicle of Philanthropy)

About the Author
Vincent Stehle

Vincent Stehle

Executive Director

Before joining Media Impact Funders in 2011 as executive director, Vince was program director for Nonprofit Sector Support at the Surdna Foundation, a family foundation based in New York City. Prior to joining Surdna, Stehle worked for 10 years as a reporter for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where he covered a broad range of issues about the nonprofit sector. Stehle has served as chairperson of Philanthropy New York and on the governing boards of VolunteerMatch, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) and the Center for Effective Philanthropy.