Friday, September 04, 2009

"Citizens United": like patent reform, you need a scorecard

Bill Moyers' Journal on 4 Sept 09 had a debate of sorts between Trevor Potter and Floyd Abrams over issues surrounding Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission, which has grown from a limited question about a political documentary (concerning Hillary Clinton) to a broad challenge to the government's right to restrict corporations from spending money to support or oppose political candidates. It was interesting to see Floyd Abrams (nominally a Democrat) arguing AGAINST limits, while Potter, associated with John McCain arguing for limits. Such nonobviousness also pervades patent law reform.

There were sound bites about the "Senator from Standard Oil" [ from the web: Nelson Aldrich, a powerful Republican Rhode Island senator, whose daughter married John D. Rockefeller, Jr., did not object to being called “senator from Standard Oil.” ] and campaign contribution issues with Teddy Roosevelt as if these were something from a by-gone era.

Think about more recent events:

Overall, members of Congress have received more than $4.8 million in political contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over the last ten years. According to, from 1998 through 2008, the top ten recipients of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's political largess, are as follows: Senator Dodd (D-CT), then-Senator Obama (D-IL), Senator Kerry (D-MA), Senator Bennett (R-UT), Rep. Bachus (R-AL), Rep. Blunt (R-MO), Rep. Kanjorski (D-PA), Senator Bond (R-MO), Senator Shelby (R-AL), Senator Reed (D-RI).

Senator Dodd, the top recipient of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac campaign contributions, is Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee responsible for regulating the mortgage industry. Notably, President Obama was a top recipient of campaign monies despite being in the Senate for only three years.

**Of Roosevelt, from Wikipedia-->

During the campaign, there were a couple of instances were Roosevelt was vulnerable. First, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World carried a full page story about alleged corruption in the Bureau of Corporations. President Roosevelt admitted certain payments had been made, but denied any "blackmail." Secondly, in appointing George B. Cortelyou as his campaign manager, Roosevelt had purposely used Parker's former secretary of commerce because Cortelyou, knowing the secrets of the corporations, could extract large contributions from them. The charge created quite a stir and in later years was proven to be sound. In 1907, it was disclosed that the insurance companies had contributed rather too heavily to the Roosevelt campaign; that Roosevelt himself, only a week before the election, had called E. H. Harriman, the railroad king, to Washington to ask him to raise funds to carry New York state.

**Of the statutory section at issue, from scotuswiki-->

Section 203 — a modern echo of federal regulation that goes back to 1907 — is aimed at corporations (including non-profit advocacy organizations using the corporate form) and at labor unions. It does not restrict corporate or union expenditures used to finance campaign communications, when those are paid for out of a PAC — a political action committee. But, if a corporation or union wishes to spend its own treasury funds, Section 203 bars the use of those funds to finance communications that refer to a clearly identified candidate for the presidency or for Congress, on radio, television, cable TV, or satellite broadcast, within 30 days before a primary election or nominating convention, or within 60 days before a general election.

Ads for the 90 minute movie ["Hillary: the Movie"] seemed to come under the federal law’s definition as “electioneering communications,” because Citizens United was planning to air them while the 2008 presidential primary election season was unfolding.

**Of Moyers, from Wikipedia-->

Moyers had close ties with Lyndon Johnson, going back to 1954, and later serving as press secretary in the Johnson administration. ["In 1954, he worked as a summer intern for then-U.S. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, eventually being in charge of Johnson's personal mail before his internship was finished. (...) Moyers acted as the President's informal chief of staff from October 1964 until 1966. From July 1965 to February 1967, he also served as White House Press Secretary.]

Moyers speaking of his program on the impeachment of George Bush, observed:

"The journalist's job is not to achieve some mythical state of equilibrium between two opposing opinions out of some misshapen respect — sometimes, alas, reverence — for the prevailing consensus among the powers-that-be. The journalist's job is to seek out and offer the public the best thinking on an issue, event, or story."

Getler [PBS Ombudsman] responded by saying that
"On the broad issue of balance, I don't disagree with Moyers .... It can create a false sense of equivalence among readers or viewers in cases where that is not justified.... [but that] while conventional, equal-time balance is frequently a false measure, the absence of any balance can undermine any program."

The same issues have been raised by Bob Park, in talking about news coverage of problematic science. CBS News once put up a scientist suggesting that a perpetual motion machine could be real to balance its reporting of a critical scientist. Of course, Park has the First Law of Thermodynamics to define "best thinking," but one wonders about what Moyers has.


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