Stephen Colbert's Real Advantage: Free Air Time

Far from effectively satirizing Citizens United, Colbert's satirical "super PAC" illustrates why concern over the ruling is misguided.


Stephen Colbert has run for president before. Back in 2007 Colbert ran a brief campaign in South Carolina, first as a Republican and then as a Democrat. At the time, money was a big concern. Colbert said he could avoid FEC rules if he kept his campaign expenditures under $5,000. So the $35,000 GOP primary filing fee forced Colbert to switch parties in his mock bid for the presidency. Although he paid the $2,500 fee to add his name to the South Carolina Democratic ballot, Democrats excluded him for the primary. After just three short weeks, Colbert ended his mock candidacy.

Fast forward to 2012. Money is no concern for Colbert, whose perch on "The Colbert Report" has allowed him to raise a bunch of money for his very own super PAC, Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. Flush with cash, Colbert announced his decision to form an exploratory committee for his second bid for the presidency ... of "the United States of South Carolina."

Abiding by the rules governing campaign spending, Colbert's super PAC will no longer be affiliated with the comedian directly. Colbert has handed the reins over to his Comedy Central colleague, Jon Stewart, and changed the name of the PAC to The Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC.

Attack ads, largely funded by super PACs definitely not coordinating with various candidates, have certainly made an impact this election cycle. In Iowa, Newt Gingrich's brief rise to front-runner was stymied by a flood of negative ads paid for by super PACs definitely not coordinating with Mitt Romney.

In South Carolina, Romney is tasting his own medicine as a super PAC definitely not coordinating with Newt Gingrich released a 30 minute "documentary" about Romney's role at Bain Capital. The 30 minute ad paints Romney's tenure at Bain as pirate capitalism and Romney himself as a heartless corporate raider, callously killing off jobs to turn a profit. It may as well have been made by Michael Moore.

Colbert's stunt is designed to underscore the problems with these ads and the super PACs funding them, and to point out how the controversial Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, is undermining democracy.

In a 5-4 decision in January of 2010, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional campaign finance regulations which restricted corporations and unions from using funds from their general treasuries in elections, striking down previous court decisions on the matter. This was met with a huge public outcry, especially on the left. Despite the Court's decision having been made on First Amendment grounds, many liberals, upset by disproportionate corporate influence over the political process, worried that the decision would further entrench the power of corporations in American democracy.

Colbert's satirical super PAC, however, far from effectively satirizing Citizens United, illustrates why this concern is misguided.

Prior to the 2010 decision, one industry already had the ability to dip into its bottomless war chest to influence electioneering. The big media companies, and their parent corporations like GE, have been historically excluded from campaign finance laws like McCain-Feingold. This exclusion was understandable: restricting the freedom of the press is obviously unconstitutional on free speech grounds.

But the media has enormous power over the political process. Colbert's nightly fake news show, for instance, has done a great deal more to influence American politics than anything his super PAC has achieved. Indeed, the only reason we know about the super PAC -- the only reason it exists in the first place -- is thanks to Colbert's media celebrity.

Viacom, Comedy Central's parent company, also owns MTV, Nickelodeon, and Paramount. Like the other big media organizations -- Fox News, MSNBC, ABC, CNN, and so forth -- Viacom is unrestricted in its political speech. So is Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns Fox and many other media organizations.

There is little doubt that corporations play a big role in American politics. But the true corporate kingmakers are the mass media outlets that decide what news is fit to print, which candidates are "serious" and which issues are important enough to cover. Citizens United doesn't change this so much as it levels the playing field.

Already this primary season we've seen the power of the media at play. How many times have we heard a reporter describe Mitt Romney as the "presumed Republican nominee?" More times than I can count, journalists have claimed that the Romney campaign has worked hard to cultivate an "air of inevitability" for the former Massachusetts governor's candidacy. But is the Romney campaign responsible for this impression? Or is it a product of the media's repetitive claims? If enough journalists and news anchors and columnists claim that Romney is the presumptive nominee, it's no surprise that his inevitability quickly becomes part of conventional wisdom.

The media's control over presidential debates can also make or break a candidate, especially early on in their candidacy. As Dave Weigel noted in Slate, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson's bid for the Republican nomination was stopped in its tracks by new arbitrary rules set by news organizations which created higher standards for inclusion in the primary debates.

"Johnson wasn't included in any debates after the first, somewhat misbegotten one in May and the fluke Florida debate where Rick Perry first started to melt down," writes Weigel. "Media organizations tightened up their polling requirements after 2008. One debate, hosted by Bloomberg, wouldn't include any candidate who hadn't already appeared in three debates -- a true Catch-22."

