01/10/2012 03:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Super PACs: A Primer For The Media

One of the most noteworthy features of the 2012 election cycle has been the rise of the super PAC -- independent political action committees which can raise unlimited sums of secret campaign cash for the purpose of advocating for or against political candidates or policy positions. The super PAC revolution is, essentially, the rough beast produced by a slew of judicial decisions which have undermined the furtive efforts of campaign-financed reformers -- most notably 2010's v. Federal Election Commission decision, substantially 'roided up by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

Chances are, if you've been following Stephen Colbert's high-concept satiric attack on super PACs -- Colbert, with the assistance of Trevor Potter, has formed his own "Making A Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow" super PAC as a form of comedic "identity correction" -- you may be somewhat versed in the controversy these organizations have caused and the potential distorting effect they have on the political discourse. But it wasn't until the Mitt Romney-backing organization Restore Our Future flooded the Iowa airwaves with ads targeting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) that the media really started to grapple with the issue. MSNBC's Chris Matthews provided the most outsized reaction to Restore Our Future's effect in Iowa, comparing its attacks to the Dresden firebombing of 1945.

As far as metaphors go, it wasn't the best. But the weakness of Matthews' rhetorical feint was, in all likelihood, a measure of how much the power of these organizations caught him off-guard, rather than a measure of Matthews' need to be extreme. What Matthews was responding to was Gingrich's outraged reaction, that Romney could be allowed to remain aloof from all of the dirty work that Restore Our Future was doing on his behalf, and claim the high road even as his super-PAC pals were raining down hellfire. In other words, the central feature of the super PAC that drove both Gingrich's outrage and Matthews' hyperbole is the fact that this financial arrangement is designed to lessen transparency and accountability.

It's generally understood that in presidential politics, the candidate's surrogates are responsible for doing all of the dirty work, while the candidate keeps his or her hands clean. There are limitations -- if, say, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says something particularly outrageous on Romney's behalf, or if Vice President Joe Biden does likewise for President Barack Obama, the candidate can be implicated. Super PACs don't face the same constraint, because in theory, they are not allowed to coordinate with the candidates.

In an ironic twist, the rule that ostensibly disallows coordination probably does more to prevent accountability than it does to promote it. No amount of Gingrich outrage could lead former Massachusetts Gov. Romney to request that his super PAC refrain from harsh attacks even if Romney wanted it to, which he doesn't. As Jay Rosen points out:

If they tried to coordinate, if they said something like, "Take those ads down, and our opponent will do the same..." they would in all likelihood be VIOLATING THE LAW. What a great excuse for not doing it.

Exactly. The rule, which ostensibly exists as a means of public assurance, is an essential part of the mechanism that enables the dirty pool in the first place. But the whole idea that there is no coordination strains credulity. Restore Our Future is run by longtime aides-de-camp of Mitt Romney. Priorities USA Action, the super PAC which backs President Barack Obama, is run by Bill Burton -- the former deputy press secretary of the Obama White House. And the Jon Huntsman-supporting super PAC Our Destiny PAC is financed in part by Huntsman's father.

During the period of time when Gingrich's response to Restore Our Future's ads were roiling the newscycle, Romney had this to say, during an appearance on "Morning Joe": "My goodness, if we cooperate in any way, shape or form we go to the big house." His statement reads as someone who is not so much concerned with doing something wrong as he is concerned with being caught doing something wrong. (This isn't exactly new. Let's recall that his response to the infamous undocumented immigrants who tended his gardens was, "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals.")

And that's basically where the whole issue just becomes one of those classic examples of a thing that everyone in the world of political reporting knows but -- absent definitive proof -- won't actually say.

The notion that there's no coordination going on between candidate and super PAC is transparent bullshit. But if Mitt Romney says there's nothing going on, we have to "leave it there." Basic common sense alerts us to the fact that we're getting played, but the generic laws of media politesse prevent us from saying otherwise.

In most cases, anyway! Let's think about this for just a second. When we talk about super PACs, and their relation to candidates, we're talking about an organization that provides support for a candidate's political fortunes, support which can be disavowed after the fact. I didn't produce that ad. I didn't write that ad copy. Those aren't my words. I had no knowledge that was being said on my behalf. I didn't find out about it until after it had come out. Sound familiar? Because it reminds me of a matter that was recently pursued by the media in an aggressively skeptical, adversarial way.

I am, of course, referring to the Ron Paul newsletters. Obviously, no super PAC has produced material that is so searingly controversial as those old newsletters, which featured outrageously racist, homophobic and xenophobic content. But when Rep. Paul (R-Texas) attempted to mount the same kind of defense -- the newsletters were ghostwritten and he did not know their contents until the damage had been done -- the media spoke with one voice: "We don't believe you." It defied credulity that Paul could have been unaware that a newsletter bearing his name, and which he touted in interviews, contained the despicable content found within its pages. And even if you accepted his claims -- which one had to, in the absence of smoking-gun evidence -- it still said something potentially disqualifying about Paul as a potential President -- that he was a hare-brained manager of his own affairs.

Having given Paul the sort of rough treatment he received, it seems nonsensical to not apply the same treatment to the rest of the super-PAC enabled candidates -- which, with the exception of Buddy Roemer -- includes all of them. No, these super PACs have not disseminated racist content. For that we can be thankful. But they enable all manner of cheap shots and they actively encourage a greater quantity of deception in our discourse. For instance, here is Romney, lying right to Gingrich's face, in a moment captured by "The Daily Show":

Let's face it: the only real achievement of the super PACs is that they help make deception and dirty shots more palatable and polite. So the alternatives are clear, we can treat super PACs as some interesting species of political fauna and shrug at it, saying, "Well, technically, the candidates can't coordinate with them" knowing full well this is going on, or we can agree that a super PAC that supports a candidate is an inextricable extension of that candidate's campaign, making that candidate ultimately responsible for what it does. My fear is that most will choose the former option, because of fealty to all those rules of media etiquette that turn the press into fragile bags of snivel.

But they should choose the latter approach, and put candidates on the hook for the things their super PACs say and do. And they should use their scrutiny of Paul's newsletters as a guidestar in terms of applying scrutiny consistently, because while it's true that Paul largely managed to put the controversy behind him, he nevertheless was made to admit that he had "moral responsibility" for the newsletters. If the media can wring the same admission from candidates as far as their super PACs are concerned, it would be a significant victory for accountability.

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