In the wake of the Citizens United case and other court rulings, there’s an unprecedented amount of money sloshing around in American politics. The volume of coverage that money attracts might be unprecedented, too—at least at the highest levels. Even amid the disruption and pressures on the journalism industry, the nation’s top newspapers delivered steady coverage of the campaign-finance beat during last year’s election. Newer web-first outlets across the ideological spectrum provide a lot of follow-the-money coverage, too.
But step down to lower levels of government, and the quantity and ambition of coverage falls off sharply—even though the search for political influence, and the opportunity for stories, is just as rich. The post-Citizens United landscape at the state level, says John Dunbar, managing editor of political coverage at the Center for Public Integrity, “is an undiscovered country.”
Thanks to a set of hires announced earlier this month, CPI is positioned to be a leader in mapping that terrain. Data reporter Ben Wieder, previously at the nonprofit news organization Stateline, and Alan Suderman, of the DC-based alt-weekly Washington City Paper, are joining the center’s Consider The Source project, which was established after the Citizens United ruling to track spending by groups looking to influence politics. CPI also announced the hiring of Polk Award winner Alison Fitzgerald, formerly of Bloomberg, to oversee its financial coverage and much of its state-level money-in-politics reporting, and Dan Wagner, who comes from the AP to do in-depth finance reporting.
The new hires, Dunbar says, will allow the project to better track the role of political money and the effects of shifting campaign-finance regulations at the state level. Down-ticket races are both most susceptible to the influence of outside money and yet often least reported on, he said. “At the state level, I think there’s a real need for context.” (Disclosures: Dunbar has written for CJR; CJR has also written frequently, and not always positively, about CPI.)
The shrinking corps of statehouse reporters is well-documented, and the reporters who remain often have limited time to devote to enterprise or investigative work. Wieder, the data reporter, says he knows of an AP bureau where reporters were instructed to do daily reporting from Monday through Thursday and only work on enterprise coverage on Fridays.
That doesn’t leave much time for unraveling the complexities of outside spending in state races—and it’s nothing if not a complex subject. While super PACs that influence federal campaigns must disclose their donors to the Federal Elections Committee, disclosure rules at the state level vary from state to state—so reporting techniques that work in one race might not work in another.
That complexity is in part a consequence of Citizens United, Dunbar explains. Before the Citizens United decision, 24 states simply banned political activity by corporations and/or unions. The ruling—and a subsequent 2012 ruling that declared that Citizens United superseded state laws—gutted those measures, though some remain on the books. Many of those states have rushed to pass disclosure rules in the last few years, and while some of those laws are stringent, others require only minimal disclosure.
“States are kind of all over the map with what they require people to disclose,” says Wieder, who will focus on outside spending. “That’s one of the first steps, figuring out the universe. What are we actually working with? How many places are actually going to have readily available information?”
Some of the information comes from the National Institute for Money in State Politics, which is basically a clearinghouse for campaign finance data. (CJR’s Mary Winter wrote about the institute here and here, and about the challenge of reporting on state-level super PACs here.) Once he gets that data, Wieder says he can just perform “standard campaign finance data reporting—which would just be going through the data, analyzing it, figuring out who’s giving, how much they gave, what they bought.”
But Consider the Source is focused on all spending that influences politics, not just campaign donations. And some of that spending can be very difficult to track down.
Want to know which groups are funding TV ads? The FCC requires all local TV stations to keep records of political ad buys, but at this point, only stations in larger markets are required to post those records online. Getting the rest of the info requires traditional reporting skills—i.e., calling up every station and asking for the data. “In that case, it’s not even so much that the data analysis is so complicated,” Wieder says. “It’s more just digging for documents.” (There have also been efforts to crowdsource this data, and to pressure the FCC to mandate that all stations post the files online.)
And what about information on which outside groups sponsor political mailings? Disclosure rules vary from state to state, Wieder says—and again, even when records must be kept they’re not always required to be online.
Unlike Wieder, Suderman hasn’t yet spent much time navigating the intricacies of states’ campaign finance laws. His specialty, though, is following the money, poking into shady deals and questionable ethical arrangements. While at Washington City Paper, he exposed the ties between DC Mayor Vince Gray and accountant Jeff Thompson, who allegedly used straw donors and a “shadow campaign” to evade contribution limits and funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars toward Gray’s election effort.
Suderman started investigating in 2011; a year later, the FBI raided Thompson’s office, and the federal investigation into Gray is ongoing. “I was the first to report all of that, so I think that’s prepared me well for the kind of work I’ll be doing at CPI,” says Suderman. “It’s following the money, whether it’s on a local level, state level, or federal level. The basic idea is the same.”
The stories that Wieder, Suderman, and others on the Consider the Source team report will be published on CPI’s website. CPI is also hoping to partner with news organizations in the states it ends up covering.
“We’ve got the understanding of the way the money moves around, and we’ve got the national perspective, but we don’t have boots on the ground in the states themselves,” Dunbar says. “So I think it’s an ideal situation to partner.”
Those news organizations without formal partnerships with CPI might also find the center’s reporting useful. Even reporters who can’t devote a lot of time to investigating the intricacies of outside spending should find opportunities to to take a CPI investigation and give it a local flavor, showing why it’s relevant to their readers.
“Of all of the campaign finance issues, this idea of outside spending, Citizens United, and how it impacts the states is absolutely one of the most complex,” says Dunbar. His team is working to cut through the complexity, and that’s something that readers and journalists can celebrate.