Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La) says corporations that expect political favors in return for funding his campaigns are wasting their money.
But the House Commerce Committee chairman is nonetheless upset at broadcast and cable networks for coverage that he said has planted with viewers the idea that campaign cash buys favors from members of Congress.
In a speech last week, Tauzin said networks covering the collapse of Enron Corp. misled viewers with "fraudulent" information about the bankrupt energy company's donations to members of his committee.
Since January 2001, Tauzin has been chairman of the committee — a powerful post that affords him oversight of the broadcasting, cable, telephone and utility industries, as well as the federal agencies charged with regulating them.
When Enron collapsed, Tauzin ordered the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, headed by Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), to launch hearings into the causes of the scandal that rocked Wall Street financiers and Washington politicians with ties to the energy company.
Tauzin was troubled by the coverage's accuracy and fairness, he said.
Recent telecasts of an Enron hearing before his committee included an on-screen scroll of the amount of money Enron gave to the House member that was questioning the former executives, said Tauzin, who did not name the guilty networks.
"The implication being that maybe they weren't objective, maybe they were influenced by those donations, maybe they shouldn't be exploring what had happened at this awful tragedy for so many Americans," Tauzin said.
Last week, CNN cut live to the Senate Commerce Committee's Enron hearings. While Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) questioned former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, CNN at least twice posted a graphic that read: "$7,500 from Enron since 1997."
"CNN was definitely one those that Billy was pointing the finger at," said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson.
CNN spokesman Matthew Furman said the network's use of the money graphics was appropriate given the overall context of the Enron debate.
"The nature of campaign contributions is well understood by CNN viewers. Given that this highly unusual, if not unique story, is about one company, it's appropriate for CNN to provide campaign contribution information when covering the story," Furman said.
Tauzin did not question the accuracy of the dollar amounts reported. Instead, he complained the media failed to note that corporations do not directly supply campaign cash to candidates. That money must be funneled through political action committees, he said.
The graphics presented on TV gave the impression that money went into a House member's personal bank account, when it actually flows into campaign treasuries, Tauzin said.
"They are not personal monies," Tauzin said. "When you saw that tag under each member's [name], it looked as though corporations were donating money to members of Congress. The American public was misled in that regard."
CNBC, the financial cable network owned by General Electric Co., used the same graphics during its House coverage of the Enron hearings.
Executive vice president of business news Bruno Cohen defended CNBC's practice. The financial connection between Enron and lawmakers represented a potential conflict of interest, he said.
"Given the extraordinary circumstances of the Enron collapse, we believe the information was relevant and that our viewers were best served by providing the information during the first round of hearings," Cohen said in an electronic-mail response to a reporter's question.
Tauzin raised the issue before National Association of Broadcasters members gathered at a downtown Washington hotel for two days of policy updates from government officials.
After explaining the problem as he saw it, Tauzin accused the networks that flashed the dollar amounts in the Enron hearings of adhering to a double standard.
When media executives appear on Capitol Hill, their networks don't supply viewers with an accounting of the campaign contributions their companies have made to members of Congress, Tauzin said.
"I have never seen posted under any member of Congress the amount of money donated by a broadcaster when a broadcaster issue is before Congress," Tauzin said. "I have never seen posted beneath a member's name the amount of money cable gave when a cable issue is before Congress."
To provide such information during the Enron hearings, but not during proceedings involving their own companies, was hypocritical, Tauzin said.
CNBC's Cohen indicated that his network was not breaking new ground in the Enron hearings by telling viewers that Capitol Hill politicians accept campaign money from corporations.
"Our reporting has, on numerous occasions, emphasized that virtually all large corporations make political contributions and that virtually all members of Congress accept them," Cohen said.
Media companies that participate in the political process must make a choice, Tauzin said. They should disclose campaign contributions for all companies that appear before his committee. If the networks refuse, he said, then their next move should be to stop giving to political campaigns.
"One or the other, but not both. Both is hypocritical," Tauzin told the NAB group. "I am asking you as friends: If you agree with me that this is a little hypocritical, maybe we ought stop being hypocritical."