Seeing Double (the Errors)

Explaining our complicated campaign finance system is, yes, complicated. How complicated? Ask the Malveaux twins.

Suzanne Malveaux is a CNN reporter. Suzette Malveaux is a law professor. Anchorwoman Malveaux, hosting the December 31st episode of The Situation Room, invited Professor Malveaux on the show (“by popular demand!”) to offer expert commentary on Supreme Court news from 2010. It was double the fun! And double the errors when the discussion turned briefly to that “big campaign finance case” from 2010, Citizens United v. FEC.

For one, CNN’s chyron identified the case as Citizens United v. FCC. Wrong regulatory body. Not the end of the world. A typo, probably. Accompanying that chyron was Professor Malveaux’s inaccurate description of the case:

You remember the big campaign finance case right? Where there was a law that said corporations cannot spend money to either support or oppose political candidates. Well, the Supreme Court said that Congress got it wrong, basically that that was unconstitutional and that corporations should be treated just like persons, and they should be able to make contributions to political campaigns.

No. The Court didn’t say that corporations “should be able to make contributions to political campaigns.” Citizens United left in place the federal ban on direct contributions from corporations or unions to candidate campaigns or political parties. What the Court said is that corporations should be able to spend company money on independent political broadcasts supporting or opposing candidates in an election. Like, ads.

This case and what it did and did not do to our already complex system of campaign finance are things not easily reduced to cable news sound bytes. Even a law professor can misspeak when describing it, and, probably, not too many CNN viewers even noticed. One exception: another law professor (h/t, Prof. Rick Hasen).

This is undoubtedly not the first time Citizens United has been mischaracterized (whether in haste, as, I’m guessing, was the case above, or in actual confusion) by the folks tasked with explaining it to the public. And it won’t be the last.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.