On Wednesday night Stephen Colbert took on Comedy Central's parent company Viacom, calling out their lawyers for trying to block his attempts to form a political action committee for the 2012 election. For the second time this year, he has publicly defied his corporate masters on air to try to keep his campaign going.
By promoting his Colbert Super PAC on the Colbert Report against Viacom's wishes, Colbert is crossing the comedy line yet again. He is using his cable news persona's megalomania to bring exposure to some brand new and potentially devastating realities in campaign financing, something that most voters are not even aware of, not because we aren't interested, but because these new rules are as confusing and opaque and absurd as most deliberately cryptic money things usually are. They're like the complex financial instruments behind the 2008 economic crisis or the off-the-book partnerships that brought down Enron in 2001. And we should be as scared now as we should have been then.
"People are wondering What is Colbert PAC? Well get in line because I have no idea."
A Political Action Committee is any organization that raises political funds to influence elections. (Here's Colbert's definition.) There are a lot of them, and traditionally they have been regulated by the Federal Election Commission, which attempts to ensure the sort of fairness we expect in American politics. (Not meant sarcastically.) As Colbert noted back in March, most political candidates have PACs of their own, so why shouldn't he have one too? That's where his trouble began.
This new reality that Stephen Colbert and his lawyer Trevor Potter keep bringing up in Stephen's run-ins with Viacom is the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision from 2009, because Citizens United allows corporations to make unlimited political donations. Where once we feared that corporate money could be misused to buy elections, now we honor corporate money as free speech. (It's not hard to predict that the effects of Citizens United could be as destructive as the deregulation of the banking industry in 1999. Many economists believe that deregulation led directly to the "Too Big to Fail" banks, the global financial crisis, and the bailout. Imagine something like that happening in politics.)
Before Citizens United, PACs were not allowed to receive corporate money, and technically still can't. That's why Viacom was afraid Colbert PAC was illegal. Citizens United gave Colbert the solution to his PAC problem: Super PACs, which companies can give to freely. Viacom's objections gave Colbert the opportunity to show, rather than just tell, the differences between PACs and the new Super PACs. His joke on Wednesday about what makes them different — one of them uses the word "super" — doesn't stretch the truth by much. In his last segment in April he went into greater depth what the legal difference between the two types of committees actually was: a cover letter.
As admirable as this coverage of Citizens United is, it's still the Colbert Report, so the target is ultimately Fox News. Fox is the other brand new and potentially devastating reality in campaign financing, and Colbert is doing all he can here to bring this danger to light. As the 2012 presidential campaign begins, a hefty chunk of the potential Republican presidential candidates are paid personalities on Fox News, with their own fundraising PACs. And besides them there are also the political operatives, like Karl Rove and Dick Morris, hawking their PACs on Fox. It's an unprecedented use of a media outlet by a single political party, and a massive financial advantage for Republican candidates. That this alignment of political power on Fox has pretty much all happened since the 2008 election is a fair indication that it was illegal before Citizens United.
In Wednesday's segment, Trevor Potter encouraged Colbert to use the "media exemption," which is the line of argument Fox and others use. While it sounds innocent, the media exemption has been used by, for example, the NRA in arguing it could pay for a satellite radio program to endorse political candidates, and political activist blogs wishing to be treated as journalists. Colbert's media exemption application is more significant than it might at first sound. Essentially, he is asking the government to answer the question of what Stephen Colbert is: a comedian, an activist, or a journalist?
In an odd way, by highlighting Viacom's objections, Colbert is actually making Viacom out to be a model corporate citizen. Whatever you think about Fox News as a news outlet, its parent, News Corporation, is an entertainment company (despite the name). Viacom is doing what News Corporation should be doing but isn't — avoiding political favoritism through the use of its airways. So hey, Viacom, good for you.
Not that Viacom has been immune to political controversy. In 2004 Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone endorsed Bush using wording that could be seen as trying to influence his employees: "I look at the election from what's good for Viacom. I vote for what's good for Viacom. I vote, today, Viacom."
While Viacom has tried to stop Colbert PAC, it has allowed the continued existence of Viacom International Inc. PAC. Viacom PAC spent $237,200 directly on federal candidates in the 2010 election.
Now, Viacom would probably make a crucial distinction here. Viacom PAC should not to be confused with Viacom, the corporation. Viacom PAC is an independent entity that just so happens to be funded by top executives of Viacom (like Comedy Central President Michele Ganeless; you can read all their names here) who pool their money together to support Viacom's business interests. Viacom PAC has nothing to do with Viacom the company.
So is Viacom really opposed to Colbert forming a PAC, or is it just an on air act? All inquiries were directed to a Comedy Central spokesperson, who declined to comment on the issue beyond letting the show speak for itself. If the show speaks for itself, we'll have to take Colbert at his word. Viacom is trying to shut this down.
Despite the talk, Colbert had yet to file his Super PAC with the FEC. He announced on last night's show and on Twitter this morning that he was planning to finally file today at 4 in the afternoon, asking his followers to join him for the event.
His website, www.colbertPAC.com, has been collecting email addresses since March. Until now, colbertPAC.com has been no more than an email signup list. Colbert has joked repeatedly on air that registrants have no idea what they are signing up for. But it's safe to say the viewers are not signing up for nothing. Whatever form it takes, we can be confident that Colbert Super PAC is going to be more than just a fundraising operation. He has said he wants to use it to "raise awareness, endorse candidates, and run political ads" with candidate's heads photoshopped onto "humanoid" bodies. He wants to be a "force in the 2012 election." Now, with this afternoon's event, he is turning even the quiet act of paper filing into a public spectacle.
We may not know his plans for a while, but already what we are watching is advocacy journalism of the highest order. Colbert Super PAC is showing us the murky, closed world of campaign financing, and the forces that are trying to make money more powerful than the people.
Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.