Observers say that the secretive nature of some of these tax-exempt groups, called 501(c)(4)s, makes it nearly impossible to ensure that they avoid unlawful coordination with specific candidates’ campaigns. In Montana, FRONTLINE investigates Western Tradition Partnership (WTP), an outside group that challenged Montana’s strict campaign finance laws all the way to the Supreme Court—and won. In its investigation, FRONTLINE uncovers documents found in a Denver, Colorado drug den that have led state investigators to ask whether WTP has been running candidates’ campaigns.
“This is exactly the sort of thing that people have been trying to argue to the Supreme Court: that this so-called independent spending is not really independent,” says Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
Citizens United proponents, however, argue that a robust democracy requires full participation by all citizens, including those who want to make contributions to issue groups anonymously.
“For people to participate in our democracy as citizens, they have to be able to talk about issues. … The First Amendment intended that that be protected,” says Jim Bopp, the attorney who brought the Citizens United case. “Campaign finance laws don’t do anything for citizens other than stifle and limit them.”
Big Sky, Big Money reveals the effect that loosening campaign finance laws has had on one of the closest U.S. Senate races in the nation. The Montana contest between Democratic incumbent Sen. Jon Tester and his challenger, Republican congressman Dennis Rehberg has attracted more TV advertising than any Senate race in the country, with much of the funding coming from outside groups that don’t disclose their donors.
“It is incredibly difficult to actually figure out where this money is coming into the state, and then let alone to figure out who is actually giving the money,” Montana State University professor David Parker says. “It’s not the candidates themselves … who are basically telling their stories. It’s not even their parties. It’s these outside groups. They’re calling the shots.”
Former FEC Chairman Potter agrees. “The game that’s being played here,” he says, “is how to spend money to affect elections without having to disclose where the money is coming from.”
But Bopp, the Citizens United attorney, says that what America’s political system needs isn’t less money, but more.
“[Money] doesn’t corrupt the process… it is necessary for the process,” he says, arguing that money is needed to communicate with voters and voters need more information to make informed decisions.”
Big Sky, Big Money is the centerpiece of FRONTLINE’s Big Money 2012 multiplatform initiative, an unprecedented joint investigation with American Public Media’s Marketplace that draws on the reporting prowess of public media’s most respected news outlets. In addition to this one-hour documentary, Big Money 2012 features four radio reports on Marketplace, a digital first documentary called The Digital Campaign, a large-scale companion interactive called “Targeting the Electorate,” two news segments on PBS’s NewsHour, and an online investigation by the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica.
Big Sky, Big Money is a FRONTLINE production with American Public Media’s Marketplace in association with American University’s School of Communications Investigative Reporting Workshop. The writer and producer is Rick Young. The correspondent is Kai Ryssdal.
FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Park Foundation and by the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund. FRONTLINE is closed-captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers by the Media Access Group at WGBH. FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of the WGBH Educational Foundation.
Correspondent Kai Ryssdal is available for select interview opportunities to discuss Big Sky, Big Money.