Media outlets downplayed the legal concerns swirling around Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush's fundraising for his affiliated super PAC prior to his formal campaign announcement in their reports on the campaign's unprecedented fundraising success.
The Wall Street Journal dismissed concerns that likely Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has delayed announcing his campaign while he sidesteps campaign laws and continues coordinating with his super PAC, describing questions about his candidacy as the "return of the speech police." But Bush has been facing increased scrutiny from both legal experts and media noting that he may have violated the law.
Campaign law watchdogs organizations have repeatedly filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission urging them to investigate whether Jeb Bush is illegally coordinating with the super PAC Right to Rise. They argue that Bush is in violation of campaign finance laws that prohibit candidates from certain coordination with PACs and believe that Bush's actions suggest he should be treated as a presidential candidate under the law, regardless of whether he's formally announced his candidacy.
The Wall Street Journal dismissed these concerns in a June 8 editorial, warning readers not to "be surprised if the subpoenas [from the DOJ] hit Republican candidates at crucial political moments." The Journal described criticism of Jeb Bush for delaying his announcement as the "return of the speech police" from the "political left":
The theory behind this accusation is campaign "coordination," the new favorite tool of the anti-speech political left. Earlier this year the Justice Department invited such complaints with a public statement that it would "aggressively pursue coordination offenses at every appropriate opportunity."
Under federal law, illegal coordination occurs if a campaign expenditure (say, a TV ad) mentions a candidate by name in the 120 days before a presidential primary, or if it advocates for a candidate and if the candidate and Super PAC have coordinated the content of the ad.
The liberals claim that a Super PAC raising and spending money in favor of a Bush candidacy should be treated as coordinated expenditures, making them de facto contributions to his campaign. Candidate is the operative word here, a designation that has always been applied to those who announce they are running for public office.
Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer says Mr. Bush should be considered a candidate who is illegally coordinating because if you asked "100 ordinary Americans" if he is a candidate, they will say yes. What a bracing legal standard. What would the same 100 Americans have said about Hillary Clinton in 2013, or Ted Cruz in high school? Where is the limiting principle?
But the Journal's dismissal of the criticism of Bush's questionable PAC coordination ignores the growing number of legal experts who have raised questions about his actions. The New York Times noted that "[s]ome election experts say Mr. Bush passed the legal threshold to be considered a candidate months ago, even if he has not formally acknowledged it." CBS' Bob Schieffer similarly pointed out that it is "pretty obvious" Bush is running for president, even as he "rais[es] huge amounts of money for [his] super PAC." Even conservative blog Brietbart.com criticized Bush's PAC coordination, pointing to "Several campaign finance law experts [who claim] they believe Bush is violating the law."
The Wall Street Journal has previously advocated for doing away with the same laws they're now claiming Bush isn't breaking, again claiming they are "dangerous" and no more than a "political attack ... [as] part of a larger liberal campaign." In reality, the decades-old law crafted in the wake of the Watergate scandals to prevent coordination between independent groups and political candidates has long had support across the political spectrum, including the conservative majority in the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.
From the June 8 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom:
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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:
From the June 3 edition of MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show:
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From the April 15 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:
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From the April 9 edition of MSNBC's NOW with Alex Wagner:
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Fox News Host Sean Hannity is criticizing singer John Legend's Oscars speech, which invoked the civil rights movement and the ongoing fight for racial and social justice. In response to Legend's completely accurate statement that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is under attack today, Hannity disagreed and appeared to argue that the seminal civil rights law was irrelevant to strict voter ID laws.
On February 22, Legend and co-writer Common won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Glory," from the film Selma, a historical drama about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s fight for equal voting rights. In his acceptance speech, Legend noted that the civil rights struggle represented in the movie continues "right now": "We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now, in this country, today."
On the February 23 edition of his show, Hannity complained that Legend "decided to make all things political." Even though Legend didn't explicitly bring up voter ID laws in his speech, Hannity went on to suggest that it was inappropriate for Legend to "equate the Voting Rights Act with showing an ID to get to vote so we can keep honesty and integrity in our elections ... I like John Legend as a musician, but he doesn't know anything about politics":
An upcoming House Oversight Committee hearing features two conservative media darlings infamous for their anti-immigrant rhetoric and peddling misinformation about voter fraud and election law.
