Don't Believe All You Read in the Papers About Campaign Finance

>Should you believe what you read about campaign finance in editorials and commentaries in the New York Times or the Washington Post? Not necessarily. The Times and Post have long promoted reform, undoubtedly secure in the belief that restrictions on political speech by non-profit advocacy groups, as well as business corporations or unions, would never apply to the press. Editorial writers and publishers are entitled to their own opinions, of course, no matter how self-serving; but lately they seem to think they're also entitled to their own facts, refusing to acknowledge, much less correct, indisputable inaccuracies. Consider these examples -- a simple case involving the Washington Post and a complicated one involving the Times.

In a recent Washington Post column urging reversal of Citizens United, Katrina vanden Heuvel categorically declared that Russ Feingold was "a victim of Citizen's United spending," offering as proof of this assertion a link to a Nation interview with Feingold, where -- you might be surprised to discover -- instead of supporting vanden Heuval's claim, Feingold directly contradicts it, explicitly denying that he was a "victim" of opposition spending. When asked about the role of money in his defeat, he states:

Money in politics is a huge issue. But let's be clear: I certainly wasn't underfunded [in 2010]. I don't think another $100 million would have changed the outcome of my race. I don't think even $100 million would have mattered, because of the mindset that had developed, because of the desire on the part of a lot of voters to send that message.

It takes chutzpah, shamelessness, or negligence to cite as support for a factual assertion an authoritative statement that directly contradicts it. Maybe vanden Heuvel didn't read the interview in her own magazine; maybe she relies on incompetent research assistance; maybe she assumes that her readers don't bother checking links and accept her claims at face value; maybe, like the right wing propagandists The Nation deplores, she's decided that facts don't matter. Whatever. I like to think they matter to the Washington Post, so, naively perhaps, I emailed a request for a correction. I received no substantive response (only an automated message acknowledging receipt). Vanden Heuvel's disingenuous column still appears uncorrected.

On November 22, 2010, the New York Times published an editorial lamenting the Citizen's United decision and repeating a popular myth about the case, claiming that the majority in Citizens United "overturned a century of precedent." No, it didn't. (Never mind that overturning old precedents is not necessarily a bad thing, as Brown v. Board of Education demonstrated.) The 1907 law, or "precedent," on which the Times relied (the Tillman Act) banned direct corporate contributions to federal campaigns -- the Tillman Act was not at issue in Citizen's United, and it has not been overturned. Citizens United struck down a ban on independent expenditures enabling advocacy for or against candidates by non-profit or for profit corporations or unions in the run-up to an election. In effect, it held that media corporations, like the Times or Fox News, do not have constitutional monopolies on political endorsements or attacks.

The Times had reason to know better when it published its inaccurate editorial last November. Months earlier, in February, 2010, it had wrongly editorialized that Citizens United sanctioned "unlimited corporate and union contributions," (again, ignoring the important difference between direct contributions to campaigns and independent expenditures), and it published letters complaining, predictably, that the decision overturned a century of precedent. So, naively perhaps, former ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser requested a correction, pointing out that the 1907 Tillman Act had not been overturned. He emailed the Times corrections department and then public editor Clark Hoyt. His requests were ignored, and the inaccuracies were not merely uncorrected but repeated in the subsequent, November 22rd Times editorial wrongly claiming, once again, that Citizen's United overturned a century of precedent.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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