The Press After Citizens United

Campaign finance experts chime in on a new era

Over the last two weeks, reporters covering campaign finance have ably chronicled the scope and effects of the bitterly divided Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

They’ve filed stories reporting that decades, perhaps a century, of regulations governing campaign finance have been rolled back, and that corporations would now be entitled to spend unlimited amounts of money in support of any candidate they desire. Observers predict a weakening of party organizations, and a massive new cudgel for lobbyists seeking to influence legislation.

Those are big changes to the money in politics beat, which point to a fresh question: What new stories or obligations present themselves to political reporters and editors working in this new era of money and politics?

For the most part, campaign finance watchers say, the changes will mostly be related to scale. With more corporate money (and speech) poised to enter the fray, traditional watchdog reporting will become even more important.

In the meanwhile, there remain plenty of open questions about the decision’s full impact and legal attempts to stem it. Tracking their resolution will be fertile ground for stories. Congress and the President have floated various proposals—ranging from a constitutional amendment to more modest legislative patches—to undo the ruling’s broadest effects. Eight justices (all but Thomas) agreed that government could continue to regulate disclosure of the newly allowed expenditures.

“With the ruling coming down, and the ruling being so fresh there are absolutely more questions than answers about how this is going to play out in reality,” says Dave Levinthal, the spokesperson for the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group.

“You have corporations like AT&T and Microsoft who have generally played both sides of the political aisle and have in their donations given to both Democrats and Republicans and have not really played favorites,” says Levinthal, pointing out the tightrope that awaits corporations that are perhaps interested in influencing an election, but wary of antagonizing either party through their spending.

“A lot of corporations right now are probably having frank and interesting discussions around how they want to use this,“ says Levinthal, a former politics reporter for the Dallas Morning News. “One great story might be trying to get ahead of the decisions they are going to make, and asking local companies how they anticipate using this before they do.”

Mary Boyle, communications director for Common Cause, says that journalists at all levels need to reemphasize their roles as arbiters of facts.

“You only see some of the major newspapers doing these kind of fact-check boxes on ads that candidates run. But this opens up a whole new arena around corporate ads,” says Boyle. “There’s going to be a lot of he-said-she-said flying around, [and it’s] going to be very difficult to make something out of it, to draw conclusions that are based on reality.”

Boyle also points to the weakness of some current campaign finance disclosure laws, and suggests that even if legislatures put new rules together, corporations could still try to disguise their spending through trade organizations, front groups, and the like:

We are going to be seeing third parties getting involved with this. If Exxon is going to spend a million dollars, maybe they’re not doing it in the name of Exxon, maybe they’re doing it in the name of ‘Americans for More Alternative Energy’, or something…. Journalists are going to have to be really vigilant about this stuff and there are going to be attempts to hide this information in terms of whose paying for it, how much they’re spending, and what their agenda is.

Those sentiments are echoed by Fred Wertheimer, a longtime money-in-politics reformer who heads Democracy 21.

“I think it’s going to be essential, to put it in old fashioned terms, to follow the money here,” says Wertheimer. “Public disclosure only works if someone discloses the information to the public, and I believe that the media has a very big responsibly to help fill that role.”

“It’s my hope that we’re going to get comprehensive disclosure requirements for corporations and labor unions, and from intermediate groups that are used as pass throughs, and from the people that are spending the money. But on top of all of that, investigative reporting above and beyond the disclosure information has an important role to play. These are very hard stories to do, and in the past there hasn’t been a lot of appetite among editors for taking the time to do investigative stories that may be very time consuming, but they’re essential now,” says Wertheimer. “It’s straightforward, and basic, and extremely important.”

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.