“Ruthless, vindictive, venal, sneaky, ideological, intolerant, liar,” are just some of the adjectives used to describe then-presidential hopeful, Senator Hillary Clinton, in the 2008 documentary, Hillary: The Movie. Cast members involved with the conservative non-profit organization, Citizens United, and in the film’s production included Fox News contributor and conservative author Ann Coulter, syndicated columnist and host of The Kudlow Report on CNBC Lawrence Kudlow, and writer and conservative political commentator Robert Novak. Under the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), films such as Hillary: The Movie, were outlawed the month before a primary election and two months before a general election. The BCRA was passed in hopes of decreasing the influence of special interests in elections. As such, Citizens United was prohibited from distributing the film in theaters and on pay-per-view by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). By November 2008, Citizens United filed a lawsuit against the FEC and lost in the United States District Court in the District of Columbia. It was ruled that the film was in violation of the BCRA because it was "susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her" (Rucker, 2010, ¶8). By January 21, 2010, the case had reached the Supreme Court, and Citizens United had won. As a result, corporations and unions were granted free reign to spend as much money as they wish to campaign for or against candidates at any point in an election.
It is important to recognize that Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was not the first challenge to the 2002 BCRA. Immediately following the bill’s passage, Senator Mitch McConnell along with 80 other groups and individuals filed suit against the Federal Election Commission in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission. The Supreme Court voted in favor of the Federal Election Commission and the issue of electioneering communication was not brought to the Court again until the Citizens case. The change in policy is important to study as is the way the broadcast media covered it because broadcasters stand to make massive amounts of money by selling ads to corporations and unions that were previously outlawed from buying air time to influence elections (Mann, 2010). The now legal ads may have the ability to change the way citizens vote and the way elections turn out.
This thesis uses a political economic approach to analyze network news and public broadcasting discourse surrounding the Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010 and compares them with how the broadcast media covered McConnell v. Federal Election Commission in 2002, in order to find out how, or if, coverage differed. In McConnell, the BCRA was upheld, but in the Citizens United case, key parts of the BCRA were overturned. This thesis also explores the history of campaign finance law and what the current ruling might mean for the future of democratic elections. The ruling and the media coverage are evaluated by how they may be problematic in terms of theories regarding the public sphere, the normative role of the news media in a democracy, freedom of speech and campaign finance concerns.