Daily Media Links 10/24

October 24, 2019   •  By Alex Baiocco   •  
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In the News 

Center for Public Integrity: Corporate Political Transparency: It’s Optional

By Dave Levinthal

The disparity – detailed in a new report by the Center for Political Accountability and Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School – underscores the flaccidity of federal laws and regulations governing what public corporations must publicly disclose about their politicking…

The nation’s legislative branch has this decade deadlocked time and again on most political transparency measures before it, particularly ones that build upon existing disclosure requirements.

That includes several Democrat-driven attempts at passing a “DISCLOSE Act,” aimed at revealing the root sources of political cash.

But Republicans have generally rejected such attempts on the grounds that they’ll squelch free speech and unfairly burden political actors who, they argue, should have most every right to engage in the political process as they see fit. Voters may suffer from a less robust marketplace of ideas, even if the sellers aren’t necessarily revealing who they are.

Moreover, “companies should have a choice [to disclose] because it is up to the management, subject to shareholder approval, to maximize value to the companies,” said Brad Smith, a former Federal Election Commission chairman and current chairman of the Institute for Free Speech.

While lawmakers fail to make laws this congressional session, an alphabet soup of government agencies are nominally charged with overseeing slices of the nation’s decentralized political transparency regime.

They include the FEC, Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Federal Communications Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ).

Congress

The Hill: House passes third bill aimed at preventing foreign election interference

By Maggie Miller

The measure passed in a 227-181 vote, mostly along party lines. One Democrat joined Republicans in voting against the Strengthening Harmful Interference in Elections for a Lasting Democracy (SHIELD) Act, which focuses on paid online political advertisements.

The bill, sponsored by House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), would require campaigns to report any illicit offers of assistance by foreign governments or agents and would take steps to ensure that online political advertisements are subject to the same rules as TV and radio ads…

Republicans raised concerns the legislation would infringe on First Amendment rights.

Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said on the House floor that the bill had “no chance, zero chance of becoming law.”…

The SHIELD Act is likely to die in the Senate as well, with McConnell confirming his opposition to the bill during a floor speech Wednesday morning.

McConnell called the legislation the “latest attempt” by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to expand government “control over Americans’ political speech.”

McConnell was not alone in raising concerns about free speech issues.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter last week to the leaders of the House Administration Committee urging them to amend the SHIELD Act to “protect the rights of everyone in this country to communicate in their chosen manner about important political issues.”

“The SHIELD Act, as it currently stands, strikes the wrong balance, sweeping too broadly and encompassing more speech than necessary to achieve its legitimate goals,” the ACLU wrote.

Townhall: Liz Cheney Calls Out Dems’ New House Bill Intended to ‘Circumvent the First Amendment’

By Cortney O’Brien

The office of Wyoming Republican Rep. Liz Cheney called the SHIELD Act House Democrats’ attempt to “circumvent the First Amendment.”

“Securing America’s elections is crucial to the functioning of our democratic process,” Cheney said in a statement on Wednesday. “Instead of working to achieve this fundamental priority, the legislation that Democrats brought to the floor this evening is a thinly veiled attempt to control political speech in the name of national security. By giving the federal government the authority to define what constitutes ‘legitimate’ news and forcing Americans who wish to engage in political speech to navigate burdensome bureaucratic obstacles, this bill is a clear violation of our First Amendment right to free speech.

“I hope our Democrat colleagues will realize the damage their partisanship and political games are doing. We must work together to pass meaningful legislation that secures our elections.”

Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) shared his similar concerns with the SHIELD Act, likening it to a “Trojan Horse.”

“This Trojan Horse legislation presents some seemingly reasonable protections but will have substantial consequences for American journalists because while it identifies ‘legitimate journalistic activities’ as protected from requirements in this legislation, it fails to define it,” he said. “So, who will define ‘legitimate journalistic activities? The government?”

He worries that SHIELD could prompt the Federal Elections Commission “to make laws that abridge the freedom of the press.”

Bacon supports a Republican-led alternative called the Honest Elections Act, which he says takes steps to prevent foreign meddling in our elections without infringing on our constitutional freedoms.

Reason: Congress Asked Mark Zuckerberg a Bunch of Really, Really Stupid Questions at the Libra Hearing

By Robby Soave

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) attacked Zuckerberg for allowing misleading political ads to appear on Facebook, something that has increasingly irritated high-profile Democrats as of late-most notably regulation-obsessed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who recently warned that “Facebook is actively helping Trump spread lies and misinformation. Facebook already helped elect Donald Trump once. They might do it again-and profit off of it.”

