Film

On Political Corruption and 'Dark Money': Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Kimberly Reed

Montana's State Capitol building at dawn, from Dark Money, a PBS Distribution release.

The people of Montana worked together to fight against the monetary and political damage caused by Citizen United. Reed's film documents that fight, and she talks with PopMatters about what that took, and what we, as citizens throughout America, must do next.

Dark Money
Kimberly Reed

PBS

13 Jul 2018

Kimberly Reed has stories to tell, stories that are original and vibrant, timely and timeless. Her work has been showcased by The Moth, Oprah, CNN, and NPR. From her first remarkable documentary, Prodigal Sons, which recounted her family's coming to terms with her brother's brain injury and her own coming out as a transgender woman.

In 2014, Reed and Mark Campell wrote the libretto for the chamber opera As One, composed by Laura Kaminsky, based in part on her experiences as a transgender woman. Last year, Reed co-produced The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson (Netflix, 2017) directed by David France. And now she's directed and co-produced Dark Money, a documentary about the consequences of Citizens United on corporate political manipulations, and also, about the successful resistance mounted by her home state of Montana.

PopMatters met recently with Reed. She talked about Montana, the crucial intersections of documentary and journalism, and fighting back at a time when dark money looks all powerful.

Kimberly Reed, Director of Dark Money. Photo courtesy of © Claire Jones

Dark Money investigates how untraceable corporate money shapes politics in Montana, and specifically, how Montanans fought back. I appreciate the shots that show Montana as the independent-minded, individual place it is, as when the deer walk between the camera and the state house in the snow. Montana looks beautiful and also, as your film shows, besieged and resilient in the face of such corruption. To start, please talk about your own process, how you came to the story, how you conducted the investigation, and what you did with what you learned.

I heard about Citizens United, didn't know what to do about it. You could see it was going to consolidate power in the hands of a very few people. I found that frustrating, I found it anti-democratic. In 2012, Montana had a case that could challenge and perhaps overturn Citizens United. I knew the Attorney General, Steve Bullock [we went to high school together]. I said, let me follow you, this story is a movie. I hoped that challenge was going to be the whole film, but it turned out to be the springboard to everything else.

I realized a couple of things after chasing that down: at the time everybody was talking about Super PACS and the fact that corporations would have unlimited donations. But... Montana... was the battleground for a lot of this stuff. The same group of lawyers who had worked on Citizens United were opening law offices in Montana so that they could launch legal assaults on the campaign finance laws in Montana, which were particularly strong, with the idea that if they could make it there, they could make it anywhere. In fact, American Tradition Partnership v Bullock, in his capacity as the AG of Montana, is the case going to the Supreme Court.

Protesters against dark money in Washington DC, from Dark Money, a PBS Distribution release.

It seemed like this was going to be the flashpoint. I knew I had the access through the Attorney General, and as a fourth generation Montanan, I knew I would have access to the people I wanted to talk to. So I had a practical feasibility. It wasn't until I started looking into it that I learned that it wasn't just about Super PACs and unlimited money. The real danger was anonymity. Because once you've got that, who knows?

And then you start thinking that if you're clever about it, people donate to a Super PAC, the Super PAC can give to another dark money group. Dark money groups give to each other. And then you start bouncing money around and anonymize it: it's basically laundered money.

Realizing that was what was going on, I saw I'd have to follow it across multiple election cycles, that you need to watch these groups as they pop into and out of existence. For example, Western Tradition partnership changes its name to American Tradition Partnership. Are these the same people behind it? Are there different people, where's the money coming from? You need to play that game of Whack-a-Mole.

And as that was happening, Montana was passing some of the earliest and strongest campaign finance laws. Montana was holding elected officials accountable in ways that other states wouldn't. It was a good case study, where these really abstract issues of campaign finance were dramatized and personified by real people.

You can see that in the introductions to your subjects, in the details of shots and backgrounds that tell us about someone like Senator [Jon] Tester, who first appears with his tractor, with that gorgeous low angle shot.

[Laughs] Swearing at his implement!

Montana Commission of Political Practices building, from Dark Money, a PBS Distribution release.

You're talking to both Democrats and Republicans: what's your sense of the effectiveness of dark money? That is, when someone like Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker refers to a cult-like following for Trump, is that a function of willful ignorance, of money solidifying narratives, of building loyalty through branding?

