Stephen Colbert completed his joke on the American campaign finance process by receiving approval to form a SuperPAC, and to use a media exemption to use his television show staff and resources on campaign activities. The FEC, which granted the approval, was a bit vague on what would be considered part of the media exemption, however.
Specifically, any ad produced for and shown on Colbert’s program would fall within the exemption and the costs incurred don’t have to be reported. But those Viacom-produced ads can’t be shown on other shows or networks, unless their costs are disclosed.
The FEC also said that the parent company’s administration and operation of the Colbert PAC would have to be reported “because these activities are not legitimate press functions.”
This is the most narrow exemption of the three draft reports that the FEC was presented with. But what exactly counts on this? If the ads are run online as part of the normal Colbert Report release of his show, would that be allowed? Doesn’t this, then, open up the playing field pretty widely? Could news outlets run the ads like they were running any other clip of the show?
This was about the best that campaign finance law advocates could have hoped for. It forces disclosure by Viacom if the Colbert SuperPAC ads were run as advertisements elsewhere. Most experts were alarmed that the FEC would allow a corporate entity to make in-kind donations to a SuperPAC by having one of their media stars to run it and make ads on company time. It’s not Colbert that they necessarily see as a problem but other media personalities with PACs, like Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin on Fox News, for example. Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, said that a broader press exemption “would carve out a gaping loophole in campaign finance laws, allowing any company involved in media to foot, in secret and without limit, the electioneering expenses of political committees. If the press exemption were to be so dangerously expanded by the FEC, the next request will be for media companies to directly finance unlimited candidate campaigns under the press exemption – an abuse that is already being advocated in some quarters.”
I think Colbert has done a service here. He showed through his actions the very real dangers of how corporations that have media outlets could eviscerate campaign finance laws. And in the end, the attention he gave to the issue, and to the FCE, ended up securing the strictest possible ruling. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 told USA Today, “In the course of dramatizing the campaign finance law’s problems in the way that Mr. Colbert dramatizes all problems, he almost opened up serious disclosure loopholes in campaign finance law.”