Truth in subtext: Supreme Court tips scales for big business

Kevin Zieber

Your everyday life is undoubtedly filled with corporations defining the world around you, to which you are so numb that it goes unnoticed.

The word “corporation” is deeply rooted in the American lexicon both because of the corporation’s ubiquity and pervasion of the political and cultural landscape. The corporation is not, however, like any other business in the U.S. or elsewhere. It is, at least in the eyes of the law, endowed with certain inalienable rights.

What makes a corporation different than other businesses is the structure of the business.

A corporation is a group of individuals functioning as one legal person. As a “person,” a corporation is entitled to all the rights of a flesh and blood person, including the right to buy and sell property, the right to file lawsuits and, most acrimoniously to this columnist, full protection of speech under the First Amendment.

In a landmark decision last week, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the conservative non-profit Citizens United, in what President Obama called in his weekly address “a huge victory (for) the special interests and their lobbyists.”

The precedent nullifying parts of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 banning corporations and unions from financing political ads in the final days of campaigning is at the heart of the decision, according to NPR.

Already saturated with corporate cash and influence, campaign financing will become seemingly and wholly beholden to the winds of corporate interest.

With all four major networks and their cable counterparts in the hands of four gargantuan corporations, it shouldn’t be hard for one to draw conclusions about the bleak future of political communication on television.

One could see, as early as the 2010 midterm elections, the election cycle turned into a veritable shopping list for powerful interests such as those on Wall Street and in the health insurance industry. Candidates strong on health care reform could easily be marginalized if pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Merck decide to pay for ads for a rival candidate.

The structure of the corporation does not mitigate the implications of the decision. A corporation is legally bound to make as much money for its shareholders as possible, creating an incentive to favor candidates who don’t favor reform or oversight.

The Citizens United decision also discourages grassroots and community-based organization. It would take millions and millions of generous private donors to raise the kind of resources available to the multi-national corporation.

In a recent interview with NPR, Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., expressed his concern about the ways a corporation could virtually silence his or any other candidate’s message in the final days of a campaign.

“If a corporation decided to spend $5 (million) or $10 million in my district the last two weeks of an election, they would buy up every spot that was available,” Yarmuth said.

While it remains to be seen what corporations will do with their ever-widening influence, it is hard to imagine it will be used sparingly. We can hope that the corporation will be discretionary in its use of free speech, but we must remember that it is not in its best interest to do so.

This is a huge shift that will be reflected in the media for every election herein. With the proliferation of corporate media, we have already witnessed a culture of omission and untruth. Alternative and publicly owned media are paramount, and they are now the last refuge for unadulterated, non-corporate information.

The above column was originally published

Jan. 28 by Ohio University’s The Post.