Mike McIntire joined the New York Times’s national investigative desk during the 2008 presidential campaign. He has also covered City Hall for the Times, where he has worked for the past seven years. Prior to that, McIntire served as an editor at the Hartford Courant.

CJR staff writer Liz Cox Barrett spoke with McIntire about his coverage of campaign finance issues, particularly his recent reporting on the anonymously funded “shadow army of benignly titled nonprofit groups,” in his words, spending millions to influence this midterm election. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Earlier this month, you wrote a Week in Review piece in which you took readers along with you as you tried and ultimately failed to find out much of anything about who is behind the 501(c)4 group, the Coalition to Protect Seniors. Can you describe how that story came to be?

I had done a piece which ran on the front page about a week before that that looked at a different group, Americans for Job Security. The genesis for that is we wanted to take a look at some of these third party groups that are spending phenomenal amounts of money in the election and try to figure out a little more about how they work and who is behind them. That particular story was an attempt to show the mechanics of [one group], what’s going on behind the scenes, and it essentially showed that [the group] was run out of a Republican consulting shop.

So that story ran and got a lot of attention and the thought from the people at the Week in Review was, why don’t we try to do a piece that shows the difficulty in getting at who is behind these groups? That’s how it started. OK, let’s pick a group and do what I think the average person might try to do if they were so inclined: just use whatever tools are publicly available to try to figure it out. And as you pointed out, it didn’t ultimately answer the question.

How can reporters figure out who is behind these groups and what their motivations might be?

It’s hard. And part of the reason is simply that the donors that gravitate to these groups do so because they want to remain anonymous. Unless you have subpoena power there’s no way to force these organizations to reveal anything about their finances other than what they have to reveal to the IRS, which is an annual tax return that does not include details of their donors.

What you’re left doing is trying to use one of the two tools available to reporters, documents and people. To the extent there is a paper trail, you can get some broad outlines of who may be behind these groups. The Week in Review piece I did about the Coalition to Protect Seniors, it did sort of bring me right to the doorstep of health insurance companies. It looked like if you were able to take the next step, you probably would find that somehow, to some extent, some health insurance providers are involved with that organization. But as I said, the paper trail only takes you so far, so then you also have to talk to people who might know something about it. That’s tough. Unless they have an incentive to help you, you’re only going to get so far.

The short answer is it is very, very difficult to crack that veneer of secrecy that covers these organizations. Because that’s exactly the reason they’re set up the way they are, to keep those details secret.

In your Week in Review piece, you concluded that “it is clearly going to take a lot more work to see through an organization that is about as transparent as a dirty diaper.” Are you doing anything further on that, any “more work?”

I’ve kind of moved on to some other things. First of all, you kind of have to pick your target as to how much energy you’re going to expend and there are so many groups out there doing this type of thing. You probably want to look at the ones that are most effective in terms of the money they’re spending. Coalition to Protect Seniors, although $400,000 seems like a lot (that’s the amount they’d spent when I wrote about them), it really doesn’t compare to what some other organizations are spending, millions upon millions. We have to kind of choose where to focus our resources. Right now I’m looking at some others.

I recently read a Wall Street Journal piece suggesting that the Karl Rove-conceived groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, have received more than their fair share of press attention. Your thoughts on that? Is there any over-covered (or under-covered) terrain on this topic?

What was the thrust [of the Journal piece]?

The piece led with a labor union’s large ad buy and noted that although the union’s ad spending dwarfed an announced ad buy by the Crossroads groups, the Crossroads groups “have received a ton of media attention.”

What it boils down to is reporters are attracted to the disclosure issue, or the lack of it. So if you have a group that is set up to be deliberately opaque, you kind of invite scrutiny because you want to know who is behind it, who is funding it. It’s not just reporters; the public, you’d think, has a right to know who is paying to try to influence their election. If you start out with that as your baseline, that helps guide what organizations you’re going to focus on. Yes, labor unions are spending a ton of money in this campaign. The thing about that, though, is if you take a look at the source of the funding, there isn’t really much mystery to where it’s coming from. It’s coming from the members. Not their dues, because that’s separate from their political contributions, but it’s coming from their membership. Now you can argue whether that’s a good or a bad thing, and there’s certainly room for stories to be done about that…but, you do know, there’s no mystery there.

On the other side, these business groups are almost uniformly secret. You just don’t know where the money is coming from. I think that’s mainly why a lot of journalistic attention has been focused on it.

Given the journalistic attention on these groups, do you bump up into [other journalists] when reporting theses stories?

I haven’t. And I haven’t seen that many stories that have made the same attempt to try to peel back the lid on this. We’ve done several now. We had one just yesterday where we looked at the American Future Fund. There have certainly been pieces out there on blogs and in the mainstream media as well that do reveal some details incrementally about some of these groups. Personally, I’ve not come across anyone else [while reporting].

