Money and Speech

I'm really tired of the canard that money suddenly has an outsized influence in politics. Plenty of studies show that money follows likely winners, but doesn't determine the winners of elections. More importantly, this September 7, 2014 column by Senators Tom Udall of New Mexico and Bernie Sanders of Vermont ignores the most basic of all questions…
In 2010, the Supreme Court issued a disastrous 5-4 opinion striking down major parts of a 2002 campaign-finance reform law in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This case and subsequent rulings, including McCutcheon v. FEC, have led to the explosion of outside money in elections through so-called super PACs. In the 2012 election, we quickly saw the results — 32 major super PAC donors combined to give more money than the millions of ordinary Americans who donated less than $200 each to Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. More than 60 percent of all super PAC funds came from just 159 donors, each of whom gave more than $1 million.

Even more worrisome is the explosion of "dark money" — dollars spent by groups that do not have to disclose their funding sources. The 2012 election saw almost $300 million in dark money spending, and the 2014 election could potentially see as much as $1 billion.

No single issue is more important to the needs of average Americans. If we cannot control billionaires' power to buy elections, the people elected to office will be responsive to the needs of the rich and powerful, rather than the needs of everyone else.

When the Supreme Court says, for purposes of the First Amendment, that corporations are people, that writing checks from the company's bank account is constitutionally protected speech and that attempts to impose reasonable restrictions on campaign ads are unconstitutional, our democracy is in grave danger.
And my question is…

Who owns "the press" that has Constitutionally protected speech? Yep, corporations own most of the major media outlets from which people get their political news. These might be for-profit conglomerates or non-profit activist corporations, but they are some legal form of "entity" with Constitutional protections.

It would be a huge, huge mistake to change the Constitution in any way that allows politicians or their appointees the power to regulate communication. Former U.S. solicitor general Ted Olson's response in the Wall Street Journal is dead-on: Democrats are trying to rewrite the First Amendment in a way that would apply to newspapers, websites, pamphlets, and other expressions of ideas.
The Obama administration conceded during oral argument that the law would permit the government to ban the publication of political books or pamphlets. Pamphlets and books ignited the revolution that created this country and the Bill of Rights. In pushing to overturn the court's decision, Mr. Reid and his Democratic colleagues apparently wish they had the power to stop books, pamphlets—as well as broadcasting—that threaten their hold on their government jobs.

Incidentally, President Obama's complaint in his 2010 State of the Union address that Citizens United "reversed a century of law" was false. The court preserved the architecture of the campaign-finance laws but overturned an anomalous 1990 decision in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (and its progeny) that would have permitted statutory limits on corporate speech to help level, or equalize, the playing field in election campaigns. Even the Obama administration was unwilling to defendAustin's rationale in briefs to the court, presumably because it would warrant all manner of government thumbs on the scale regarding election rhetoric, possibly even imposing handicaps to balance the advantage of incumbency.
Throughout the history of the United States people and groups have used printing presses to promote political agendas. There is a reason some newspapers were the "Times Democrat" or the "Republican Journal" a century ago. Most papers dropped the "Democrat" or "Republican" labels from their nameplates (mastheads) after World War II, as there was an emphasis on seeming neutral. But, we can still determine the biases of most media outlets without the labeling.

It's no secret that families bought newspapers to promote their views. The names of politically engaged publishers are legend: Hearst, Pulitzer, Ochs, Chandler, and Graham. Today, new names are emerging, like Bezos, Murdoch, and Zell.

Many magazines were founded not to make money, but to promote political ideals. If rich people want to promote their views, they will find a way.

Media ownership should include some social responsibility, but I don't want anyone dictating or trying to monitor the perceived biases of various media outlets, even those with significant foreign ownership. Most major publishers are international, after all.

That foreign investors (Carlos Slim) can own controlling shares in major media like the New York Times doesn't seem to worry progressives. But, they are quite worried about companies of any sort promoting their collective views.

Our founders used relatively expensive printing presses to encourage resistance, and eventual revolution. Today, I can use a free website, like Blogger, to promote my views. If I'm lucky, a few people read these ideas and engage in debate.


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