End the Media’s Campaign Privilege

The Trump era has seen an erosion of the distinction between journalism and partisan politics, with much of the mainstream media in open opposition to the president. “Balance has been on vacation since Mr. Trump stepped onto his golden Trump Tower escalator . . . to announce his candidacy,” New York Times columnist Jim Rutenberg wrote in August 2016.

Three years later, the holiday continues. Slate last month published a leaked transcript of a staff “town hall” at the Times. “We built our newsroom to cover one story,” executive editor Dean Baquet told employees, explaining that the paper’s narrative “went from being a story about whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia and obstruction of justice to being a more head-on story about the president’s character.” The new story, he said, “requires deep investigation into people who peddle hatred.”

Mr. Baquet makes the Times sound like an advocacy organization working against Mr. Trump’s re-election. Such organizations are regulated by campaign-finance statutes. So are other corporations, for-profit or nonprofit, that engage in electioneering speech. But those laws exempt media organizations, provided they are not owned by a political party, committee or candidate.

The justification for this favored treatment is the media’s “unique” role in public discourse and debate. But that has changed—and not only because the media have become more partisan. “With the advent of the Internet and the decline of print and broadcast media,” the Supreme Court observed in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), “the line between the media and others who wish to comment on political and social issues becomes far more blurred.”

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Hillary’s Rationale for Opposing Citizens United Fell Apart in Last Week’s Debate

by DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. & DARIN BARTRAM

February 9, 2016 in the National Review Online

Few politicians have railed more loudly against the Supreme Court’s 2010 key First Amendment decision, Citizens United v. FEC, than the star of the Citizens United–produced political documentary (Hillary: The Movie) that provided the factual basis for the decision. But forget about the kind of independent advocacy at issue in that case or even highly regulated campaign contributions. At last Thursday’s debate against Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton grandly asserted that she could not be bought or influenced even by huge amounts of money flowing directly into her own pocket from mega-corporations such as Goldman Sachs. She angrily denied the corrupting influence of money in politics when she is the one cashing the check. Having done that, on what possible basis can Secretary Clinton oppose the kind of independent speech unleashed by Citizens United?

It has become a matter of Democrat orthodoxy that Citizens United has been a disaster, because it enables groups of citizens, including those organized in the corporate form, to freely engage in political speech. To many Democrats, that is tantamount to buying elections and politicians. Secretary Clinton’s opposition to Citizens United is well known and a central plank of her presidential campaign. Just last month, in noting the six-year anniversary of that decision, she accused the Court of having “transformed our politics by allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.”

While slamming the Supreme Court’s decision, Hillary Clinton has pledged something that most presidential candidates shy away from: a litmus test for future Supreme Court nominees if she is elected, to ensure they would vote to overturn Citizens United. She has also endorsed partially repealing the First Amendment to enable the government to restrict political speech for a variety of purposes, including the alleged need to equalize the ability of diverse voices to participate in democratic governance. Presumably, films like Hillary: The Movie wouldn’t make the cut.

The Supreme Court in Citizens United concluded that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political advocacy by corporations, labor unions, and associations, because such speech expenditures do not pose a threat of quid pro quo corruption or even the credible appearance of corruption. They simply expand the marketplace of ideas. The decision led to the establishment of super PACs, regulated groups that can receive unlimited donations from individuals and corporations to spend on political and policy advocacy. It also permitted well-established national advocacy groups — whether the National Rifle Association or the Sierra Club — to become energetically engaged in political speech and debates. Read more »