The Media’s Shameful, Inexcusable Distortion of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United Decision
One of the beauties of the transfer of power from major media operations to individuals, bloggers and tweeters is that they — we — can all serve as a sort of fact-checking peanut gallery. So it’s hard to imagine that, in this day and age, the mainstream media could repeatedly misstate the holding of one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions without being roundly excoriated. Not a matter of opinion or a partisan viewpoint, but, simply parroting a mistake or lie about the holding in that crucial ruling.
I have followed the Court’s Citizens United decision particularly closely because my dad, Floyd Abrams, was one of the lawyers who argued it (for free, incidentally) in the Supreme Court, on behalf of Senator Mitch McConnell. Their challenge was to a part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that barred corporations and unions from engaging in what they argued was classic political speech — producing and showing a movie on television that criticized a candidate for President and spending money for ads that support or denounce that candidate. They prevailed in a divided 5-4 ruling. Subsequently, and not surprisingly, the ruling became one of the most controversial opinions of our day, with many on the left denouncing the ruling as a fundamental threat to our democracy.
Let me say at the outset that I don’t entirely agree with the position my dad took in the case. He sought and got a broad ruling striking down major parts of the statute. In my view, the Court could and should have decided the case on far narrower grounds, thereby avoiding the need to overturn some past Supreme Court rulings (On a personal note, I have also been amazed at the vitriol directed at my civil libertarian father from the left over his defense of a constitutional principle he firmly believes in. Defend a Nazi’s right to march? No problem. Defend the most repugnant members of our society’s right to speak? Absolutely. Defend a corporation’s right to engage in the political process? Inexcusable). But my personal view on the nuances of the ruling is beside the point. This is about what the ruling said and didn’t say, what it did and didn’t do. And about how so many in the media keep getting the ruling and its impact dead wrong.
There are two media myths and inventions that are most commonly cited.