Nightly network newscasts and Sunday morning talk shows have largely failed to connect two recent Supreme Court decisions to Citizens United v. FEC, the case that radically expanded the legal concept of “corporate personhood” -- the idea that corporations have constitutional rights. This has left viewers with an incomplete understanding of how the Court applied this dangerous precedent to campaign finance and reproductive rights law.
Evening News Broadcasts And Sunday Shows Fail To Connect McCutcheon v. FEC To Citizens United Half The Time
Constitutional Accountability Center: In McCutcheon, Roberts Court “Doubles Down On Citizens United, Making That Ruling Even Worse.” David H. Gans, the Director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Citizenship Program at CAC, called McCutcheon an extension of the “backward” logic in Citizens United, which held that constitutional protections for speech protect a corporation's right to make unlimited expenditures in support of political candidates. The plaintiffs in McCutcheon used that same theory to argue, successfully, that the First Amendment also prohibits the government from placing aggregate donation limits on wealthy individuals who donate during the federal election cycle:
[I]n a 5-4 ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, the Roberts Court dealt another blow to our Constitution's promise of democracy, striking down aggregate contribution limits designed to prevent massive campaign contributions to candidates, parties and PACs.
Four years ago, in Citizens United v. FEC, the Roberts Court turned our Constitution's system of democracy of, by, and for the people on its head, ruling that money is speech, corporations are part of “We the People,” and the government's anti-corruption interest only extends to preventing bribery. In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, McCutcheon doubles down on Citizens United, making that ruling even worse.
In McCutcheon, the justices struck down federal campaign contribution regulation for the first time in history, opening the floodgates and allowing Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers and fat cats across the political spectrum to contribute millions of dollars to elect candidates to do their bidding. Justice Clarence Thomas would have gone even further, voting to strike down all contribution limits.
As in Citizens United, the court's five conservative justices buried their collective heads in the sands, proclaiming that there is no risk of corruption, or threat to democracy, in a system that allows the wealthiest of Americans to cut million-dollar checks to candidates, parties and PACS. The court's ruling, as Justice Stephen Breyer explained in a powerful dissent, “eviscerates our Nation's campaign finance laws” and devalues “the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions.” [Constitutional Accountability Center, 4/16/14, accessed August 5, 2014]
The Sunday Shows And Evening News Broadcasts Often Missed The Connection Between Citizens United And McCutcheon. Out of eight Sunday show and network evening news segments that discussed McCutcheon and its ramifications on campaign finance law, Citizens United or corporate personhood was referenced in just half.
Evening News Broadcasts And Sunday Shows Miss Connection Between Burwell v. Hobby Lobby And Citizens United In 14 Of 20 Segments
New York Times: Hobby Lobby Required The Supreme Court To “Assess The Limits Of A Principle First Recognized ... In Citizens United.” The New York Times' Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak reported that the Supreme Court's decision in Hobby Lobby had to confront the concept of corporate personhood that was outlined in Citizens United in 2010. Lower courts were already split on how “the First Amendment logic of Citizens United” applied to the Hobby Lobby case and reproductive rights:
Hobby Lobby, a corporation, says that forcing it to provide [contraceptive] coverage would violate its religious beliefs.
“The stakes here, symbolically and politically, are very high,” said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia, citing the clash between religious teachings and the [Obama] administration's embattled health care law.
In weighing those interests, the Supreme Court would have to assess the limits of a principle recognized in its 2010 decision in Citizens United, which said corporations have free speech rights under the First Amendment. The question now is whether corporations also have the right to religious liberty.
In ruling for Hobby Lobby, the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit said it had applied “the First Amendment logic of Citizens United.”
“We see no reason the Supreme Court would recognize constitutional protection for a corporation's political expression but not its religious expression,” Judge Timothy M. Tymkovich wrote for the majority.
A dissenting member of the court, Chief Judge Mary Beck Briscoe, wrote that the majority's approach was “nothing short of a radical revision of First Amendment law.” [New York Times, 11/24/13]
The Sunday Shows' And Evening News Broadcasts Frequently Ignored The Connection Between Citizens United and Hobby Lobby. Out of 20 segments that discussed Hobby Lobby and its effect on reproductive rights, only six noted the connection between Hobby Lobby and Citizens United and the expanding concept of corporate personhood.
This report analyzes coverage of the Supreme Court's most recent term on four Sunday morning talk shows (ABC's This Week, CBS's Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press, and Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday) and three nightly news programs (ABC World News, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News -- Fox has no evening news broadcast). Our analysis includes any segment that discussed the Supreme Court's (“Supreme Court”) decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby or McCutcheon v. FEC (“Hobby Lobby” and “McCutcheon”) and whether those segments referenced Citizens United v. FEC or the concept of corporate personhood between February 19, 2013 and August 5, 2014, a time period that reflects when the justices decided to hear these cases through the end of the term.
Phrases such as “campaign finance,” “contraception mandate,” “employer” and “birth control,” and “employer” and contracept! were also included, in the event a broadcast did not refer to the cases by name in the segment.
Transcripts from Nexis were used to analyze these segments.
Charts by Craig Harrington.