05/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's Worse Than Corporations Influencing Elections? Corporations Banned From Speaking on Elections

The most remarkable thing about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC is that, more than one month after it was released, the firestorm of controversy it created shows no signs of letting up. President Obama's State of the Union address--in which he lambasted the decision's holding that the government may not ban corporations from spending money on political speech during elections--probably deserves most of the credit for fanning the flames. The President predicted dire consequences for American democracy, warning that the Court had opened the door to "powerful interests" taking over our elections.

Since then, the most vocal critics of Citizens United, and the biggest cheerleaders of Congress' attempt to blunt its effects, have been prominent media outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post--outlets that, like most media organizations, are owned by corporations. One wonders if these papers' editorial boards have asked themselves: What might the future have held, for the media and everyone else, if Citizens United had been decided differently--with the Court allowing, rather than condemning, the censorship of corporate speakers? Let's allow a future President to answer that question...

Excerpt from the President's 2022 State of the Union address:

"Twelve years ago, President Obama stood before Congress and praised the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Citizens United v. FEC, in which the Court upheld federal campaign finance laws that prevent corporations from using their vast resources to unduly influence our elections. Since that time, however, hundreds of corporations have gotten around these laws by taking advantage of a loophole within them that exempts any corporation that has a media operation. These corporations, following a tactic first espoused by the NRA in 2003, bought or created media outlets of their own. Through those outlets, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars--mostly in the form of television programs and websites--each year to defeat and elect candidates.

"No corporate special interests--even if they call themselves members of the media--should be able to take over our democracy by using their economic resources to determine who wins and who loses our elections. (Applause.) But even before the advent of sham media organizations like Exxon News and AIG Press, corporate subsidiaries such as the New York Times and Fox News were already devoting significant resources toward the influencing of elections by endorsing and opposing candidates for office.

"This corporate involvement in politics has severely damaged the media's reputation; neither Democrats nor Republicans trust it to be fair. For example, the Obama administration accused Fox News of not being a 'legitimate media organization,' and my predecessor's administration said the same thing about the Times.

"Indeed, poll after poll shows that Americans believe that the 24/7 news cycle of today is driven not by a disinterested pursuit of the truth, but instead by partisan politics and political agendas. We have seen special interests hire members of the media to write favorable stories, and we have seen news outlets decline to report on stories that would be harmful to their corporate parents. More frequently than ever, journalists--just like corporate lobbyists--are moving back and forth between positions in media and the government. This revolving door gives corporations with media outlets special access--access they used ten years ago to secure a taxpayer-funded bailout. It's no wonder, then, that the public views the media as an institution that is part of the problem of special-interest corruption in Washington, not the solution.

"If we want to preserve the integrity of our democracy from all--not just some--powerful corporate interests, we can no longer afford to give the media special treatment. (Applause.) To close the media loophole in our campaign finance laws, I'm calling upon Congress to pass the Media Reform Act, which I'm pleased to see has attracted nearly unanimous support in the House and Senate. (Applause.) Under this new law, any media outlet owned by a corporation may no longer spend its money on anything--including television programs, websites, books, and films--that has as its goal or effect the influencing of elections. (Applause.) And, so that media outlets do not spend money to produce news stories that inappropriately influence voters, they will have to submit for approval all news stories about politics to the Federal Election Commission, which will determine whether those stories are fair and balanced. (Applause.)

"I know that a vocal minority has criticized this law as an intrusion of the freedom of the press. But, as the Supreme Court made clear in Citizens United, corporations, unlike real people, don't have rights. (Applause.) Media corporations have received special treatment under the law only because Congress has entrusted them to behave in a more responsible manner than other business corporations. Because the media has violated that public trust, it has forfeited those privileges. (Applause.)

"So that we can have true campaign finance reform that ensures our democracy will belong to the people, not corporate special interests, it is vital that you pass the Media Reform Act and send it to my desk for signature as soon as possible." (Standing ovation.)

Bert Gall is a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which challenges campaign finance laws nationwide and filed a brief in support of Citizens United in the recent Supreme Court case.

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