When all the dust settles from the election today—who knows when that will be—the mainstream media will converge on a few narratives about the election. As usual, most of those narratives will be ill-informed and mostly shaped by the biases that govern media coverage in America today.
One narrative that will surely stick in the media’s craw is the influence of “outside groups” on the election. At a fundamental level, the thing that irks media outlets is competition. They are not alone in this. Rent-seeking is a fairly bi-partisan activity, as groups use the power of the state to protect themselves from competition. Thus, the easiest way for “the media” to thrive is to deny others the right to be considered part of the media.
This is why mainstream media outlets have for decades beaten the drum in support of campaign election regulations, particularly restrictions on what voices get to participate in the electoral process. This noise won’t stop after the election; indeed, it will likely increase. And, as always, the media will solicit partnerships from elected officials—after all, incumbents want protection against competition as well.
Recently the New York Times ran a “news” story with the following headline: “Mauled by Attack Ads, Incumbents Weigh Tighter Rules.” You see, those people who threaten incumbents are the equivalent of hideous beasts, mauling the poor incumbents with attack ads. After all, those beasts are “outsiders,” right? Do a search on the term “outside groups” and count how many millions of hits you get. These outside groups sound almost un-American.
But who are the real outsiders here? The Citizens United case opened up the doors for a wide swath of groups in America to participate in press freedom—meaning the ability to communicate with a mass audience in a way that goes beyond simple freedom of speech. The media and the candidates want to have the right to label independent political groups as outsiders while candidates’ campaigns (and their media partners) are the insiders. Where does such a right come from?
Certainly not from the Constitution. The Constitution has some limited ground rules for running federal elections, but is completely agnostic about campaigns, parties, and public opinion. The government’s role is limited to holding elections and counting the votes. One might argue that they should try to master those simple tasks before worrying about campaigns and trying to limit or shape political discourse or participation in the political process. Alas, it is the nature of most people who have a little power to try to get more.
An independent group—be it a idealogical interest group, a corporation, a union, or any of the countless number of freely-formed associations that exist in America today—is no more an outsider to the electoral process than is a candidate or his/her campaign. Freedom of the press insures that anyone who has the inclination and the means can engage in press activity, including running advertisements about candidates and campaigns. No one participating in the public sphere (especially in the electoral sphere) has a right to determine which voices will get a public airing and which ones will not. The content of one’s message, the source of one’s funds, and the method of distributing that message must not be subject to regulation by elected officials. All those things are part of what freedom of the press means.
Some worry that the advertisements by groups independent of campaigns may drown out the messages of the candidates. But in America, we do not protect the right to be heard, we protect the right to speak. In the long run, the more people are allowed to gather their resources and distribute their message to the people, the healthier is our democracy. Those who try to stop them are the real outsiders, since they are pushing an agenda outside the Constitutional protections we should all enjoy.
If candidates feel mauled by this new world, tough. The day when a prospective lawmaker could coast into office with the support of a few media elites are over. That is something to be thankful for on election day.