This January marks the fifth anniversary of Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court case that expanded the idea of "corporate personhood" by ruling that the First Amendment protects a corporation's right to make unlimited expenditures in support of political candidates as a form of speech. Network news coverage of its legal impact, however, has largely ignored how the Supreme Court continues to aggressively expand the decision.
This expansion of corporate rights has wide-ranging consequences, even outside of the context of campaign finance deregulation. The court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, for example, seemed to embrace the idea that corporations are capable of morally objecting to contraception coverage, co-opting yet another constitutional right -- that of religion -- that had previously been reserved for people, not businesses.
In terms of election law, the conservative justices further dismantled campaign finance restrictions in 2014's McCutcheon v. FEC, which struck down aggregate campaign donation limits and allowed wealthy donors to contribute money to a virtually unlimited number of candidates and political parties. The court will hear yet another campaign finance case on January 20 called Williams-Yulee v. the Florida Bar, which could strike down a Florida rule that prohibits judicial candidates from directly soliciting money from donors -- a rule that was put in place in response to a serious corruption scandal that resulted in the resignations of four Florida Supreme Court justices.
Yet despite the cascade of decisions from conservative justices intent on dismantling campaign finance regulations and rewriting corporate rights -- and the majority of Americans who support a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United -- the media have largely underreported this story.
Here are four graphics that illustrate this failure.
On January 20, the day before the five-year anniversary of Citizens United, the Supreme Court will hear yet another case that could roll back campaign finance restrictions, this time for judicial elections. Here is a media guide to some of the legal briefs filed by experts in that case, Williams-Yulee v. the Florida Bar, which warn that allowing judges to solicit campaign donations directly is a recipe for disaster.
Major network newscasts have given almost no coverage to an upcoming Supreme Court case that will decide whether judicial candidates can personally solicit campaign donations -- despite the risk of corruption.
On January 20, the court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, in which a candidate for an elected county judge position -- Lanell Williams-Yulee -- sent out a fundraising letter that she signed herself. As in the majority of states, judicial candidates in Florida are prohibited from sending out this kind of direct solicitation to prevent the appearance or risk of corruption. Instead, they are required to set up separate campaign committees to send out fundraising requests on their behalf. The Florida Bar filed a complaint against Williams-Yulee, who was ultimately reprimanded and fined. Williams-Yulee is now arguing that the ethical rule restricting her ability to ask for donations is an unconstitutional restriction of her free speech, an extension of the argument validated by the conservative justices in Citizens United and its progeny.
This case gives the conservative justices of the Supreme Court yet another chance to roll back restrictions on campaign finance -- which they have steadily gutted since 2010's Citizens United decision allowing millions of dollars to flood the federal election system. Most recently, the court struck down aggregate campaign limits in 2014's McCutcheon v. FEC, making it easier for wealthy donors to contribute to a virtually unlimited number of candidates and political parties.
Yet a Media Matters analysis of Sunday morning talk shows (ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press) as well as nightly news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, NBC's Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour) reveals just one segment that covered the Williams-Yulee case since it was appealed to the Supreme Court -- the October 2 edition of PBS NewsHour.
Conservative news outlet Watchdog.org released a six-part series defending dark-money organizations -- politically focused groups that conceal the identities of their donors -- but failed to disclose its own funding from the Koch brothers and other conservative dark-money players.
The Watchdog.org series, titled "A License to Speak: The Dark Money Deception," defends the use of dark money in support of political initiatives. In the series, Watchdog.org claimed that regulation of dark money ensnares private citizens in government bureaucracy and dampens free speech, and it compared dark-money organizations to civil rights groups that protected members' identities out of concern about violent reprisals.
