The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) has filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission, accusing Fox News of violating Ohio campaign finance laws. Fox News’ supposed crime? While Ohio gubernatorial candidate John Kasich was being interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, Fox News displayed the URL for Kasich’s campaign website under Mr. Kasich’s image for approximately 1 minute and 30 seconds of the 6 minute interview.
Here’s a video of the interview, which the DGA apparently believes is so damning that they’ve uploaded it to YouTube themselves. Kasich's URL appears 1:34 into the video:
If you watch the video you’ll notice that the chyron at the bottom of the screen cycles through several different versions, including “John Kasich (R), Running for Ohio governor,” “John Kasich (R), Author of “Every Other Monday,” and “John Kasich (R), KasichforOhio.com.”
That last one is what has the DGA up in arms. The DGA claims that by displaying Kasich’s website, Fox News made an illegal “in-kind contribution” to Kasich’s campaign. They also claim that Fox News should have included a disclaimer beneath the graphic, labeling it as a paid political advertisement.
The DGA’s complaint is absurd, and the implications if it were taken seriously are astounding.
For one thing, it would be perfectly legal for Bill O’Reilly to devote an entire episode to extolling the virtues of John Kasich and urging his viewers to go to Kasich’s website and give him money. This was true even before the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, because media corporations have always been allowed to editorialize in support of or opposition to political candidates.
Moreover, in the wake of Citizens United, the DGA’s claim is even more absurd. Fox News could, if it wanted to, devote every commercial break to broadcasting independent advertisements in support of John Kasich. Yet the DGA claims that simply by displaying the URL for Kasich’s website, Fox News has violated the law. The reason, they claim, is because Kasich’s website address was displayed while Kasich was being interview. It’s okay to interview him, and it’s okay to display the URL, you just can’t do both.
If the DGA’s claim were taken seriously, the chilling effect on the media would be profound. Networks would be reluctant to interview candidates out of the fear that even innocuous statements of factual information could lead to campaign finance complaints.
But that chilling effect is almost certainly what the DGA is banking on, given that John Kasich is currently leading the polls against Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland. Filing a frivolous a campaign finance complaint is an easy way to try and throw some dirt on Kasich’s campaign.
And that’s one of the major problems with so-called campaign finance laws. These laws have spread so far beyond regulating “corruption or the appearance of corruption” that their chief value now is as weapons for political operatives. No one can seriously argue that Fox News’ display of Kasich’s email was designed to secure a quid pro quo from Kasich, or that any reasonable viewer would believe that it was. But Fox News will have to spend thousands of dollars on lawyers simply for exercising its First Amendment rights.
We’ll keep our readers updated as this story develops.