A coalition of 18 groups that advocate for campaign finance reform are calling on broadcast media outlets to devote more coverage to America's broken campaign finance system and the need for reforms, especially as some estimates suggest that spending for the 2016 presidential election could top $10 billion.
On June 4, the groups sent a letter to the heads of the major news networks, calling on them to "take greater action in the future to ensure that Sunday political talk shows and nightly news devote appropriate attention to campaign finance reform." The letter, which was sent to Fox News, CBS News, NBC News, ABC News, and PBS, comes after a series of Media Matters analyses indicated that the crisis of big money in politics -- an issue that is of deep concern to a bipartisan majority of Americans -- was rarely covered by these networks.
The letter went on to explain that increased coverage of money in politics is crucial in the run-up to the 2016 election because of the influx of "dark money," secretive funds given to political nonprofits and super PACs by undisclosed donors. As the groups explained in their letter, dark money "runs counter to American values of accountability and transparency that give voters the information they need to make informed decisions," and substantive coverage of its outsized influence on the democratic process is more important than ever:
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has responded to an investigation by Atlanta's 11Alive News Tonight, which exposed millions of viewers to the influence of ALEC's corporate members over the Georgia Legislature.
ALEC, which has a history of blocking press access to its functions, refused to let a news reporter from the station cover a meeting between state legislators, corporate representatives, and lobbyists in late May at a Savannah resort. However, the reporter, 11Alive's Brendan Keefe, talked to former ALEC members to find out more and recorded a conversation with a legislator and lobbyist at a hotel bar who offered details of how the group gives state lawmakers free hotel stays and provides them with corporate-backed legislation suggestions.
ALEC responded to 11Alive's investigation by saying its reporter's questions "caught [the spokesperson] off-guard." The group said it has "welcomed journalists from prominent outlets" to its events in the past, but through its lawyers, denied permission to the station to broadcast video it took of the legislators meeting with members of ALEC representing corporations and lobbying interests.
In fact, ALEC has often hired private security or off-duty police officers to remove unwanted reporters, like Keefe in this instance, from its meetings with legislators. Security guards working at the 2011 ALEC annual meeting in New Orleans physically removed ThinkProgress reporters Lee Fang and Scott Keyes from the hotel in which the conference was being held. In 2013, uniformed Washington D.C. police turned away Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank.
Reporters critical of ALEC are denied even the limited access granted to the handpicked journalists ALEC allows to attend portions of their conferences. As Toronto Star reporter Olivia Ward discovered in 2011, some journalists, along with protestors, are threatened with arrest while trying to cover ALEC conferences:
I'm talking to a fellow hotel guest, Beau Hodai, a journalist from the left-wing magazine, In These Times, who has written probing articles on ALEC. Unlike me, he hasn't enjoyed its co-operation and credentials. His calls have gone unanswered, and he has been turned back by the police and guards who firewall the meeting.
The noise level in the bar rises and so do I. As I say goodnight, Beau is summoned by hotel security and herded away toward the elevator by uniformed police. Why? In Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, I was evicted from my hotel by machine-gun-toting militias as the Kosovo war began. But in America. . . ?
ALEC and their corporate sponsors have a vested interest in keeping their conferences confidential. In secrecy, lobbyists and lawyers construct model right-wing legislation to be introduced in state houses across the country. These model laws include the controversial "Stand Your Ground" law, which has been used in high-profile cases to defend an individual's use of deadly force. In its investigation, 11Alive reported on legislation that "severely limits who can file asbestos claims against corporations," showing a side-by-side comparison of ALEC's template for the bill, and the nearly identical bill passed by the Georgia legislature in 2007. Minnesota passed a similar ALEC-authored asbestos bill in 2012.
As ALEC's profile has become more public and the unethical implications of its corporate-written legislation have become more obvious, some major companies have quit the group. Yahoo, Facebook, and Microsoft have all left the organization in the last two years. However, the departure of Google may be the most notable as its executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, cited ALEC's climate change denial as Google's reason for leaving (emphasis added):
"The company has a very strong view that we should make decisions in politics based on facts -- what a shock," said Schmidt. "And the facts of climate change are not in question anymore. Everyone understands climate change is occurring and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. And so we should not be aligned with such people -- they're just, they're just literally lying."
As the Center for Media and Democracy's Brendan Fischer has reported, ALEC's 2015 agenda is no less controversial despite the loss of a few powerful members. According to Fischer, ALEC's focus this year will be on efforts to stifle the growing minimum wage movement among localities as well as supporting union busting right-to-work legislation.
