Stop the presses — conservative activists want their media credentials

You’d figure that Citizens United, the conservative advocacy group, would still be basking in its recent, epic victory before the U.S. Supreme Court. The  5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the way for corporations to spend an unlimited amount from their treasuries to support or oppose political candidates and issues.

Well, it seems Citizens United didn’t like another part of the decision that said while it was okay for corporations to spend freely on elections, they would have to adhere to rules requiring them to document how the money is spent and where it came from, including identifying  individual donors. Dan Eggen in the WaPo writes that Citizens United sent a letter to the FEC this week arguing that the group should not be required to do any of that because … wait for it … it’s a member of the media.

“After a dozen films in six years, with more on the way, I think it is time that the FEC recognized us for what we are: a documentary filmmaking studio,” said David N. Bossie, Citizens United’s president.

The funny thing is, Citizens United’s  own Web site has little mention of it being a documentary film company:

Citizens United is an organization dedicated to restoring our government to citizens’ control. Through a combination of education, advocacy, and grass roots organization, Citizens United seeks to reassert the traditional American values of limited government, freedom of enterprise, strong families, and national sovereignty and security. Citizens United’s goal is to restore the founding fathers’ vision of a free nation, guided by the honesty, common sense, and good will of its citizens.

Nothing in there about being a documentary film production company, though I’d suspect that we’ll see some editing sooner, rather than later.

Under the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which was aimed at stemming the influence of campaign contributions in our elections, media companies are exempted from  electioneering restrictions, meaning companies such as the Washington Post, FOX and the like can spend money expressing political opinions during the election without having to file campaign finance reports with the FEC. That’s why Citizens United wants the FEC to view it as a media company, rather than an advocacy group like us here at Public Citizen (which by the way produces blogs, a bi-monthly newspaper and monthly newsletters. Unlike Citizens United, we don’t claim to be a media company, we don’t spend money on political campaigns and we don’t take contributions from corporations to fund our advocacy.)

Citizens United’s  “documentary” on Hillary Clinton was at the heart of the Jan. 21 Citizens United ruling. The group sued after the FEC restricted the cable broadcast of  Hillary: The Movie and an associated promotional campaign during the 2008 presidential  primary because the FEC rightly ruled that the film was nothing more than a long campaign ad against Clinton.

Conservatives like to argue that  Hillary and other pieces produced by Citizens United are no different than the films of progressive filmmaker Michael Moore, whose documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 was seen as an attack on President George W. Bush timed for the 2004 presidential election.

There is a major difference that they conveniently overlook. In the case of Hillary, the FEC was not preventing Citizens United from releasing the movie in theaters or selling it on DVD, but rather from paying cable networks to broadcast it during the run up to the Democratic primaries.

So, is Citizens United a media company or an advocacy group dedicated as its Web site states to “restoring our government to citizen control,” if by “citizen” they mean big business and corporate interests? Frankly, there are probably reasonable arguments on both sides of the issue, but when it comes to financing  political attack ads, Citizens United should not expect to have its cake and eat it too.