Citizen United fills airwaves—and corporate coffers
The 2010 midterm elections were the first since the Supreme Court’s 5-4 Citizens United decision allowed unlimited corporate funding of political broadcasts in elections. As was widely predicted at the time, spending hit unprecedented highs this election cycle, including record sums on television ads. In the words of the Associated Press (10/29/10), Citizens essentially constituted a “stimulus package” for broadcast and cable media corporations, which saw major increases in revenue, thus benefiting from the ever-deepening relationship between money and politics.
In fact, media corporations raked in a record $3 billion this midterm election cycle, not only breaking the previous midterm spending record of $2.4 billion in 2006, but also surpassing the $2.7 billion spent in the 2008 presidential election cycle (AP, 10/29/10). Much of this windfall can be attributed directly to the Citizens decision, according to a report from the media tracking group SNL Kagan, which described the 2010 election climate as “a political ad revenue treasure trove for broadcasters” (Hill, 9/22/10).
CBS, according to AP (11/4/10), “pounced on an advertising revival in the broadcast media to produce a 53 percent increase in its third-quarter net income”; other media companies likewise “reported robust ad gains.” Media giant Time Warner—owner of cable channels like CNN, TNT and TBS—saw profits rise by more than one-third in the quarter, in part due to a 23 percent increase in ad revenue (CNET, 11/4/10).
Local stations likewise have their snouts in the trough. Political ads are expected to account for 11 percent of the total revenue for local broadcasters this year, up from 7 percent in 2006 (AP, 10/29/10). In Boston, where a 30-second election spot costs about $25,000, demand for ads was so high that local channels were actually turning them down. “There are not enough commercial breaks and too many advertisers. It’s been absolutely crazy,” said Andy Hoffman, a sales manager for Channel 5 in Boston (Boston Globe, 10/30/10). The informational benefits for the public of swimming in partisan political ads, it goes without saying, are dubious (USA Today, 10/25/10).
Media companies not only benefit from ads, but also now have the ability to donate as much money as they want to politicians’ campaigns. This new leverage will enable media corporations to fight for issues that impact their bottom line, such as relaxing telecommunications regulations and fighting against net neutrality to ensure them a competitive advantage over smaller, independent news sites.
This election cycle News Corporation made a massive $1 million contribution to the Republican Governors Association (New York Times, 8/18/10), while General Electric, which owns NBC, made more than $2 million in donations to both parties. (See sidebar.) Time Warner and Disney, which own CNN and ABC respectively, also donated money to both political parties (CNN.com, 8/17/10), ensuring that politicians from both sides of the aisle will be considering big media interests when legislating.
As major participants in and beneficiaries of the influence-buying orgy, it’s hardly surprising that television outlets did not seriously examine the impact of the Citizens United decision. In the month leading up to the election, NBC Nightly News didn’t mention the decision a single time; on each of its two broadcast competitors, the issue came up only once (CBS Evening News, 10/11/10; ABC World News, 10/11/10). CBS Evening News’ sole mention came in an interview with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who accused the GOP of accepting illegal foreign contributions from the Chamber of Commerce. In ABC’s segment, correspondent Jake Tapper did a “factcheck” of that Democratic Party talking point. (Tapper’s verdict? There’s no “proof”—which, of course, is one of the problems of the Supreme Court’s OK of unlimited, undisclosed contributions.)
Importantly, the media narrative ignored the large sway corporations have over both parties, reducing a serious threat to democracy to just another partisan back-and-forth. For example, on MSNBC NewsNation (11/4/10), NBC’s Michael Isikoff discussed the issue in terms of how “a number of other groups on the Republican side…[took] advantage of that big Supreme Court decision back in July which allowed unlimited contributions from corporations [and] labor unions.”
By contrast, the independent TV/radio program Democracy Now! (10/28/10) deeply probed the connection between money, politics and the media. This included interviewing Common Cause executive director Robert Edgar, a former congressmember, who said the new spending will result in “a Congress made up of those supporting the energy companies, the healthcare industry and foreign corporations more than public citizens.” As Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman wrote in her syndicated column (Truthdig, 11/3/10): “We hear no debate about this, because the media corporations are making such a killing by selling campaign ads. Yet the broadcasters are using public airwaves.”
Other stations beyond the control of U.S. corporations, such as foreign outlets, also provided more critical analysis on the effects corporate money would play in the electoral process. Russia Today (10/21/10) ran a segment titled “America, Inc.,” which addressed in depth the potential implications for American democracy. Likewise, the British Guardian (6/8/10) raised “questions about the link between politics and special interests seeking influence,” and the “close links between politics and big corporations.”
The lack of U.S. corporate media interest included the print media, which covered the election in much the same way as broadcast outlets. “Don’t follow the money,” urged New York Times columnist David Brooks (10/18/10), arguing that money is not a crucial factor in elections, since candidates who spend more money on campaigns often lose. Of course, both corporations and candidates believe money makes a difference—otherwise corporations wouldn’t spend so much and politicians wouldn’t put so much energy into courting donors. Which means that the vastly increased flow of corporate money gives politicians of both parties even more incentive to legislate in favor of potential donors—providing the wealthiest contributors still greater leverage in dictating policy.
Brooks also used misleading and inaccurate numbers, as Glenn Greenwald (Salon, 10/19/10) noted. For example, Brooks wrote that the Chamber of Commerce only spent $22 million, while Greenwald pointed out that the Chamber itself claimed it would “spend at least three-and-a-half times that amount,”and that “the Chamber is proudly announcing that it ‘will ramp up its political activity in the three weeks remaining before the November 2 congressional elections.’”
When Newsweek (10/13/10) covered the impact of money on the 2010 election, it quickly became obvious that their emphasis was not on what it would mean for democracy or the public: “Being an anonymous political donor is completely legal. But is it good for business?”
Another distortion echoed throughout the print and broadcast media was the implication that labor unions benefited as much from the Citizens decision as corporations. “Though the decision does not directly address them, its logic also applies to the labor unions that are often at political odds with big business,” the New York Times (1/22/10) reported in its initial coverage of the Supreme Court decision. This false equivalency persisted into the election coverage as well. In an article about the increased outside money in U.S. elections, the AP (11/8/10) described Citizens United as a decision “that gave unions and corporations a greater voice in politics” and “will push the boundaries further.”
Employment-oriented nonprofits, a category that includes most labor unions, reported total revenues of $18 billion in their latest filings, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics. Meanwhile, U.S. corporations are currently making profits—not revenues—at an annual rate of $1.7 trillion (New York Times, 11/27/10). With that kind of disparity in resources, it’s clear that big business will be by far the biggest beneficiary of unlimited political spending—along with big media.
Michael Corcoran (MichaelCorcoran.blogspot.com) is a freelance journalist based in Boston. He has written for such outlets as the Nation and the Boston Globe.
Stephen Maher (RationalManifesto.blogspot.com) is an MA candidate at the School of International Service at American University. His work has appeared in the Electronic Intifada, Truthout and other publications.