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Does Fox News Coverage Double as GOP Campaign Contribution?

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With its open and aggressive cheerleading -- not to mention on-air fundraising -- for Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown last week, Fox News crossed yet another threshold in its unabashed transformation into a purely political entity. Now completely turning its back on producing any semblance of independent journalism, Fox News eagerly flaunts its role as GOP kingmaker.

That relentlessly partisan approach continues to raise fundamental questions about what role Fox News plays in our political culture and, thanks to its shameless GOP boosterism, whether the cable channel and its programming should fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Election Commission. Meaning, does Fox News' gung-ho GOP campaign coverage double as a contribution to the Republican Party, a contribution that should be regulated?

The Commission defines "contribution" to include any gift of money or "anything of value" made for the express purpose of influencing a federal election. A key Commission exemption for decades, though, has been granted to the news media, since they have been seen as "neutral" and not controlled by political interests. Therefore their editorial product could not be considered a "contribution" or "expenditure" to any campaign.

The exemption was created, in the words of the Commission, to ensure "the unfettered right of the newspapers, TV networks, and other media to cover and comment on political campaigns," which makes perfect sense, since there's nothing wrong with newspapers endorsing candidates or columnists berating incumbents. The exception has allowed journalists (and more recently bloggers) to report and pontificate about campaigns without having to worry about federal finance laws and whether their editorial efforts cross the line into candidate contributions.

That approach worked well because for decades there has been both a spoken and unspoken understanding among professional journalists as to what kind of guidelines and standards ought to be upheld in the pursuit of the news. That was especially true of cable and network news broadcasters, who wield so much influence in our TV-centric culture.

But as we've been stressing for the past year, the radically transformed Fox News no longer plays by any discernible rules. I mean, allowing one candidate, on the eve of a special election, to repeatedly raise funds on the air? That's unthinkable in any other newsroom in America. Yet that's the platform Fox News opened to Scott Brown in his quest to defeat Martha Coakley in Massachusetts last week. That is, when Fox News wasn't regularly smearing Coakley.

So the question must now be raised: Is Fox News' relentlessly one-sided coverage the equivalent of a massive campaign contribution to the GOP? And based on some recent regulatory language used by the FEC, the answer might just be "yes."

Read the full Media Matters column here.