Ad Blitz Distorted Candidates, Corroded Democracy

Dark Money’ Forum Examines SuperPAC Dominance in Campaign

WASHINGTON, DC– Their wallets fattened by hundreds of millions of dollars in Super PAC ad purchases, many broadcasters neglected their obligation to pursue public interest journalism this fall and instead aired distorted and often false political commercials, former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps asserted today.

Keynoting a panel discussion on “Dark Money, Media & Campaign 2012,” Copps, now special advisor to Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, said the wave of negative ads that largely defined the 2012 campaign corroded civil discourse and exacerbated the nation’s partisan divisions.

“For a long time,we had a strong press that held power to account by calling out distortions, digging out facts, and pressing for truth. That was then. Right now, much of our media are failing the most basic task at hand: to provide voters with the high quality news, information, and deep accountability journalism that we must have in order to decide the country’s future course,” Copps added. “But all too often, ‘balance’ has replaced antagonistic questioning, glitz has replaced substance, opinion takes the place of facts, and spin replaces truth.”

The two-hour forum hosted by the New America Foundation and co-sponsored by Common Cause, the Sunlight Foundation and Free Press explored the impact of the billions of dollars put into this year’s campaigns by candidates and political parties as well as the new and often anonymously-funded SuperPACs.

It’s a mistake to conclude that because some of the highest-profile candidates backed by Super PACs were defeated on Election Day, there’s no reason to be concerned about the impact of the groups, several speakers argued.

“The most important effects of 2012’s avalanche of money will come after Election Day,” said Sunlight Executive Director Ellen Miller, one of the panelists. “Even if their candidates lost, the influence bought by America’s new class of mega donors will remain. Those who won on Nov. 6 won’t be the only ones running our system: many, if not most, of the losing staffers, consultants and politicians will remain in politics, as will their more successful allies. All of them can be counted on to remember the favors that powerful donors did for them.”

Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron added that Americans “have a serious problem when the media aren’t guarding against political misinformation but actually are helping to spread it. Broadcasters and cable companies took in billions this election from political advertisers, but they largely failed to tell their viewers who was actually telling the truth and who was trying to hoodwink them. And even on stations with the best coverage, the few fact-checking segments were drowned out by a deluge of ads. We have an opportunity right now to make policy changes that would tell viewers in real time who’s trying to influence them, give reporters hard facts about election spending, and allow broadcasters to demonstrate their commitment the public interest.”

In addition to Miller and Aaron, the panel discussion included Los Angeles Times reporter Matea Gold and Jason Reifler, a Georgia State University political scientist who has written about how misinformation and misperceptions can impact political campaigns, even when corrected by the media.