Finally making good on long-harbored anger at conservative media, Democrats on the Federal Election Commission voted in secret to punish Fox News' sponsorship of a Republican presidential debate, using an obscure law to charge the network with helping those on stage.
It is the first time in history that members of the FEC voted to punish a media outlet's debate sponsorship, and it follows several years of Democratic threats against conservative media and websites like the Drudge Report.
The punishment, however, was blocked by all three Republicans on the commission, resulting in a 3-3 tie vote and no action. The vote was posted Thursday and is here.
A Republican FEC commissioner leading that fight, Lee E. Goodman, revealed the vote to Secrets Wednesday and said the official report of the May 26 executive vote will be released Thursday. It is here.
Goodman has led the fight against several other efforts to censor conservative media by Democrats on the FEC. The GOP commissioners explained their latest effort in the Fox case. It is here.
"The government should not punish any newsroom's editorial decision on how best to provide the public information about candidates for office," he said. "All press organizations should be concerned when the government asserts regulatory authority to punish and censor news coverage."
At issue was the Aug. 6, 2015 Fox presidential debate. Initially, the network planned to host one debate featuring 10 candidates. But as the date got close and the nearly two dozen GOP presidential candidates were close in the polls, Fox added a second debate that included seven other candidates.
One of the candidates left out filed a complaint to the FEC, charging that Fox was essentially making a contribution to the 17 candidates by letting them have a voice in the debate.
CNN did the same thing, but there is no indication that they faced a complaint.
Goodman provided details about the vote to Secrets in hopes of highlighting the anti-conservative agenda pushed by Democratic FEC Commissioners Ann Ravel, Ellen Weintraub and Steven Walther.
In a statement, Goodman wrote:
A complaint was filed with the FEC alleging that Fox News' editorial decision to expand the debate from one debate to two debates, and to include 7 candidates in the undercard debate, constituted an illegal corporate contribution by Fox News to the candidates who participated in the debate. The FEC had to decide whether to enforce the corporate contribution ban against Fox News.
Astonishingly, three FEC commissioners (Weintraub, Ravel, Walther) concluded that Fox News violated the Federal Election Campaign Act by making a prohibited corporate contribution to the 7 candidates invited to the debate. That is, by expanding the debate format to a broader group of candidates, Fox News violated the law.
Three FEC commissioners (Lee Goodman, Matthew Petersen, Caroline Hunter) blocked this regulatory overreach into newsroom editorial judgments. Commissioners Petersen and Hunter and I voted to free Fox News' editorial judgments from the FEC's regulatory jurisdiction under the Free Press Clause of the Constitution and the Press Exemption in the Federal Election Campaign Act. Congress included in the Act an explicit exemption for the press and we respect Congress' decision.
Only once has the commissioned threatened sponsorship of debates. In 1980, the commission moved to censure the Nashua, N.H. Telegraph for planning a debate between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The paper pulled out, so Reagan paid the costs himself. It is a debate famous for Reagan barking "I'm paying for this microphone" when a moderator tried to cut him off.
Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org