McGuire on Media

Disclosure needs to be THE First Amendment battleground for journalists


The American Society of News Editors has had another busy week advocating for the First Amendment. It’s supported a decision in a Colorado Open Records case and it has urged member papers to write editorials advocating for a Federal Shield law.

In these days of fading influence for everything mainstream media I am pleased that it appears ASNE will fight for the First Amendment until its last breath.  And, everybody who cares about the First Amendment does need to fight because it appears a lot of people just don”t get it.

The inanity of Dr. Laura’s statement that she wants to “regain” her constitutional right to freedom of speech and the subsequent ludicrous Twitter support from Sarah Palin of the notion that Dr.Laura’s constitutional rights were infringed, should frighten all of us.  As a host of commentators have pointed out here and here, Dr. Laura’s First Amendment rights worked just fine. She exercised her right to say something phenomenally stupid and her advertisers exercised their right to consider pulling their ads. The First Amendment worked like a charm!

But this very same confusion over the First Amendment presents a far more insidious problem that freedom speech advocates and journalists need to defend at all costs; disclosure of campaign contributions. Last Friday a group of supporters of Tom Emmer, GOP candidate for governor in Minnesota, filed for an injunction to invalidate a Minnesota law that required Target Corp. to disclose its contribution to Emmer’s campaign.  The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported last week that “At the heart of the dispute is a law passed this year by the Legislature requiring reports on corporate spending for or against candidates. The law requires two reports to be filed before the primary and two more before the general election.”

That donation has caused incredible public relations problems for Target because gay organizations have protested that Emmer is anti-gay. Finally, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel apologized to Target employees for the donation. While it does not appear Target’s troubles are over you can argue that once again the First Amendment worked. Target made a legal donation to a PAC, it was disclosed and customers and employees went nuts. Again it’s the marketplace of ideas, protected by the First Amendment that worked so well.

But here’s the rub or the two rubs. First rub. That suit last Friday  represents a serious threat to all disclosure of campaigns contributions everywhere. We can debate all day whether PAC money is good for politics. My opinions of that, matter none. What does matter is that we as a society operate in the sunshine.  Target can spend its money, (yes, arguably it’s customer’s money) anyway they want, though I suspect Mr. Steinhafel has some serious ‘splainin’ to do. He has been forced to explain because the contributions were open and transparent by law. That law has guaranteed free speech and debate about the propriety of those donations. God love America.   

Here’s the second rub. Not every state requires disclosure. Here in Arizona special defense funds can be set up to defend elected officials in legal cases and no disclosure is required. That means Arizonans won’t know to whom candidates like Governor Jan Brewer are beholden.

he background on all this is fairly recent. As this site tells us: “Target was reportedly able to make the donation because of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision which greatly expanded corporations and unions’ ability to spend unlimited money on campaign advertising. The DISCLOSE Act, which would have brought greater transparency in such advertising, was blocked by Senate Republicans.”

There is some evidence that political involvement by corporations hurts them. Translated, that mean public accountability for corporation’s political behavior works. Accountability can be damned inconvenient as Steinhafel has found. That inconvenience, not any high-minded principle, is why the Republicans are blocking the DISCLOSE  act.

All First Amendment issues are important, but I argue that free speech advocates must take up the disclosure cudgel immediately.  The political process is already being kidnapped by polarizing partisans. We cannot allow that kidnapping to take place in the dark. The light must be shone on all PAC donations, liberal or conservative.  We need to lobby for every state to make all donations open and disclosed.  And, we need to lobby the Senate in favor of the DISCLOSE Act.

Finally, journalists need to carefully explain the impact of these anti-disclosure movements on our political process. They should not be portrayed as a political game. I cannot believe most Americans, no matter their political beliefs, want government to operate in the dark.