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In this week’s episode of Scheer Intelligence, host and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer talks to filmmaker Kimberly Reed, director of the new documentary “Dark Money,” and John S. Adams, a journalist and key figure in the film, who breaks a story about the influence of money in politics in Montana and how Montanans fought back against that influence.
Reed, Adams and Scheer discuss the making of the film, how Citizens United played out in Montana and the growth of corporate money in local elections. Reed, a native of Montana, discusses why she thinks Montana is an excellent example of how ordinary citizens can fight back against well-paid lobbyists, and why Montana’s history of battling copper barons prepared them for this current fight.
Adams first discovered the impact of outside funders when John Ward, a Republican incumbent running for reelection for the state legislature, found that voters in his district were bombarded with mail accusing him of being friends with serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
“For years and years, we didn’t know where it was coming from,” Adams tells Scheer. He goes on to explain how, through FOIA requests and some help from a whistleblower, he traced the name on these postcards, Western Partnership Tradition, back to a Washington, D.C., based anti-union group called the National Right to Work Committee. After publishing the story, local politicians and voters came together to fight the dark money influence and vote against candidates who were influenced by it.
It is, as Scheer and Reed observe, a rare instance of hope in a politically bleak time. As Reed says, “I hope that our film shows–and I think it does–that by engaging in that system and taking it back over from this corporate influence, can really put power back into the hands of people.”
Listen to the interview in the player above and read the transcript below. Find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Kimberley Reed, who is a director of a really interesting new movie called Dark Money, set in Montana. People don’t think of Montana as a center of great debate and social issues and progressive politics, but they’re wrong, as the film points out. Montana actually has a long history, going back to the Anaconda Copper Mine a century ago, and the fight for people over environmental issues as well as working conditions. And the film Dark Money, while hooked to the issue of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that made it easier for corporations to put a lot of money into local politics, and that money ran up against Montana’s own tradition of controlling corporate spending, had probably the most serious restraint because of its experience with Anaconda Copper. The other interesting part of the construction of this film is not only how did Citizens United play out in Montana, and the resistance–I say most people will find that rather improbable–the resistance in Montana to it; it centers around a very interesting journalist, John S. Adams, who worked for a small paper, although maybe not small in Montana, I don’t know, called The Great Falls Tribune. And I don’t want to give away the whole movie, but the Capitol bureau of that paper and others gets closed, and even though he breaks a really great, important, big story and proves the importance of journalism, he ends up, at the end of this film, having to invent his own publication called The Montana Free Press, and continue his work. I don’t want to give away the movie, but it ends with a pretty happy ending. It’s an example, really, of the vitality of journalism and how it can make a difference, how it’s endangered in today’s world by big money. Let me turn to you, Kimberley Reed. What do you think the takeaway of this film is, and what brought you to this subject?
KR: A lot of projects that I launch into, I don’t really want to know where they’re going, and that’s especially true with documentaries. I think the roots of this project happened when I heard a news story on the radio about the passage of Citizens United, where the U.S. Supreme Court stated that corporations are people, and that money is speech, and that therefore, if you follow that logic, in order not to violate the free speech rights of these corporations, they should be able to spend unlimited money in political campaigns. And if you just look at that on its face, it doesn’t take you too long to realize that elections, that our government, the reins of our government in the U.S., are going to be turned over to fewer and fewer people who have more and more money. That that power is just going to be consolidated. And, you know, I’m pretty skeptical of slippery-slope arguments, but that’s a pretty slippery slope.
RS: Your film opens with a history lesson. So why don’t you give me that history lesson?
KR: Yeah, in a lot of ways, you know, I’m from Montana, and I think that going back there and telling this story that is really rooted in history was a very natural thing for me to do, because I could see so much clash, so much dramatic clash happening over this issue of campaign finance. And when you grow up and you go to school there, you learn about the copper kings. And the copper kings was just all about a couple rich dudes in Butte, Montana, known as the richest hill on earth, fighting over who’s going to control this wealth. Not really worrying about what the long-term effects are of kind of opening up this beautiful mountainside in Montana. That’s something that people live with in Montana, something that’s really cherished. Because of that, it’s a wound that is felt, that is seen continuously. I mean, you’re constantly reminded of what the effects are of corporate domination.