The Franklin Center, publisher of Watchdog.org, is funded largely in part by one of the biggest conservative dark money spenders, Donors Trust, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group that pools large donations for support of conservative causes while protecting the identity of the donors. As Mother Jones reported, Donors Trust is the "dark-money ATM" for conservative causes across the country and is heavily supported by right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch:
Founded in 1999, Donors Trust (and an affiliated group, Donors Capital Fund) has raised north of $500 million and doled out $400 million to more than 1,000 conservative and libertarian groups, according to Whitney Ball, the group's CEO. Donors Trust allows wealthy contributors who want to donate millions to the most important causes on the right to do so anonymously, essentially scrubbing the identity of those underwriting conservative and libertarian organizations.Wisconsin's 2011 assault on collective bargaining rights? Donors Trust helped fund that. ALEC, the conservative bill mill? Donors Trust supports it. The climate deniers at the Heartland Institute? They get Donors Trust money, too.
Donors Trust is not the source of the money it hands out. Some 200 right-of-center funders who've given at least $10,000 fill the group's coffers. Charities bankrolled by Charles and David Koch, the DeVoses, and the Bradleys, among other conservative benefactors, have given to Donors Trust. And other recipients of Donors Trust money include the Heritage Foundation, Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, the NRA's Freedom Action Foundation, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Federalist Society, and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, chaired by none other than David Koch.
The Franklin Center is among the major benefactors of Donors Trust, receiving 95 percent of its funding from the group in 2011. A Harvard University discussion paper on news coverage and state government quoted Franklin Center president Jason Stverak as saying, "I ran a Republican Party. We disclose that fully on [the Franklin Center] website. But at the end of the day it's the same standard that you would hold Fox News, CNN, the New York Times, New York Post, Fargo Forum from my home state of North Dakota to -- you will judge any news organization based upon the content that they produce."
In addition, Donors Trust's chief executive Whitney Ball told The Guardian that donations from the trust, like those made to the Franklin Center, are not given to progressive causes. "It won't be going to liberals," Ball said. This agenda is clearly expressed in the journalism produced by Watchdog.org. For example, after the Franklin Center launched a Watchdog affiliate in Maine, the Portland Press Herald noted the questionable work of the Watchdog sites:
According to a story written last spring by Laura McGann in Washington Monthly, Franklin Center Watchdog websites across the country have engaged in a similar pattern of investigative muckraking.
"As often as not, their reporting is thin and missing important context, which occasionally leads to gross distortions," wrote McGann. She detailed several instances in which Watchdog websites broke stories, which after additional phone calls turned out to be misleading or untrue.
"This sort of misleading reporting crops up on Watchdog sites often enough to suggest that, rather than isolated instances of sloppiness, it is part of a broad editorial strategy," wrote McGann, who is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University and a former editor of the Washington Independent, a liberal D.C. news source.
2014 was a year of eye-popping media numbers, from millions of dollars' worth of coverage devoted to a trumped-up scandal to mere seconds devoted to historic news. Here are some of the most important -- and most surprising -- figures from the year.
The New York Times omitted key facts it had previously reported to dishonestly accuse Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration of selling political favors to an Ecuadorean family in exchange for campaign donations. Excised from the Times reporting is the fact that prominent Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio, have the exact same relationship with the donors that the Times is now portraying as a problem for Democrats.
"Ecuador family wins favors after donations to Democrats," the Times headline claimed. The article detailed the decision to grant a travel visa to a "politically connected Ecuadorean woman," and argued that the decision to do so was connected to "tens of thousands of dollars" the family of the woman, Estefania Isaias, has given to Democratic campaigns.
According to the Times, "the case involving Estefania could prove awkward for Mrs. Clinton," based on the fact that she was Secretary of State when members of Congress were advocating for travel visa for the relative of two Florida residents seen as fugitives by the Ecuadorean government.
The Times fixated on political donations given by the Isaias family to Democrats as if it were news, but the Times already reported on the money the Isaias family has given to elected officials in a March 11, 2014, article. Moreover, that prior article noted that potential Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio and Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen had also aided the Isaias' at the same time their political campaigns received donations linked to that family -- facts absent from the more recent piece.
In March, the Times made clear that the family gave significant campaign contributions to Florida Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who "acknowledged trying to help the family with immigration troubles." The Republicans sent letters -- in one case directly to Clinton herself -- inquiring into the immigration issues surrounding members of the family or advocating on their behalf.
