Corruption, Super PACs, and Why the Media Hasn’t Covered Democracy Spring

Twenty-nine seconds: according to Lee Fang and Zaid Jilani of The Intercept, this is how much time cable news networks Fox News and MSNBC devoted to daytime and afternoon TV coverage of the Democracy Spring protests as of April 12. On April 11, when 400 protestors were arrested for a sit-in at the Capitol, some were heard chanting, “Where is CNN?” which had not yet covered the protests.

The nonpartisan protest movement, which began on April 2 with a 140-mile march from Philadelphia to Washington D.C., aims to raise public awareness about the influence of money in politics and to pressure lawmakers to find “solutions to our deeply corrupt political system.” Between April 16 and April 18, a coalition of more than 200 organizations calling itself Democracy Awakening joined the protests, holding a series of events from teach-ins to a rally to visits with members of Congress.

Despite more than 1,200 protestors being arrested for acts of civil disobedience – including the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, actress Rosario Dawson, liberal commentator Cenk Uygur, and Miss New Jersey Sameera Khan, the mainstream media’s coverage of the protests has been limited and dismissive.

Also among those arrested was Harvard law professor and brief presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig, who marched with the Democracy Spring protestors from Philadelphia. Lessig in many ways has provided the intellectual basis for the movement’s explicit focus on “corruption” (rather than “voting rights,” as some TV journalists have claimed).

Citing several key provisions of the Constitution and Madison’s statement in The Federalist No. 52 that the legislative branch should be “dependent on the people alone,” Lessig argues that the current campaign finance system has created a climate in which lawmakers are reliant not on the the people who elect them, but on wealthy donors and political groups that sustain their campaigns through massive donations and expenditures.

Lessig claims that the current state of affairs amounts to a specific kind of corruption – one that differs from corruption involving quid pro quo bribery, which he calls “dependence corruption.”

The increased political spending and power of wealthy groups and campaign-independent groups since the Citizens United decision in 2010 show that candidates are, to a significant degree, dependent on the largesse of fundraisers.

One leaked slide from a presentation delivered to freshman Democrats by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after the 2012 elections clearly laid bare this dependence. It recommended that the freshmen devote approximately 4 hours of each workday to “call time,” a euphemism for contacting donors and asking for campaign contributions.

In addition to relying on direct contributors, campaigns are often supported and driven by outside groups as well, such as tax-exempt 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups (which do not need to disclose their donors) and non-coordinated super PACs (which must disclose their donors). Both of these kinds of organizations can raise and spend unlimited sums of money.

Some of these groups are funded in large part by a small group of elite donors, many of them out-of-state – a sign that lawmakers are not “dependent on the people alone.” A study of the 2014 midterm election found that one-third of the $600 million raised by super PACs came from just 42 individuals. In the ongoing 2016 election cycle, the figures are similar: of the $600 million given to super PACs thus far, 40 percenthas come from just 50 mega-donors.

As evidence of lawmakers’ dependence on big money, some have credited these outside groups with launching their campaigns and even helping them win.

At a secret conference held by Charles and David Koch in the summer of 2014, for instance, then-candidate and future Iowa senator Joni Ernst said that it was her exposure to the Koch’s network of well-funded groups and individuals that “really started [her] trajectory.”

And in February 2015, after the midterms, freshman U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska thanked the Chamber of Commerce for backing his successful campaign, saying, “Without your support, I think it’s very doubtful I’d be sitting here as your U.S. senator, talking to you right now.”

Yet candidates with wealthy supporters are not the only ones who benefit from the current campaign finance system.

Much of the money raised by outside groups is spent on TV advertisements – advertisements that are highly profitable for the major networks. Estimates for the amount of money to be spent on TV ads for the 2016 election season range from $4.4 billion to more than $5 billion.

Les Moonves, the president of CBS, has been particularly blunt about the profitability of the current campaign finance rules and political climate since Citizens United. In 2012, celebrating an expected $180 million increase in profits for his network as a result of ad spending, Moonves proclaimed, “Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS.”

It is for this simple financial reason that the major TV networks have likely provided such limited coverage of the anti-corruption, pro-reform protests in Washington: changes to the current campaign finance system could cost the major networks untold millions in revenue.

And it is not only through a media brownout of the protests that the major TV networks are resisting reform, but through the political process as well.

Through their lobbyists, especially those in the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the networks have fought – and continue to fight – laws and regulations that would diminish their lucrative control over the flow of campaign information. Measures these groups have lobbied against on the networks’ behalf include the mandatory online disclosure of political ad information, the erection and maintenance of barriers designed to prevent media consolidation, and the provision of free and more affordable airtime for campaigns.

Since the protestors are demanding, among other reforms, a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United and the passage of legislation that would empower small donors, it is little surprise that the mainstream media is protecting its interests by giving the movement short shrift. But the media may be protecting particular candidates as well.

Hillary Clinton, for example, who has expressed belated and inconsistent opposition to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, is supported by representatives of the major networks, including the vice president of Comcast (which operates NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC) and Steve Elmendorf, a powerful lobbyist and Clinton “bundler.”

Given the public’s general distrust of Clinton, in part because of her support from corporations, super PACs, and dark money groups, the media may be downplaying the protests to prevent Clinton from having to address the influence of money in politics.

Trump, who has also been inconsistently critical of the Citizens Unitedruling and the current campaign finance system, has avoided having to talk in-depth about his history as a donor and lobbyist and specify what reform measures he would support as president.

Regular media coverage of the protests could thus not only energize a reform movement hostile to its interests, but it could also generate tension between the networks and candidates with whom they have a positive, “mutually dependent” relationship.

Dismayed by a lack of media attention, protestors are now leaving the capital and taking their messages back home. But before departing, some activists met with lawmakers and their directors and had the chance to explain to them the urgency of reform and its potential benefits. As one Massachusetts resident put it, speaking optimistically about how reform might change Washington, “I think if we could get money out of politics, a lot of other things would fall into place.”

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About Andrew Gripp

Andrew Gripp received a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Delaware and an M.A. from Georgetown University, specializing in Democracy and Governance. His interests include U.S. and international politics, moral and political philosophy, science and religion, and literature. You can find him on Twitter @andrewgripp.
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