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This isn't the first time a documentary about Hillary Clinton has faced accusations of being a campaign advertisement in disguise. Then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton waves as she arrives at the 67th the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters. (Craig Ruttle/AP)

The Republican National Committee and other conservatives are in a lather over a new documentary and mini-series about Hillary Clinton currently in production at CNN and NBC. The presumptive presidential candidate’s future opponents think the films will be flattering to Clinton, unfairly benefitting her as-of-now nonexistent campaign. “I call on you to cancel this political ad masquerading as an unbiased production,” fumed Reince Priebus, chairman of the party, to CNN earlier this week. Priebus threatened the two networks with barring them from participating in GOP presidential primary debates if they don’t decide, by August 14, to cancel the productions.

The Citizens’ United decision upset the delicate balance between free speech and the corrupting influence of money, opening the floodgates to billions of dollars in unregulated campaign cash.

But wait: Weren’t these some of the same people who a few years ago were arguing that a different political documentary — also about Hillary Clinton — could not be considered a political ad? They took their case all the way to the US Supreme Court in what became the Citizens United decision.

The producers of “Hillary: The Movie” argued before the Supreme Court that the 90-minute documentary they produced for the 2008 elections did “not qualify as an electioneering communication” and therefore shouldn’t be held to campaign-finance regulations. They claimed that the video-on-demand deal they wanted to offer viewers wasn’t the same as a mass-market broadcast (even though it would be offered free), and that anyway the film wasn’t “express advocacy.” The Supreme Court, of course, went far beyond the narrow question of whether “Hillary: The Movie” should be subject to disclosure and disclaimer requirements, and threw out almost all restrictions on political campaign spending.

So what’s the difference? Unlike the network productions — or at least what the GOP expects them to be — “Hillary: The Movie” was hardly flattering to Clinton. “Steeped in sleaze,” “plagued by scandal,” “venal,” and “deceitful” were some of the phrases used to describe Clinton — and that was just the trailer. When it comes to films about Hillary Clinton, it seems, the problem conservatives have is not with the form of propaganda, but the content. Indeed, according to the website Politico, David Bossie, the president of Citizens United, is calling on both networks to air “Hillary: The Movie” to provide balance to what he called “a puff piece on an overly-celebrated figure on the left.”

When it comes to films about Hillary Clinton, it seems, the problem conservatives have is not with the form of propaganda, but the content.

Beyond all the strategic maneuvering, however, there remains the vexing question of how to regulate campaign communication. It has become increasingly difficult to define what constitutes a political advertisement. The modern media is so full of new forms of speech that the divisions TV networks still maintain between news and entertainment, for example, seem quaint. Is a candidate’s tweet a campaign ad? How about a savagely funny YouTube video that goes viral? One is tempted to say “caveat voter” and let it go at that.

But the public pays for the airwaves, and the government still has an interest in trying the referee the political conversation. The Citizens’ United decision upset the delicate balance between free speech and the corrupting influence of money, opening the floodgates to billions of dollars in unregulated campaign cash. But in their ruling the justices did leave a broad opening for Congress to adopt new disclosure laws that would at least throw some light on who is paying for all this speech. Congress should adopt some sunshine rules now, before the next campaign begins in earnest.

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Tags: Election 2016, Film/TV, Hillary Clinton

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • road.rep

    Politics as usual. Nothing new here. And WBUR is just as much a participant as anyone else. “The Republican National Committee and other conservatives are in a lather” is not really unbiased and independent reporting.

    • Adam

      How is it not unbiased and independent reporting? It’s true. If Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Democratic pundits were up in arms about a movie about Chris Christie, the same could, and should, be said about them.

      Republican leadership and observers are up in arms about the film. Saying so doesn’t diminish WBUR or the strength of their reporting, and demanding that the station say otherwise in the name of “fairness” is inane.

  • TJtruthandjustice

    Charles Ferguson is directing one of these movies, a documentary on Hillary Clinton for CNN. Ferguson is the guy behind “Inside Job.” He is a fearless, truth-driven journalist. There is simply no way that Hillary Clinton will come out smelling like roses here, given her support of the Iraq War and of Wall Street. I think to be completely fair, the Republicans should allow Charles Ferguson to direct a documentary on their leading candidate – and then call it even.

  • Rob B

    RNC hypocrisy is outstanding, as usual.

  • Zachary Kamel

    This piece is looking at my finger while I’m pointing at the moon. Citizens United was a travesty, and instead of learning how to live with the ruling, we should be focusing on how to overturn it. There is a HUGE grassroots movement to do just that, and as John Nichols clearly writes in his piece http://www.thenation.com/blog/175129/americas-most-dynamic-yet-under-covered-movement-overturning-citizens-united#axzz2bmE0ysS1, the media needs to be focusing on a solution, rather than how to live with the consequences.

  • Average Joe

    “Beyond all the strategic maneuvering, however, there remains the vexing question of how to regulate campaign communication.”

    Not vexing at all. Not the government’s business to regulate campaign communication.

    The premise of this article is silly. The Republicans are exercising their speech rights to persuade CNN not to air political propaganda. In Citizens United, the GOVERMENT was using the law to prohibit private citizens from airing propaganda.

  • KCGranny

    Ms Loth-
    What happened 5 yrs ago is not relevant. The Hillary production in 2008 was not ordered or written and produced with such tight connections to major media outlets like CNN and NBC. I see a difference if “indies” produce vs. networks.

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