Update - 7:15 PM | Lachlan Markay: The questions from the poll phrase the issue in similarly misleading language. Details below.
The news media have a tremendous potential to shape public opinion. So when they misreport important events, it has significant consequences for public opinion and public policy.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released today shows that 80 percent of Americans disagree with the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United v. FEC decision last month. Perhaps if the Post stopped misleading its readers about the decision as it did today in reporting the poll, public opinion would look differently.
The misinformation begins right in the lede, where reporter Dan Eggen claims the SCOTUS decision "allows corporations and unions to spend as much as they want on political campaigns." That statement is utterly false. The decision allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited dollars on political advertising. Restrictions on campaign contributions are still in place.
The misinformation continues to flow into the second paragraph, where Eggen claims that the law under the Citizens United decision permits "unfettered corporate political spending." No it doesn't. It allows unfettered corporate speech.
Later in the story Eggen writes, "the decision appears to open the door to unlimited spending by corporations, trade groups and unions in the weeks leading up to an election, which has been explicitly banned for decades." Once again, the article doesn't mention that spending is not unlimited. Only spending on political speech is unlimited.
The Post does not even mention what Citizens United is, or any specifics of the case or the group's complaint. Maybe if more Americans were informed as to what actually happened--better known by the term censorship; the federal government decreed that a non-profit was not permitted to air political views--instead of what a couple reporters at the Post think happened, public opinion might be different.
As it is, readers are left without any knowledge of the actual implications of the decision. It does not allow corporations to freely contribute to political campaigns. It only allows them to spend what they like on political speech.
Reasonable readers might gather from the Post's account that political campaigns can now be completely funded by the likes of Exxon Mobil, Pfizer, and Goldman Sachs. (On that note, while Eggen claims that "corporations … have traditionally favored Republicans in their contribution patterns", these three behemoths, along with other giants like GE, Microsoft, and Boeing all favored Obama over McCain by substantial margins, according to the Center for Responsive Politics).
The Post only perpetuates this distortion of the ruling not only by failing to say exactly what the Supreme Court decided, but by completely misinforming their readers. The decision does not allow "unfettered corporate political spending." It allows unfettered corporate speech. Restrictions on contributions remain.
Though the article is an irresponsible and misleading report on the SCOTUS decision, it gives us some insight into why the public is opposed to the decision. Americans have been misled.
These sorts of factual omissions and misrepresentations are to be expected from some of the more consistently irresponsible pundits on the left (sadly, it was hardly shocking to hear Keith Olbermann describe the Citizens United decision as "our Dredd Scott").
But the Post is one of those (wink, wink) objective news outlets. It should at least try to present its readers with the truth.
UPDATE: I was just made aware of the actual language from the poll (there was no link in the initial WaPo story), and its language is misleading in the same sense that the Post's report on the poll was. The key question asks:
Do you support or oppose the recent ruling by the Supreme Court that says corporations and unions can spend as much money as they want to help political candidates win elections?
Once again, this phrasing suggests that corporations can simply finance political campaigns, which is absolutely not the case! The spending under consideration is spending on political speech, not candidates or political action committees.
Surely the results would have been different if the poll had asked, "Would you support a ban on political speech by non-profits and political advocacy groups in the run-up to an election?" That would be a more accurate phrasing of the issues at stake.
As it is, the poll's loaded question skews its results.