Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Sept. 20, 21 or 22
Super Political Action Committees (super PACs) spent almost a quarter of a million dollars in downstate Illinois’ biggest TV market during the campaign from January-March, records show, together paying $3.74 per vote for the March 20 primary. That’s lousy for democracy – made worse by many negative or misleading commercials – and TV stations should operate in the public interest by rejecting inaccurate ads or doing news stories about false claims.
Nationwide, political advertising for the presidential, Congressional, state and local races together could reach $10 billion, according to media consultants Borrell Associates. That’s up 43 percent from the 2008 election, and $3.3 billion of that is expected to be spent on local advertising on U.S. television stations.
According to the public-interest journalism initiative ProPublica, super PAC spending through Sept. 17 topped $258 million, with the pro-Romney “Restore Our Future” group leading with $82.2 million in spending. The pro-Barack Obama “Priorities USA Action” has spent $26.9 million; the pro-Santorum “Red White and Blue Fund” spent $7.5 million.
“Our research shows that outside spending groups that aggregate unlimited contributions are distorting our democracy, functioning as megaphones for (sometimes unseen) millionaires and moguls,” says the report “Million-Dollar Megaphones: Super PACs and Unlimited Outside Spending in the 2012 Elections,” which recommends a Constitutional amendment to restore campaign finance regulations.
A flood of third-party advertising was unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen United decision, which voided limits on campaign contributions – as long as super PAC ads are not “coordinated” with candidates’ campaigns.
In the Peoria-Bloomington TV market – roughly defined as Fulton, Livingston, McLean, Marshall, Mason, Peoria, Putnam, Stark, Tazewell and Woodford counties – political advertising for presidential candidates for Illinois’ March primary was led by super PACs for Mitt Romney ($141,185), Rick Santorum ($64,000) and “issue” advocacy by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($27,770), totaling $232,955.
The Romney campaign itself spent an additional $31,730, bringing the grand total to $264,685 combined for WEEK-TV 25, WHOI-TV 19, WMBD-TV 31 and WYZZ-TV 43.
WAOE-TV 59 showed no federal political ads for the period examined.
Besides the volume of spots, more money than ever is being devoted to negative and/or deceptive TV ads. Misleading or inaccurate ads included Romney falsely accusing Newt Gingrich of supporting China’s one-child policy, and Rick Santorum falsely accusing Romney of leaving Massachusetts $1 billion in debt after Romney’s term as governor ended.
Negative messages have been the rule, not the exception, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The level of inaccuracy in the third-party presidential ads has been high,” she said. “As an APPC study shows, from the Iowa caucuses through the Wisconsin primary, almost 57 percent of the $41.1 million deployed by the four highest-spending third-party groups was devoted to 19 ads containing misleading claims.”
Who’s footing the bills? Good question. There’s no longer a requirement to disclose the origins of super PAC funds, but a study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group shows that 57 percent of all super PAC money has come from 47 multimillionaires such as Wal-Mart’s Walton family, Richard Marriott, William Koch, J. Joseph Ricketts (whose family owns the Chicago Cubs), and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (who with his wife Miriam donated more than $34 million).
“It would take more than 321,000 average American families donating an equivalent share of their wealth to match the Adelsons’ giving,” the report says. (Incidentally, corporations outspend labor unions by about 10-to-1, according to the non-partisan CRP, and – unlike corporations – unions must disclose such spending sources. And even after Citizens United, there’s been no increase in political advertising by unions as a group.)
With few exceptions, TV stations are required to air federal candidates’ own commercials, but not outside groups’. Those can be rejected or required to be factual. However, none have, according to FactCheck.org, an independent group verifying media claims.
“By taking seriously their right to insist on the accuracy of third-party ads and regularly debunking deceptive political ad content, stations can translate some of those profits into protection for the public served by their stations,” said Jamieson. “That is what a new campaign by the Annenberg Public Policy Center is asking them to do.” (APPC maintains a site to help: FlackCheck.org).
Bottom line: Obama-backing super PACs were absent from Peoria’s TV stations January-March, but the Santorum-supporting super PAC spent $64,000 and generated 30,291 votes in the 10 counties in the market (or $2.11 per vote). The Romney-supporting super PAC spent $141,185 and generated 30,856 votes (or $4.57 per ballot). Adding Romney campaign spending of $31,730, pro-Romney forces spent $172,915 to generate those 30,856 ballots (or $5.60 per vote).
It seems that democracy is for sale, and if money equals speech, commercials can say virtually anything to whip up support, hate or fear.
Check ProPublica’s ongoing tally of super PAC spending at http://projects.propublica.org/pactrack/