What is more valuable to a candidate, an extra .025% of funding, or an endorsement in a major newspaper?

As the Supreme Court hears arguments today on the constitutionality of restricting the amount individuals may contribute in total to all candidates and party committees in a two-year period, influence in elections has become a popular topic for debate. (You can learn more about the case, McCutcheon v. FEC, through CCP’s extensive coverage). Unfortunately, almost all of these discussions have narrowly focused on the role of donations to candidates. While campaign contributions are a crucially important means of influencing elections, they are not the only one. A key point that has been lost in the recent public discourse is that media companies enjoy considerably more influence over elections than the law permits anyone else.

Consider plaintiff Sean McCutcheon: he wants to make the maximum contribution ($2,600 per election) to many federal candidates. The law currently limits him to making the maximum contribution to only 18 candidates. While Mr. McCutcheon’s influence hits a brick wall after his 18th maximum contribution, media outlets can spend unlimited sums of money making speech about as many candidates as they wish, including endorsements. If these endorsements were treated like contributions, several companies would have broken the law in 2012.

Gannett Company, the largest newspaper publisher in the United States, made at least 39 endorsements of federal candidates in the 2012 general election through its many papers. The Tribune Company made at least 22 endorsements, with the Chicago Tribune endorsing at least 17.

The exact value of a newspaper endorsement is impossible to calculate, but it’s surely much more than the $2,600 limit that individuals face. In 2012, the average winner in the Senate spent $10.2 million, and the average winner in the House spent $1.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That means that for the average Senate winner, a maximum contribution of $2,600 constitutes just .025% of that candidate’s total funds. What is more valuable to a candidate, an extra .025% of funding, or an endorsement in a major newspaper? The answer is obvious, and with this in mind, the Washington Post’s 10 endorsements of federal candidates in the 2012 general election also constitutes a much larger contribution to candidates than is permitted for citizens that do not own media companies. Indeed, virtually every newspaper endorsement is more valuable to candidates than the maximum individual contribution of $2,600.

It’s indefensible to place greater restrictions on the speech of individuals than the speech of corporations (or PACs, which face no aggregate limit on contributions, allowing them to make maximum contributions to as many candidates as they wish). Yet while many have argued in support of limiting contributions from individuals, we haven’t heard any calls for limits on newspaper endorsements, or limits on how much media companies can spend on speech about elections.

Whether you share CCP’s commitment to free speech, or want to make every voice equally heard like many in the so-called “reform” movement, you cannot permit media corporations to spend unlimited amounts on speech endorsing an unlimited number of candidates while simultaneously restricting ordinary citizens from doing the same. To be consistent, one must either support free speech for all, or free speech for none. Of course, we stand with free speech for all.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.