Money talks … loudly

The term “Citizens United” means one of two things, depending on your political persuasion or point of view.

It either symbolizes the unfettered expression of free speech or it is the symbol of crass political corruption. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, which has come to be known simply as Citizens United, has unleashed a tidal wave of money in this year’s political election season — and it is the subject of a PBS Frontline documentary to air Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on KACV-TV.

Specifically, Frontline examines the impact of big money in Montana, land of the Big Sky and the epicenter of a huge battle over the influence money has on the shaping and framing of the political debate. Montana Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is facing a huge challenge to his re-election bid and Frontline will look at the role outside money is playing in that race.

The case was decided by the high court in a 5-4 ruling nearly three years ago. Its impact has helped produce the emergence of so-called “super PACs,” political action committees that under the ruling can give unlimited amounts of money to candidates or causes. The court acted on an appeal of a lower-court decision filed two years earlier, in 2008. As journalist Matt Bai wrote in the New York Times this past July, Citizens United “is shorthand for a … decision that gave corporations much of the same right to political speech as individuals have, thus removing any restriction on corporate money in politics.”

The impact on the 2012 presidential campaign has been huge, with President Obama and Mitt Romney spending more than $2 billion between them in their respective quests for the White House.

Conservatives suggest the ruling was fair in that it allows those who run corporations to have their voices heard and that they deserve First Amendment protection of free speech and political expression. Liberals say something else, that corporations have an unfair advantage because their pockets are much deeper than those of so-called “ordinary citizens” and, thus, their voices carry more influence.

Frontline examines this issue up close. With the election looming in just a few days, it’s also timely and well worth the attention of voters wanting to know about how the political process works.

FRONTLINE: Big Sky, Big Money


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