Beyond continuing to create model legislation for state governments, ALEC has also launched a subsidiary to focus on more city and county legislation. Bloomberg noted that the newly formed American City County Exchange will work to increase privatization of municipal functions by "push[ing] policies such as contracting with companies to provide services such as garbage pick-up and eliminating collective bargaining, a municipal echo of the parent group's state strategies."
Broadcast evening news programs on ABC, NBC, and CBS completely ignored likely Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush's questionable delay in announcing his campaign while he sidesteps campaign laws and continues coordinating with his super PAC. Despite increasing scrutiny of a strategy that "tests the legal definition of [a] candidate," the nightly news programs have devoted zero coverage to the matter since The Associated Press (AP) first reported on it in April.
While most of the Sunday political news shows ignored accusations that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) may be unlawfully coordinating with his super PAC, CBS' Bob Schieffer asked the prospective presidential candidate if he was "violating the spirit of the law."
Bush has recently come under scrutiny for coordinating with his super PAC, Right to Rise. As the Washington Post reported, "Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center -- sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch [on May 27] asking that the Justice Department investigate whether Bush and his PAC 'are engaged in knowing and willful violations of federal campaign finance laws.' The groups are calling on Lynch to appoint an independent Special Counsel to investigate potential violations."
In a May 31 editorial, The New York Times editorial board endorsed the idea and urged the Justice Department to get involved, describing Bush's relationship with Right to Rise as "brazen," and "cynical" and noted that Bush is "obviously" running for president:
Ideally, the F.E.C. should be doing its enforcement job. Given that agency's dereliction, the Justice Department must exercise its authority to enforce the law. The abuses of runaway political money will only grow when candidates believe there's no one to stop them.
During the May 31 edition of Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer questioned Bush over his questionable PAC coordination. Asserting that it was "pretty obvious" that Bush was running for president, Schieffer pointed to criticism and requests for investigation into his dealings with Right to Rise, asking if he thought he "may be just at least violating the spirit of the law" by coordinating with the group. Bush dismissed Schieffer, claiming that he "wouldn't ever do that" and simply was "trying to get a sense of whether [his] candidacy would be viable or not" prior to deciding if he would officially run for president:
The media have largely continuously ignored that likely Republican presidential contenders in 2016 are using dark money and secretive nonprofit groups to sidestep campaign finance laws. Face the Nation was the only Sunday broadcast network political show to even broach the subject.
In March, Bush gave his "tacit endorsement" to Right to Rise Policy Solutions, a nonprofit organization that allows him to side-step campaign finance laws that cap donations from individual donors and require donations to political action committees (PACs) to be publicly reported, permitting "individuals and corporations" to "give as much as they want while remaining anonymous," according to the Post. The news garnered little media attention at the time, with just a scattering of articles and two segments on broadcast and cable news outlining the dark money connections.
Although there have been several major campaign finance stories this year, so far the media has paid significant attention only to one: the retired postal worker from Florida who landed his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn to raise awareness about the need for reform -- and the coverage has barely noted his motivations.
On April 15, Doug Hughes landed his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn "to save our democracy," as he wrote in The Washington Post, because "91 percent of Americans see the corrosive influence of money in our political system as a problem that demands attention." Hughes continued:
It is clear these issues will be among the most important in the 2016 election, when every candidate for any office needs to answer one simple question: Which approaches to reducing money's corrupting influence on our democracy do you support? Journalists, especially at the local level, need to ask tough questions, then report the truth and let people decide.
Sadly, most Americans don't know about [campaign finance reform] solutions or how to engage. That's why I chose civil disobedience, taking 535 stamped letters and my message to the seat of power where the problem is. Big money is a threat to our democracy just as security threats are.
Hughes is right -- according to Bloomberg, "spending by candidates, parties and outside groups and individuals" in the run-up to the 2016 election "may approach $10 billion." Thanks to a series of Supreme Court decisions that have relaxed Watergate-era campaign finance reform laws, it's easier than ever for an elite few to exercise disproportionate influence in the democratic process.
Hughes' landing was marginally successful in getting some media coverage of campaign finance reform in the days following. A Media Matters analysis of the network evening news broadcasts and the Sunday political talk shows found 17 total segments dedicated to Hughes and the gyrocopter landing. But other than a discussion on the April 19 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, none of the Sunday shows or evening news broadcasts dedicated any substantive coverage to the message behind Hughes' protest. Understandably, most of these segments focused on the security issues raised by the fact that Hughes was able to fly undetected into the District of Columbia's no-fly zone, rather than his reasons for his flight in the first place.