That's one way to think about it, people being influenced by money. The other way to think about it, which is what was happening in Montana, is actually kind of the other way around. That's a story of this organization, this 501 C 4 group [a tax-exempt group based on "social welfare"], that has a lot of power. It's not trying to change the mind of an elected official by lobbying them. They say, "We don't want to have to lobby anybody. We're going to pick this person who we know will do our bidding, and install them.

Most of this political electioneering that was going on was between Republicans in the primary, and usually in safe districts. It's not about changing this Republican's mind to do our bidding when they beat the Democrat. It's about, "This Republican won't do our bidding, so let's get someone who will." That's why you blitz them at the last minute.

That's why they use "The Works" [an intensive negative campaign run at the end of a campaign reported on in Dark Money].

Yes, that's why it's all negative. You're not about building your chosen candidate or promoting their values; you're about knocking the opponent out.

That leads to another question: the means by which they make this late-in-the-campaign move seem rudimentary and even outdated, with the "wives' letters" that appear to be handwritten, phone calls, Facebook. It's so effective, overcoming what we might see as common sense, that you might believe there is a child prostitution ring in that pizza place. [Pizza Gate] How do these tactics work so well?

What has happened in Montana, and might give us hope, is that those tactics do not work anymore. People see these preposterous stories and think, "I am suspicious of that." The problem is, the first time around, it does work. In 2016, people hadn't seen this before, and it seemed convincing. When you see ad after ad, horrible thing after horrible thing, you don't think it's Macedonian teenagers who have been paid to create fake news stories. You think, "Maybe there's something to this." So it's important to stay one step ahead.

Related to that is news media. So, a so-called mainstream news outlet seeks input from the Trump voter, partly in an effort by appeal to that voter as a viewer. And the interviewee will say what they've absorbed: "It's a witch hunt, it's rigged, there's a sex ring." They believe their Facebook feeds and the wives' letters. Is there a way to make truth matter again?

Montana is a case study where that political script did get flipped. Voters do see through that now, because of a bunch of reporters who reported on it, and a bunch of heroic Republicans who got pissed off because they were attacked by their own party and then passed strong laws. You've got to have the laws on the books, and you have to have an enforcer, like, [Commissioner of Political Practices] Jonathan Motl, who was just dogged in his pursuit of all of this stuff. And having a watchdog press was important. [Motl's efforts are featured in Dark Money.]

That's how it happened in Montana, and the flipside of that story is what happened in Wisconsin. You lose one branch, and the dark money groups who were working in the legislative branch start working on the Governor Walker recall election, and then in the elections of State Supreme Court justices, who are the ones who are supposed to be enforcing these two other branches. And then it's like the wheels fall off the car. It's all about disclosure, sunshine, transparency, and voters paying attention to it. It's not just one of those components. I think having all of them.

The opposition is sometimes not only negative per se. Sometimes it's like the efforts to do nothing by the FEC [Federal Election Commission], detailed in your film.

You're referencing Don McGahn. We know the role that he has right now.

Yes. [McGahn was a Republican FEC commissioner from 2008-2013; during his tenure, he fought regulations on secret spending. He is currently Trump's White House Counsel, and has been key in finding judicial nominees, including Neil Gorsuch.]

John S. Adams silhouetted in the Montana Capitol building, from Dark Money, a PBS Distribution release.

As a documentary maker, you're a researcher and storyteller. For this film you worked closely with journalist John Adams. How do you see documentary's intersections with journalism, currently, at a moment when journalism is under a kind of siege?

I met John because we were following the same story, and traveling to the same places.

The movie shows that you were both covering a lot of miles.

Yes we were! We got to know each other very well, which was great. My hope is that documentary makers and journalists will both keep working together. One of the important turning points was the Iraq War, when you had embedded cable news, and a lack of critical skeptical coverage, which we should always have from our press, regardless of who's elected. Once that fell apart, some really crucial documentaries stepped in and told the story of that war. I think journalists and documentary makers need to work together to keep each other honest. There are ways that documentary makers can tell a bigger, broader, moving story, because that's the power of cinema.

It can be tempting, especially now, for some documentary makers to get on a soapbox instead of trying to find consensus or reconciliation. As a New Yorker who's from Montana, and as a middle child, I'm trying to find these things that we can agree on, and make the case there instead of jumping into our silos. That's something I think documentary film can bring, because we can tell these broad stories that span years.

There's also something about the shiny object that exacerbates the divisiveness, for instance, Samantha Bee saying the c-word. How can we encourage journalists to rethink those shiny objects and eight-minute-long news cycles?

It used to be 24-hour news cycles: that seems quaint now, doesn't it?

