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NBC's Ted Koppel Talks to 'Leading Authority' Stephen Colbert About Super-PAC 'Lethal Weapons'

At the top of Monday's Rock Center on NBC, host Brian Williams lamented the "avalanche of attack ads this political season" and warned: "...it's only just starting thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, a boatload of money, and those lethal weapons known as super-PACs."

In the report that followed, correspondent Ted Koppel fretted that more government regulation was needed over campaign finance, proclaiming: "Ellen Weintraub, who is one of six federal election commissioners, worries that super-PACs may become breeding grounds for political corruption on a scale we've never known."

Prior to a commercial break midway through the piece, Williams teased: "If you're still a little mystified, stay tuned. We'll take a break. And after we come back, Ted turns to a relatively new leading authority on super-PACs for his explanation." That supposed "authority" was liberal comedian Stephen Colbert, whose farcical super-PAC in South Carolina began running ads calling Mitt Romney a "serial killer" and "Mitt the Ripper."

Following a clip of that ad, Williams remarked: "It seems outlandish and over-the-top and it is, just as he [Colbert] is sometimes. But it's also airing, apparently, to prove a point, as he often does." In the second half of the report, Koppel interviewed Colbert and invited the Comedy Central host to explain the super-PAC process.

Colbert mocked: "The difference between a PAC and a super-PAC is like apples and oranges. You know, if the orange could take unlimited corporate union donations and then spend them in an unlimited fashion in political speech to affect the outcome of the 2012 election."

Interestingly, Colbert actually stumbled upon an important point, noting the power and influence of major media corporations, like NBC News for instance: "Why doesn't Ted Koppel have a super-PAC?...even though you work for NBC Universal Comcast Jiffy Lube, it is legal for you to have a super-PAC.... And you could finally have a voice in America. Don't you want your voice to be heard?"

Of course what Colbert failed to observe was that liberal media organizations essentially operate like super-PACs for the Democratic Party.

Following his report, Koppel discussed the topic with Williams and praised Colbert for "proving how ridiculous this system has become." He then added: "And the sad thing, Brian, is that every one of those Republican candidates that I talked to said they wished that the super-PAC thing would go away. Newt Gingrich said he feels that 80% of the poison would be drained out of our political system if it weren't for these super-PACs."

What Koppel failed to note was the fact that third party super-PACs only exist in order to comply with current campaign finance regulations that restrict how much money the candidates themselves can raise.

Koppel whined: "We're stuck with them until the Supreme Court reverses its ruling, and if that's ever going to happen, it will be years away." Williams followed: "I talked to a smart person in politics yesterday who said the Supreme Court will never reverse its own standing law. Americans of good conscious have to hope for a constitutional amendment on this."

Amid his denunciation of current negative campaigning, Koppel managed to also condemn ads in the past that were critical of Democratic presidential candidates: "It's not that we haven't seen a lot of nasty stuff in presidential politics before. Remember Willie Horton? Michael Dukakis does. Ask John Kerry if he remembers those swiftboat ads."

When talking to Williams, Koppel did warn about attack ads to come in 2012 from the Democratic Party: "The worst thing, Brian, is that, as bad as it is now during these primaries, we haven't begun to see how bad it's going to be in a general election. The Democrats haven't even started yet. And they're going to have just as much money, they're going to be just as nasty and it's going to be disgusting."

Williams worried: "And so for good-hearted people who are fearful that our election process has been changed and damaged forever, is there anything to hope?"

Here is a transcript of Koppel's January 16 interview with Colbert:


10:15PM ET

JOHN LITHGOW: If Mitt Romney really believes-

MITT ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friend.

LITHGOW: Then Mitt Romney is a serial killer. He's Mitt the Ripper.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: That ad attacking Mitt Romney is actually airing in South Carolina, paid for by a super- PAC founded by Stephen Colbert. It seems outlandish and over-the-top and it is, just as he is sometimes. But it's also airing, apparently, to prove a point, as he often does. And you may fairly ask at this point why the host of a show on Comedy Central is part of the debate over campaign spending. Stephen Colbert formed his own super-PAC last July and then last week he took the joke a step further, announcing a faux presidential run and transferring control of his PAC to Jon Stewart, as if to pass the baton. A few days before that event, Ted Koppel made Colbert's office a stop on his itinerary while reporting on super-PACs.

TED KOPPEL: What is the difference, Stephen, between a PAC and a super-PAC?

