Supreme Court: Let's Fight Words With Words, Not Muzzles

It didn't take long before I realized the true horror of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision freeing corporations to spend freely to support political campaigns. It wasn't the new potential for corruption or wealth drowning out other voices. It's the promi

Feb 1, 2010 at 2:06 pm

It didn’t take long before I realized the true horror of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision freeing corporations to spend freely to support political campaigns.

It wasn’t the new potential for corruption or wealth drowning out other voices. It's the promise of more campaign ads on local TV.

Bad as those seasonal ads are, it will get worse. It wouldn’t be so bad if the ads aided my decisions in the voting booth. It’s easier to turn off local TV news than to wait with the mute on.

Of course, the ads will be a boon to financially troubled local TV stations.

“If the First Amendment has any force,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, “it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”

The decision struck down bans on the broadcast, cable or satellite transmission of “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or labor unions from their general funds in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general elections. Kennedy said that there was no principled way to distinguish between media corporations and other corporations.

My friends in sack cloth and ashes are bemoaning the risk the court’s 5-4 decision poses to our democracy. They’re convinced that corporate cash will corrupt our electoral system.

They might also have pointed to what happened to AM radio after the Fairness Doctrine was trashed. It’s become the mouthpiece of the most extreme Republican views, almost to the exclusion of other voices.

At least now, with the latest court ruling, giving from corporate treasuries will be public and documented rather than hidden in myriad legal loopholes. And, mind you, unions and ideological groups will have the same opportunities to funnel members’ dues into campaigns. It will still be illegal for either to give directly to a candidate; that’s still seen as something like a bribe.

Sandra Day O’Connor, a retired justice, worries that the new ruling has the power to corrupt county and state judicial elections (federal judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate). She has a case.

Ohio has judicial elections, from local judges to the state supreme court. The campaigns are increasingly partisan, nasty and costly.

Will donations from corporate and union funds make these contests even more corrosive? That would be a challenge, especially since donors’ identities now must be affixed to ads they’ve bought.

Maybe it’s too simplistic, but the court’s 5-4 decision seems to extend the principle of protected political speech that I enjoy to corporations, unions and ideological organizations that I support and loathe.

This new freedom to participate in elections might produce the most destructive, ugly reality shows in November and 2012; I’ll take my chances. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Our system works best when we fight words with words, not muzzles.

Curmudgeon Notes

• I blame it on growing up without major league baseball, the NFL, the NHL and having to explain why the Lakers are called the Lakers. But I just can’t get on the team. That’s why I find two of the NFL’s latest stunts to be appalling.

If you’ve watched TV in the past month or so, you’ve seen the feel-good NFL promos showing a few players and a swarm of lovely kids running toward the camera, promoting 60 minutes of exercise for every child to combat obesity. I want to scream “Bullshit!” Here’s why, and if some reporter is willing to challenge the high priests of this civil religion, more power to you.

Find kids who have an hour to play daily after school and parents who’ll let them play away from home. Ask where kids can play safely after school for an hour. If they’re riding buses, it can’t be the school yards. If it’s empty school yards, are they welcome once class is out and staff, teachers and administrators have left for the day, or do liability fears mean child-free playgrounds are a must?

I’m not talking about intramural and varsity sports. I’m talking about play. If it’s not the streets and school yards, find parks and empty lots where kids can play without cops or league organizers butting in.

Find a state that cares about obesity as much as dubious and transitory academic achievement scores. Ask why schools don’t provide enough play/exercise time for children to blow off steam and tweens and teens to burn off baby fat. Find out why classes on proper diets and food preparation aren’t considered vital.

• Just as bad are network/NFL solicitations for texted $10 donations to the American Red Cross. Presumably for Haiti, these promos warn impulsive donors that that usual wireless charges can apply. Talk about a windfall. Haitian suffering is a Godsend. NFL gets brownie points. Text carriers get fees. The Red Cross gets money. Will any reporter with a sense of recent Red Cross missteps ask what the Red Cross is doing with the money?

