Dark Money Dominates Election (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting)

Published in the January 2013 edition of Extra!, the magazine for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

Dark Money Dominates Election

Campaign--and media coverage--still tainted by Citizens United decision

“Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS.”
CBS's president Les Moonves: What's bad for America is "very good for CBS." (Photo cred.: LATimes.com)
CBS's president Les Moonves: What's bad for America is "very good for CBS." (Photo cred.: LATimes.com)
CBS president Les Moonves’ candid comment at an entertainment law conference (Bloomberg3/10/12) was one of the few honest things said by someone so deeply involved in the post–Citizens United political ad frenzy.
This past election season was dominated by a record amount of ads, including many that were alarmingly misleading, and which raked in record profits for the media corporations who covered the election. Moonves was celebrating what, according to Bloomberg (3/10/12), was a projected boost in profits “by $180 million this year from political advertising,” far more than the last presidential election.
While fourth-quarter profits have not been announced as of this writing, the media tracking group SNL Kagan (PRWeb11/1/12) reports that “[2012] TV station political advertising revenue is expected to increase to $2.6 billion, a 68 percent increase over the 2008 total of $1.6 billion.” Other estimates have that number as high as $6 billion (New America Foundation, 11/16/12).

This trend was entirely predictable, given the record profits in the 2010 midterm elections (Extra!, 1/11), which followed on the heels of the Supreme Court decision that removed restrictions on political ad spending by corporations. In the words of the Associated Press (10/30/10), Citizensessentially constituted a “stimulus package” for broadcast and cable media corporations in 2010, which saw major increases in revenue. Much of this windfall can be attributed directly to the Citizens decision, according to SNL Kagan, which described the 2010 election climate as “a political ad revenue treasure trove for broadcasters” (Hill9/22/10).
Political ads came in three basic forms: ads officially sanctioned and paid for by candidates, ads by Super PACs—the Frankenstein’s monster of Citizens United—and ads from 501(c)4 groups, which are similar to Super PACs, but legally distinct and even less transparent. (Karl Rove’s 2012 operation included both a Super PAC and a 501(c)4.) In 2012, these outside groups were extravagant spenders, shelling out “more than $1 billion all told, about triple the amount in 2010” (New York Times11/8/12).
Many of the ads that dominated airwaves—especially from the out-side groups—were notably inaccurate. A six-month study conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center on behalf of the Center for Responsive Politics in early 2012 concluded that “campaign attack ads from outside groups are about 85 percent false” (ABC News6/22/12).
They were also more likely to focus negatively on the preferred candidate’s opponent. A report from the Wesleyan Project in May (5/2/12) found that 86 percent of interest group ads mentioned the opponent (versus 53 percent of candidate-sponsored ads). Outside groups’ ads, the Wesleyan Project found, produced nearly 60 percent of all political ads—way up from just over 3 percent of ads in the 2008 election.

Aside from the proliferation of false and negative information, the intersection between money and politics should trouble a press corp that seeks to hold the powerful accountable. Yet the toughest criticism the corporate media could muster was to portray the huge ad buys as a failed strategy. Soon after the election, the New York Times (11/8/12) ran a front-page story explaining that there was “Little to Show for Cash Flood by Big Donors” in the way of election results. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza (11/8/12) quoted one Republican source: “Big givers [are] wondering where the money went and why Karl [Rove] was so mistaken.” The narrative was that “dark money” and big spending proved not to help the GOP win many elections.
But as Tim Karr, campaign director of Free Press, pointed out, “This does not consider the many other impacts of this money, including all the money that went to Democrats.”
“The list of dark-money beneficiaries extends from the D.C. consultants and media strategists who counseled the campaigns to the owners of television stations that raked in campaign cash and clogged the airwaves with political ads,” said Karr.
“Political influence is an industry,” Karr told Extra!. “And those in this industry are working hard to make sure it continues to grow.”
Indeed, while Barack Obama and the Democrats may have won the elections in 2012, it seems that in the Citizens United era, the real beneficiaries of political advertisements—ad agencies, D.C. consultants and media companies who rake in record profits—are poised to win every election in the coming years.

Michael Corcoran (MichaelCorcoran.blogspot.com) is a freelance journalist based in Boston. He writes frequently for Extra!, as well as for such outlets as The Nation and Boston Globe.