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Frontline: Big Sky, Big Money

Cast: Dennis Unsworth, Trevor Potter, Caroline Lendorf, John Ward, Rodell Mollineau, Jim Bopp
Regular airtime: Tuesday, 9:30pm ET

(PBS; US: 30 Oct 2012)

Magic Words

“Secrecy is actually good.” This according to Jim Bopp, the man who brought Citizens United to the Supreme Court. It’s good because it enhances the basic principle of free speech, allowing citizens—whoever they are—to bring up and discuss issues without fear of reprisal. It almost sounds okay, until you consider that most US citizens are feeling under assault by negative campaign ads, and moreover that you can’t know who’s paying for those ads. Bopp has an answer for that, namely, it doesn’t matter where the money comes from: “Truth doesn’t change because of who’s funding it.”


This will come as news to anyone who watches more than one TV channel or reads more than one newspaper or website, as such readers will know that the “truth”, no matter how loudly or how often it may be asserted, is ever contingent on who’s doing the asserting. And yes, that truth is as fungible as any of them. Still, when reporter Kai Ryssdal meets with Bopp for Big Sky, Big Money, premiering on 30 October on PBS, he wonders about Bopp’s assertion that people shouldn’t care about the source of political campaign financing. What might this say about “democracy”, Ryssdal asks. Bopp is ready again: “It says this is completely irrelevant information that only some leftwing nut-jobs care about: that’s the bottom line.”


It’s hard to guess whether Bopp means to chastise Ryssdal per se, or just nosy investigative reporters and other sorts of agitators in general. Still, his dismissal serves as a point of departure for Big Sky, Big Money, which in turn serves as the centerpiece of Frontline’s “Big Money 2012” multi-platform initiative, a joint investigation with American Public Media’s Marketplace. Ryssdal begins with a question—how has Citizens United changed the business of politics?—and takes as specific instances a couple of elections in Montana.

As the investigation is focused on money, it’s not incidental that Montana has a long, proud history of resisting money’s corruption of elections, including a law passed in 1912 called the Corrupt Practices Act. When the state used this law to challenge Citizens United, many Montanans weren’t convinced by the Supreme Court’s rejection of their case this summer. Instead, Ryssdal learns, both Republicans and Democrats see outside money as a problem (“We don’t need all this additional money coming in and coming in secretly,” says one frustrated waitress). Those who do support the SCOTUS decisions are those who are benefiting directly, like congressman Denny Rehberg, running against Jon Tester for the US Senate, and funded in part by outside money. Tester worries for the future: “We’re building a campaign infrastructure that’s going to be very difficult to pull down as time goes on,” he says. “It’s getting to be big, big, big money.”


The problems brought on unlimited spending passing as “free speech” are apparent everywhere today, of course. Of the $9 billion being spent in this year’s local, state, and national campaigns, some 68 percent of it will be spent by tax-exempt organizations that are not required to reveal their donors. These organizations, called 501C4s, maintain their status even as they make cases against or for specific candidates as long as they appear to be focused on “issues” (as opposed to telling listeners how to vote) and avoid the “magic words.” As explained by Erica Franklin Fowler of Wesleyan University, these words (including “vote,” and “elect”) were listed in a footnote in a Supreme Court decision in ‘70s.


The arbitrariness of this legal category, the exponential amounts of money that might be spent by members of it, and their utter lack of accountability, have raised concerns as to the effects of outside money—outside a state, outside a nation—on American elections. Ryssdal follows a trail of such an organization in Montana, a 501C4 called WTP (Western Tradition Partnership), which has left a literal paper trail, that is, boxes of files and letters indicating WTA—which targets “radical environmentalists”—was recruiting and running political campaigns for preferable candidates. For an organization that must remain “independent” of candidates above all, this is a decidedly illegal enterprise.


As Ryssdal pursues the story, he interviews advocates of Citizens United, including Bopp and James Brown, WTA’s slippery outside counsel, as well as opponents to the decision, such as Dennis Unsworth, Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices, and Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. He finds that WTA tends not to have actual addresses, in Montana or in DC, but rather UPS boxes. He also appears a couple of times on the side of the highway, having pulled off in order to phone a potential interview, only to be turned down. Of course, these scenes indict the unseen non-interviewees: a WTA supported candidate called Mike Miller, well, “He wouldn’t talk to us on camera,” while Brown, confronted with some discomforting evidence, decides he’s done talking.


Which brings us back to the value and use of secrecy. As Big Sky, Big Money reveals, it’s an increasingly effective way to promote agendas and win elections. And for now, it has legal cover, too.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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