Citizens United on Steroids

Money laundering in the temple (and the soup kitchen...and the animal shelter); fake news, real followers; and more.


  • Many of the foundations of civil society are under attack in the tax bill now being gurgitated through Congress. One big one that has gotten little notice is that it may end the nonprofit sector as we know it. That’s what Lucy Bernholz, longtime philanthropy wonk (and friend of Civic Hall) points out regarding the effects of an amendment to the House bill by Rep. Kevin Brady that will allow nonprofits to engage in political speech without penalty. It will “turn both secular and religious nonprofit organizations – the local food pantry, pet shelter, church, temple or mosque – into money laundering operations for politicians,” she writes.

    History shows us that democracies fall when there is no independent civil society, separate from the political realm. One of the nation’s largest trade groups for nonprofits is even called Independent Sector. This group and others oppose legal changes that will destroy that independence. Brady’s Amendment carries with it three threats to the sector. First, donations to churches and nonprofits can be made anonymously. Donations made to them for political purposes will literally launder the donors’ name off of that funding, regardless of existing disclosure rules on campaign contributions. Second, the millions of dollars that might flow will be too great for nonprofits to refuse. Faced with a donor dangling money for a social media campaign featuring certain candidates or programs to teach kids about one side of a political issue, perennially cash-strapped organizations will take the money. Slowly at first, and then quicker than you can say sell-out, cash flow issues will lead nonprofits and churches to subjugate their independence to partisan politics. Third, you’ll be subsidizing political actions with which you disagree. Charitable donations are tax deductible. For more than a century, Americans have subsidized charitable giving because we recognize that a diverse nonprofit sector serves as counterbalance to the majoritarian nature of government funding. The Brady Amendment extends the charitable subsidy to political contributions. If it passes, you will be underwriting political activity by the neighbor you disagree with, the uncle with whom you never discuss politics, and the big money political donors whose very names make you cringe.

  • This will become “Citizens United on steroids,” Tim Delaney, the president and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, and Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, point out in The Hill. If you think the proposed change was just supposed to free churches to be more political, you are mistaken—it would apply to all tax-exempt organizations. The measure is not included in the Senate-passed tax bill and will have to be addressed in conference.
  • The House tax bill will also strangle the issuing of tax exempt bonds by local governmental organizations and nonprofits, devastating the production of affordable housing and undermining the financing of nonprofit hospitals, Karen Pierog reports for Reuters.
  • Oh, the tax bill will eliminate the deduction people get for paying local property taxes, which finance public education, but creates a tax break for private schools. The more you look at tax reform, the more you see drastic changes in the American way of life.
  • Media matters: MSNBC’s firing of commentator Sam Seder for a sarcastic tweet he wrote eight years ago doesn’t bode well for press freedom, as it indicates that the media company is more worried about a ginned up intimidation campaign by alt-right activist Mike Cernovich (last seen promoting the “Pizzagate” hoax) than it is with defending critical political speech, New York magazine’s Jesse Singal opines. As Singal writes, “companies desperately need to do a better job distinguishing internet outrage that can be safely ignored from outrage that needs to be responded to.”
  • Speaking of Twitter, fake news accounts tied to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a major source of propaganda, amassed more than half a million real followers in the United States in 2016, Selena Wang reports for Bloomberg. Many of them focused on attracting gullible followers from specific states, like @MissourNewsUS, while others focused on attracting specific ideological groups, like @tpartynews (followed by Trump aide Sebastian Gorka) or @BlackNewsOutlet.
  • Social media is getting too much blame for the crisis of American democracy, write Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro in the New York Times. They say heightened political polarization and distrust are more the result of ideologically driven cable news.
  • Contributors to Mashable, Fast Company, Business Insider, Huffington Post and Entrepreneur have personally accepted payments from marketers in exchange for “weaving promotional reference to brands into their work on those sites,” Jon Christian reports for The Outline. Payments can be as small as $50 to $175. The practice may be more widespread, Christian notes. Companies called BlogDash and ArticleHub offer to place brand mentions in publications for a fee, with a mention in The New York Times costing $5,000 at the top.
  • Men behaving badly: Tech investor Shervin Pishevar is taking a leave of absence from his firms in the wake of accusations of sexual misconduct, Sarah McBride and Emily Chang report for Bloomberg. But he says the accusations are smears and is fighting back in court.
  • Battle for the net: Remember when things were simpler, and the Internet was a source of hope and fun? Free Press and Defiant Media invite you to #RIPInternet where you can celebrate its death along with Ajit Pai (and maybe help resurrect it).
  • While you’re at it, go here to find out if your name was used in one of the more than a million fake comments submitted to the FCC opposing net neutrality.