Big Speech in the Kentucky Senate Race

In The New York Times Magazine‘s piece on the U.S. Senate race in Kentucky, I came across this:

This year’s Kentucky Senate race is the latest chapter in this political arms race, drawing contributions from large outside “super PACs” and wealthy individual donors.

Factually incorrect, but not surprising.

It’s typical for media outlets to ignore the important distinction between a direct contribution to a campaign and political advertising that supports a candidate. What’s troubling to me how often the error occurs and the ignorance it demands of reporters and editors. I’d prefer to believe that it’s borne out of a poor understanding of both the First Amendment and campaign finance laws, but it’s very hard to square.

Reporters, in my experience, broadly support restrictions on free spending on political ads and other advocacy by unaffiliated groups. Establishment journalism has long occupied a special place free from exactly those kinds of restrictions, but there’s no good reason to believe that kind of exemption would have to continue. Newspapers, radio stations and television outlets have served as providers of both information and advocacy, endorsing candidates freely and spending mightily on the bandwidth to broadcast those messages. There’s no clear distinction between the spending of a super PAC on a message and the spending of a newspaper to express the same thing.

If it’s pure ignorance that drives reporters to not clearly understand the implications of tight regulation on “outside” advocacy, it’s galling. If the error is driven by the specious, unstated belief that no future Congress would dare impose those same restrictions on establishment media, it’s dangerous.