, Salem, MA


March 5, 2014

Watson: Money is corroding our political system


Super PACs are organizations that are permitted to support specific incumbents or challengers during election campaigns. PACs have grown in number and impact in direct response to Citizens United. Although they are not permitted to donate directly to candidates, they may set up what are, in essence, parallel campaign organizations to create and fund political advertisements that either promote their candidate or attack an opponent.

Super-PAC advertising is overwhelmingly negative, emotional and often inaccurate. That is because the identities of donors are not revealed either prior to or during the airing of the ads. Under current law, sometimes the sources of contributions are not disclosed until after elections.

But not content with being identified at all, big-money individual donors and organizations have taken advantage of another tactic. They organize and operate behind the façade of 501(c)(4) nonprofits and basically engage in the same electioneering as super-PACs. As such, they are not required — ever — to publish their identities. So, anonymously and with virtually no spending limits, they are flooding media with distorted and negative ads.

And the media — increasingly reaping millions of advertising dollars — are becoming compromised and ineffective when it comes to reporting on and fighting the steady slide of our democracy toward one distorted by money. Network television, cable, the Internet and the many social media platforms are increasingly funded by political spending. This is especially disturbing because the funds for real journalism are steadily shrinking.

Most sophisticated candidate organizations today use “big data” to employ Facebook, Twitter and Web ads to target citizens with messages tailored to their personal profiles. Increasingly, anonymously and without accountability, political ads will follow citizens throughout their digital travels (whether on laptops or smartphones). And Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and other online ventures — increasingly replacing traditional print journalism and reaping billions of dollars — will not protest or raise the alarm.

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