Wednesday, August 1, 2012

We Must, As Atticus Advised, Do Our Duty: On Disclosure, Transparency, and Doing Right


… Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ And Vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

In closing arguments, defense attorney Atticus Finch appeals to the all-white, all-male jury, begging them to do their duty. In the context of To Kill a Mockingbird, doing their duty means to evaluate the evidence without prejudice, without preconceived notions about race as a determinant for truth and lie, without an attempt to preserve one group’s power over another’s. The jury shirks its duty; it finds against Tom Robinson, an innocent man. But the power of the novel is the example of Atticus, a moral man of conscience, compelled to defend Robinson even though doing so will probably not change the outcome and will certainly be unpopular in a Jim Crow era.

We need more Atticus Finches in the public arena, men and women who will seek and speak truth to the rest of us because verily, we are not well informed. We are busy working more than forty hours weekly. Then we begin our second jobs, and they are many. We need to maintain a clean, safe home whether renting or owning. We need to live up to social standards, and those include mowing lawns and weeding flower beds. We need to be social in order to fulfill our sense of belonging and experience happiness. We should attend church, school, and/or community events. We need to nurture the talents of our children, doing our part for car pools, cheering from the sidelines, and coaching kids to learn and succeed while tidying up after a nutritious supper.

Because we’re so busy building our futures, we depend upon elected officials to have our best interests in mind and to be better informed than we are. We count on news reporters to research and analyze, then help us understand, and we have faith that most people are moral and kind and brave. But current numbers suggest that we have begun to rethink our dependency upon others to steer the ship of state safely.

In the Fall 2011, February 2012, and July 2012, Congress earned and maintained an approval rating in the single digits. According to Rasmussen Reports and other sources, many people believe that men and women serving in Congress are corrupt, more responsive to Corporate will through lobbyists rather than to the spirit of public service, preoccupied with personal gain in the form of reelection, private wealth, power, or all three.

One reason for this public cynicism is the need for legislation banning insider trading among members of Congress. President Obama called for such a bill during his State of the Union speech in early 2012, using that national moment to advocate for New York Representative Louise M. Slaughter's bill, first introduced six years earlier. She has been in search of sponsors and support ever since. She found that help after a 60 Minutes exposé and President Obama’s televised support, and it appears that such support was long overdue.

Although members of Congress will rush to tell critics that many representatives and senators were wealthy before their elections to national office, critics still point to the number of wealthy legislators. At least 47% of them are millionaires. The median income for all members of the House is about $750,000 annually and in the Senate, more than $2.6 million (http://money.msn.com/ investing/latest.aspx?post=70cc8f98-07b4-4e4e-923e-5569bd82627d) so when Congress votes not to raise taxes on the wealthiest people in America, it has a vested interest in the outcome of the vote.

But in-depth news reporting on 60 Minutes seems to have made a difference in Congressional ethics, at least for a bill prohibiting insider trading and holding members of Congress to the same standards that every other citizen, including Martha Stewart, must meet. Would that in-depth news reporting was the standard for all print and non-print media. What a difference such reporting might make!

For example, what might happen if television stations revealed the identities of those who pay for political advertising? They could, you know. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision did not include a mandate to hide the names of those who pay for political ads. The decision, summarized for the SCOTUSblog (Supreme Court of the United States’ blog), states that:

“Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means, including ads, especially where these ads were not broadcast.”

The summary above does not mention a right to privacy. It does not provide for a corporation’s right to affect and influence public opinion without transparency, yet that is how broadcasters and Congress prefer to apply Citizens United. The PACs to which citizens, including corporations, donate and the identities of those donor citizens are secret because:

·      Broadcasters do not post the names of those SuperPacs buying air time or individuals purchasing ad time in a public, easily accessible place in spite of a law requiring that such data be made available to the public; interested voters must request the information (http://billmoyers.com/2012/04/18/ fcc-chair-blasts-broadcasters-as-being-against-transparency-and-journalism) and wait a response.
·      And FEC reporting guidelines list deadlines for preliminary reports as 12 to 20  days prior to the election and final reports for general election reports as 30 days after the election; such deadlines make it difficult, if not impossible, for the public to become fully informed about campaign donors or contributions before entering the voting booth (www.fec.gov/pdf/candgui. pdf).

What would the future look like if broadcasters revealed the names of the people behind SuperPacs? What effect would their candor have upon the nation? How might full disclosure alter the political landscape?

We cannot know the answers to those questions, of course. We can only guess, and one component in my guesstimation is the opposition that broadcasters and national legislators mount. Broadcasters kicked up a fuss, arguing that a requirement to post the names of those purchasing political ads is costly and therefore would kill jobs, hinting that if their bottom line were at all affected, they would lay off employees to maintain their current dividend and profit. No evidence in support of a higher cost exists so their opposition was conjecture and fear-mongering.

Broadcasters also argued that posting the information on an FCC web site runs counter to the public desire to reduce the cost of governmental compliance. But the Office of Management and Budget found no evidence of this. In fact, the FCC requirement is fully consistent with FCC authority as prescribed by Congress. So, as of July 2012:

“The White House Office of Management and Budget has approved the FCC rule that requires broadcasters to provide online information about who is buying airtime for political ads. The OMB determined that the FCC mandate was not in violation of a law that reduces paperwork in government — as broadcasters claimed — and gave the green light to the FCC” (http://billmoyers.com/2012/06/27/fcc-political-ad-disclosure-rule-passes-omb-hurdle/).

The Senate of the United States is still skittish, however. It voted to kill the Disclosure Act. Senator Mitch McConnell prefers to withhold donors and contributions as long as possible, declaring that the Disclosure Act is:

“… nothing less than an effort by the government itself to expose its critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third party allies… That’s why it’s a mistake to view the attacks we’ve seen on ‘millionaires and billionaires’ as outside our concern. Because it always starts somewhere; and the moment we stop caring about who’s being targeted is the moment we’re all at risk” (http://billmoyers.com/2012/07/17/presto-the-disclose-act-disappears).

Perhaps Senator McConnell is unaware--or perhaps he absolutely disagrees--with another feature of the Citizens United decision, written by Justice Kennedy: “The First Amendment protects political speech and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.”

Please note the addition of the word, disclosure, in bold font (the font added by me for emphasis). The Justices writing for the majority realize that citizens and voters need to know who is shaping the message in order to make an informed decision. They also know, as Justice Scalia has said, that the First Amendment guarantees free speech; it does not provide a shield against critics and dissenters. If one would exercise free speech, one must be ready and willing to hear the other guy’s free speech.

Senator McConnell, other national legislators, and broadcasters should heed the counsel of the Court. First,

·      Congress must immediately pass the Disclosure Act in the interest of the people, not big money, and second,
·      Broadcasters must immediately begin to cooperate with the FCC rule by posting online the names of those paying for political ads and airtime where the public may examine them.

Representatives, senators, and broadcasters may not believe that disclosure is safe, expedient, or popular, but their consciences should tell them that disclosure is right. We have the right to know at least as much as they do.