RS: When Anaconda was this enormously powerful company, what years were those?
KR: The late 1800s, early 1900s, right at the turn of the century.
RS: And yet the reminder is there. Your film opens, and actually ends also, with a very powerful scene involving birds landing on a lake and dying. And that’s the legacy of Anaconda Copper, isn’t it?
KR: Yeah. I mean, when I was growing up, you always heard these stories about, like, you could stir the water in the Berkeley Pit with a teaspoon, and then the teaspoon would dissolve. And that was kind of apocryphal; nobody really believed that, but then one day in 1995, a big flock of snow geese accidentally landed in the Berkeley Pit; they thought it was a nice pond, a place they could rest during their migration; and a bunch of them died. Hundreds of them died. And it was, it was tragic. That happened again a couple decades later, and the effects were even greater.
RS: The point of your movie is that Montana is in the forefront of this battle against Citizens United because they have this incredible, historical example of the power of a rapacious corporation. And as you make the point in your film, because it’s a lesser populated state, with a great deal of mineral resources, the temptation there is just to rip it apart, grab the, you know, the minerals, and to heck with the consequences.
KR: It’s a cheap date. That’s the line you hear again, and again, and again. Montana is a cheap date. Like, if you have a lot of money, and you want to develop resources, you want to make money from those resources, you have a state where there’s a lot of resources and not many people there. If you can control the politics, you can control all of the wealth coming out of that state. And that’s a story that’s a century old in Montana. It’s a story that the populace is really attuned to, is really looking out for, and is frankly, I think, by and large really sick of. And so people were really paying attention.
RS: What’s great about your film, for my money as a journalist, is–and I didn’t know you were Montana raised, born and raised–I just thought, wow. This film is made without the usual elitism of, you know, we’re going to go see these folk out there, and you know, yes, they do some interesting things, but we’re going to bring New York wisdom, or you know, LA wisdom, or something. And your film has a great sense of respect for the folks who live there. And they end up being the heroes of the piece.
KR: Yeah, yeah. There’s, our film is full of everyday heroes, like the people who work in the–Montana has a citizen legislature, it’s a part-time legislature; it meets every two years for 90 days, that’s hardly anything. And the people who go there, who are the elected officials, are farmers and ranchers, and you know, outfitters and lawyers, and moms and, you know, every–you know, every occupation you can think of. I think that really harkens back to the way that our country was originally devised, that we would have people who represented us, and it wouldn’t be their full-time job just to be politicians.
RS: Yeah, it was also thought that the press, which was given absolute protection in the First Amendment, the freedom of the press, would also be pretty much a citizen press–town crier, wall posters, pamphleteers, small papers. So let me introduce your colleague here, the subject of your film, John S. Adams. You’re the local reporter, and you come across the story, and that’s really the story of this documentary; your struggle to alert people to it. So you’re this journalist that we hope we can still have, but we’re afraid is a disappearing breed.
JA: Yeah, I started my reporting career at a small town–you know, speaking of the citizen press–I started my reporting career in Montana at a small-town, the Missoula Independent, which is an alternative weekly. Alternative weeklies used to be a really vibrant form of printed press throughout the country; the Village Voice, the LA Weekly, you know, are some that come to mind; Phoenix New Times. You know, people throughout the country have been picking up those weekly rags, you know, in cities all across America. And those started disappearing in my time when I was in Montana. The Missoula Independent stuck around for a while, but I did some reporting there that got noticed, and I was hired by the Great Falls Tribune to take over their Capitol bureau. And at one time, I think there were two or three folks in that Capitol bureau, including at one point Chuck Johnson, who is a character that you see in the film, Charles Johnson; Mike Dennison, another person who you see in the film, both were in that same bureau before I was. So it was kind of a tradition that the Great Falls Tribune–which, I should also point out, the Great Falls Tribune was the one major daily paper in the state of Montana that wasn’t at one time owned by the Anaconda Copper company. All the other paper, all the other major papers in the state had been owned by the very company that Kim’s film explores in those opening scenes. So I was really proud to work for the Great Falls Tribune and be in their Capitol bureau; it was a real honor. And I did that for many years, covering the legislature, covering state government, and just kind of watchdogging our elected officials and agencies and corporations.
