Citizens United and Media Credibility

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.’”

A recent (May 27) issue of the New Yorker carries a perfect example of the behavior Leach indicts. 

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.”


  1. What amazes me about the Citizens United issue is that we hear report after report about the supposed IRS scandal without a single reference to the fact that changes in the rules regulating 501c4 groups brought about by the Citizens United ruling are never mentioned. Or the fact that in about every poll taken on the subject 80% of Americans want corporations to have less influence over our political process. Or the fact that right now 14 states have passed resolutions in support of overturning the ruling. Where I live, in Monroe county, our City and County Council have both voted unanimously to show support for an amendment to the constitution to overturn Citizens United, and nothing was reported about it outside of Bloomington.

  2. Baloney.

    WNET could have aired the Gibney documentary without contacting Koch. WNET put money ahead of its principles.

    Income inequality has expanded under Obama, who, like his predecessor, is a pawn of the banks. And a warmonger.

    The Sundance film … curious you don’t mention the name. If it was to appear it Sundance, it didn’t lose its funding, because it must have already been made. It simply wasn’t picked up by a distributor. How big a market is there for another documentary about class struggle ?

  3. Sheila, I hate to be a cynic, but I think Scalia, Roberts, Alito, Thomas and Kennedy knew exactly what they were doing when they decided Citizens United. They want money to control speech because they know their values (which are essentially those of the Republican Party) can’t win in the marketplace of ideas if the playing field isn’t sharply tilted in their favor by unlimited spending. They’ve already had one opportunity to revisit that Citiznes United and not of them seized the opportunity. I think they’re actually still quite proud of it. I fear that only the mortality tables will offer an opportunity to change this terrible decision, which has so completely poisoned the political discourse in this country.

  4. Koch could have purchased newspapers before Citizens United, but the court decision likely encouraged him or perhaps gave him the idea.

    The justices knew where this decision would head, but few of us can predict how far the ramifications of this decisions will go. It’s not a pretty expectation.

  5. Another thing that has not helped: The transfer of the news programing to the entertainment divisions. It is all just one big reality show now. They now have to worry about how to dial up the ratings with ever smaller budgets. Not a good combo for us.

  6. @#3 (and, to some extent, OP): What? No.
    Citizens United was about tv broadcasts by for-profit non-media corporations. It has nothing to do with newspapers or any kind of media company. It has always been the case, and Citizens United had absolutely nothing to do with this in any way and could not possibly have given the idea to anyone not suffering from schizophrenic delusions, that any person (or group – the Koch brothers, btw, are two people) can start a newspaper company or purchase an existing one at any time; the owner of a newspaper company, like any other private individual who owns a printer, is free to publish and distribute whatever he or she likes as long as it is consistent with the narrowly-defined limits on the first amendment – that is to say, as long as it is not slanderous or a true threat. The government does not and is not constitutionally permitted to have a say in what speech is or is not considered “factual”. Citizens United had nothing to do with this and is entirely about non-media corporations using their corporate assets to purchase broadcast time (or, as it would be in a newspaper context, space) to distribute political messages. Which, of course, is a right that every individual person has, and there is no valid reason why some people should cease to have that right when acting collectively as shareholders. The fact is that corporations are people; they are just groups of people who have formed a collective entity for legal convenience. Shareholders are people, after all; David Icke notwithstanding, they certainly aren’t reptilians.

  7. And, part II (this turned out quite long), @OP: If we are concerned about PBS distorting its message to secure funding, the solution is not to try to prevent David Koch from donating; he is an individual private citizen and is allowed to give his money to people if he wants to. The solution is to give PBS your own money so it does not need to rely on Koch’s. The real flaw in America’s political discourse is that the ‘unbiased’ institutions so many people claim the public relies on are chronically underfunded, and nobody seems to want to take more responsibility to fix that than “Make someone else pay for it.”
    Money can’t suppress unfavourable coverage, and, in fact, because of the internet, it is less able to do that now than ever before. However, people choosing not to give money to something they don’t like is not censorship, any more than the boycott of Chik-Fil-A was censorship when the fundamentalists cried about it. What would you have done to save that documentary? Forcibly compelled someone to fund it? Our concept of private property forbids that. Unless your goal in conflating all these separate issues was to cover for the desire to jettison the trappings of private ownership altogether (and I hold out hope that it wasn’t), it seems to me that you have yet to identify any actual problem.

Comments are closed.