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New York Times Highlights the Perils of Too Much Political Speech


League of Conservation Voters

The lead story in today's New York Times provides yet another illustration of how the paper's support for restrictions on political speech distorts its reporting on the issue. Start with the headline: "Outside Money Drives a Deluge of Political Ads." As you might surmise, the article is about the impact of Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 decision in which the Supreme Court overturned legal limits on independent spending by unions and corporations (including nonprofit interest groups) that might influence elections. The headline is notably more negative than others that would be equally descriptive, such as, "Independent Spending Shakes Up Political Campaigns."

By using the term outside rather than independent (as reporter Ashley Parker does throughout the article), the Times implies that the newly legal advocacy represents some sort of intrusion. But in this context "outside money" merely means speech by people who do not work for a candidate or party, a group that includes the overwhelming majority of Americans. Why should all of those people be considered "outsiders" whose participation in political debates is suspect? Should the right to praise or criticize politicians be limited to "insiders"?

The headline also asserts that Citizens United has produced a "deluge," a word that likewise has a negative connotation. Water imagery is popular among critics of Citizens United. In the fall of 2010, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, worried that "a flood of corporate campaign cash" would sweep away the foundations of democracy, while President Obama warned that "a flood of attack ads run by shadowy groups with harmless-sounding names" would drown out the voices of the disadvantaged. Parker, for her part, reports that "viewers in Charlotte are swimming in political ads," while voters in various other places are "inundated with ads."

They may be soaking in it, but apparently they're not soaking it in:

Both campaigns and outside groups are worrying about how to reach voters who, so inundated with ads already, may disengage in the crucial months before Election Day. A premium, they said, will be placed on creative commercials that cut through the clutter, as well as using data and analytics to target critical voters and get them to vote.

"The irony is that the more political ads air on TV, the more voters tune them out," said Mark McKinnon, a veteran Republican strategist and ad maker. "It just becomes a white noise. The return on investment is absurd."

But according to Parker, the ads are worrisome even if voters ignore them, because the "explosion of spending on political advertising…is accelerating the rise of moneyed interests and wresting control from the candidates' own efforts to reach voters." That is bad because the "outside groups," led by Americans for Prosperity, the Senate Majority PAC, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "are dictating the terms and message of the 2014 contests, defining candidates long before the candidates are able to define themselves and start reaching voters." Worse, those "outside groups," a.k.a. "moneyed interests," are more interested in tearing candidates down than in building them up:

It is also easier for outside groups and "super PACs" to run attack ads, leaving the positive message up to the candidates, and the result is an increasingly negative sheen to the general political discourse. "There's no question that the sheer number of ads, combined with the fact that voters don't know who's paying for the ad, creates a layer of toxicity in our politics that is very corrosive," said Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Really? No question at all? Parker does not actually provide any evidence that political ads are more negative than they used to be (a perennial complaint) as a result of independent spending. The one specific example of negative advertising she mentions involves a message that both a candidate and independent groups supporting him are emphasizing:

Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, and Democratic outside groups there have been laserlike in their effort to paint his opponent, Representative Cory Gardner, as "too extreme" on women's issues like reproductive rights. In one Senate Majority PAC ad, images of women flash by as a narrator intones that Mr. Gardner would push "to outlaw a women's right to choose, even in cases of rape and incest."

The same race, by the way, produced this ad, in which the League of Conservation Voters attacks Gardner for attracting support from the "out-of-state oil billionaire Koch Brothers" in the form of a "smear campaign" featuring "attack ads" sponsored by Americans for Prosperity. In other words, it's a negative ad from an "outside group" criticizing negative ads from another "outside group." Apparently the First Amendment protects that sort of headache-inducing irony.

Even if it were true that lifting restrictions on speech has given "an increasingly negative sheen to the general political discourse," would that necessarily be a bad thing? In my experience, "negative" messages tend to be more substantive than anodyne ads assuring us of a candidate's compassion, competence, or patriotism.

No doubt this story, like much New York Times coverage of campaign finance issues, will strike many readers as fair—provided they agree that less speech is better than more speech, that speech by insiders is better than speech by outsiders, and that positive speech is better than negative speech. But a more evenhanded aproach would treat these as controversial propositions instead of background assumptions.

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  1. Since the NYT has done more political speech then almost anyone does this mean they are going to restrict their own speech?

    1. That’s different because the NYC is on the side of good and was picked by the gods themselves to “dictat[e] the terms and message.”

      1. *NYT

        The evil outsiders stole the edit button.

