In March 2011, Montana state investigators obtained boxes of mysterious documents from a Colorado meth house that contained information about major candidates in state races. The documents were traced to Western Tradition Partnership, a social-welfare nonprofit that can spend money on advertising around political issues without disclosing its donors as long as it refrains from coordinating with campaigns.
The incident was one of many that have highlighted the growing influence of such outside fundraisers, known as “dark money” groups. It also helped inspire PBS's Frontline and American Public Media's Marketplace to launch Big Money 2012. The ongoing collaboration combines traditional news documentaries with online multimedia reports and print investigations in an effort to better inform voters about the increasingly expensive tactics campaigns are using to target them more effectively.
“I think people are really looking at this election, seeing all this new money out there and the fact that much of the money is not disclosed, and they want to know more about it,” says Raney Aronson-Rath, deputy executive producer of Frontline.
The program and Marketplace started work on the series about eight months ago, and programming began Oct. 10 with the first in a series of four Marketplace reports about campaign financing. Big Money 2012 kicked into high gear in late October, first with The Digital Campaign, a web-exclusive report about how campaigns are using digital targeting to solicit votes. The special, hosted by PBS NewsHour correspondent Hari Sreenivasan, premiered on PBS’s COVE online video platform Oct. 22. An accompanying digital feature allows participants to share personal information via Facebook to find out how campaigns track them.
The crux of the lineup is Big Sky, Big Money, a Frontline documentary profiling Western Tradition Partnership. The nonprofit lobbies against environmental issues and spurred the state of Montana's ultimately defeated challenge to the Supreme Court’s much-maligned 2010 Citizens United ruling. Big Sky, Big Money was produced in association with the Investigative Reporting Workshop in American University's School of Communication, which also publishes Current.
The documentary, which premieres Oct. 30, and a joint ProPublica investigation published Oct. 22 reveal that Western Tradition Partnership may have already engaged in political spending when it reported to the IRS that it would not spend money to influence elections. That promise was required for it to attain nondisclosure nonprofit status.
ProPublica joined the project when Frontline sought to tap the investigative nonprofit’s research of Citizens United, which has allowed organizations to spend unlimited amounts of cash on the election, often without disclosing their donors.
Frontline’s journalists “made an educated decision” to use on-the-ground reporting in Montana because of the state’s prominence in Citizens United, Aronson-Rath said. “We didn’t know the extent of the spending that was going to happen in Montana, and that was just completely mind-blowing.”
The Montana Senate race between Democratic incumbent Jon Tester and House Republican Denny Rehberg is one of the most expensive in the country. Estimates in the film put total spending at more than $20 million, with more than 60 percent coming from dark money groups.