Linda McMahon ‘Voter Bounty’ Story Is a Reminder That WWE Was Built by ‘Legal Payola’

While we wait to see if the Hearst Connecticut newspapers’ Sunday report on the Linda McMahon candidacy and World Wrestling Entertainment is just more hot air, Hearst’s Brian Lockhart has produced a valuable examination of the campaign’s controversial voter-registration effort among University of Connecticut students. See “Paying for voters: McMahon campaign plan draws questions,” http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Paying-for-voters-McMahon-campaign-plan-draws-460248.php#page-1.

Though outside the scope of my own investigations, the so-called “$5-per-GOP-voter bounty” does align with what I know about WWE history in one important respect. The McMahons’ media and merchandising empire was built in the 1980s by a wrinkle called “barter syndication.” The then World Wrestling Federation, the Northeastern territory of the pro wrestling industry’s Mafioso cartel, expanded nationally thanks to the advent of cable TV and the rampant deregulatory actions of the Federal Communications Commissions under Mark Fowler, the chairman appointed by President Ronald Reagan. With the elimination of quotas for advertising minutes, a large category of programs — chiefly wrestling and children’s cartoons — became wall-to-wall infomercials. Vince McMahon, with Linda tagging along, outbid old-line promoters across the country for their traditional local TV time slots. Often those deals included splits between WWF and the TV stations on local wrestling ticket sales and marketing revenues, and the parties also swapped out commercial time; the McMahons used the latter to establish an ad hoc national syndicated network.

All perfectly legal, I should add. I analogize this to the outrage over the subtle bribes to disk jockeys in the 1950s who plugged pop music records, and the silence over the high-level manipulations of America’s culture industry ever since. The former is called “payola.” The latter is just business. If Linda McMahon has her own, business, politics, and statecraft will be not only interrelated, but indistinguishable.

Irv Muchnick

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