• Rebuilding Haiti as civil society is going to be a long, difficult project if all goes well. Money will pour, then trickle in. American military will pour out, leaving behind only those whose noncombat specialties remain vital. Most countries, especially oil-rich nations in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, will be absent. How will we know? American news media generally lack staying power. The emergency is over and barring epidemic killing tens of thousands more, TV crews will go home. Two, three, five years from now, I’d bet our best sources will be NGOs like Doctors Without Borders and religious groups who were there before, are there now and will be there for the duration.

• The richest and supposedly smartest people in the business/financial world are leaving Davos after their invitation-only annual shop talk. They’ve even set up a web site where they can continue conversations without the rest of us listening in. Worshipful reporters still haven’t explained how these Best and Brightest didn’t see the credit/economic crunch coming.

• Are journalists so browbeaten that we don’t even protest when told the Bush’s FBI illegally or improperly obtained phone records from some of us? In dishonesty reminiscent of the Nixon Plumbers (so-named because they were supposed to trace and fix leaks), the FBI’s Inspector General says the bureau didn’t bother to follow its own procedures meant to add levels of scrutiny to phone records requests when journalists are involved. As for the rest of you, you don’t get even that disregarded protection.

• In the 1920s, The Beaver magazine screamed “Canadian!” No one snickered. Canadians knew the abundant rodent and its luxurious fur were a foundation of early exploration and Hudson Bay Company. But English and technology evolve. The publisher realized a name change was in order. This decision would have been a brief in some news column but for the contrast between Economist and New York Times stories about the name change. The two approaches make it obvious the Brits have a higher opinion of our sexual maturity than the Grey Lady. The differing approaches recalled the days when The Cincinnati Post would carry Newport strip joint ads and The Enquirer wouldn’t run them or ads for X-rated movies.

I quote from The Economist’s U.S. edition: “Its evocation of the fur that had made the trading company’s fortunes no longer struck the right note — especially since the word has become slang for female pubic hair. The editors had known for some time that a name change was needed. Market research indicated that many women and people under the age of 45 said they would not subscribe solely because of the name. But it was the internet that struck the fatal blow. The Beaver web site was attracting (albeit briefly) readers who had little interest in Samuel de Champlain’s astrolabe or what prairie settlers ate for breakfast. They lasted about eight seconds before moving on. E-mails to potential subscribers were blocked by internet obscenity filters. This is known online as the Scunthorpe problem, after the town in Britain whose residents were initially unable to register with AOL because its name contained an obscenity.”

The oh-so-discreet Times decided some news isn’t fit to print: “Canada’s National History Society, the nonprofit group that now publishes The Beaver, decided that the Internet required the magazine to undergo a name change. To be more precise, the title was doomed by a vulgar alternative meaning that causes Web filters at schools and junk mail filters in e-mail programs to block access to material containing the magazine’s name. … ‘Beaver’ is one of those key words students are denied access to on the Internet. The trouble went beyond Web pages. The magazine found that its attempts to e-mail classroom aids to teachers were thwarted by its name, as were attempts to contact many readers. … (B)efore Internet use became common, the magazine, which now has a circulation of about 44,000, sought its readers’ opinions and decided to stick with the name.”

• Times readers who don’t know the “vulgar alternative meaning” for beaver (above) can read The Economist. That’s the version I shared with a former Cincinnati journalist who also has had a cabin in Ontario. He responded: “Reminds me of the friend of Ray’s who lived in the Soo. He owned a Husky gas station on 17E, and his wife owned a Beaver station two blocks down. He was at the lake one weekend with pals while his wife stayed home with the kids. After closing on Friday night, his wife’s station was burglarized and she needed some insurance information from him. The only way she could think of to reach him was to leave a message at the Legion in Blind River, where she knew he’d stop sooner or later. In due time, he did, and when the bartender saw him, he said in a voice everyone in the room could hear, ‘I got a message here for ya, eh? They wanted ya t’know that someone got into yer wife’s Beaver last night.’ It was unclear how long it took to restore order, but it was a memorable night, even by Royal Canadian Legion standards.”

