The 2010 Supreme Court decision permitting unlimited campaign spending by corporations, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, is one of the most momentous rulings in U.S. legal history. It transforms the long but unspoken truth of American politics – corporate wealth buys legislative power — into the law of the land.
The Court’s judgment adds one more nail to the coffin of transparent governance based on popular democracy. The unlimited financing and unreported accountability of the media message complements generous campaign contributions, well-paid lobbyists and effective regulatory capture to further ensure that corporate wealth maintains political influence. The Court’s decision is the icing on the cake to an era of unprecedented class polarization, with the rich seizing an ever greater share of the nation’s wealth.
As has been much reported since the decision was handed down in January 2010, the Court overturned a lower court decision and found that a corporation’s First Amendment protections overruled the 2002 McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act.
At issue was Hillary: The Movie, a film produced by Citizens United, a staunch rightwing political action group. Since its founding in 1988, Citizens United has matured into one of the nation’s leading documentary production companies. Its films are produced, written and directed by reputable industry professionals and hosted by well-known rightwing figures like Newt Gingrich and Fred Thompson. To date, it has released 17 full-length documentaries on such topics as Ronald Reagan, Bill and Hillary Clinton, 9/11, Barack Obama, the UN, conservative womanhood, and religion.
Citizens United is a cornerstone member of a growing praetorian guard furthering the interests of the super-rich. This guard includes law firms, think tanks, policy groups, PR firms, astroturf organizations, co-opted civil-rights groups, talking-head bloviators and unquestioning reporters who further a well-orchestrated rightwing, corporatist propaganda agenda.
In the all-important areas of the media message, Citizens United is the leading voice and vision of the Tea Party agenda. Would-be “pranksters” James O’Keefe and Andrew Breitbart are creative hacks, having lost all credibility due to their ham-fisted manipulations of phony revelations.
In America’s secular-capitalist and corporate-religious society, the battle over ideas, beliefs and knowledge is the battle for the citizen’s soul. The Murdock enterprise and talk radio are the most obvious voices of rightwing propaganda. Citizens United is just as pernicious.
* * *
Sleaze runs deep in American politics. During the Revolutionary War, British propaganda circulated scurrilous rumors that General Washington engaged in a number of illicit relations. One alleged he had a mistress; another claimed he kept a corporal’s wife at his campsite; still another alleged he had an adulterous liaison with a neighbor’s wife and she bore his out-of-wedlock child.
In our modern era, the most controversial propaganda campaign is the notorious Willie Horton ad used in the 1988 presidential race. The election pitted George H.W. Bush against Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. The ad assailed Dukakis’ “liberal” prison polices, effectively painting him with the racist brush, the Republican party’s unspoken secret weapon.
Horton was a Massachusetts felon serving a life sentence for murder; he was mysteriously granted a weekend pass, and while out of prison committed an assault, armed robbery and a rape. The ad, the brainchild of Floyd Brown, linked Horton to Dukakis and played a critical role in Bush’s victory.
Brown was the founder and first president of Citizens United. Prior to founding Citizens United, he served as political director of Americans for Bush and was president of the board of the Reagan Ranch, a division of the Young America’s Foundation. Ever the opportunist, he now serves as president of Excellentia, Inc., an Internet video venture “specializing in marketing to conservatives and Christians.” Brown continues to do battle in rightwing politics, most recently serving as the media adviser to Joe Miller’s ill-fated 2010 Tea Party campaign in Alaska to unseat incumbent Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski.
The Horton ad is the leitmotif of rightwing media propaganda; it is the template for all Citizens United subsequent media productions. While Floyd Brown created the Horton ad, Citizens United’s current head, David Bossie, has pushed the documentary as the vehicle of rightwing propaganda.
Bossie has a checkered career as a Republican operative. He got his start joining a long-line of dirty tricksters, the most modern examples beginning with Chuck Colson and continuing on with Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. In 1996, Bossie was outed for leaking the confidential phone logs of a former Commerce Department official. In 1998, he gained national attention when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich forced him out as chief investigator for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform pursuing the anti-Clinton Whitewater investigation. He took creative license selectively editing transcripts of recordings of phone conversations involving Hillary Clinton. Playing the dirty trickster’s game, Bossie edited the tapes to make it appear Clinton was complicit in billing irregularities.