If the new, tighter standards been in place in 2008, Weigel argues, the entire landscape of that election would have been changed. In 2011, candidates needed to poll at an average of 2 percent to participate in the debates. If the "requirement been in place that year, Paul would not have made it into the debates that built his following." Of course, as Weigel points out, debates don't guarantee a candidate's success, but they certainly do help give a candidate a ton of exposure -- exposure that even gobs of corporate money can't necessarily buy.

No doubt the Citizens United ruling underscores problems with our current way of conducting elections. But as Glenn Greenwald argues in Salon, "the speech restrictions struck down by Citizens United do not only apply to Exxon and Halliburton; they also apply to non-profit advocacy corporations, such as, say, the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, as well as labor unions, which are genuinely burdened in their ability to express their views by these laws."

Former New York governor Elliot Spitzer is of a similar mind, asking, "What distinguishes what Citizens United did and what Bill O'Reilly on Fox News -- Rachel Maddow on MSNBC -- does every day? Fox and MSNBC are corporations bombarding the airwaves with political rhetoric, from the right and left, that is as close to 'electioneering communications' as anything I can imagine."

While negative ads are playing a bigger role than ever in our elections, as the death match between Gingrich and Romney is amply illustrating, and while this is almost certainly a direct result of more corporate spending, it's far from certain that these ads change the playing field in any significant way.

Remember "swift-boating?" The term was coined during the 2004 election, years before Citizens United, when the 527 group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, ran a particularly vicious smear campaign against John Kerry. Restrictions on corporate money didn't prevent those ads from running at the time, and overturning Citizens United would do very little to prevent similar efforts in the future. If we didn't have super PACs we'd have 527 groups. If we pass laws to clamp down on 527 groups, some new organization would emerge. Money flows regardless of whatever leaky, legal dams we erect. Closing one loophole merely opens another. And focusing solely on how money influences elections takes the focus off of other, more important ways that money influences politics.

Colbert simply missed the mark in his super PAC satire, much as many on the left miss the mark when they rail against Citizens United. The ruling is a convenient bugaboo for our discomfort over money in politics -- but it barely scratches the surface when it comes to the role of corporate money in the political system.

It isn't just the power of corporations to influence elections that we should worry about. At least with attack ads everything -- except the donors' identities -- is pretty much out in the open.

The day-to-day grind of the political process that should worry Americans more. Lobbyists for powerful special interests descend on Washington in droves to influence the machinations of our democracy. Money is everywhere and was everywhere long before Citizens United. Men like Henry Paulson made their fortune participating in the very activities that they were later asked to regulate. Little wonder, then, that they turn blind eyes to Wall Street. After Bush left office, the new Democratic administration brought men like Tim Geithner on board. The revolving door spins the same for those on both sides of the political aisle.

There are many nefarious ways that governments and corporations can work together to the detriment of the average American citizen. The financial collapse of 2008 was the direct result of government at once propping up the housing industry and failing miserably to regulate Wall Street -- a task which, given the current political system, may be impossible regardless of the regulations we enact. The collusion between Washington and the most powerful American financial firms is a far more profound and troubling phenomenon than anything decided in Citizens United.

Meanwhile, the media's ability to arbitrarily set rules that govern who is and who is not included in debates is an exercise of power that few other corporations can imagine. Politics is little more than the messy transaction of power, after all, and money is just one of its currencies.

Between the powerful grip the biggest media corporations have on the political conversation and the multitude of revolving doors that keep our elected officials more beholden to special interests than to their own constituents, the free speech granted to groups of people by Citizens United -- whether unions or corporations or non-profits -- is hardly a hill to die on. Indeed, that same free speech is one of the few defining virtues of our democracy left intact -- and it's what media celebrities like Stephen Colbert rely on to do what they do every day. Free speech is what gives Colbert his influence in politics. That we are legally protected to put our money where our mouth is is an important part of the free speech equation.

There are better ways to combat the influence of corporations and the media over the political process than attempting to stymie free speech. Emerging technologies, social media, and the power of ad hoc groups of people like Occupy Wall Street to work together to change the political discourse are all dependent on the same freedom of speech that allows corporations and unions to spend their money on electioneering.

To truly take on Citizens United, opponents would also have to take on free speech, quite possibly undermining the causes they believe in most. As Greenwald notes, this would allow "the views of News Corp., GE, and Viacom to flourish (through their ownership of media outlets) while preventing the ACLU and Planned Parenthood from speaking out."

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