      2. Which mythology has a god named DNC?

          1. Right. I forget about the more “out there” mythologies. Say what you want about Hinduism, at least it’s coherent.

            1. They’re nihilists Donnie.

    2. And if the NYT does not like outsider money getting involved in US politics why did they accept Carlos Slim’s money?

    3. Journalists are special, don’t you know. Well, the ones working for big corporations, not those pesky plebeians who write for blogs or put out DVDs about Hillary Clinton before an election.

      1. Those plebians who write blogs and put out DVDs about Hill are not “journalists” – they’re “special interests” are always contra what “regular people” want.

        Very un-American.

      2. Unless those journalists work for Rupert Murdoch or accept money from (*trigger warning*) the Kochs.

  2. This is a good post.

    Headlines should increasingly read: Insider money drives another campaign!

  3. The NYTimes must really love incumbents.

    1. Most media organizations do. I remember back in ’94 (said in old man voice) how the press was cranky when all these freshmen newcomers were at the bar and the media felt like it lost years of built up access to the old timey incumbent pols.

      1. I remember Nina Totenberg being in tears over it.

      2. It’s all about access. Fearing loss of access has made the American media, by and large, quite timid in challenging authority.

        1. I didn’t like his politics, but I.F Stone had the right idea independent journalism.

          “I made no claims to inside stuff. I tried to give information which could be documented, so the reader could check it for himself…Reporters tend to be absorbed by the bureaucracies they cover; they take on the habits, attitudes, and even accents of the military or the diplomatic corps. Should a reporter resist the pressure, there are many ways to get rid of him…But a reporter covering the whole capital on his own ? particularly if he is his own employer ? is immune from these pressures.”

        2. It’s the same,reason the reporters covering the cop beat all but refuse to,press for details in excessive force situations or when a cop is accused of sexually assaulting a teen he had in custody.

          Reporters are, by and large, lazy as fuck.

          1. You know, before they roboticize the fast-food industry, they should roboticize journalism.


            1. I thought it had already been roboticized, as most news articles just seem to be government press releases. I’ve assumed that the reporters were still around because of unions or something.

              1. Perhaps, but not with computers with the ethics chip that X45-J710A4 has.

        3. “more interested in tearing candidates down than in building them up”

          Shorter NYT: This is our job, fuck off amatuers!

  4. Why should all of those people be considered “outsiders” whose participation in political debates is suspect?

    Clearly most of these “outsiders” have not gone to the right schools, or live in the right neighborhoods. I doubt many of them have trained in the approved internship programs or worked at the right think tanks. On top of that, most of them have their own ideas on how government should function and those ideas are laughable since the ideas are not sophisticated enough to be “practical.”

    So, Senator McCain had it right: we really need to restrict spending in order to protect the political class who are the only ones who can really understand the world in the right way.

  5. Hed: Troubled purveyor in dying industry whines about new-fangled competition.

  6. KKKoch Brothers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11!!11!!!!1111

  7. When the “wrong” candidate outspends and wins, then it’s all about how corporate money buys elections.

    When the “right” candidate outspends and loses, crickets….

    Principals trump principles.

    1. And when the “right” candidate outspends and wins, it’s because of “never-before-seen grassroots outreach.”

  8. Progressives could give two shits whether money is “corrupting ” politics. They hate the fact that people who are ideologically opposed them to them are able to support canidates they disagree with.

  9. Has the NYT always been so opposed to outside agitators? I recall their objections having been more selective.

    1. Indeed. I don’t recall “outsiders” ever applied to (say) Code Pink, or Occupy, or similar groups.

  10. I have a simple answer for those politicians afraid of not being heard.

    Take specific positions on issues other than “for the children” “be afraid” “support the troops” “corporations are bad”

    You get the idea.

  11. If somebody would shut Krugabe up, I would volunteer to be quiet.

  12. Dingo: Yes. Yes, you must give us all a good spanking. And after the spanking, the oral sex.
    Galahad: Well, I could stay a bit longer.
    [Sir Lancelot crashes in, grabs Galahad and rushes out of the castle]
    Lancelot: We were in the nick of time. You were in great peril.
    Galahad: I don’t think I was.
    Lancelot: Yes, you were. You were in terrible peril.
    Galahad: Look, let me go back in there and face the peril.
    Lancelot: No, it’s far too perilous.
    Galahad: Look, it’s my duty as a knight to sample as much peril as I can.
    Lancelot: No, we’ve got to find the Holy Grail. Come on.
    Galahad: Oh, let me have just a little bit of peril?
    Lancelot: No. It’s unhealthy.
    Galahad: I bet you’re gay.
    Lancelot: No, I’m not.

