We Need Term Limits For Political Pundits

NOW for a truly grass-roots initiative: term limits for political pundits.

They're powerful. They're entrenched. And they serve us no better than the politicians do.

We're talking about the Washington pundits who dominate network TV. Some have been "inside the Beltway" longer than the men who chair key congressional committees . . . and that's saying something.

The "hot-air brigade" can fill hour after hour of broadcasts with political trivia - polls, personalities, peccadillos, predictions - while rarely offending any powerful interests. Over the years, they've grown far too cozy with the Washington elite they cover.

If you think we're being overly critical, listen to ABC anchor Peter Jennings: "I think the mainstream press in general has been perceived this year as part of the establishment and part of the problem. . . . I noticed a considerable difference between what was on the press' mind - Gennifer Flowers - and what was on the New Hampshire voters' minds - the economy."

With mainstream pundits focused on various distractions, crucial issues are rarely discussed. For example, look at what passed for "post-election analysis" when it turned out - after all the hype about career politicians running scared - that this was the year of the incumbent, as usual.

Pundits and others in the national media seemed almost clueless to explain the triumph of U.S. Senate and House incumbents. The best The New York Times could do was to report that Senate incumbents "somehow managed to survive."

There was an obvious - and unstated - answer to the puzzle: M-O-N-E-Y. Many of these incumbents raised two or three times as much money for their campaigns as the challengers they narrowly defeated. This was the case for senators like Alfonse D'Amato (New York), Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania) and Bob Packwood (Oregon).

In a column six months ago, we challenged national media to report which candidates won more "votes per dollar spent." Reporting this VPDS count would make it clear that many incumbents would have been defeated if not for their advantage in dollars.

But most televised pundits don't follow the money. The big-bucks special interests dominating Washington are almost a taboo subject.

It shouldn't be so difficult to point out that while the Bush family is moving out and the Clinton family is moving in the corporate money that greatly influences both major parties isn't moving anywhere. It's part of the "permanent government."

In recent months, Arco has been lobbying to be able to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic Wildlife Refuge. Not coincidentally, Arco has been "double giving" - donating heavily to both parties, nearly $1 million in the last two years. Clinton's campaign chair, Mickey Kantor, is a partner in a law firm that lobbies for Arco. These facts are known to mainstream pundits but are rarely reported.

Or take the case of Dwight Andreas, chair of the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) grain company that produces 70 percent of the nation's ethanol. A PBS "Frontline" documentary revealed that after Andreas donated $400,000 to the Republican Party, his company received a Clean Air Act waiver for ethanol.

Think Andreas' role in Washington is played down by the big pundits because they just don't know about it? Think again.

Andreas and his company not only fund the Republicans, they also pay some of the pundits' salaries. ADM is a long-standing sponsor of political pundit shows from John McLaughlin on PBS to ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," NBC's "Meet the Press" and CBS' "Face The Nation." Brinkley, leaders of both parties and Andreas own vacation condos in the same Florida beach building.

Many pundits are so immersed in the system - so close to the political and corporate interests controlling it - that they don't question it.

Since they accept big-money dominance of politics (and TV) as a given, mass media's pundits don't see the day-to-day workings of power and influence as newsworthy. When these pundits speak out against the influence of "special interests" in politics, they usually focus on blacks, women, labor, seniors and similar groups - not the big-money guys.

Like the career politicians they cover, many longtime pundits have been corrupted by the system and don't even seem to know it.

This election produced a slightly more diverse Congress - more women, more racial minorities, more citizen activists.

But there are no elections for the pundit elite. Maybe term limitation is the answer.

While we're at it, financial disclosure is also needed: When TV pundits discuss issues affecting the finances of their sponsors - whether ADM or whoever - viewers should be told.

Media Beat: The Times invites critiques of the performance of local and national media. Commentary and opinion on the media should be addressed to the Op-Ed Editor, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Phone: 464-2323.

(Copyright, 1992, Creators Syndicate, Inc.)