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Conan Severance a Federal Bailout?

January 22, 2009
By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

Are we, the American taxpayers, financing a bailout for Conan O’Brien?

It has been reported that in order to buy out Conan’s contract and cut him loose from the network, so Jay Leno can become the “Tonight Show” host again, NBC will pay out around $44 million. $32 million will go directly to Conan and $12 million will be paid to the late night host’s staff.

What does this have to do with taxpayers?

Remember, although part of a spinoff to Comcast, NBC is still owned by General Electric. Reuters reports that when it comes to government assistance to troubled American businesses, GE is “among the largest recipients of taxpayer help.”

The company, which has been decidedly supportive of President Obama, jumped enthusiastically into a government program called the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program (TLGP).

Through this program, GE was able to issue debt with a government guarantee, which means you and I are guaranteeing GE’s bonds. It also means easier access to funds for the company and much lower interest rates. Although GE was one of 88 companies in the program, the $60 billion GE borrowed was almost one fifth of the total TLGP guarantee amount.

NBC is on track this year to lose more that half a billion bucks. So, the ability of GE’s subsidiary to pay Conan his multimillion-dollar severance is thanks to us taxpayers.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has restored First Amendment freedom for election campaigns in America. I was an attorney of record in the case and I predict that the decision will help create a more informed electorate for the 2010 midterm elections and beyond.

The case overruled a 1990 high court precedent that let the government prevent corporations (including non-profit entities) and unions from communicating via ads that would urge voters to choose one candidate or the other.

The decision was based on what became known as the "Hillary Movie Case" a.k.a. Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

Disclosure requirements were left intact by the court.

The FEC created the case by interfering with the ability to promote and air "Hillary: The Movie," a feature-length film.

The movie was released when Hillary Clinton, then a New York senator, was competing with Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination.

It was distributed to eight theaters. And the organization that produced the film wanted to run ads on television in key election states during the peak primary season and air the movie on cable television using video-on-demand.

Federal courts claimed that ads promoting the film violated the McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws.

Lower court judges decided that “Hillary: The Movie” was a 90-minute attack ad. Courts also ruled that if the film were broadcast on cable television, financial backers would have to be disclosed.

The film in question didn’t request that its audience vote for or against a certain candidate. It was simply a feature-length movie that presented information about Hillary Clinton's background, experience, and character.

This is the essence of political speech that the First Amendment is exquisitely designed to protect.

Ironically, the Federal Election Commission dismissed a similar complaint against Michael Moore based on his ads for a movie that may sound familiar — “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

The high court’s decision is also important to documentary filmmakers and producers of narrative movies that have political themes. So, even Hollywood has good reason to celebrate.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
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