That's part of what's striking about John in your film: he's committed, to the point that he loses his house and moves in to his car in order to be able to pay for his own reporting.

And him losing his job, and two other journalists losing their jobs. Just overnight, basically, shutting down all statehouse bureau coverage. I mean, that's a tragic thing: all of a sudden, an entire state doesn't know what their elected officials are doing.

John S Adams in the Montana Capitol building, from Dark Money, a PBS Distribution release.

That's also the future that is now, right? The press is limited by shiny object chasing and by actual shut downs, for instance at White House press briefings, as well as reporters' anxiety about maintaining access to their subjects. John is so admirable but his is an awful story too: do journalists have to lose their jobs to do their jobs?

Yeah, not everybody can do what he does. I think there's going to be some painful restructuring. There are some really interesting nonprofit models. Today, John is at the Nonprofit News annual meeting in Orlando, talking about what he did, how he left a Gannett paper and started a nonprofit news service.

The goal is to make it viable in state after state after state. I was just talking to somebody about the role of philanthropy and news services. I mean, Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. Would the paper be around if it wasn't for that? I think we're going through really troubling times right now where we don't know what is true and what is not. When the pendulum swings the other way, it's going to be like, the adults will be back in charge. Truth matters, honesty and those values we've held for a long time will take root again.

I imagine a next generation coming, for instance, as we see in the Parkland students. But authoritarianism is scary, and media interests in money will make it continue to roll over.

But just look at those Parkland kids, they give me so much hope. They understood immediately understood how to be heard and the role of money in politics.

I was thinking about them as I was watching Dark Money, because of their flash on social media. They get it. And we hope they get it in ways that someone like Brad Parscale, the new Trump social media manager, might not -- we hope.

The big thing that keeps me going -- and I didn't live through it before so I hope I'm not romanticizing it -- is that Nixon gave us hippies. That's simple, of course, but we had a huge corruption scandal followed by a big progressive and counter culture movement. I think the kind of restructuring of values that happened in the wake of the Nixon administration was enormous. I'm being provocative, but there's got to be a counter culture movement.

Your film provides a hopeful arc.

I think it can work, like marriage equality. The problem with the role of money in politics is not going to be fixed at the federal level. Mitch McConnell or whoever replaces Mitch McConnell is not going to fix it, because it's weaponized to their advantage. And the Democrats are going to play that game because you don't want to walk in to a gun fight with a knife. But I think the way it can move, and more quickly and more effectively in the long run, is for a city council to pass an anti-Citizens United resolution.

Montana, just the other day, issued a resolution that any government contractor that spends over $50k, they have to disclose it. Obama could have done that, but he didn't. We need a grassroots restructuring of how money is revealed in politics.

It helps to have an understanding of history. The Parkland students are clearly using the civil rights and marriage equality strategies, the state by state changes. So are the anti-abortion organizations.

But we have like 80 percent of the American public that routinely says the way we fund our elections is corrupt. Those numbers aren't there with other issues.

Those numbers aren't there with guns either. But still, the propaganda works.

Yes, the NRA knows how to manipulate elected officials.

And on that front, I'd like to ask about foreign money, or what we might once have called foreign money. Can you talk about where that's headed?

I don't think there's any doubt this is our future. There are a couple of ways to think about it. The first is, what is foreign money? If you're in Montana and a billionaire from Kansas tries to move your election, that feels foreign. The phrase you always hear is "out of state money". Regardless of what side of the issue you're on. If [billionaire] Tom Steyer tries to move a city council election, that's a problem. Citizens need to be able to talk with one another: that's how our democracy is designed to work. Once we figure out disclosure, once we figure out what the limits of spending should be, maybe we can get back to that discussion. Right now, it's about disclosure.

Setting that aside for a second, when we're talking about a federal election, when Russians are paying to buy Facebook ads, that's a huge deal. And that is where we are. All of this politicking is going online. It's the wild west. We hope that the investigations that are going on will reveal how 2016 worked, even as 2018 is at work. I don't think there's any doubt about it. We need a fundamental restructuring. Our responsibility as citizens is to maintain healthy media diets, to be aware of what's going on.

And what has been going on. Citizens United didn't begin this practice, it only expanded it.

At the end of the day, though, if that money is not unlimited, all this goes away. You could limit the amount that could be spent, and that would make who it was coming from matter a lot less. I think that where we are right now, the best we can do is know where it's coming from. That's what the film advocates for. They're playing a long game and have been for a very long time. Montana is an example of how to fight back.

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