Political Front Groups Have It Backward

U.S. Political front groups that don’t have to disclose donors’ identities are inherently unethical. Pro or con?

Pro: An Un-American Affront

Political front groups, which prosper by misleading the public on their true motivation and intent, corrupt U.S. politics and are a disservice to the electorate. Without full disclosure of donors’ identities or of the motivating factors behind specific attacks and messages, front groups represent an insidious attack on the public’s trust.

The core issue is not the legality of front groups—both Congress and the Supreme Court permit their existence—but rather the ethical implications they pose.

As the PRSA Code of Ethics states, open communication is essential for informed decisionmaking in a democratic society. Without it we tarnish the foundation upon which our society is built: the free flow of accurate and truthful information.

Wrapping themselves in a cloak of anonymity may work for front groups while they have the law on their side, but it can lead to radical action and inflammatory comments that only serve to diminish the public’s esteem for politicians and the American political system.

Would front groups advance such extreme, and often misleading, positions if those providing the funding had to disclose themselves and their motivations? With the names of donors publicly disclosed, would they vet information more closely, thus better serving the public’s interest?

While politicians have rarely engendered a high level of citizen trust, associating themselves with front groups aimed at usurping open and honest communications with the public is even more of a detriment to faith in the system.

Only truth and full disclosure can restore historically low trust in politicians. Most front groups lack both.

Con: A Venerable Tradition

To call organizations that engage in political speech while protecting the identities of their donors “front groups” that are “inherently unethical” ignores our nation’s rich history of political speech. When Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay published the Federalist Papers, a series of essays that shaped the debate regarding ratification of the U.S. Constitution, they did so anonymously under the pseudonym of “Publius.” These founding fathers’ words and arguments have stood the test of time and remain essential texts for all who seek to understand our Constitution and our form of government.

The writers of the Federalist Papers count as just one example of anonymous pamphleteers who existed at our nation’s founding. Anonymous political speech is a key component of the American system of government. Today groups that include Citizens United, American Action Network, and Crossroads GPS carry on this tradition, engaging in political speech without disclosing the identity of their members. They choose anonymity in order to protect individuals’ right to engage in speech without fear of reprisal.

This kind of political speech is protected by the First Amendment but for years was criminalized by the McCain-Feingold legislation and by the bureaucrats tasked with enforcing it. The Supreme Court restored this fundamental right to political speech in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The fact that groups now seek to exercise these restored rights does not make them unethical; it makes them American.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Joy Kennelly

I'm with the con argument. In light of wikileaks, it's obvious certain facts and information should remain private. That's why there are privately held companies and other private measures set in place.

There is a time and place for everything, and that includes privacy.

Kathleen Lewton

Wikileaks is a bit of an overreach as a reason not to disclose the names and affiliations of group sponsors.

No one is suggesting that all correspondence, minutes, etc., need to be disclosed.

But hiding the sponsors of a group that purports to be one thing, and is in fact, another, is counterproductive.

First, it makes citizens, customers, and voters, stop and wonder, "Why are they secretive? What do they have to hide? Why are they hiding?" This undercuts the effectiveness of the group.

Second, in this media environment, it is rare that anything can be kept totally secret. So eventually, the group's true nature will be revealed--and that gives media a chance for an expose, investigation, etc. If you simply tell the truth in the beginning, then you can't be exposed, and often journalists lose interest if you are straightforward. There's no "thrill of the expose" for them.

And if the group is straightforward --whether it's a group of citizens who support a candidate or a cause, or a patient advocacy group for a specific disease, there should be nothing to hide in terms of who created and sponsors the group.

If there are potentially unethical circumstances--i.e., a group saying we are patients who support this issue, who are in fact being bankrolled by a corporation, with no actual patient leadership and all communications prepared and paid for by the corporation--then citizens need to know that in terms of evaluating whether they find the group's message credible.

Dawn Doty

Well said, Gary. You make me proud to be a PRSA member.

Robespierre

Gary and Kathleen are spot on, David is not. He's speaking as a representative of the very front groups being discussed, and he has a vested interest in hiding the truth to further his group's political agenda: lies, innuendo, hate, and money thrown at the political process to defeat Democrats at the polls thanks to misinformed and duped voters. We need transparency, ethics, and truth in our political discourse, not lies funded by special interest groups interested only in how they can benefit financially. It's obscene.

The conservative Supreme Court really got it wrong when they allowed unfettered and secret political contributions from corporations. They did an extreme disservice to all truth-seeking Americans, and those who are not wealthy in this country will all suffer.

Mike Gaughan

The arugument presented by Mr. Bossie is fatally flawed. The core issue is an ethical question. Let's look at it this way. Is it a Constitutional right for an individual or group to spend millions of dollars promoting and fostering half-truths or out-right lies in order hamper honest debate? Think "Death Panels."

Mr. McCormick stands tall.


Ghost

If you're discussing public policy, public issues, public administration, then how can you justify anonymity under the shield of privacy? If it's a public issue, then speak publicly. If it's a private issue, then keep it private. One or the other, but not both in the same instance. As for the con's attempt to relate this to The Federalist Papers, their analogy is rather flawed. Hamilton, et al, indeed used a pseudonym, but the message, position, and intent of their writings was never circumspect--there was never any deception. Today's groups, however, certainly have indirect and undeclared intent and positions--deception is their intent and reason for existence.

Tim

Mr. Bossie's analogy to the Federalist Papers fails because of the huge, common-sense gap between anonymity when writing opinions vs. anonymity when donating money. I know the Supreme Court views donations as the same act as speaking or writing your opinion, but common sense sees through this legal construct.

Jay

The first amendment well protected our rights to anonymous free speech before the SCOTUS Citizens United decision. Money is not equivalent to speech. Saying that fat cats like the Koch brothers and other big contributors to political front groups like Citizens United, American Action Network, and Crossroads GPS need anonymity to protect their right to free speech--without fear of reprisal--is like saying the richest 0.1 percent of Americans need more tax cuts: Absurd on its face!

Joe Grella

I am all for openness, but let's apply these same principles to our congressmen, who receive discounted mortgages from the same companies they are regulating, or passing legislation that forces all individuals except themselves from participating like the recent health care bill, or any other gifts or benefits they receive from those they supposedly oversee.

Do we need to portray every message that is viewed with the possible vested interest of the individuals behind it? Why not have everyone who voices an opinion give his political affiliation, and this includes journalists and commentators, each time they make a statement.

claus

Over at the Local Democracy blog, Paul Evans has pkeicd up on this diagramme and come up with an excellent series of questions critiquing the assumptions behind the diagram, and the context that’s missing. Have a read!

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