Media Worlds

Media Coverage of the 2012 Presidential Election

The diverse and sometimes ugly stories, attacks and sundry reports that have been published in print and broadcast in the media (including electronic media) thus far in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election campaign reflect just how divided the nation is. These stories and ads in fact say as much about the sorry moral state of America -- and about how out-of-control the issue of politically motivated money is -- as they do about the campaign or the candidates. It is the opinion of this writer that there has rarely been a time in recent American history when conservatives and progressives have been so bitterly divided, and have attacked one another with such meanness and fierce antipathy -- in particular the reference is to the conservative attacks against progressives -- and never has their been an election where millions of dollars flow into campaign coffers from corporations and individuals with zero accountability as to the source.

Some suggest that because President Barack Obama is an African-American, those opposed to him have been particularly virulent in their attacks. Others suggest this election is really about two competing ideologies -- those who are conservative (they are anti-abortion and anti-gay rights and doubt the science of global warming and evolution) versus those who are progressive (they tend to be pro-choice, support same-sex marriage and accept science as reported by bona fide empirically-driven researchers). These issues have been simmering for years and are just now coming to a head with Obama, the Black president, symbolizing for the right wing, the Tea Party, the GOP and conservative Christians (including evangelicals) all that is wrong with America. This election process is bringing bitterly opposing social and ideological divisions into the public view through the media, which itself is taking sides, as expected, but in ways far more potentially harmful to democratic ideals. This paper reviews and provides critical analysis of the media's role -- and the role of money interests in the contest between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.

The questions to be approached in this paper: a) what role should the media play in presidential elections; b) what has been the role of media in recent elections; and c) and what role is the media currently playing in the 2012 Presidential Election, which is being unduly influenced -- and corrupted -- by an avalanche of murky money sources vis-a-vis the Citizens United High Court decision?

TWO: Literature Review -- the Media and Recent Presidential Elections

An article in the peer-reviewed journal MIS Quarterly (Wattal, et al., 2010) points to the evolution of digital media as an important element in the 2008 presidential election. Looking back to the election of 1948, Wattal notes that President Harry Truman tried a strategy that had not previously been used -- he logged 21,928 miles in four months on a train. It was the "whistle-stop" approach and many observers believe it was what tipped the electoral scales in his favor. Truman reached out to people that would never previously been in a position to see a president and who were impressed to have a sitting president campaigning in their town.

The authors then fast-forward to 2008, when Barack Obama reached out to "…millions of people through electronic means" (video sharing, blogs, and text messaging) (Wattal, 670). This gave online users the ability to interact with the Obama campaign, to receive information directly from the campaign -- and not from television, radio, or the newspapers -- and to become directly involved. Supporters of Obama could make direct campaign contributions through the www.mybarackobama.com site, or could take specific instructions from the campaign to set up neighborhood phone banks and participate in organized calling to potential voters around the country (Wattal, 670).

Researchers referenced by Wattal note that while Harry Truman's campaign was about places, Obama's campaign was about spaces, as the campaign "…moved to the space of mybarackobama.com" (671). The authors correctly noted that while Obama was far more successful in using digital media, he was smart in that regard because "Candidates arguably have very little direct control of traditional media or Web publications" (675). But candidates can create their own world on YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace and in blogs produced by supports and not count quite so much on what the traditional media is saying about them or their campaign.

The authors conclude their scholarly article with this poignant and pertinent question: "Will the Internet change the form of political discourse? Has the form of discourse changed the content or are voters simply moving from shouting slogans on streets to slogans on the Web?" (Wattal, 682). The answer (683) that the authors provide to their own question is this: "…the Internet, and especially the blogosphere, can influence the campaign process and the results of elections," hence, the Internet "…may foster a new generation of politicians who ignore "big money" tactics in favor of grassroots campaigns" (Wattal, 683).

Media coverage of the Citizens United High Court Decision

As to Wattal's last sentence -- published in 2010 -- any thought that grassroots campaigns -- as opposed to "big money" -- will spell the difference in the 2012 election is pure fantasy. That isn't to say that grassroots organizing online -- as Obama's campaign did so successfully in 2008 -- is completely out the door. But thanks to the United States Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United v. FEC in January, 2010, corporations have officially achieved "personhood" and they -- plus unlimited numbers of shadowy donors with sometimes extreme agendas -- are free to shower their favored candidates -- and to attack those they wish to crush, including Obama -- with untold and unreported millions of dollars.

According to law professor Anne Tucker (Georgia State University College of Law) the High Court's conception of "corporate political speech in Citizens United reveals flaws in the Court's assumptions about how corporations speak" (Tucker, 2011, 499). In fact, Tucker continues, the Court's decision flies in the fact of "traditional corporate law principles" (499).

Tucker does not mention that the vote on the Citizens United litigation was five Republican justices against 4 Democrats on the Court -- exactly the voting breakdown in the Bush v Gore vote in 2000, when the High Court basically gave the election to George W. Bush using a rationale out of whole cloth -- perhaps because Tucker did not want to appear biased in terms of the political dynamics. That said, Tucker notes that corporate political speech can most certainly be distinguished from individual speech, hence the High Court's assertion that the two can't be distinguished one from the other shows serious "flaws" in their legal approach to this nationally important issue.

The five distinct realities of corporate political speech -- that were ignored by the High Court in Citizens United -- are as follows, according to Tucker on page 499: a) corporate speech, "even when political," always has "an economic motivation"; b) "there is no singular corporate voice"; c) when corporate political "speech" is allowed to go "unrestricted," is poses a risk of "compelled speech"; d) corporate speech is already regulated "based solely on the identity of the corporate speaker"; and e) laws that govern corporate behavior, including securities regulations, "employs the equalization rational" (Tucker, 499).

In essentially taking the funding part of presidential elections away from legitimate campaigns that are obliged to report those making contributions, and instead throwing presidential elections over to big money and corporations that don't have to report the source of the money, the High Court has overturned a long legal history of regulating corporate political speech, Tucker continues (500). In fact the Tillman Act of 1907 prevented corporations from acting as citizens, and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 -- put on the books by Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Feingold -- both were rendered moot.

Money Interests, Citizens United and the Public Health

Writing in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Public Health, William Wiist explains that by allowing corporations to spend "unlimited amounts on political advocacy advertising during elections" that in turn gives corporations the tools to "disproportionately influence the electoral process and thus health policymakers" (Wiist, 2011, p. 1172).

For example, Wiist continues, corporations could (and likely will) spend "…unlimited sums for advertising against candidates who support public health positions on issues such as taxation on sugar-sweetened drinks, air quality standards, or access to reproductive services" (Wiist, 1172). Moreover, Wiist worries that if in fact the floodgates of corporate money (in which the actual source of the money is not identified) continues to flow into campaign coffers it may "exacerbate…challenges for public health" (1173). Candidates who might otherwise espouse a public health position on "…personal health risks, environmental hazards, or occupational safety issues" may decide to remain "silent or align themselves with corporations that oppose health protections" (Wiist, 1172).

One candidate that falls into the category of being heavily involved in healthcare advocacy -- who is heavily identified as having promoted healthcare reforms…