Right wing media has been up in arms for a day now over remarks made by Federal Elections Commission Chairman Lee Goodman indicating that government officials are planning to regulate or shut down conservative news websites. If this was true, it would require the FEC to first overturn the media’s exemption from the laws governing campaign finance organizations. But we have found no evidence whatsoever that this threat exists outside of Mr. Goodman’s imagination.
The buzz began with an article in the Washington Examiner, where a close reading reveals no specific details. Who is attacking free speech? What exactly are they doing? Goodman does not say. Actually, the only evidence he offers is his own gut instinct that “some on the left” are out to shut down the Drudge Report.
“I think that there are impulses in the government every day to second guess and look into the editorial decisions of conservative publishers,” warned Federal Election Commission Chairman Lee E. Goodman in an interview.
“The right has begun to break the left’s media monopoly, particularly through new media outlets like the internet, and I sense that some on the left are starting to rethink the breadth of the media exemption and internet communications,” he added.
Noting the success of sites like the Drudge Report, Goodman said that protecting conservative media, especially those on the internet, “matters to me because I see the future going to the democratization of media largely through the internet. They can compete with the big boys now, and I have seen storm clouds that the second you start to regulate them, there is at least the possibility or indeed proclivity for selective enforcement, so we need to keep the media free and the internet free.”
This controversy seems to have been born last December, when the three Republican FEC commissioners charged their Democratic counterparts with partisan enforcement of the media exemption.
On the one hand, the Commission voted unanimously to recognize a technology company’s right to launch a new campaign channel on the internet devoted exclusively to pro-Democratic coverage [AO 2008-14] and a former Democratic senator’s right to launch a new online editorial publication devoted solely to pro-Democratic commentary [AO 2005-16], all free from Commission regulation. But three Commissioners voted to punish The Sean Hannity Show when the radio program endorsed a Republican candidate for the U.S. House and emailed its endorsement to the show’s distribution list [MUR 6320]. Likewise, there were six unanimous votes on the Commission to dismiss complaints against Michael Moore, Harvey Weinstein and their production companies for expending corporate funds to produce, advertise and exhibit the liberal editorial film Fahrenheit 9/11 [MURs 5474 and 5539], but only four votes to recognize the press rights of Citizens United to make conservative documentary films [AO 2010-08].
First, note how in their telling, when a political organization like Citizens United makes and distributes documentaries it is somehow exactly the same as Moore, a political documentarian who does not run an organization. Second, note how nothing in the above paragraph suggests a quantifiable trend of any kind. None of these examples are even very recent. Perhaps Goodman and his fellow Republicans on the FEC simply perceive this trend, so they act as if what they perceive is real? It would certainly not be the first time conservative perceptions turned into a raging controversy: the IRS ‘scandal’ and Benghazi are just two recent examples. And to no one’s surprise, those are exactly the fake scandals being invoked by right wing commentary today.
To illustrate how little ‘there’ is there, look at Goodman’s February op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Goodman starts by describing a third party candidate’s complaint that he was excluded from a televised debate:
WCVB invoked the First Amendment and the campaign act’s press exemption. When the FEC considered the matter in November 2013, the staff recommended that the agency disregard both. The FEC proceeded to sit in judgment of the news directors’ editorial criteria for choosing the candidates to appear to debate on the station’s Sunday morning program. Ultimately the FEC decided that the editorial criteria were sufficiently objective and thus the station had not made an unlawful corporate contribution. It dismissed the case.
Based on this outcome, Messrs. Gregory and Stephanopoulus might rest easy. They shouldn’t, which is why I took issue with the FEC’s ostensible beneficence. A decision to approve implies the power to disapprove. And in the case of FEC regulatory authority over corporate contributions, the power to investigate, punish and even enjoin is the power to censor news programs like “On the Record,” “Meet the Press” and “This Week.” The upshot of the WCVB decision is that every television newsroom must look over its shoulder whenever it invites two or more candidates to a joint appearance.
Get that? The case was dismissed, but it means nothing because “a decision to approve implies the power to disapprove.” In other words, the very fact that the FEC was called upon to make this decision is proof that the FEC should not be allowed to make any decisions at all. Goodman is worried about a slippery slope of censorship because even if the FEC has not censored anyone, perhaps one day they will, and ‘perhaps’ is just as good as ‘definitely.’ Exactly how is that supposed to happen when by law, the FEC is always evenly divided on partisan lines? Goodman does not say.
This contrived controversy reminds us of the familiar right wing trope about the Fairness Doctrine, a regulation from an earlier era that was dismantled during the Reagan administration. Far from censoring anyone, the Fairness Doctrine simply required that broadcasters present some diversity of views instead of a single, narrow view. But for years now, conservatives have warned that Democrats would restore the Fairness Doctrine at their first opportunity in order to take down Rush Limbaugh and other right wing media figures. This is something of an obsession on the right, which never really lets it go no matter how many times their prediction fails to happen.
We suggest that mainstream media should critically examine Goodman’s warnings for evidence, or the lack thereof, before blithely repeating his accusations in quotes. Before we have yet another oxygen-consuming fake controversy take over Washington, could we please have some actual research? It is not too much to ask that, rather than allow Goodman to make his accusations in broad strokes, interviewers should interrogate his story and require him to be specific about his allegations. If the situation is as dire as he says, he should be willing to name names and cite recent examples. And if he cannot, or will not, then responsible journalists should stay away from his story, because Americans deserve better than that.