Two years and two election cycles into the Super PAC era, the media firestorm against free speech and association has been palpable. A Google search of the term “Super PAC” reveals dozens of articles warning about the evils of such entities and their supposed negative impact on democracy.
Many news accounts mislead or confuse readers about a number of facts related to Citizens United, SpeechNow.org, and their relationship to Super PACs and political speech. The New York Times had published so many stories that came under harsh criticism that the paper’s Public Editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, had to write an essay addressing the “intense” controversy over the paper’s coverage; He concluded that “Framing this [emergence of Super PACs] as a Citizens United-derived phenomenon without referring to SpeechNow has the effect of laying all blame for individual spending at the feet of Citizens United. That’s not accurate.”
The Atlantic’s Wendy Kaminer wrote that the paper “has repeatedly mischaracterized Citizens United, explicitly or implicitly blaming it for allowing unlimited super PAC contributions from mega-rich individuals.” Kaminer correctly points out that the ruling did not enable wealthy individuals to fund campaigns via Super PACs, as the Times had erroneously and repeatedly reported.
Much reporting also incorrectly leaves readers with the impression that Super PACs do not disclose donors. For example, a USA Today editorial bears the misleading title “Disclose donors on Super PAC ads” seemingly implying it wasn’t already happening.
Given the confusion over the origins, functions and reporting obligations of Super PACs in the media, it may be a safe assumption that the public is likewise confused. CCP enlisted Pulse Opinion Research to conduct a poll in January 2012 to gauge public awareness of some of these issues.