What does News Corp want in return for that $ million?

by John Cook, The Upshot

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. raised eyebrows last week with a $1 million donation to the Republican Governors Association that the New York Times described as "bold" and "one of the biggest [contributions] ever given by a media organization." Critics saw the gift, which came through News Corp.'s News America subsidiary, as evidence of an alignment between Murdoch's political and corporate interests and the conservative editorial bent of Fox News Channel.

But corporate political donations — especially coming from someone as skillful at currying favor among the powerful as Murdoch — are more than mere expressions of ideological preference. They are attempts to advance the economic interests of the donor corporation. As News Corp. spokesman Jack Horner explained to the Times, the company made the donation because "organizations like the R.G.A., which have a pro-business agenda, support our priorities at this most critical time for our economy."

So what, precisely, are those priorities?

News America Inc., News Corp.'s U.S. media division — which includes Fox News Channel, Fox Broadcasting and the New York Post — has spent more than $7.5 million on lobbying federal entities since Barack Obama took the White House, according to disclosures filed by the corporation and its outside lobbying firms with the secretary of the U.S. Senate. A survey of those disclosures, which list the specific issues on which the firm has lobbied Congress and federal agencies, shows that News Corp.'s legislative agenda is based largely on the bread-and-butter regulatory issues that affect its bottom line.

So while Fox News may focus on terror mosques much of the day, its parent company's political giving is more concerned with spectrum reallocation and getting anti-counterfeiting provisions into free-trade agreements.

News America Inc. spends more than $4 million a year on its in-house lobbying efforts. On top of that, News America employs the law firm Hogan Lovells; the Bockorny Group, headed by former Reagan official David Bockorny; and former congressional staffer David Leach to push its agenda on Capitol Hill.

So what do they do? According to Hogan Lovells' disclosure for the second quarter of 2010, filed last month, the firm lobbies on issues including "tax legislation affecting media industry; media policy and possible legislation affecting the cable, broadcast, and satellite industries." What does that mean? We asked Hogan Lovell and got no response, and News Corp. declined to comment on its lobbying efforts. So we're left to guess — but we presume News America wasn't lobbying for higher taxes.

Other disclosures offered more specific information. For example, the Bockorny Group (which likewise didn't respond to questions) lobbied Congress over "H.R. 3101, Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009" and "S. 3304, Equal Access to 21st Century Communications Act" on News America's behalf, according to its second-quarter 2010 disclosure. Both bills would extend current television closed-captioning requirements to video delivered via the Internet, and require broadcasters to provide audio description tracks for blind television viewers. We can only assume News America was trying to dilute the proposals or encourage opposition to them; News Corp. found the legislation sufficiently worrisome that it warned shareholders about the proposals in its most recent annual report.

News America is also interested in swaying Congress over "political broadcast rules; lowest unit rate provisions of the Communications Act of 1934," according to the disclosures. That's a reference to a squabble over the DISCLOSE Act, the congressional response to the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision. While the bill deals mostly with compelling disclosure of corporate donations, it includes a provision extending the requirement for television stations to give artificially low advertising rates to political campaigns. Current law forces stations to reduce fees for candidate ads; the bill would extend that to ads purchased by political parties, for which stations can currently charge market rates.

Other bills getting the weight of News America's lobbying effort include two provisions in the Senate, introduced by Jim DeMint and James Inhofe, that would bar the FCC from reinstating the so-called Fairness Doctrine, a rule abandoned in 1987 that forced broadcasters to offer time to competing viewpoints on controversial issues. The bills are a reaction to persistent suspicions from Obama's political opponents — including some Fox News commentators — that he intended to bring back the doctrine to rein in right-wing talk radio. This despite Obama's insistence, as reported by Fox News, that he had no intention of doing so. It's unclear which side News America took on that bill, though it would be difficult to imagine the company opposing it.

The disclosures also show News America lobbying on the Financial Regulatory Reform Act that Obama recently signed into law. It's unclear what dog a media company could have had in that fight, though it may have been interested in inserting transparency provisions. It also has lobbied on the TARP Accountability Act, which would "provide for additional monitoring and accountability" over TARP funds. That makes sense for a firm that operates a cable news network and several newspapers that cover TARP, but News America (and its sister organization Dow Jones, which owns the Wall Street Journal), appears to be alone among media organizations devoting lobbying resources to increasing TARP transparency.

Another mysterious bit of lobbying that News America did relates to an appropriations bill. The company attempted to influence "Department of Justice sections on salaries and expenses, United States attorneys, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Office of Justice Programs." Why News America would be interested in the salaries of U.S. attorneys and FBI agents is unclear.

The phrase "future of journalism" turns up repeatedly in the disclosures, as did Sen. Ben Cardin's Newspaper Revitalization Act, which would allow troubled newspapers to turn themselves into nonprofits. It would be interesting to know whether News America came down on the side of various proposals to offer special aid to newspapers. Such provisions would seem to be in the corporate interests of the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, but Murdoch himself came down squarely against them in a Journal op-ed last year, writing that "the growing drumbeat for government assistance for newspapers is as alarming as overregulation. One idea gaining in popularity is providing taxpayer funds for journalists. Or giving newspapers 'nonprofit' status — in exchange, of course, for papers giving up their right to endorse political candidates. The most damning problem with government 'help' is what we saw with the bailout of the U.S. auto industry: Help props up those who are producing things that customers do not want."

Another issue News America lobbies on frequently is "online behavioral advertising," or targeted advertising based on a user's browsing history. The Federal Trade Commission has been increasingly interested in examining whether the practice — employed by sites like News Corp.'s MySpace — erodes consumer privacy. One FTC commissioner recently proposed a "Do Not Track" registry akin to the national Do Not Call registry, and a coalition of six privacy groups recently called on Congress to investigate industry practices for behavioral targeting. Their concerns were sparked by a Wall Street Journal investigation.

article originally published at The Upshot.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey