The Right Wing's $7 Billion Media Subsidy

Considering how much conservatives and right-wing political personalities in the United States claim to hate the liberal media, it’s remarkable how much money they’ve been able to funnel into the coffers of the liberal media institutions they malign.

By looking at a few numbers, we can see nearly where nearly 7% of all U.S. advertising dollars are attributable to policy decisions and judicial activism driven directly by conservative priorities.

  • The United States is the only country other than New Zealand which allows the bizarre practice of advertising prescription drugs directly to consumers. Called direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA), this practice accounted for $4.9 billion dollars in advertising spending in 2007, nearly all of it targeted to traditional media such as television and print. It’s hard to imagine how a mainstream print magazine such as Time would survive without this largesse, especially as the FDA’s regulations typically require drug interaction disclosures which effectively double the amount of advertising space which the pharmaceutical company must purchase. The conservative goal of commercializing prescription drugs while reducing oversight has undoubtedly succeeded; the data show that FDA oversight of DTCA drug ads is decreasing while any of us who consume media have noticed the increasing medicalization of ordinary aspects of life for which companies have created remedies. But it’s inarguable that this adds up to nearly five billion dollars in advertising that goes overwhelmingly to the old media institutions which conservatives rail against.
  • Similarly, conservatives delighted in the execrable Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, which equated money with speech and has resulted in SuperPACs which offer no accountability or transparency while supporting candidates despite being ostensibly required to be independent. It’s a horrendous thing, but it amounts to a $2 billion subsidy that, again, goes largely to traditional media with television being the single largest benefactor. Here I’ll quote liberally from Wikipedia, because this is a topic where the community has done a remarkably concise job of illustrating the impact:

With total projections of all campaign spending exceeding $1 billion and more likely to be approach $2 billion, some comparison to overall advertising spending is in order. World-wide, total spending in all areas for 2012 is expected to be $438 billion, with North America accounting for 26.6%. In rough terms, allocating some of North America’s total to Canada and Mexico, this leaves predicts the US market share to be roughly of $100 billion ($438 billion global times 26.6% for North America times 85% estimate for USA). Therefore, if total spending is nearer the $2 billion figure, the US consumer should expect, averaged out of over the year, about 2% of advertising to be regarding the election. However, since spending is focused closest to voting dates, and may be area focused in hotly contested areas, some markets may see peaks upward of 20-30% of all messages to be election related and paid by PACs and 527 organizations.

The key thing to realize here is that mainstream media cannot encourage reform, either of politically poisonous ideas such as corporate personhood or of personally poisonous ideas such as drug advocacy that is not driven by medical professionals, without fundamentally advocating for the obliteration of as much as 7% of their total revenues. The amount represented by just DTCA pharmaceutical ads and SuperPAC/PAC/527 spending is equal to twenty seven times the $262 million in advertising purchased in the New York Times last year.

As somebody who loves media and has lots of friends employed by these big media companies, I’m surprised and impressed by the concerted conservative efforts to prop up the liberal media establishment. As somebody who detests the commercial exploitation of those who are unhealthy and the distortion of our political system by wealthy oligarchs, I am saddened by what the math shows. I wish that the billionaires behind most SuperPAC dollars would go back to just having their own personal media outlets, like rich people did in the old days. But for today, I’m just delighted by the idea that the unintended consequences of focused lobbying from the right has been the artificial sustenance of the media monoliths run by the left.

Additional Reading

(Special thanks to my colleague Chris Morf for helping with a sanity check on some of this research. None of my opinions stated here are his fault.)