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.