“I’m not talking about spin, I’m talking about actual disinformation,” said Ocasio-Cortez, as if these are two things that Facebook content moderators could both easily distinguish and police in a fair and unbiased way.

Zuckerberg responded that he believed “in a democracy, people should be able to see for themselves what politicians which they may or may not vote for are saying, and judge their character for themselves.” Ocasio-Cortez then pivoted to interrogating him about his “ongoing dinner parties with far-right figures, some of whom advance the conspiracy theory that white supremacy is a hoax.”

The idea that Facebook’s misleading political ads are any more threatening to democracy than the hours of ideological, agenda-driven advocacy for one party or another that appear on television and the radio every day is a kind of moral panic. Social media is certainly the newer phenomenon, and that has made it the object of hatred for legislators who reflexively fear something they don’t understand and can’t control.

Many Republicans were also inclined to meddle in Facebook’s affairs. Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) criticized Zuckerberg for policing anti-vaxxer content. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), the committee’s ranking Republican, said he had “qualms” about Facebook’s practices, though he did not wish to side against “American innovation.”

Online Speech Platforms 

Wired: Maybe It’s Not YouTube’s Algorithm That Radicalizes People

By Paris Martineau

The paper, written by Penn State political scientists Kevin Munger and Joseph Phillips, tracks the explosive growth of alternative political content on YouTube, and calls into question many of the field’s established narratives. It challenges the popular school of thought that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is the central factor responsible for radicalizing users and pushing them into a far-right rabbit hole.

The authors say that thesis largely grew out of media reports, and hasn’t been rigorously analyzed. The best prior studies, they say, haven’t been able to prove that YouTube’s algorithm has any noticeable effect. “We think this theory is incomplete, and potentially misleading,” Munger and Phillips argue in the paper. “And we think that it has rapidly gained a place in the center of the study of media and politics on YouTube because it implies an obvious policy solution-one which is flattering to the journalists and academics studying the phenomenon.”…

Other researchers in the field agree, including those whose work has been cited by the press as evidence of the power of YouTube’s recommendation system. Manoel Ribeiro, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne and one of the authors of what the Penn State researchers describe as “the most rigorous and comprehensive analysis of YouTube radicalization to date,” says that his work was misinterpreted to fit the algorithmic radicalization narrative by so many outlets that he lost count.

The Media 

Washington Post: CNN’s Zucker calls Facebook’s political ad policy ludicrous

By David Bauder, AP

CNN chief Jeff Zucker says Facebook’s policy not to monitor political ads for truth-telling is ludicrous and advised the social media giant to sit out the 2020 election until it can figure out something better.

Zucker, in an appearance Thursday at a conference sponsored by his own network, also derided rival Fox News as “conspiracy TV” and expressed interest in hiring its former news anchor, Shepard Smith, who left earlier this month.

CNN recently rejected two ads that President Donald Trump’s campaign sought to air, saying they repeated allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden that had been proven false.

Facebook ran the ad, however. The company has said that politicians have the right to unfettered speech on its platform and that it’s up to citizens to investigate claims.

Zucker called the policy “absolutely ludicrous” and that Facebook should be called out on it…

“Given what happened in 2016, maybe they should just sit it out and not take any political ads until they figure it out,” he said…

Zucker noted how his own company has beefed up its fact-checking operation since Trump’s election and is trying to quickly correct false claims made on its air…

Zucker had some of his harshest public comments ever about Fox, saying “I don’t think it’s a journalistic operation.” He scolded CNN’s media reporter, Brian Stelter, who was interviewing him at the conference, for saying that Fox had a news side and an opinion side.

The CNN chief said Fox does a disservice to the country by peddling conspiracy theories, but “that’s the path that the Murdochs have chosen to go down.”

Candidates and Campaigns 

New York Times: Biden Campaign Drops Opposition to Super PAC Support

By Shane Goldmacher

Mr. Biden had explicitly denounced support from a super PAC in his 2020 run and had previously said he would not have blessed one if he had run in 2016. As recently as a month ago, when a possible pro-Biden super PAC surfaced, his campaign denounced the efforts.

But on Thursday, Kate Bedingfield, his deputy campaign manager, softened that stance, blaming the barrage of ads and attacks from President Trump and his allies and accusing them of interfering in the Democratic primary…

She said Mr. Biden maintained his desire to remove private money from federal campaigns but “nothing changes unless we defeat Donald Trump.”