RS: So when you come there, you’re working, you’re covering the legislature–which, by the way, they are a citizen legislature, as you point out; they’re, you know, it’s not like in Sacramento here in California where, my goodness, you have professional lobbyists that are entrenched, and the legislature’s entrenched, and you’re lucky if they ever go home to talk to anybody. As you’re, in the movie you indicate, they’re out there tilling the field; they’re out fixing the fences; no, now it’s time to go and legislate, every other year. What alerts you to this story?
JA: There’s a scene in the film where I’m speaking to a legislator who I regretfully admit in the movie that I, you know, that I kind of ignored his early warning signs. When I first started at the Great Falls Tribune in 2007, it was shortly after that, there had just been an election, and there was a republican legislator who I had known about, but I hadn’t been there covering the legislature on a regular basis, so I didn’t know him personally, I didn’t have a relationship with him. But he popped into my office, and he told me–he, you know, he talked to me about these fliers. And the story that we’re talking about here, and one of the symptoms, I guess, of dark money, which is really the underlying issue that we’re talking about here–unaccounted-for money influencing voters in races all the way down to city council races in this country. John Ward had noticed just days before his election that his district–which, you know, you might only have, in a primary election in a district like that in Montana, you might only have a few hundred voters that actually show up at the polls–I mean, literally, it might be the difference of one or two hundred people that elects that representative to that seat. And just a few days before that election, the voters in John Ward’s district got absolutely papered, their mailboxes were stuffed full of these mailers accusing him of being friends with John Wayne Gacy, who is a notorious mass-murderer. Now, what was the connection to John Wayne Gacy? Well, what it boiled down to was John Ward, who is a Catholic, voted to bring a bill to the floor for debate over whether to abolish the death penalty in Montana. So he didn’t even vote, it wasn’t even a vote on the bill itself, it was a motion to bring the bill to the floor for debate. That vote, according to these dark money groups, equated him to wanting John Wayne Gacy to live; therefore it must be true that John Ward is a friend of John Wayne Gacy. These kinds of mailers started showing up in people’s mailboxes.
RS: Was he a republican?
JA: He was a republican. He was targeted because he was part of a group of, I would call them “business oriented” republicans; I don’t like to use the term “moderate,” because I think it’s too bland and it’s not nuanced enough to really categorize these folks who, in my view, are very conservative individuals, very conservative in their political thinking, but independent. And John Ward was among a group of people who believed that the government did actually have to pass a budget in the previous session, and so they worked with the democratic governor to do that. And they hammered out a deal with the governor, and they passed a budget, and the folks on the far right of the party didn’t appreciate that. And so these individuals were targeted in subsequent elections, and John Ward was among the first wave of those who got hit.
KR: And it’s important to keep the scale in mind. I mean, I think what happened to John Ward, that he was flagging, was that, you know, kind of the usual back-and-forth of political campaigns was happening, and then all of a sudden he got swamped by something that was 10 or 20 or 30 or 50 times as much traffic, and money behind it. And he just didn’t know where it was coming from.
JA: He didn’t have the ability to respond, and he didn’t have the time to respond. There was nothing he could do. And so he was summarily taken out. And I will also say, he didn’t run again. I mean, that’s the other really disappointing thing about this, is a lot of these folks who get targeted by these dark money groups, it’s so painful for them and their families to have these lies spread about them throughout these small-town communities, that they don’t want to go through that process again. And they leave politics.
KR: And there’s a couple important things to note: that this attack was happening in the primaries, and it was happening with republicans on the far-right attacking other republicans.
JA: Incumbent republicans.
