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.