FRONTLINE | Big Sky, Big Money ~ Perception of Truth Can Change Because of Who's Funding It

If you are already dismayed at the spending and tactics that have characterized this election season, better stay away from Tuesday’s episode of “Frontline” on PBS. The piece, “Big Sky, Big Money,” looks at the shenanigans in Montana in the last four years, and the picture it paints of American electioneering certainly suggests a beast out of control. 

Kai Ryssdal is a patient and clear guide through the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, the rise of “super PACs” and the rules governing 501(c)(4) advocacy groups. He shows how these forces have shaped recent votes in Montana, including the current battle for a pivotal United States Senate seat between Jon Tester, the incumbent Democrat, and Denny Rehberg, a Republican member of the House of Representatives. 

Mr. Ryssdal manages to get himself a tour of American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic-leaning super PAC, and he interviews James Bopp Jr., the lawyer who initiated the Citizens United case and who continues to push for the dismantling of campaign-financing restrictions. “The average voter could care less who’s funding a politician,” Mr. Bopp asserts. 

Mr. Ryssdal’s main interest, though, is in examining the activities in Montana of 501(c)(4) groups, which are not required to disclose their donors but are supposed to stick to issues rather than advocate for, or work with, candidates (a restriction some try to circumvent with carefully worded messages). Finding out who is behind such groups, he notes, is next to impossible. 

“There’s no people listed, there’s no address listed, there’s no phone number listed,” he says of the Web site of one of these groups. “They make it really hard to find out who they are.” He eventually discovers an address for that particular group, but it turns out to be a U.P.S. box. 

Mr. Ryssdal’s research leads him to some mysterious documents that suggest that the line that’s supposed to separate candidates from these groups has been crossed in Montana. His broader point, though, is the way that organizations operating from outside the state have been aggressively influencing voting in Montana and have been doing so essentially anonymously. 

This may be partly the fault of the Citizens United decision and other laws, but unexplored in the program is how much of it is also the fault of voters who allow themselves to be manipulated. In the Internet age it is no great feat to do your own research on a candidate’s voting record or positions, yet many people still seem to take their cues from anonymous, alarmist fliers that turn up in the mailbox. 

At one point in their interview Mr. Bopp suggests that it is patronizing for Mr. Ryssdal to tell voters that they ought to be concerned about who is shaping and paying for the election messages they read and hear. He’s right in a sense. Part of democracy is that voters get to decide how much effort they put into the process. 


Big Sky, Big Money 

On PBS stations on Tuesday night (check local listings).

A Frontline production with American Public Media’s Marketplace in association with American University’s School of Communications Investigative Reporting Workshop. Written and produced by Rick Young; Kai Ryssdal, correspondent. 

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