KR: Incumbent republicans. So it’s not an issue in a primary where everybody’s paying attention, it’s in a–an issue in a general election where everybody’s paying attention; it’s in a primary with republican against republican. So you have to realize that the ultimate goal of this is not to get this republican vs. that democrat in office; it’s an effort to get this republican vs. that republican into office. It’s an effort to purify the party.
RS: So tell us about the dark money. Where was this dark money coming from, and why did they want the far right rather than the more moderate?
JA: For years and years, we didn’t know where it was coming from. And that was the thing. I mean, we knew it was from groups called American–well, it started out Western Tradition Partnership. Their name was on all of these postcards. But nobody really knew who Western Tradition Partnership was; we didn’t know who was funding it, we didn’t know how much funding they had, and we didn’t really know what their agenda was, because their, ostensibly their message was about, you know, resource development, and about creating good-paying jobs, you know, based on developing Montana’s vast mining wealth, timber wealth, et cetera. That was really a red herring, because what we ended up finding out–thanks to the discovery of a series of several boxes of documents that showed up in another state and were mailed to Montana–our elections regulator in Montana, the commissioner of political practices, over the course of many years of investigation and litigation, opened up this trove of documents to the public. I put in a FOIA request, a Freedom of Information Act request, to the commissioner’s office to inspect these documents that they had obtained. And it was through that, those records, that we were able to really find out who was behind it. And to answer your question, it was basically a group out of Washington, D.C., the National Right to Work Committee, an anti-union outfit whose goals is basically to end public-sector unions in this country. The same groups that were very active in Wisconsin undermining the unions in Wisconsin under Scott Walker, those same groups were operating in Colorado, in Montana, and elsewhere.
RS: You have a wonderful young woman in your film who worked for this group. And she becomes a whistleblower. And she says: I believe in Right to Work; I’m not pro-union, but I’m offended by the chicanery here. Why–
KR: Yeah, she said, “You can’t fight evil by becoming evil.” And while working at this organization that was essentially running campaigns on behalf of candidates, which is illegal, she saw this illegality going on, and she saw that they were intentionally breaking the rules, and she became a whistleblower. And she wanted to do something about it. And becomes a, you know, a big revelation in the trial that our film ultimately arrives at, and has some really surprising things to say.
RS: [omission for station break] I’m talking to John Adams, who is the courageous journalist, intrepid journalist, who helped break the story of dark money in Montana, and Kimberley Reed, the director of the film Dark Money. You know, first of all, one of the things, the response to this film, Kenny Turan, the film critic for the LA Times–I forget exactly the way he put it, but this is the least disheartening film you’ll watch about [the] political situation. And it is, it really is heartening. Because all sorts of people step forward and support honesty, and getting at the truth of the matter. Former district attorneys, and the attorney general–I forget all their titles, but–and they’re regular Montana folks, they’re not do-gooders who’ve come in from out of state. They’re–right? People like our film director here, who were actually born there. I think that’s one of the liberating notions, that there’s something in the–you know, this whole podcast thing I’m doing is a sort of exploration of the crazy-quilt of American life. And I usually say when I introduce it, out of this different mixture of immigration and backgrounds and religions and everything, we actually have heroic figures who emerge.
KR: Oh, yeah.
RS: You know, that don’t only come from one cut of cloth. And your film has that. I mean, these are local Montana people who are stepping up and doing the right thing, and challenging powerful interests who are mostly from out of state.
KR: That’s right. And in a lot of ways, you know, telling this story in our film of Montana being a microcosm, being this kind of perfect case study where you can really see what goes on with this massive shell game of money and politics, which has been rigged in many ways. So we can kind of get our arms around the story of Montana, and I think in a lot of ways, because there aren’t a lot of people living there, because you got to depend on your neighbors to pull you out of a ditch, you know, when you end up in a snowbank, regardless of what political party they’re in, I think, you know, there is a larger sense of community responsibility, perhaps. I don’t want to be too rosy, I don’t want to make it too, you know, idealistic. But I think that because of that sense of kind of a smaller sense of community, more people were paying attention. More people were paying attention to the chicanery that was going on, to use your word; more people were reading reporting that was coming from people like John Adams and Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, who were covering this issue. And that helps you clamp down on this corruption that happens due to the dark money loophole. And I hope that with our film, we inspire people in other states to make their community as small as it was in Montana, to pay as much attention as people can there, and to follow the money through individual citizens who are really curious about the issue, or journalists like John Adams who are fulfilling the role of watchdog reporters, or citizens who are supporting watchdog reporters, right? I mean, this is a really important aspect of how we’re going to break this problem down and solve it.
