At a recent conference bewailing the loss of civility in political discourse (now there’s a lament for the ages), former Republican Congressman and current head of the NEA Jim Leach, was quoted on an allied concern: the role money has played in the decline of media credibility.
Leach connected our information infrastructure to Citizens United, saying corporate campaign money has harmed civil discourse in Washington and elsewhere. “Money is the elephant at the door in Washington,” Leach said. (The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which defined corporations as individuals with First Amendment rights to free speech, is widely seen as facilitating negative political campaigning. There has been less focus on its effect on the availability of the accurate information on which citizens rely to participate in the political process.)
“Rather than conflate a corporation with a person, and money with speech, should not the focus be shifted to the transactional relationship inherent in speaking and listening?” Without limits on independent expenditures made by corporations, more money will be spent on negative attack ads for political campaigns that will further taint the tenor of the debate and erode the focus on real issues, Leach said.
“At one end, uncivil speech must be protected by the courts, but filtered by the public,” Leach said. “At the other, moneyed speech must not be allowed to weaken the voices of the people. The Constitution begins, after all, ‘We the People,’ not ‘We the Corporations.’”
The article reports on the fate of two documentaries. The first, by Alex Gibney, an Academy Award winning filmmaker, was called “Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream.” It was scheduled to air on PBS on November 12th. The movie had been produced independently, in part with support from the Gates Foundation, and was intended to be an exploration of the growing economic inequality in America and a meditation on the often self-justifying mind-set of “the one per cent.” It focused on the lives of wealthy inhabitants of a very expensive apartment building in Manhattan.
Unfortunately for Gibney, one of the residents of the building was David Koch. Among other things, Koch was a member of the board of WNET, the New York PBS station, and was being solicited for a large contribution. It doesn’t take much imagination to predict how difficult the battle between journalistic ethics and money became–even at PBS. WNET offered Koch the opportunity to rebut the reporting, and ended up doing a “roundtable” immediately following the show, to facilitate a critique of its message.
At least that movie aired. Others–as the New Yorker piece reported–did not. Another documentary–this one about the influence of money on American politics after the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, had been accepted by the Sundance Film Festival and would compete for Best Documentary. In the wake of “Park Avenue,” it lost its funding. Money not only talks–it silences opposing views, and suppresses unfavorable coverage.
Recently, the billionaire Koch brothers have expressed interest in purchasing a string of newspapers. Given their willingness to silence opposition and engage in propaganda, that’s a chilling proposition.
However benighted the decision in Citizens United, I doubt seriously that the Justices understood the dimensions of the Pandora’s box they were opening. We’re just beginning to see what happens when money manufactures “fact.”