Bossie hooked up with Brown and Citizens United in the early ‘90s. In 1996, in a fundraising letter, it promoted Bossie – then a Senate staffer — as its “top investigator” and its insider “directing the [Whitewater] probe.” This created quite a conflict-of-interest stir. So, when Bossie was booted off the Hill — and in recognition of his invaluable dirty tricks against the Clintons – he was rewarded with a lucrative position at Citizens United, ultimately replacing Brown.
* * *
Over the last decade, Citizens United has become one of America’s major documentary production companies, with Bossie serving as either executive producer, producer or director of all its films. These docs frame the ultra-right’s propaganda campaign, set its agenda and give voice to the Tea Party. Its films are:
* Battle for America (2010) – a Tea Party promotion of “Constitutional Conservatives”; Bossie is executive producer/producer and Stephen Bannon is writer/director.
* Fire from the Heartland: The Awakening of the Conservative Woman (2010) – a portrait of Tea Party women; Bossie is executive producer/ producer and Bannon is writer/director.
* America at Risk (2010) — explores the “dangers” facing America in the post-9/11 decade; Bossie is executive producer/producer and Kevin Knoblock is writer/director.
* Nine Days That Changed the World (2010) — a Tea Party morality tale hosted by Callista and Newt Gingrich; Bossie is executive producer/ producer and Knoblock is writer/director.
* Generation Zero (2010) – offers a conservative analysis of the causes of 2008-2009 global economic crisis; Bossie is executive producer/producer and Bannon is writer/director.
* Perfect Valor (2009) – a John-Wayneish portrait of six Marines who served in Iraq, narrated by Fred Thompson; Knoblock, Craig Haffner, Chetwynd and Bossie are co-executive producers; Matilda Bode, David Taylor and Bossie are co-producers; and Taylor is writer/director.
* Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny (2009) – an homage to Saint Gipper, hosted by the Gingrichs; Bossie, the Gingrichs and Lawrence Kadish are co-executive producers; Bossie and Knoblock are co-producers; and Knoblock is writer/director.
* Rediscovering God in America II: Our Heritage (2009) – the title speaks for itself, hosted by the Gingrichs; Bossie and the Gingrichs are co-executive producers; and Knoblock is writer/director.
* Rediscovering God in America (2008) – the original tale of “one nation under God,” hosted by the Gingrichs; Bossie and the Gingrichs are co-executive producers; and Knoblock is writer/director.
* Hype: the Obama Effect (2008) – a Tea Party slam against Obama during the ’08 campaign; Bossie is executive producer/producer and Alan Peterson is writer/director.
* Blocking the Path of 9/11 (2008) – an “investigative” report into a 2006 ABC mini-series into 9/11 that was pulled by the network; Bossie is executive producer/producer and John Ziegler is co-producer, writer and director.
* Hillary: The Movie (2008) – Hillary, the bashing; Bossie is executive producer/producer, Peterson and Lee Troxler are co-writers and Peterson is director.
* We Have the Power: Making America Energy Independent (2008) – Citizens United’s examination of alternate power sources, including nuclear, hydrogen and wind, hosted by the Gingrichs; Bossie, Newt Gingrich and Lawrence Kadish are co-executive producers; Bossie, Knoblock and Terry Moloney are co-producers; and Moloney is writer/ director.
* ACLU: At War with America (2007) – Citizens United war against the ACLU; Bossie is executive producer, producer, writer and director.
* Border Wars: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration (2006) – immigrants, the enemy; Bossie is executive producer/co-producer and Knoblock is co-producer, writer and director.
* Broken Promises: The United Nations at 60 (2005) – a dubious historical portrait of the UN; Bossie is executive producer/producer; Knoblock is the writer; and Knoblock and Ron Silver are co-directors.