Republicans on the House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing February 12 titled, "The President's Executive Actions on Immigration and Their Impact on Federal and State Elections." The hearing advisory, obtained by Media Matters, promises an examination of the president's executive actions on immigration and how they may affect "federal and state elections, including the issuance of Social Security Numbers and drivers' licenses to individuals covered by the action."
Two witnesses who will be featured at the hearing, according to the advisory, are well known for spreading misinformation in conservative media circles: Kris Kobach and Hans von Spakovsky.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is a repeat guest on Fox News and is often touted by right-wing pundits who support his extreme positions on immigration. He first elevated his profile by pushing a bill that would have directed police officers in Arizona to check the immigration status of those stopped for violations of city and county ordinances, civil traffic violations, and other non-crimes, and would have allowed police to consider race as a factor. Kobach was also instrumental in pushing a Kansas voter registration law that has disenfranchised thousands of American citizens. Appearing on Fox & Friends in March 2014, Kobach tried to cast doubt on the president's immigration enforcement, accusing the administration of "cooking the books" on deportation numbers.
Hans von Spakovsky has been featured on Fox News and on National Review Online for years, demonstrating an unending willingness to distort the truth in the service of restrictive and discriminatory voter ID laws. Spakovsky has repeatedly overstated the prevalence of in-person voter fraud and continues to push for voter ID laws that disproportionately affect minority communities and suppress legal voters. At National Review, Spakovsky characterized the modern civil rights movement as being "indistinguishable" from "segregationists."
This hearing comes on the heels of the Senate's recent hearing on Loretta Lynch, a highly regarded nominee for attorney general, which featured a witness list peppered with habitual conservative media misinformers.
UPDATE: On the eve of the hearing, prosecutors in Kansas are questioning Kobach's voter fraud claims. The Lawrence Journal-World reported that Kobach has asked lawmakers to grant him the "the power to press voter fraud charges because he says prosecutors do not pursue cases he refers."
But federal prosecutors in Kansas say Kobach hasn't referred any cases to them, and county prosecutors report that the cases referred to them did not justify prosecution.
Five years after the Supreme Court opened the floodgates of campaign spending with its Citizens United decision, top newspapers in the three states with the most expensive judicial campaigns, Ohio, Alabama, and Texas, have largely failed to connect Citizens United with major changes in these races. The influx of money into state judicial elections following the decision has accelerated negative advertisements and campaign financing that may influence judges' decisions.
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.
From the November 14 edition of Fox News' The Kelly File:
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A recent study indicated that viewers of Fox News are far more likely than viewers of other TV news to believe that voter fraud is a more significant problem than voter suppression, an unsurprising finding given the network's misleading reports on voter ID laws and in-person voter fraud.
Right-wing media have repeatedly defended the need for strict voter ID laws while denying the reality of voter suppression -- particularly in the run-up to the midterm elections. On the November 2 edition of America's News HQ, National Review Online contributor Hans von Spakovsky argued that it was "not true" that strict voter ID laws can "suppress minority voters," even though there were already concrete examples of people of color, women, and the poor being turned away from the polls this past election because they didn't have the type of identification required to vote. Even though a federal court has called one voter ID law an "unconstitutional poll tax," right-wing media have previously called such restrictive ID requirements "a good thing."
Fox News was back on the supposed harmlessness of strict voter ID again on the November 12 edition of The O'Reilly Factor. Host Bill O'Reilly rejected a federal court's uncontroverted finding that implementation of Texas' new voter ID law "may prevent more than 600,000 registered Texas voters (about 4.5% of all registered voters) from voting in person for lack of compliant identification," as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent from the Supreme Court's refusal to block the law. O'Reilly's guest, fellow Fox News host Eric Shawn, concluded that Ginsburg's prediction was "[n]ot true" because a roundup of disenfranchised voters compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice listed only "about 12" instances of voters being turned away in Texas:
Segments like the one on the Factor might explain why viewers of Fox News disproportionately believe that voter fraud is a bigger problem than voter suppression, despite evidence to the contrary. As Talking Points Memo reported, a new study from the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that "people who consider Fox News their most trusted TV news source say that 'people casting votes who are not eligible to vote' is the bigger problem while most people who trust other news stations (CNN, broadcast news, or public television) say that eligible voters who are denied the right to vote is the bigger issue in voting today."
Election experts have observed that a heavy dose of congressional redistricting after the 2010 elections has polarized the nation and given Republicans an advantage in elections for years to come, but the practice's impact on election outcomes was all but ignored during the major cable news outlets' 2014 election night broadcasts.