In recent months, the Republican attorneys general in West Virginia and Oklahoma have been relentlessly working to block the EPA's proposed carbon pollution standards for power plants, via an ongoing lawsuit, legislation, public relations activities, and Senate testimony. But the media coverage of these efforts has consistently left out a key aspect of the story: These attorneys general have formed what a New York Times investigation described as an "unprecedented, secretive alliance" with the fossil fuel industry against the Obama administration's environmental policies.
In its analysis of an unprecedented change to how the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is selected, The Wall Street Journal ignored the significant financial contributions a right-wing group made in support of the move, which would strengthen conservative control of the court before it examines possible illegal campaign coordination between that same group and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R). Instead, the editorial board focused on the fact that the current chief justice has a lawyer who is on the board of directors of a judicial election reform group founded by George Soros.
On April 7, voters in Wisconsin approved a constitutional amendment that changed how the state supreme court picks its chief justice. For the past 126 years, the longest serving justice on the bench was automatically selected to act as chief justice. After passage of the new amendment, which was supported by Republican lawmakers in the state and boosted by hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent spending from conservative groups, the court itself will now elect which justice they want to serve as chief.
The conservative majority of the court is expected to replace current Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a liberal, with one of their own.
But in an April 9 editorial, the Journal failed to mention the conservative support for the amendment and the influence outside spending had on the outcome of the vote, and instead attacked Abrahamson for filing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new amendment. The editorial went on to add that her "lawyer is Robert Peck, a member of the board of directors of George Soros's Justice at Stake. The group wants to end state judicial elections and replace them with nominating commissions that allow state bar associations to hand-pick judges."
From the April 2 edition of Courtside Entertainment Group's The Laura Ingraham Show:
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Recent revelations that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush "has given his tacit endorsement" to a group that will funnel dark money to benefit a potential presidential run raise questions about how the media will respond, given how the press has frequently treated publicly disclosed charitable donations to the Clinton Foundation as a major scandal for Hillary Clinton.
Jeb Bush "has given his tacit endorsement" to Right to Rise Policy Solutions, a nonprofit organization established by a former Bush staff member that shares its name with two Bush affiliated political committees, according to a March 31 report from The Washington Post. The nonprofit allows Bush to side-step campaign finance laws that cap donations from individual donors and require donations to political action committees (PACs) to be publicly reported, permitting "individuals and corporations" to "give as much as they want while remaining anonymous." As noted by the Post, experts now predict that the creation of the "Bush-allied nonprofit" may push other candidates to create similar groups, "injecting more secret money into the political process."
The media have previously gone to great lengths to scandalize donations to the Clinton Foundation, a global charity, devoting weeks of coverage in order to speculate about the impact of donations to a potential Hillary Clinton presidential run. The criticism has come in spite of the fact that those donations were publicly disclosed by Clintons, whose foundation according to the The Washington Post "goes beyond legal requirements" for transparency at a philanthropic organization. Various media figures baselessly speculated that the donations were "another way in to Clinton's potential campaign" and National Journal's Ron Fournier even asserted that donations to the charitable organization were proof that the Clintons would "cut any corners for campaign cash."
The press' obsession with Clinton Foundation donations is in direct contrast to their lack of interest in controversial campaign donations to potential 2016 GOP contenders, like dark money donations benefitting Wisconsin Governor and 2016 presidential hopeful Scott Walker. On March 23 Yahoo News reported that the "richest man in Wisconsin" had made over $1.5 million in secret donations to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a "pro-Walker advocacy group" where Walker helped generate large undisclosed donations. The group also worked to defend him in the 2012 recall election. However, according to a Media Matters analysis, the story went largely unreported by the media.
The press has almost entirely ignored the revelation that after the "richest man in Wisconsin" made secret donations benefitting Republican Governor Scott Walker, his company received special tax credits for that same donor's company.
By contrast, the media have frequently invoked donations to the Clinton Foundation in their coverage of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, baselessly suggesting that those donations create conflicts of interest.
Yahoo News reported March 23 that John Menard Jr., the billionaire owner of a chain of hardware stores in the Midwest, donated over $1.5 million to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which "pledged to keep its donors secret." Walker helped generate large, undisclosed donations for the group, according to records unveiled as part of a criminal investigation into whether the interactions of such groups with Walker's campaign committee violated state campaign finance laws. The Club defended Walker in the 2012 recall election, where he prevailed.
Since then, Menard's company "has been awarded up to $1.8 million in special tax credits from a state economic development corporation that Walker chairs, according to state records." Walker appointees also scaled back enforcement actions by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, "a top Menard priority."
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow gave a detailed account of the story on her March 24 broadcast:
Yet the pay-to-play allegations swirling around Walker, a possible Republican presidential candidate, have been widely ignored by others in the media.
