Seattle Times Action Shows Limits of Citizens United

This week the Seattle Times Co. announced that it would run $75,000 worth of independent expenditure ads on behalf of Rob McKenna, the Republican nominee for governor in Washington -- at the company's expense. It is also giving $75,000 of free ad space to the campaign backing a referendum to legalize same-sex marriage in the state.

The company says this is an effort to demonstrate the value of print advertising for political campaigns; they hope that these free ads will work so well that other people will pay for them in the future. This is a totally bizarre ad marketing strategy, as noted by Eli Sanders at the Stranger and Derek Thompson at the Atlantic.

In some ways, this is the nightmare scenario that opponents of Citizens United worry about. A media company is using its access to a broad audience to run free ads for a desired candidate, with no ability for federal or state law to stop them.

But there is a reason most publishers aren't doing this, and why most observers are puzzling over the Times's decision: Even though the Times insists loudly that its financial backing of candidates won't affect the activities of its newsroom, the paper's perceived objectivity is undermined -- and it's likely to see no offsetting financial return.

We saw this with the Chick-fil-A fiasco, too: Even where the law does not stop corporations from wading into controversial political and electoral issues, the desire to avoid alienating the customer base is likely to do so. Don't look for many publications to follow in the Times's footsteps.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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