"The family gave about $40,000 to Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, whose district members live in," the Times reported then. "Last month, she acknowledged to The Daily Beast that while she was chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee she sent four letters to top American officials, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of state, advocating on behalf of three members of the Isaias family who had problems with their residencies. She called it 'standard practice' for constituents."
That detail is absent from this week's Times article.
Here's the Times in March: "Mr. Rubio, whose political action committee received $2,000 from Luis Isaias, also made 'routine constituent inquiries' into immigration matters for two family members, his office said." In December, Rubio's advocacy vanished from the Times.
Additionally, while the article suggests in its opening paragraph that Estefania Isaias was given permission to enter the country in 2012 in direct response to the donations from her family, she reportedly received the same access on six prior occasions dating back to the first restrictions on her movement in 2007 under the Bush Administration. Indeed, the Times reported in the 23rd paragraph of its article that a spokesperson for Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said the senator's office had gotten involved with the Isaias case because "because Ms. Isaías had previously been allowed to travel to the United States six times despite the ban, and the decision to suddenly enforce it seemed arbitrary and wrong."
Conservative media are exploiting the Times' shoddy reporting -- reporting that doesn't stand up to basic scrutiny in light of what the Times itself has previously reported.
"Clinton State Dept Pulled Strings for Menendez in Pay-to-Play Deal with Dem Donor," the Washington Free Beacon headline claimed. "Controversial Ecuadorian Family Donated About $100,000 to Obama ... and the State Department Returned the Favor," is the take over at The Blaze. The Daily Caller: "Sen Menendez Pushed Hillary Clinton To Grant Visa For Daughter Of Ecuadoran Bank Fugitive."
Taking The New York Times' lead, Rubio's and Ros-Lehtinen's advocacy on behalf of their donors is nowhere to be seen.
Media coverage of an omnibus spending bill that rolled back key financial services regulations ignored the amount of money the financial services industry spent helping elect members of Congress in 2014. In fact, the industry lobbying to eliminate the regulation spent $436 million on federal candidates during the midterm elections.
The New York Times downplayed the impact of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and dismissed the influence of money in politics by ignoring record-breaking spending of outside groups, the role of large donor political contributions, and dark money in the 2014 midterm election.
A December 9 New York Times Magazine article entitled "Who Wants to Buy a Politician?" argued that the "forecast that a flood of money would follow" the 2010 Citizens United ruling has largely not come to fruition. Author Binyamin Appelbaum noted that "spending has declined in each of the last two congressional elections" and argued that spending on campaign elections is "economically inefficient" because campaign spending has little impact on election outcomes:
[T]he 2012 presidential election, which recorded $2.6 billion in campaign spending, underperformed many forecasts. And spending has declined in each of the last two congressional elections. Candidates and other interested parties spent $3.7 billion on this year's midterms, down from an inflation-adjusted total of $3.8 billion in 2012, which was less than the $4 billion spent in2010, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
[B]uying elections is economically inefficient. Most voters, like most consumers, have defined preferences that are difficult for advertisers to shift. Chevron spent roughly $3 million during a recent campaign backing, certain City Council candidates in Richmond, Calif., where it operates a major refinery. Voters instead chose a slate of candidates who want to raise taxes. "Campaign spending has an extremely small impact on election outcomes, regardless of who does the spending," the University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt concluded in a 1994 paper. He found that spending an extra $100,000 in a House race might be expected to increase a candidate's vote total by about 0.33 percentage points. Investors appear to agree that companies can't make money by investing in political campaigns. A 2004 study found that changes in campaign-finance laws had no discernible impact on the share prices of companies that made donations.
Appelbaum points to small donor contributions to argue that the majority of donations are not meant as an influencing factor:
Most campaign money, after all, comes in smaller chunks from individual donors. People who gave $3 to Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008 could not have reasonably expected that their small contributions would influence the future president. Even those who give larger sums rarely contribute the maximum allowed by law, as might be expected of someone trying to buy influence. Instead, individual contributions have increased over time merely in proportion to personal income.
