I put the question—how can we get the attendees’ names—to the campaign-finance experts at the Sunlight Foundation and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Said Sunlight’s Bill Allison via email:

That’s something that, unless you have a very friendly source in the campaign or among the attendees, you can’t get. There is no requirement for campaigns to release the names of people who attend fundraisers, or to indicate that a contribution was given at an event (as opposed to solicited by phone or just sent in over the transom).

Ed Bender, director of FollowTheMoney.org, suggested scanning the disclosure forms for donors who gave around the date of the fundraiser, and then contacting them and asking if they attended—a slow, hit-or-miss process. He also suggested contacting the Congress members’ opponents. “Someone in their pack is probably doing opposition research and may be able to fill in some blanks.”

A call to the campaign office of Gardner’s opponent in Colorado’s 4th Congressional District, State Senate President Brandon Shaffer, wasn’t fruitful. Kim Howard, Shaffer’s campaign manager, said that after the CBS story aired, her staff asked their Washington contacts to see if anyone knew names of the fundraiser attendees, or could identify any lobbyists by studying the video, without luck. The Shaffer campaign office ultimately launched an online petition calling on Gardner to divulge the names of those who attended the fundraiser. Gardner has not done so.

A reporter could spend days poring through FEC documents and making calls, hoping to reach a donor who might cop to attending the fundraiser, but most journalists would say, with reason, that the potential payoff isn’t worth all the effort. No laws were broken, and, after all, would it stun voters to learn their congressman—or president—partied with a list of high rollers? These types of gatherings are not exactly infrequent.

Still, the fallout from the episode offers a small example of how, in the absence of facts—such as names of attendees—partisan interests can fill the void with their own spin.

Attkisson reported nine of the Congress members at the fundraiser sit on the House Committee on Financial Services (CJR counted eight members), and that at least one of the guests was a bank lobbyist. The implication: folks in finance were the ones getting special access to lawmakers in Key Largo.

But that’s not the particular message that Colorado Democrats want to use in their campaign against Gardner; their preferred attack is to portray him as in thrall to the energy industry. So when Westword, Denver’s leading alternative publication picked up on the CBS scoop, tying it to a Gardner speech on energy costs, the item included a statement from the head of Colorado’s Democratic Party that connected the Florida event to Gardner’s known fundraising from oil and gas companies.

And the left-leaning Colorado Independent, in its take on the CBS News report, focused on Gardner’s ties to “oil and gas interests.” That piece noted that Gardner’s Democratic opponent has “questioned the motivation driving Gardner’s pro-drilling energy positions,” and it concluded with a mention of Gardner’s attendance at a fundraiser hosted by BP lobbyists just weeks after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.

It would be a mistake to make too much of this point. After all, we do know who has made $10,000 donations to the NRCC (that’s in the FEC filings). And, no, knowing whether Gardner was schmoozing these two dozen bankers or this list of oil bigwigs is not likely to move (m)any votes.

Still, this episode highlights the obstacles journalists face in obtaining the information that will allow them both to sort fact from spin and to tell accessible stories about how money works in politics. Reporters—even those who don’t work for neutral publications—are in the business of finding facts that corroborate or complicate the messages that political actors are spreading. Here, they simply can’t.

And with the 2012 campaign on track to be the most expensive in history, telling those stories this year will be more critical than ever.

Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at PoliticsDaily.com. She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.