Would this subject—anonymously funded outside groups spending on this election—be getting the coverage it is getting if Democrats and President Obama himself weren’t so focused on it? It’s a worthy topic in its own right, no doubt, but political reporters do tend to follow the political back-and-forth. I was watching CNN yesterday and reporter Dana Bash said that “the primary reason why we’re hearing so much about it is because Democrats have made this a campaign issue.” Not, you know, because it’s an issue the public needs to hear about.

I think you just have to look at the timeline of our coverage. We started looking at this long before that happened. [Democrats’ focus on this] is neither here nor there in terms of what guides our decisions on stuff like that. I mean, [Democrats have] latched on to it as a political cudgel but that doesn’t really influence the decisions we make.

There is so much explaining required when writing about this topic—in every piece, you sort of need to touch on the tax code, regulatory oversight, election law, FEC decisions. There is so much potential for confusion. How do you approach this?

It’s hard. None of us are tax lawyers. Nor would I want to be. But you do have to know what you’re talking about; you’ll hear from people when you don’t. You do have to kind of come up with shorthand ways of quickly describing the crux of the issue because otherwise the story quickly becomes bogged down with too much granular detail about the changes in Citizens United and what’s the difference between a 501(c)4 and a 501(c)6. The writing issue, it can become tricky. At the same time, you still have to give readers enough basic information to understand why this is important, and why certain groups do what they do and others don’t, why a 527 committee has to disclose donors while a 501(c)6 doesn’t. Once you explain these things, people begin to understand why one group chooses to incorporate itself one way as opposed to another. It can become a bit mindboggling after a while.

On the topic of explaining confusing material, some of your recent pieces have come with good, explanatory graphics. Can some of this be better explained graphically?

They work best in accompaniment. The best graphic is one that allows the reporter to not dwell so much on certain details because it presents them in a graphical way and makes it quickly understandable for the reader in a way that might not happen if they had to read it in text. The best presentation of these things are the ones that work in tandem. We have a narrative, a story says one thing and a graphic that focuses on one aspect, that sort of complements it by pulling out complicated aspects of it and showing it in a way that is informative and clear.

Do you see any themes emerging as to who, or what industries are making heavy use of 501(c)s?

You know, in terms of types of industries? No. Part of the reason is you just don’t know. It’s not really clear who is funding these things. One thing that is clear, they seem to be largely business-backed.

It’s hard to draw any kind of conclusions about the effect of the Citizens United case based on what we’re seeing. Lots of these groups were doing the same things they’re doing now before Citizens United and so it’s hard to draw any kind of line between that case and what we see now. The volume of money certainly has increased but it increases almost every election cycle.

The only thing that’s really changed is that there are some groups, because of the Citizens United case, as a corporation they can expressly advocate the election or defeat of a specific candidate whereas in the past they kind of had to couch it in weasel words that stopped short of saying, “Vote for so-and-so” or “Vote against so-and-so.” Now some groups are taking advantage of that and being a little more forceful in what they advocate. Other than that, it’s hard to see where the [Citizens United] case has had a huge impact or to learn more about what the source of the money is.

Can you talk generally about what you’re likely to focus on between now and election day? And then looking ahead to 2012?

We’re continuing to take a look at this issue of third party spending because the impact does seem to be so great in comparison to previous election cycles – that, combined with the anonymity of it has made it a legitimate issue of public interest, so we’re focusing on that. Going forward, it’s hard to say. It’ll be interesting to see whether any regulations change on this issue, whether attempts in Congress to impose greater transparency on these groups get anywhere. The DISCLOSE Act has passed the House but hasn’t managed to get out of the Senate. 20102 could be different, depending on what changes to the regulatory landscape happen between now and then.

For other reporters out there who might be tasked with doing a piece on this topic, any hints or resources or advice on how to tackle covering these outside groups?

One of the things which is interesting is to see which races these groups have chosen to intervene in and then try to work backwards, reverse engineer it to figure out why are they are interested in this race. Sometimes that can give you some clues as to who might be behind this particular group. We did this with the American Future Fund. With that group, we started off by looking at the races they’re trying to influence and, lo and behold, we find out a great many of them are congressmen on key committees that have an impact on ethanol, and that sort of begins to paint a picture of who might be involved in supporting this particular group—and sure enough, one of the co-founders is a major ethanol executive. There are ways to try to work backwards. You have to be careful, though, because unless they acknowledge [their involvement], you’re left with just inferences many times. As a reporting tool it’s a good place to start, but that alone isn’t going to get you there. It’s a way to begin reading the tea leaves.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.