  13. It is also easier for outside groups and “super PACs” to run attack ads, leaving the positive message up to the candidates, and the result is an increasingly negative sheen

    Oh ya I guess this ad is a good example of this “negative sheen”.

    Oh wait…that’s from 1964…a tad before Citizens United.

    What about this crazy guy, he must work for an “outside” group right?

    Oh wait…that’s an actual politician, from 2009… guess political commentary was covered in a thick, matted layer of negativity long before Citizens United ever came along.

  14. In my neck of the woods, the faces that challenge the incumbents tend to be extremely wealthy. So according to the Anti-Citizens folks, wealthy dude is allowed to run for office. But if wealthy dude heard me speak at last years convention and liked what I said or likes the editorials I write he can’t directly finance my campaign. So the Anti-Citizens folks apparently want an aristocracy where only the wealthy have access to political office.

    1. And remember, by 81-19 margin, voters said Obama and his party expressly cared about people like them moreso than that vile, evil, canine-abusing plutocrat.

      But yeah, it’s the left that is all about the little guy!

      1. And positive messaging! None of those negative campaign ads from the left!

  15. We can’t let rich people give money to political campaigns because the average person is too stupid to make good choices and vote for the right people. The political candidate will use that money will lie and the common man will believe them because they aren’t that smart to make their own voting decisions. We need the government to make sure people aren’t being deceived by those rich assholes.

    1. I would say that rich people aren’t all that influential at the end of the day. Surely rich people aren’t generally for higher taxes, welfare, and economy-damaging policies. The math is quite simple–there are more people who can vote themselves whatever by far that there are people with money.

      This is another case of the left thinking that little people can’t resist advertising.

      1. Absolutely. Whenever the Progressives go on a rant about the rich and corporations influencing elections I point them to Meg Whitman, Mitt Romney, and the Chamber of Commerce’s two recent defeats.

        1. When Progressives lose it’s always because of corporate influence. Always.

          When they win there is never any talk about corporate influence. None at all.

          And when they outspend their opponents, there’s never any talk of money, win or lose.

      2. This is another case of the left thinking that little people can’t resist advertising.

        That’s just what you want us to think.

        1. Buy Pro Libertate-Brand Gun Pipes–guns and pipes combined into one convenient product!

  16. Am I the only one here who doesn’t know a single person who gives a single fuck about what the New York Times thinks or writes?

    Mentioning it around here is like appealing to the authority of Paul Krugman in an economics debate — it’ll get your ass laughed out of the room. Literally.

    1. But what do Millenials think about this?

      1. Millenials don’t even know what a newspaper is. Millenials know only three things; weed, gays, and contraception.

        1. I thought it was Mexicans, pot and ass sex.

    2. I enjoy these pieces because they are tailor-made for trolling FB idiots. The FB proggies would sooner die than open a Cato, Reason or National Review piece, but anything that throws the NYT under the bus is gonna pique their interest.

      It’s staggering how many otherwise intelligent people treat the Times as some sort of sacred totem. I count the days until “Koch” appears on the masthead after they make Sulzberger or whoever an offer he can’t refuse.

  17. Yeah, like, it’s cool when Netroots, and Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton come to Detroit and “help” the locals, cause they’re not “outsiders”. But let one suburbanite propose spending $200M on charter schools, and it’s “racist outsiders” all the way down.

    So, yeah.

  18. The irony is that the more political ads air on TV, the more voters tune them out

    Impossible. I was assured that the person screaming the loudest always won at everything ever. No one mentioned anything about whether or not they were screaming coherently.

    1. I wish that was the case sometimes. The Olympics would be hilarious.

      1. The Special Olympics would be even better.

  19. I can’t even recall the last time I heard or watched a political ad.

    1. That’s because you are not enlightened enough to view reality strictly through the beneficent distortions of a political lens.

      1. They should put chips into our heads that receive and display political ad broadcasts, 24 hours a day.

        That’ll show those commercial skippers and channel changers.

        1. All TVs should be required by law to start on the Indoctrination Channel. In addition, should be the mandatory start page for all browsers.

  20. In a controversial decision, the Supreme Court allows an out-of-state corporation to pour outside money into local politics –……_Sullivan

  21. The day after the primaries here in Iowa there were tons of anti-Joni Ernst ads aired during the local news. Every night I see four or five of these that tell me that the Kochs donated millions to her campaign. Over the course of the week I see one, maybe two, pro-Ernst commercials. Not hard to see who has all the money and is willing to spend it for eight months straight.

  22. Hmmm. Seems to me I remember a FULL PAGE AD from Code Pink or International A.N.S.W.E.R. in the NYT slamming Petraeus a few years back. I guess that was okay.

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