The Corner

The FEC’s Impulse for Censorship

Three Democrats on the six-person Federal Election Commission (FEC) voted, in secret, to punish Fox News for its handling of a Republican primary debate. Though the vote did not pass, the contentiousness over a matter of such absurdity is reason enough to be suspicious of the FEC’s motives.

The Washington Examiner reports:

Finally making good on long-harbored anger at conservative media, Democrats on the Federal Election Commission voted in secret to punish Fox News’ sponsorship of a Republican presidential debate, using an obscure law to charge the network with helping those on stage.

It is the first time in history that members of the FEC voted to punish a media outlet’s debate sponsorship, and it follows several years of Democratic threats against conservative media and websites like the Drudge Report.

The punishment, however, was blocked by all three Republicans on the commission, resulting in a 3-3 tie vote and no action.

At issue was the seven-person undercard debate televised by Fox News immediately before the main, ten-person debate. Deciding to host this preliminary event was alleged to be a contribution to each of the seven candidates’ campaigns by Fox, a corporation. And the FEC places limits on corporate contributions to presidential campaigns. The three Democratic commissioners apparently think that Fox News had a special place in its heart for Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, and George Pataki.

The minor premise of the vote to punish — that the act of giving certain candidates a debate platform without adhering to previously delineated, stringent polling thresholds constitutes a contribution — is simply not the case. It was CNN who recently held a town hall event for the Johnson-Weld ticket of the Libertarian party. Why not punish them? News networks gave podiums to the hapless Lincoln Chafee, and the hidden gem Jim Webb, for the Democratic primary debates. Why not punish them? After all, the benefit to these spotlight-starved campaigns was surely equal to or greater than the benefit to the publicity-weary Ricks, Perry or Santorum.

The simple answer is that exposure is not equivalent to a contribution: Ask Gary Johnson, or watch the undercard debate in question, for evidence. Of course, exposure does help, indirectly and often immensely. But it is not as if news networks are providing direct material aid simply by putting someone on the airwaves.

Still, the major premise of the vote to punish — that editorial decisions by news networks should be subject to FEC regulation if they have an effect on presidential campaigns — is far more sinister. Consider: What is the difference between the decision to allow a certain set of candidates to participate in the debate, and the decision to interview a certain subset of those candidates afterwards? The decision to devote more coverage to the best-performing candidates the next morning? The decision to label one candidate a “front-runner” following his performance? What about the decision to place the top three candidates in the center? Or to zoom in on a candidate’s face to highlight a powerful answer?

Nothing. Each of these decisions will have an effect on the presidential campaign, and each is an editorial decision by a news network. This is simply how the news works. To expect such news coverage not to affect the horse race is naïve; the desire to control that effect is the desire to censor.

Perhaps the Democrats on the FEC would like to completely nationalize all presidential debates. They and the like-minded should make that case resoundingly if it is indeed what they believe to be right. But for the three commissioners to come after Fox News for its handling of a Republican presidential debate — to ignore other networks doing similar things — displays a naked bias against conservative news outlets. And for them to endorse, however implicitly, the notion that editorial decisions are susceptible to FEC whims, displays an unfortunately predictable impulse for censorship.


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