But this argument obscures the especially outsized role large donors have in elections and downplays the proportion of large donations to overall campaign spending. The Sunlight Foundation found that in 2012, the median contribution from this group of elite donors was $26,584. Demos, a progressive public policy think tank, analyzed campaign finance data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics and found that most campaigns in 2014 were actually fueled by big donors:
Just 50 individuals and their spouses accounted for more than a third of the total money raised by Super PACs this cycle. Many candidates, including some whose individual contribution totals reach into the millions, report receiving few or even no dollars in contributions from small donors. For example, House Budget--and future Ways and Means--Committee Chairman Paul Ryan reported that all of his more than $5 million in individual contributions came from large donors.
Appelbaum also glossed over the record spending made by outside groups in the 2014 midterms. According to The New York Times, "political groups independent of candidates spent more than $814 million to influence congressional elections last month, a record for the midterms and nearly twice the spending in 2010, Federal Election Commission records show." And as the Center for Responsive Politics noted, this year's figure show an increase in the overall share of campaign financing came from outside groups. Such groups represented 8.5 percent of the total spent in 2010 and are projected to represent 13 percent in 2014 while there were "fewer people donating to political organizations."
Most egregiously, Appelbaum failed to note the role of dark money in elections. According to ABC News, "this year, dark money groups have spent $200 million in 11 of the most competitive Senate races, nearly double the amount they forked out in 2012." As the Huffington Post noted, the 2014 Senate races in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky and North Carolina accounted for nearly half of all dark money spent to target 2014 candidates. Appelbaum cited two of these races, but suggested they were "the exception."
All of this matters, because as Ian Vandewalker of New York University's Brennan Center for Justice demonstrated, the fusion of campaigns and big money can subvert the ability of qualified individuals to pursue public office if they don't have access to wealthy donors:
Although marginal differences in spending won't swing election outcomes, a candidate who doesn't raise a sufficient amount of money is virtually guaranteed to lose. As a result, candidates who don't have connections to wealthy donors may never bother to run, no matter how qualified they are. And the "arms race" mentality tells candidates not to let the other guy get too far ahead in spending. That's why candidates, including incumbent officials, are falling all over each other to raise money.
While it's true that the amount spent on all the congressional elections together hasn't changed much in recent years, that fact obscures the reality that spending is highly concentrated in the competitive races that will decide control of a chamber of Congress. Donors don't just want to buy the gratitude of a candidate, they want the gratitude of the party in power.
A Media Matters analysis of major U.S. newspapers reporting on the alleged "war on coal" found that newspapers provided one-sided coverage of the issue and seldom mentioned the coal industry's negative environmental and health impacts or its efforts to fight regulations. Out of 223 articles published in major U.S. newspapers this year mentioning the phrase "war on coal," more than half failed to mention underlying issues that account for the coal industry's decline and the need for regulations. Further, less than 10 percent of articles mentioned harm caused by the coal industry or how the coal industry is fighting against regulations aimed at protecting miners and reducing pollution.
Right-wing website Watchdog.org incorrectly reported that Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has received donations from Time Warner Cable to accuse the senator of hypocrisy in advocating for net neutrality. In fact, the donations in question have come from media corporation and separate entity Time Warner.
Watchdog.org's Minnesota bureau reported that Franken has received $33,450 from Time Warner Cable lobbyists since 2009, painting him as a hypocrite for supporting net neutrality as a result:
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has made his name in the latter part of his first term as a crusader for net neutrality and a huge critic of billion-dollar mergers of multimedia companies.
And while his ire has been focused on Comcast, the nation's second largest media conglomerate, he's been raking in cash from competitor Time Warner Cable, the third-largest, according to profits.
Since 2009, Franken has raised $33,450 from lobbyists from TWC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit dedicated to tracking political spending.
The Center for Responsive Politics reveals, however, that those donations came from Time Warner, an entirely separate company. Time Warner is a media corporation that owns HBO, Castle Rock Entertainment, and Warner Bros., among other content producers. Time Warner Cable Inc. is a cable and telecommunications company.
Franken has extensively denounced Time Warner Cable's proposed merger with Comcast, the largest cable and internet provider in the country.
Image at top via Flickr user John Taylor using a Creative Commons License.