Faiz Shakir, the campaign manager for Senator Bernie Sanders, immediately criticized the flip.

“The former vice president has been unable to generate grass roots support, and now his campaign is endorsing an effort to buy the primary through a super PAC that can rake in unlimited cash from billionaires and corporations,” Mr. Shakir said…

The Biden campaign had maintained its anti-super PAC posture in late September even as Mr. Trump’s attacks were underway, citing it as a matter of principle.

“The attacks aimed at this campaign from dark money groups helping Donald Trump spread his outlandish lies and slander have only served as a reminder of the urgent need for campaign finance reform,” T.J. Ducklo, a Biden spokesman, said then. “Which is exactly why since the beginning of this campaign, Biden for President has not and will not welcome the help of super PACs.”

While the Biden campaign statement on Thursday did not explicitly embrace a super PAC, Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, which opposes big money in politics, said that Biden campaign staff confirmed that Mr. Biden was dropping his opposition to a super PAC.

“It is incredibly disappointing to see Vice President Biden completely reverse his position now that times are tough,” Ms. Muller said. “I don’t think we could say it as well as he did when he said, ‘People can’t possibly trust you’ if you accept support from a super PAC.'”

The States

North County Public Radio: NY Republicans take aim at public campaign finance commission

By Karen Dewitt

Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan, on a rainy fall day, stood outside the public campaign finance commission’s hearing on Long Island and said the panel is “unlawful” and creates a dangerous precedent. 

“It’s a sham,” Flanagan said. “It’s a hoodwinking of the public in so many different ways, shapes and forms.” 

Flanagan, a Republican, was in the majority party in the Senate for most of his tenure, until Democrats picked up several seats in the 2018 elections. GOP senators blocked bills to design a public campaign finance system, saying that taxpayers should not have to subsidize political campaigns.

Flanagan has not changed his mind about that.

“They want you to pay for robocalls,” Flanagan said. “They want you to pay for negative mailings.” 

Polls show a majority of New Yorkers agree with Flanagan on the issue, with two-thirds of them against a public financing system. 

Republican Sen. Phil Boyle slammed Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic leaders of the legislature, who appointed the majority of the members of the commission. Boyle said the Democrats are shirking their law-making responsibilities to unelected commissioners who will decide on how $100 million in funds allotted for the public campaign system will be spent.

“They have the majority in the Senate and the Assembly,” said Boyle, who said the Democrats should have debated and voted for public campaign finance during the session in Albany.

“They created an unconstitutional commission, which should not be in place,” he said.

Boyle and Flanagan say they are also wary of a rules change when the commission was created that allows the head of the state’s Democratic Party, which Cuomo controls, to serve as the de facto chair of the commission. Previously, party chairs were not permitted to serve on policy-making panels.

Bangor Daily News: Ethics commission staff recommends against investigating Sara Gideon for finance violation

By Caitlin Andrews

The staff of Maine’s election ethics commission is recommending against investigating Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon for her past use of a partially corporate-funded committee to reimburse herself for political contributions…

The five-member commission will meet Wednesday, Oct. 30, to decide whether to launch an investigation into the complaint…

Former state Sen. Ed Youngblood, R-Brewer, submitted a complaint to the commission in August saying Gideon used a state political committee funded partially by corporations to reimburse herself for political donations in 2015 and 2016…

Gideon’s campaign said the state political committee she ran received “incorrect guidance” on how to process the donations and that the candidate later sent a check to the U.S. Treasury in an amount covering the total cost of the contributions to correct the violations of federal campaign finance law.

Maine Ethics Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne wrote in the Wednesday memo that it is “difficult for the Commission staff to see how an investigation would” determine that the Gideon Leadership PAC broke election laws that prohibit ” contributions in the name of another.”…

“This case is different because the Gideon Leadership PAC clearly intended to report the contributions in its own name in campaign finance reports filed with this Commission,” Wayne wrote.

Youngblood has also filed a complaint against Gideon with the Federal Election Commission.

In 2015, Gideon contributed $1,000 to Emily Cain, who was the Democratic candidate running for the seat to represent Maine’s 2nd District in Congress. Nearly a month later, Gideon’s leadership PAC paid Gideon $1,000, calling it a “reimbursement for federal contribution.”

The PAC reimbursed Gideon three more times through 2016 for $1,750 more in contributions to Cain and the federal campaign arm of the Maine Democratic Party.

Alex Baiocco

Alex Baiocco