* Celsius 41.11: The Temperature at Which the Brain … Begins to Die (2004) – Citizens United’s rejoinder to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 411; Bossie is executive producer/producer; Lionel Chewynd and Ted Steinberg are co-writes; and Knoblock is director.
* * *
In his role as head of Citizens United and executive producer of its production arm, Bossie has brought together some talented film industry pros to further the rightwing propaganda campaign. This distinguishes his efforts from those “adolescent” provocations by O’Keefe and Breitbart. Brief profiles of leading Bossie co-collaborators follow:
* Stephen Bannon runs Genius Products, a Hollywood production company, and is a co-founder of the National Tea Party Federation. He comes to filmmaking having served from 1976 to 1983 in the US Navy (including a stint at the Pentagon) and then 15 years in media investment banking and film financing at Goldman Sachs, Jefferies & Co. and his own firm. In addition to docs for Citizens United, he has a number of feature film credits.
* Kevin Knoblock is a documentary TV warhorse. In addition to docs for Citizens United, he has produced, written and/or directed programs for A&E, A&E Biography, TNN, The History Channel and the Travel Channel; he did magazine shows at NBC, MTV and KCBS was an executive at KABC-TV and “Entertainment Tonight.”
* Terry Moloney is an established Hollywood writer/director who runs Proletariat Filmworks, an independent production company. In additional to work for Citizens United, his credits include a public-interest film featuring Sean Penn, a feature film and an executive position with PAX-TV.
* Alan Peterson is a Hollywood actor, producer and director. His all but forgotten 2004 doc, FahrenHYPE 9/11: Unraveling the Truth about Fahrenheit 9/11 and Michael Moore (2004), featured such luminaries as shoe-fetishist Dick Morris and former NYC mayor Ed Koch.
* David Taylor received a Peabody Award for a film about Lyndon Johnson following JFK’s assassination and an Emmy for a film exploring the rivalry between LBJ and Robert Kennedy. He has produced, written and/or director about 100 independent docs for everyone from the BBC and Channel 4 to PBS and the History Channel.
* Ron Silver was a well-known and respected actor in film, TV and on Broadway. He seems to have had an incoherent, if compelling, political outlook: He supported Bill Clinton, backed George Bush and voted for Obama.
* John Ziegler seems more a multimedia rightwing self-promoter than an established Hollywood media pro. He’s been a radio sportscaster talk-radio host, then moved to TV, authored a dubious book of the First Amendment, proudly promoted an attack on John Kerry’s presidential campaign, and has championed Sarah Palin while assailing Obama.
The Citizens United talented “team” of film industry professionals suggests how the propaganda battle has been professionalized.
Citizens United promotes what it — and many among the conservative right and Tea Party movement — consider “traditional values.” These values are grounded in what is known as an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution; an imperialist- and militaristic-based expansionist foreign policy; a monopolist (as opposed to a competitive, Adam Smith) concept of “free enterprise”; a belief in a white, Judeo-Christian notion of morality; and reverence to a heterosexual, monogamous patriarchal concept of the family as the basic social unit of American society. These values codify a 20th-century mindset in a 21st-century world. They distinguish Citizens United documentaries.
Citizens United films provide a false coherence to explain the real, complex history that is America and the postmodern life. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 411, Errol Morris’s Fog of War and Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job are outstanding calls-to-arms confronting Citizens United’s simplemindedness. However, their very success is witness to their weakness. They are one-shots in an era when maintaining a sustained message is critical.
America is in the midst of a profound economic, social and ideological battle. An oligarchy is taking control of the nation, refashioning democracy and popular values. The nation was once defined as welcoming those considered foreign, by a spirit of civility and community, of free social beings. But today, community has been replaced by self-interest, the body politic by personal greed.
Citizens United gives voice and vision to a concerted propaganda initiative attempting to reframe America from a nation of opportunity and mobility to one of social standing and privilege. It’s time for the progressive community to mobilize the infrastructure and to engage in the sustained ideological battle needed to challenge the new praetorian guard exemplified by Citizens United.