CBS Evening News reported on the role of dark money -- spending on political campaigns by outside groups in which either no donors are disclosed or some donors are disclosed -- in key senate elections during the 2014 midterm elections without noting that conservative dark money spending far outpaced that of Democrats, giving viewers a distorted view of who benefited from this controversial spending in 2014.
A Media Matters study on the coverage of key policy issues in nightly news' midterm election broadcasts finds that 65 percent of network news segments that dealt with the midterm elections failed to discuss the policy issues most important to the American people.
Right-wing media are disingenuously claiming Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's (NH) widely-publicized support of basic campaign finance rules is "bombshell" evidence that she urged the "targeting" of conservatives.
Just hours before election day, the Daily Caller released a report alleging that Shaheen was "principally involved in a plot with Lois Lerner and President Barack Obama's political appointee at the IRS to lead a program of harassment against conservative nonprofit groups during the 2012 election." As evidence, it pointed to the fact that Shaheen had corresponded with the IRS lawyer William J. Wilkins about decades-old campaign finance regulations.
The Daily Caller added that a "major conservative super PAC" included Shaheen's name in a Freedom of Information Act request pertaining to the IRS. "If YOUR NAME is the search term that the conservative super PAC uses in its bid to get public information," writes Patrick Howley, "then you just might be involved in something."
Other right-wing media sources rapidly seized on the opportunity to attack Shaheen. Fox News, which has relentlessly promoted the campaign of her challenger, former Fox News employee Scott Brown, trumpeted the claim as "a death sentence" for Shaheen's Senate hopes.
But the Daily Caller's piece does not demonstrate a scandal of any kind and appears only to be repackaging already-reported information about a benign exchange of letters between several Democratic senators and IRS attorneys.
It's no secret that Senate Democrats asked the IRS to clearly define how much money 501(c)4 nonprofits, which gain tax exemption as "social welfare" organizations, are allowed to spend on election-related activities. In 2012, Democratic Senators, including Shaheen, released a letter publicly requesting that the IRS offer more specific "administrative guidance" on campaign finance restrictions for nonprofit groups. The request received media attention at the time, and IRS lawyer William J. Wilkins responded to Shaheen and others with a letter describing existing campaign finance rules:
"These regulations have been in place since 1959," Wilkins wrote. "We will consider proposed changes in this area as we work with Tax-Exempt and Government Entities and the Treasury Department's Office of Tax Policy to identify tax issues that should be addressed" in designing new regulations and "guidance."
"I hope this information is helpful," Wilkins wrote. "I am sending a similar response to your colleagues. If you have questions, please contact me or have your staff contact Cathy Barre at (202) 622-3720."
Right-wing media have repeatedly used unfounded conspiracy theories to prop up the IRS "scandal" after the allegations that the IRS solely investigated conservative groups' campaign spending began to crumble. Meanwhile, the political influence of money spent by outside groups has soared to record levels in the 2014 election cycle.
From the October 31 edition of PBS' Moyers & Company:
Loading the player reg...
Fox News used a baseless, wildly inflated figure to blame the continued delay of the Keystone XL pipeline on spending by climate activist Tom Steyer, who has lobbied against the project. The network claimed that Steyer has spent $42.9 billion on the midterm elections -- a number that is nearly 600 times larger than the amount Steyer has actually spent.
On October 30, the hosts of Fox News' Fox & Friends berated the Obama administration for delaying a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until after the 2014 midterm elections. If approved, the pipeline would transport crude oil from so-called "tar sands" deposits in Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast for export overseas. Fox co-host Anna Kooiman alleged that part of "the equation" for that delay is the money and influence of Steyer -- a donor and activist supporting environmental causes -- in this year's elections. Kooiman claimed that Steyer had contributed "some $42.9 billion" to defeating the pipeline:
Tom Steyer's entire net worth is $1.6 billion, according to Forbes, and as of October 28, Steyer had spent about $73 million during this year's elections, according to USA Today, on issues ranging from the Keystone XL to the Renewable Fuel Standard to climate change denial. Fox inflated Steyer's contributions in opposition to the pipeline by nearly 600 times, and its estimate is off by roughly $42.8 billion.