On Thursday, Stephen Colbert won a victory when the Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruled that he was cleared to start raising money for his ColbertPAC and could use Viacom resources – the parent company of Comedy Central – to make and show his political ads on his own show under a media exemption.
Close observers of the case who have a better-than-average grasp of the intricacies of campaign finance law understand, though, that Colbert’s claim of “victory” is dubious because the media exemption he really sought has less to do with whether Colbert was allowed to start his PAC and show his mock advertisements on his own show – that was almost assuredly going to happen – and more to do with whether he would have to report the support his show’s parent company, Viacom, as an in-kind contribution.
The original intent of the Colbert’s SuperPAC was to poke fun at the 2010 Citizens United court ruling that recognized the right of corporations, unions, and other groups to independently run ads supporting or opposing candidates. Colbert, in his attempt to satirically skewer the ruling, has actually wound up educating the public on just how burdensome and convoluted campaign finance laws are, and how free speech can be stifled by these laws.
If Stephen Colbert were not granted the media exemption, Viacom’s support of the SuperPAC would be subject to FEC disclosure filings. Their time and resources would have needed to be reported as an in-kind contribution to the FEC by law. This made executives at Viacom very nervous because they saw themselves as potentially listed as a top contributor to his SuperPAC not only to audiences who see his ads on Comedy Central but also those who see his ads on, say, ESPN.
Second, reporting an in-kind contribution means that every bit of financial resource used must be accounted for and filed with the FEC. Documents like this leave open the possibility that someone could assess the figures and find them lacking or inflated. And Viacom certainly doesn’t want to be seen as overvaluing or undervaluing their own resources and staff. That could bring negative attention of the sort that most corporations take pains and employ people to avoid.
So, Colbert won his right to keep Viacom on as a major supporter of his SuperPAC and Viacom has the right to keep quiet about their involvement to a degree. And with that win, Colbert has cleared the path for other media entities to do the same while shining a light on the convoluted and complex campaign finance laws that make it a necessity for a comedian to travel to Washington, D.C. simply to create and air some mocking political ads. Mr. Colbert may owe more to Citizen’s United than he knows.