The story hasn't been covered on the three major broadcast networks, CNN, or Fox News, according to a search of Nexis and Media Matters' video archives. The Rachel Maddow Show appears to be MSNBC's only mention of the story. Besides a reprint of an Associated Press article noting a denial of wrongdoing from the Walker administration, the New York Times hasn't covered the story. And the only references from The Washington Post are in a post on the progressive Plum Line blog and the same AP story the Times reprinted.
By contrast, the media has repeatedly raised the specter of "ethical concerns" over donations to the Clinton Foundation by foreign governments and individuals, among others. They have persisted with this coverage despite the clear indications from Hillary Clinton's record as secretary of state that the donations did not influence her politically and the reality that the donations went to a global charity, not a fund benefiting her election.
Mired in conflicts of interest, Watchdog.org's Wisconsin Reporter has remained silent as new information emerges concerning Governor Scott Walker's (R-WI) role in a potential pay-to-play scandal. The site, which echoed defendants calling the investigation a "witch hunt," has previously defended Walker from the allegations of campaign finance violations in over 150 articles.
The Wisconsin Reporter has been a staunch defender of Walker against allegations of wrongdoing stemming from the "John Doe" investigations, the protected state probes into Walker's campaign practices and possible illegal campaign coordination. Since January 1 of this year, the Reporter has published 19 articles either defending Walker or denouncing the validity of the investigations.The Reporter's website includes a special series on the "John Doe" investigations titled "Wisconsin's Secret War," which currently has 186 total entries.
But the Wisconsin Reporter has been silent as evidence reportedly leaked from the very investigation it has covered so heavily revealed potential instances of pay-to-play between a local business man and the Walker administration.
At issue is over $1.5 million in donations made in 2012 to the Wisconsin Club for Growth (WCG), a group that defended the Governor during his 2012 recall election and is directed by Walker's campaign advisor, Yahoo News' Michael Isikoff reported on March 23. The donations were made by hardware store franchise owner John Menard Jr. According to Isikoff, in the years after Walker survived that recall election, Menard's business has benefited from "up to $1.8 million in special tax credits from a state economic development corporation that Walker chairs."
Before the evidence of Menard's donation to WCG became public, the Reporter defended Eric O'Keefe, director of the WCG, against allegations that he and the WCG improperly coordinated with Walker. In multiple articles the Reporter gave O'Keefe and the WCG a platform to deny wrongdoing and undermine the investigation by calling it a "witch hunt." While prosecutors have not commented on the case to the site, O'Keefe told the Reporter, "From its inception, this was a scam, a political pursuit." In an attempt to undermine the case, the Reporter highlighted the growing cost of the investigation, questioned the independence of the chief justice hearing the case, and promoted counter investigations into the prosecution.
The Reporter has not yet mentioned Menard's donation and subsequent tax breaks, a major development in the story that made national headlines. Their silence on the story highlights the conflicts of interest that surround the outlet's reporting on Walker and the "John Doe" investigations.
The Reporter is part of The Franklin Center, a group of web-based media outlets founded in part by EricO'Keefe. The Franklin Center's Watchdog.org media group -- which includes the Wisconsin Reporter -- claims they are "in no way partisan," however the Franklin Center received 95 percent of their funding in 2011 from Donors Trust, a conservative clearing house used to pump money indirectly into politics, and whose chief executive told The Guardian that no donations to the trust would go "to liberals."
The Franklin Center's ties to conservative Wisconsin groups goes beyond O'Keefe and the WCG. In an op-ed in The Capital Times, Brendan Fischer of the Center for Media and Democracy reported that Franklin Center Director of Special Projects John Connors has also acted as president of Citizens for a Strong America, another conservative group funded by the Club for Growth which was named as a target of the "John Doe" investigation. After apologizing for not disclosing Connors' connection to the case, the Wisconsin Reporter continued to defend Walker and those involved in the investigation.
CORRECTION: This post originally stated that John Connors was personally named in the "John Doe" investigation. While it is unknown if Connors is personally named, he has acted as the president of Citizens for a Strong America, which is named in the investigation. This information was uncovered by the Center for Media and Democracy's Brendan Fischer, not The Capital Times as originally reported.
A Media Matters review of several major newspapers found that their coverage of congressional efforts to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline has been missing an essential component of the story: the hundreds of millions of dollars that the fossil fuel industry spent in the midterm elections to elect members of Congress who support Keystone XL and other aspects of the oil industry's agenda. Of the newspapers reviewed, only The New York Times tied congressional support for Keystone XL back to the fossil fuel industry's campaign contributions.
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.