Five Years After Citizens United, Media Coverage Of Its Sequels Is Lacking

Little Scrutiny Given To Legal Effects Of The Fall Of Campaign Finance Regulation And Rise Of Corporate Personhood

This January marks the fifth anniversary of Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court case that expanded the idea of “corporate personhood” by ruling that the First Amendment protects a corporation's right to make unlimited expenditures in support of political candidates as a form of speech. Network news coverage of its legal impact, however, has largely ignored how the Supreme Court continues to aggressively expand the decision.

This expansion of corporate rights has wide-ranging consequences, even outside of the context of campaign finance deregulation. The court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, for example, seemed to embrace the idea that corporations are capable of morally objecting to contraception coverage, co-opting yet another constitutional right -- that of religion -- that had previously been reserved for people, not businesses.

In terms of election law, the conservative justices further dismantled campaign finance restrictions in 2014's McCutcheon v. FEC, which struck down aggregate campaign donation limits and allowed wealthy donors to contribute money to a virtually unlimited number of candidates and political parties. The court will hear yet another campaign finance case on January 20 called Williams-Yulee v. the Florida Bar, which could strike down a Florida rule that prohibits judicial candidates from directly soliciting money from donors -- a rule that was put in place in response to a serious corruption scandal that resulted in the resignations of four Florida Supreme Court justices.

Yet despite the cascade of decisions from conservative justices intent on dismantling campaign finance regulations and rewriting corporate rights -- and the majority of Americans who support a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United -- the media have largely underreported this story.

Here are four graphics that illustrate this failure.

PBS NewsHour Dedicated More Coverage To Campaign Finance Than All The Other Networks Combined

Media Matters analysis of campaign finance media coverage in the lead-up to McCutcheon found that PBS NewsHour far outpaced its broadcast news competitors, dedicating more time to the issue than all the other networks combined:

[Media Matters9/18/14]

Evening News Broadcasts And Sunday Shows Only Connected McCutcheon To Citizens United About Half The Time

McCutcheon is a direct descendant of Citizens United, yet coverage of the case by network evening news (ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, NBC's Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour) and Sunday-morning talk shows (ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, and NBC's Meet the Press) mentioned the relationship between the two cases only about half the time -- ignoring the significant ramifications of the Supreme Court's deregulation of money in politics:

[Media Matters8/7/14]

The Same Shows Frequently Overlooked The Relationship Between Citizens United and Hobby Lobby

Those same programs also largely missed the influence that Citizens United's expansion of corporate personhood had on its later ruling in Hobby Lobby:

[Media Matters8/7/14]

Media Dedicates Almost No Coverage To Judicial Campaign Finance Case

Williams-Yulee gives the court yet another opportunity to deregulate big money in politics by equating it with constitutionally protected speech -- this time by allowing members of the judiciary to directly solicit money from wealthy donors. Despite the fact that judicial elections are increasingly targeted by conservative special interest groups that have flooded millions of dollars into state races in an effort to influence the outcome, the media have dedicated almost no coverage to the Williams-Yulee case.

Media Matters analysis of Sunday-morning talk shows (ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press) as well as nightly news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, NBC's Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour) found just one segment that covered the case since it was appealed to the Supreme Court -- the October 2 edition of PBS NewsHour.

Citizens United

[Media Matters1/7/15]


This report analyzed coverage of Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar on Sunday morning talk shows (ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press) and four nightly news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, NBC's Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour). Our analysis included any segment that mentioned the case between June 1, 2014, and January 6, 2015 -- the period between when the justices were petitioned to hear Williams-Yulee through the present week. The phrases “judicial election” and “judicial candidate” were included in the search in the event a broadcast did not refer to the case specifically.

Transcripts from the Nexis database as well as Media Matters' internal video archives were used to analyze these segments.