Although there have been several major campaign finance stories this year, so far the media has paid significant attention only to one: the retired postal worker from Florida who landed his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn to raise awareness about the need for reform -- and the coverage has barely noted his motivations.
On April 15, Doug Hughes landed his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn “to save our democracy,” as he wrote in The Washington Post, because “91 percent of Americans see the corrosive influence of money in our political system as a problem that demands attention.” Hughes continued:
It is clear these issues will be among the most important in the 2016 election, when every candidate for any office needs to answer one simple question: Which approaches to reducing money's corrupting influence on our democracy do you support? Journalists, especially at the local level, need to ask tough questions, then report the truth and let people decide.
Sadly, most Americans don't know about [campaign finance reform] solutions or how to engage. That's why I chose civil disobedience, taking 535 stamped letters and my message to the seat of power where the problem is. Big money is a threat to our democracy just as security threats are.
Hughes is right -- according to Bloomberg, “spending by candidates, parties and outside groups and individuals” in the run-up to the 2016 election “may approach $10 billion.” Thanks to a series of Supreme Court decisions that have relaxed Watergate-era campaign finance reform laws, it's easier than ever for an elite few to exercise disproportionate influence in the democratic process.
Hughes' landing was marginally successful in getting some media coverage of campaign finance reform in the days following. A Media Matters analysis of the network evening news broadcasts and the Sunday political talk shows found 17 total segments dedicated to Hughes and the gyrocopter landing. But other than a discussion on the April 19 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, none of the Sunday shows or evening news broadcasts dedicated any substantive coverage to the message behind Hughes' protest. Understandably, most of these segments focused on the security issues raised by the fact that Hughes was able to fly undetected into the District of Columbia's no-fly zone, rather than his reasons for his flight in the first place.
Yet the media has not given the need for reform the coverage it deserves. A bipartisan majority of Americans support a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, which expanded the concept of “corporate personhood” by ruling that corporations have a First Amendment right to make unlimited political expenditures in support of political candidates. However, after the Senate proposed a campaign finance reform amendment in September 2014, a Media Matters analysis indicated that the amendment was largely ignored by the networks' evening news broadcasts and Sunday political talk shows, other than PBS NewsHour.
This lack of coverage has persisted as new campaign finance reform stories emerged in 2015. For example, in March, 50 campaign finance advocacy groups called on President Obama to sign an executive order that would require federal contractors to increase their campaign spending disclosures. In their letter to Obama, the groups wrote that “we're now living in a Wild West campaign spending world ... It is imperative that you act.” But a Media Matters analysis indicates that there was no mention of the letter or the proposed executive order on the evening news broadcasts or the Sunday shows between March 2015 and the present.
Even more recently, as The Hill reported on May 26, a proposal from congressional Democrats that would have “strengthen[ed] political ad disclosures in time for the 2016 elections” fell apart after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) indicated that it “has little appetite” to take up the new rule. That rule would “require large donors to be identified at the end of television ads purchased by super-PACs and other outside groups.” Like the proposed campaign finance reform executive action, a Media Matters analysis shows that none of the network evening news broadcasts covered this potential FCC disclosure rule.
This report analyzes coverage of campaign finance reform on Sunday morning talk shows (ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press, and Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday) and four nightly news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, NBC's Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour). Our analysis includes any segment that mentioned the proposed executive action dealing with campaign spending disclosures for federal contractors between March 30, 2015 and May 28, 2015, a time period that reflects when the campaign finance advocacy groups sent their letter to the president and the present. We also looked for any mention of the potential FCC disclosure rule between May 26, 2015 and May 28, 2015, a time period that reflects when the FCC declined to take up the new rule and the present. Finally, we searched for any mention of campaign finance reform with respect to Doug Hughes between April 15, 2015 and May 28, 2015, a time period that reflects when Hughes landed his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn and the present.
Transcripts from Nexis were used to analyze these segments.