STEPHEN COLBERT: Well, it gets technical. But without going into too much detail, one of them has the word "super" in front of it, and that makes it a super-PAC. Other than that, as far as I can tell, the difference between a PAC and a super-PAC is a cover letter. Because I formed a PAC, but a PAC can only take so much money and it can only spend so much money. And I wanted to spend unlimited amounts of money and receive, more importantly, unlimited amounts of money. And so my lawyer told me, all I had to do was add a cover letter that said I intend this to be a super-PAC and it was a super-PAC.

KOPPEL: So now you can take all the money that people are unwise enough to send you.

COLBERT: Any amount. Did you bring your checkbook?

KOPPEL: Of course. How much money have you collected so far?

COLBERT: Oh, the fun thing about that is I don't have to tell you.

KOPPEL: You have to tell me who sends it to you.

COLBERT: No, not for a while.

KOPPEL: Well, eventually.

COLBERT: Eventually, I do. But until then, my major donor is none of your [bleep] dam business.

KOPPEL: But every three months?

COLBERT: It's every three months once you start reporting. But I actually formed this back in July and I still haven't reported yet.

KOPPEL: And what can happen to you?

COLBERT: What? I could go to FEC jail.

KOPPEL: But they don't send people to jail.

COLBERT: Well, then I guess nothing will happen to me.

KOPPEL: Well, they can fine you.

COLBERT: They can fine me but they have to actually rule that I did something wrong and the FEC is a 3-3 organization and they're far more likely to come to a tie, in which case they say we haven't come – in which case they say we don't know whether you've done anything wrong, in which case, I can keep doing what I want. The system works, is what I'm saying.

KOPPEL: It's a classic Washington bureaucracy.

COLBERT: It's democracy, I think is the word you're looking for.

KOPPEL: You know what's rather astonishing, Stephen, is that a slew of other corporations, people, have not gone before the FEC and said "Hey, that Colbert seems to be raking in oodles of cash. I want to try that."

COLBERT: They don't have to, the rulings come down. My ruling applies to all corporations and all media. You Ted Koppel, why doesn't Ted Koppel have a super-PAC? Because it's legal for you, even though you work for NBC Universal Comcast Jiffy Lube, it is legal for you to have a super-PAC and talk about it on the air and the FEC won't do anything about it.

KOPPEL: And I could get lots of contributions?

COLBERT: You could. And you could finally have a voice in America. Don't you want your voice to be heard?

KOPPEL: I feel like such a fool.

WILLIAMS: With his newfound voice, Ted Koppel joining us here in the studio tonight. First of all, what's he up to?

KOPPEL: It's funny until you think about it. The fact of the matter is, Stephen Colbert has proved by going before the Federal Election Commission, by becoming a super-PAC, by now handing the super-PAC over to his buddy Jon Stewart so that he can go on to be president of South Carolina, he is proving how ridiculous this system has become.

And the sad thing, Brian, is that every one of those Republican candidates that I talked to said they wished that the super-PAC thing would go away. Newt Gingrich said he feels that 80% of the poison would be drained out of our political system if it weren't for these super-PACs. But we're stuck with them until the Supreme Court reverses its ruling, and if that's ever going to happen, it will be years away.

WILLIAMS: Well, I talked to a smart person in politics yesterday who said the Supreme Court will never reverse its own standing law. Americans of good conscious have to hope for a constitutional amendment on this. And in the short term, at least publicize and disclose who's giving these incredible amounts.

KOPPEL: Well, they do, and they will, but the next disclosures come on the day of the Florida primary by which time this thing will effectively be over. The worst thing, Brian, is that, as bad as it is now during these primaries, we haven't begun to see how bad it's going to be in a general election. The Democrats haven't even started yet.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's right.

KOPPEL: And they're going to have just as much money, they're going to be just as nasty and it's going to be disgusting.

WILLIAMS: And the President, at first, was against these as well, but as Newt Gingrich pointed out, it's the rules of the game.

KOPPEL: That's the rules of the game.

WILLIAMS: And so for good-hearted people who are fearful that our election process has been changed and damaged forever, is there anything to hope?

KOPPEL: I think in the final analysis, the American public, I suppose, could do something about it. If they became disgusted enough by the tenor of these ads and showed it and just refused to go along with it. But you know, I like to believe in the Easter Bunny, too.

WILLIAMS: And Jiffy Lube. Ted Koppel, thank you, as always, for stopping by.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Brian.

WILLIAMS: Thanks for your reporting.


- Kyle Drennen is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. Click here to follow Kyle Drennen on Twitter.