What do you make of the recent news that the IRS might begin collecting gift taxes on some big donations to nonprofit advocacy groups, the sorts of groups that have spent millions of anonymous dollars on political ads?

It’s emblematic that the landscape is in total flux. If the IRS does what the IRS says it’s going to do, it could turn off some big-dollar donors from actually making these sorts of donations. After standing on the sidelines in regard to this type of political activity, the IRS is showing some sort of willingness to inject itself into the process a bit more. Donors will have to, potentially, pay for their anonymity. If you want to make a big donation to this sort of an outside spending group, then what the IRS is effectively saying is, “We’re going to enforce charging you a tax for that.”

Looking back, what did reporters on the money-and-politics beat do well during the 2010 election? What stands out?

Generally, the coverage of the very turbulent, almost month-by-month changing nature of outside spending in the aftermath of Citizens United was excellent. There were some reporters who took great pains to explain exactly what was going on—a more than Herculean task. Everyone was effectively having to earn their amateur election law degrees in order to understand this stuff.

What were some holes or shortcomings in the coverage?

If you don’t invest the time to really understand the new rules and regulations, it is going to be harder to report on this in a worthwhile way and you open yourself to inaccuracy. You absolutely have to understand this very well in order to have any shot of explaining it in a clear way to a general readership—or even a specialized readership. It just takes a lot of time to build up the requisite knowledge. Do it now while you’ve got the time when things are not nearly as harried as they are going to be once the debates and the Iowa caucuses and the primaries heat up.

Last year American University cited OpenSecrets.org as a key player in “the new journalism ecosystem,” along with nonprofit news outlets like ProPublica and MinnPost. You’ve traditionally been known as a place that generates data “enabling” good journalism. Are you now focusing as much on producing journalism of your own? Why?

The core of what we’re doing is always going to be centered around our research. Without that, we can’t help people, we can’t help journalists do their work, and we can’t produce anything of great value on our own. In recent years we’ve put added emphasis on doing our own aggressive journalism in the public interest. It’s something we’re really proud of. Increasingly, we’re partnering with news organizations, sometimes to run our stories in their entirety for free in their newspapers.

At the end of the day, our mission is to explore as deeply as we can and enlighten people as much as we can about the role money plays in politics. We see this as a next logical step for us in order to achieve what’s always been our mission, but in a media environment that has changed dramatically just in the past five years. We want to reach people where they’re looking for their information.

 

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.