More “SuperPAC” disinformation from Colbert and Potter

October 4, 2011   •  By Brad Smith
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We’ve noted in past posts that comedian Stephen Colbert’s efforts to skewer campaign finance have tended to demonstrate, at least to the careful observer, something quite different from what Colbert hopes to show. Colbert seems to think he is proving that deregulation of political campaigns helps the rich and powerful, when in fact he is demonstrating how regulation helps the rich and powerful.

Now Rick Hasen links to Colbert’s most recent bit, featuring Trevor Potter, a high priced Washington lawyer whom Colbert has enrolled to be his straight man. Colbert first asks Potter why corporations aren’t giving to his PAC. Potter answers that that is because the corporations want to remain anonymous. Now, granting comedic license, this is, of course, absurd. Corporations don’t give to Colbert’s PAC because, well, why the hell would any corporation give to a joke PAC that does not share its views?

This may sound like a small thing – after all, Colbert is trying to get laughs, and Potter must play the straight man to keep his gig – but Colbert and Potter purport to be giving us real insight into the system – after all, no less than Professor Hasen calls the sketch “informative.” It is, of course, true, that some corporations want to remain anonymous – as do many individual donors. Potter suggests that this is because “their shareholders, their customers” might “object to what they’ve done.” Fine, and true so far as it goes. But most individual and corporate donors can handle a few folks “objecting” to their views. The real issues have to do with the government forcing corporations to facilitate boycotts against themselves; the use of the corporate internal democratic process by political gadflies seeking not what is best for the corporation, but their own political gain; and issues of threats and vandalism.

That aside, the segment moves on to have Potter establish, for Colbert, a 501(c)(4) non-profit controlled enitrely by Colbert. Potter then tells Colbert that he can have corporations give to his non-profit, and he can then give the money to his PAC, and no one will ever know which corporations gave to his non-profit.

But here’s the rub. Will we – the voters – really be in the dark? Of course not. Leave aside that Colbert is doing it all on national TV – let’s assume Potter represents (well, OK, in the real world he probably does represent, for a handsome fee) nefarious interests (such as the John McCain for President campaign – see, isn’t unilluminating satire fun and easy?) out to do the public harm. Anyone can look at the Delaware corporate records and find out (in some cases for a modest $10 fee, something most journalistic organizations can still afford) about the corporation. One can readily know it was formed and is controlled by Colbert. Further, of course, everyone will know from the face of advertising that the PAC is Colbert’s PAC. In short, all the information the voters need to “judge” the ad will be readily available. In other words, Colbert’s whole bit relies on creating the impression that voters will be totally in the dark as to the agenda of the advertisers and the ability to judge the message, when in fact, that is simply not the case.  Name any “shadowy” group from the 2010 election, and within a few minutes we can tell you its purpose and basic political orientation.

And so it has come to this: Stephen Colbert is able to use his natural talents – making people laugh – to gain great political influence far in excess of his knowledge of government or public policy. He is watched by millions each night, and has been invited to testify before Congress. Already backed by a team of lawyers from his mega-corporate employer Viacom to request advisory opinions from the federal government about the legality of his political activity, he hires Trevor Potter, one of the most expensive and powerful political lawyers in Washington, and himself the scion of a wealthy, politically connected family, to navigate the shoals of political law and regulation so that he can exercise even further influence over public policy. His point, apparently, is to prove that efforts to deregulate the system enhance the power of the wealthy and corporations, and that therefore more regulation is needed.

Satire indeed.

Brad Smith

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