Separating Super PACs From ‘Campaign Spending,’ Media Embrace Core Myth of Citizens United

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Separating Super PACs From ‘Campaign Spending,’ Media Embrace Core Myth of Citizens United

Attack ad produced by Hillary Clinton Super PAC 'Correct the Record' against Bernie Sanders. The Super PAC maintains it does not have to abide by rules forbidding coordination with its favored candidate because online ads are not "expenditures." (Screenshot: YouTube)

Journalists are unwittingly helping to make overturning Citizens United that much more difficult by humoring the pretense that Super PACs aren’t part of political campaigns.

The Washington Post (4/28/16), breaking down Bernie Sanders’ and Hillary Clinton’s campaign spending in “Sanders Is Biggest Spender of 2016 So Far — Generating Millions for Consultants,” made a rather glaring omission: Clinton’s Super PAC money. The phrase “Super PAC” isn’t used once in the piece, nor is there any mention of Clinton’s major Super PACs: Priorities USA and Correct the Record. The entire hook of the article—that “Sanders Is the Biggest Spender of 2016”—is only true if you omit this “outside money”:

By the end of March, the self-described democratic socialist senator from Vermont had spent nearly $166 million on his campaign — more than any other 2016 presidential contender, including rival Hillary Clinton.

Setting aside the sneering at the “self-described democratic socialist” (as if Sanders were supposed to campaign by hitchhiking across America handing out hemp flyers), this statement is only true if one accepts the right-wing logic of Citizens United: that somehow Super PAC communications represent only the “free speech” of the billionaires who back them, and are not part of the candidates’ campaigns. If one doesn’t accept that logic, as campaign finance reformers don’t, then Clinton has outspent Sanders by roughly $20 million dollars—due to the $31,746,350 spent by her Super PACs thus far in 2016. (Outside money for Sanders is less than a million dollars.)

This discrepancy also ignores the fact that the Clinton online-messaging machine Correct the Record, which has so far spent almost $5 million dollars, has argued, thus far successfully, that it can legally coordinate directly with the campaign.

Correct the Record, headed  by Media Matters’ David Brock, has posted dozens of videos targeting Sanders online, and spent upwards of a million dollars to run a network of Twitter and Reddit personas saying negative things about the Vermont senator on social media. They issue negative press releases, graphics and talking points—some of which the Clinton campaign’s Twitter account tweets out.

Yet according to the Washington Post’s “How a Super PAC Plans to Coordinate Directly With Hillary Clinton’s Campaign” (5/12/15):

Correct the Record believes it can avoid the coordination ban by relying on a 2006 Federal Election Commission regulation that declared that content posted online for free, such as blogs, is off-limits from regulation. The “internet exemption” said that such free postings do not constitute campaign expenditures, allowing independent groups to consult with candidates about the content they post on their sites.

Even those pretending that Super PAC spending in general is “separate” should acknowledge spending from groups that expressly admit to coordinating with a particular campaign.

The omission had already affected coverage. A January article from Bloomberg (1/24/16)  with the less-than-subtle headline, “Clinton Refrains From Attacking Sanders. He Doesn’t Reciprocate,” narrowly defined campaign “attacks” as what personally comes out of a candidate’s mouth. That meant a donor-funded Super PAC messaging machine like Correct the Record was ignored.

Indeed, one of the perks of having Super PACs is that they allow candidates to launder their disagreeable messaging through a third party while keeping their hands clean. The media playing along with this shell game is insulting to reader and writer alike.

Over at Slate (5/2/16), Michelle Goldberg (with input from the Clinton campaign) launched a series of meta-attacks on Sanders, or attacks about potential future attacks by the GOP against his “socialist past”—which is really a way of redbaiting while acting as if you’re simply warning about future redbaiting. It’s a played-out way to smear Sanders, and one both she and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie have done before.

Buried in her premise was the idea that the Clinton campaign hasn’t run an attack ad on Sanders:

It is true, as Sanders pointed out, that polls show him doing better than Clinton against Republicans in November. But it is also true that Clinton has not hit Sanders with a single negative ad. Not one.

Again, this is false, as Correct the Record has engaged in constant negative messaging. It’s absurd enough in 2016 to pretend that online ads are somehow not really ads (they are often seen hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of times), but the idea that Clinton’s campaign hasn’t run coordinated negative attacks on Sanders is a dangerous fiction—and one that props up a key pro-Citizens United argument: By indulging in the fantasy that Clinton’s Super PACs are indeed separate from the campaign, the media props up the literal-minded libertarian notion that what Brock and Co. are doing is simply freely expressing a personally held political belief—rather than engaging in big donor–backed electioneering.

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet and writes frequently for FAIR.org. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc.

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