WSJ Vilifies Efforts To Increase Corporate Transparency As “Partisan Agitprop”

The Wall Street Journal is dismissing efforts to convince corporations to be more transparent about their political contributions as “partisan agitprop,” despite the fact that the conservative justices of the Supreme Court reaffirmed the need for such transparency in 2010's Citizens United decision.

Although a majority of Americans from across the political spectrum disagree with the court's decision in Citizens United and support a bipartisan effort to reduce the unprecedented influx of campaign spending and “dark money” in politics, the Journal isn't convinced that transparency and disclosure for corporations playing politics is worthwhile. In an October 14 editorial, the Journal complained that groups like the Center for Political Accountability targeted corporations in an attempt to “discourage businesses from participating in politics” by publishing an index that ranks companies based on how transparent they are about their political expenditures. The goal of the index is to encourage corporations to disclose their campaign contributions to their shareholders, since it is the shareholders' money that is financing the political spending in the first place.

But the editorial was unsupportive of the group's activities, despite the fact that the conservatives on the Supreme Court upheld campaign finance disclosures in their majority opinion in Citizens United as indispensable to their decision that corporations can influence elections as freely as actual voters:

Hey shareholders, want some stock tips from a nonprofit outfit that wants to discourage businesses from participating in politics? That's the dubious message from a new index designed to block the political speech of corporations while leaving unions free to donate as they please.

Every year, the George Soros-funded Center for Political Accountability publishes the Wharton-Zicklin index, which ranks companies based on their political disclosure. When the group isn't publishing the index, it spends its time pushing for shareholder proxy proposals that would force companies to disclose their political activity.


The activist group's tactics have also included pressuring companies to cave pre-emptively and disclose political activity for fear of becoming targets. The index ranks companies according to their political transparency and disclosure profile. The Center for Political Accountability then uses those rankings as a truncheon to lobby CEOs to advertise how and how much they spend on campaigns and lobbying.


Most shareholders aren't buying it, but the disclosure gambit deserves to be exposed as the partisan agitprop it is.

The idea that shareholders ought to know how their investments are being spent is not an invention of liberal public interest groups. Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy upheld disclosure solutions to the crisis of money in politics in his majority opinion in Citizens United, arguing that full transparency and disclosure are necessary for shareholders to “determine whether their corporation's political speech advances the corporation's interest in making profits”:

Shareholder objections raised through the procedures of corporate democracy can be more effective today because modern technology makes disclosures rapid and informative. A campaign finance system that pairs corporate independent expenditures with effective disclosure has not existed before today.


With the advent of the internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation's political speech advances the corporation's interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are "'in the pocket' of so-called moneyed interests." The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in the proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to the different speakers and messages.

In fact, a federal court just rejected yet another right-wing challenge to the constitutionality of disclosure requirements in bipartisan campaign finance law, pointing out that eight justices in Citizens United dismissed the argument that such transparency is inappropriate. As explained by the Campaign Legal Center, which filed an amicus brief in the case along with groups like Democracy 21 and Public Citizen, “the court recognized what plaintiff ignored. ... While a slim majority of the current Supreme Court has been overtly hostile to numerous longstanding campaign finance reforms, it has been steadfast in recognizing, by overwhelming margins, the vital public interest in disclosing the identities of those seeking to influence election outcomes.”

Kennedy's vision isn't quite the reality yet, however, which is why both lawmakers and good-government groups are trying to construct the dual framework of speech and transparency that Citizens United requires. As The New York Times recently reported, the current lack of comprehensive disclosure laws makes it much more difficult for voters -- such as shareholders -- to “make informed decisions,” as Kennedy put it. According to the Times, “the dominance of secretly funded advertising defies one of the underlying assumptions of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision,” and that kind of advertising is “widely expected to surge in 2016”:

Voters are confronted by advertising from an array of groups with generic names and unclear agendas. The groups' finances are disclosed only on federal tax returns, on a form on which the names of donors are allowed to be redacted.

“There are assumptions in Citizens United that have never happened,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, which supports more disclosure. “The assumption that we would have real-time disclosure never happened. When we get to the 2016 election, the dark money is going to greatly explode.”

Demanding more transparency from the companies in which shareholders invest may be one of the few remaining ways they can determine how or whether their money is being spent on political campaigns -- but apparently disclosure is overrated as far as the Journal is concerned, a notable omission from an outlet that usually champions the holding of Citizens United.

Photo via Flickr/Light Brigading under a Creative Commons License.