• Air America is going off the air again. I wouldn’t have known except I read about it. Jerry Springer couldn’t help it prosper, even in this, his longtime home town. Al Franken became a U.S. senator. Rachel Maddow went cable. Air America’s audience just isn’t as angry as listeners to Glenn, Rush and Sean over such cultural issues as God, creationism, guns, gays, abortion, Christ in Christmas, uppity people of any color, etc. A daily dose of affirmation, anxiety and fear help hold their audiences on AM radio. Liberals couldn’t compete.

• Mea culpa. My other reader, The Enquirer’s Greg Korte, gently corrects my Jan. 20 column where I referred to Teakwood in College Hill where a tree stood in the middle of the road. “FYI, the Teakwood tree is no more. The city cut it down a couple years ago.” Not that I don’t trust Greg, but I checked with Sue MacDonald, another former colleague, who lives on Teakwood. She replied: “Greg Korte is waaaay behind the times. The city did cut down the big old sycamore 2-3 years ago (?) unannounced, but the Montessori kids who live at the circle replanted it ( new tree, bulbs) within days. It’s still there. I just checked!!”

• Every once in a while, in the midst of almost daily stories on the local economy, hiring and firing, hope and despair, it’s worth stepping back and examining the larger picture. That is, to ask, “So what?” James Pilcher does that in Sunday and Monday’s Enquirers. Take a look. It’s the kind of work that only a daily paper can produce in a local market, regardless of the medium on which you read it.

• Connie Schultz, the Pulitzer-winning columnist for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, is married to Sen. Sherrod Brown. Gail Huff, a veteran Boston TV reporter, is married to Massachusett’s new senator, Scott Brown. Unlike Schultz, who joined her husband on the campaign, Huff stayed away.

The National Enquirer says it might enter its John Edwards adultery/paternity coverage for a Pulitzer. I hope it will, even if the story lacks the kind of lasting punch that the best winners exhibit. In my reporting classes, I’ve long used The National Enquirer — for which I once was a stringer — as an example of how impolite Australian and British journalists come up with significant stories missed, ignored or shunned by the mainstream American media. I don’t care that most of the paper’s pilloried public officials and figures suffered from falling zipper or surfeit of blondes. The National Enquirer was ahead of the pack — and sometimes authorities — in the OJ murder case. It nailed Jesse Jackson, Kobe Bryant and others for sexual scandals and Rush Limbaugh’s drug use. If there were a Pulitzer contender, it was the photo of a young lovely on Sen. Gary Hart’s lap when he was running for the Democratic nomination for president. What elevated that photo and its impact was the name of the boat, visible on the stern: Monkey Business.

This, I tell my reporting and ethics students, is where the “Virgin Rule” kicks in. When your editors flinch from a sleazy story or one too close to the publisher’s golfing and tennis buddies, let someone else publish first. Then report that they reported it. And if you’re criticized for dignifying news first reported by a supermarket tabloid, invoke my “Pilate’s Bowl” rule: Publish and wash your hands of blame.

• Yemen is back in the news. That’s not good news for anyone. It became a British colony in 1839, mainly because of the harbor at Aden, Yemen’s seaport past which Suez Canal shipping must travel. Independence came in the 1960s. There was North Yemen and South Yemen, Marxist Yemen and not-so-Marxist Yemen, royalist and republican, Islamist and not-so-Islamist Muslim Yemen. Now there’s another old/new tribal rebellion and western shock that Yemen has been hospitable to terrorists.

For context and a cautionary tale, it’s hard to beat Dana Adams Schmidt’s 1968 book on civil wars/tribal clashes in Yemen. However, my favorite colonial anecdote involves the closing days of British rule, when Yemeni police mutinied and killed British soldiers. No Agincourt speech like Col. Tim Collins’ on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This was an earlier, simpler Imperial era. Lt. Col. Colin Campbell “Mad Mitch” Mitchell ordered his pipe major to pipe the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders into the old city, the Crater, where they sorted out the killers. Not content with that, and utterly unfamiliar with what would become political correctness, he described the short, bloody fight to be “like shooting grouse; a brace here and a brace there.”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]