RS: I want to swing into what I think is an optimistic message from this film, that here is a case where powerful interests with a lot of money are pouring into a state; now they’re empowered. And John, you are great with the blackboard in this film; you get up on the blackboard and you show, you got this money here, and it comes from this corporation, then it goes to this group you know nothing about, and then it goes here, and blah blah blah. And it’s really a story, and the critique of the Citizens United decision is it just makes it all that more difficult to follow where this money is coming from. And again, what I think is terrific about this film is you show that in the state of Montana, through its history, there is a tradition of accountability and transparency, and suspicion of corporate money. And what turns out–and tell me how this happened, your film describes it–you end up having a lot of allies, even though your own paper pulls back, right? The Great Falls–well, they close their bureau or something.
JA: Well, yeah. I mean, what happened with the Great Falls Tribune is what happened with Gannett-owned newspapers throughout the country. I mean, the Great Falls Tribune wasn’t–I want to be clear about that, because the publisher who just retired from the Great Falls Tribune, Jim Strauss, this was a guy who, in my view, went out of his way for many, many years to do everything that he could to keep the newsroom together in the wake of what was large-scale, nationally driven corporate downsizing of newsrooms. So I don’t believe that the Great Falls Tribune went, you know, that they were pulling back from the coverage; I think they would have been more than happy to have me continue to do the coverage. What happened in that case is the Great Falls Tribune–what Gannett required was that all of us who worked for Gannett at that time had to basically get laid off from our jobs, and then reapply for new positions that involved all kinds of things like website analytics and metrics–I mean, basically, it was, they wanted us to be writing clickbait for their website. And that wasn’t what I was interested in; my stories never have been, you know, the hot, Buzzfeed-type clickbait stories, because they require a lot of focus and attention. And you know, most readers who are skimming their iPhones aren’t reading 2,000-word stories on their phone. So anyway, with that out of the way, I think this was able to happen, and I think I was able to do what I was able to do in Montana, partly because of scale, and partly because we had people in places like the Commission of Political Practices who truly believed in the public’s right to know. Montana has a very progressive constitution that was passed in the seventies–
RS: When you say in the seventies–
JA: The 1972 constitution–
JA: –the very first clause of the constitution is the right to a clean and healthful environment. And that is the bane of a lot of these corporations, and one of the reasons why they can, you know, continue to try to push through the legislature to pull everything further and further to their favor. Because the constitution and the courts are a tougher battleground for them. So–
RS: I didn’t know that Montana got a new constitution in 1972.
KR: In 1972, in the wake of Watergate–
KR: –and kind of a, kind of widespread repulsion with the Nixon administration, Montana convened a constitutional convention. Again, somewhat similar to the citizen legislature that Montana has. The minister of the church that I went to was on the constitutional convention; it was made up of everyday folks, who rewrote the constitution in 1972. And as John says, the first clause of it provided a clean and healthful environment.
RS: The conventional wisdom now is you can’t do the old gumshoe kind of journalism that you do, that you did. And you know, really dig, and find things out, and confront people about what’s happening. And yet as your film demonstrates, this thing that the nation has had trouble comprehending, Citizens United–it’s in the air, there’s a buzz about it. But watching your film, I got a clearer sense of what Citizens United is about, that I had got–I personally was not a big opponent of Citizens United, you know. I, you know, I have a little bit of a libertarian leaning in me, and boy, your movie really challenges that. And until I saw it operating in Montana, ignoring the wisdom of Montana’s history and the role of corporate money in that state–I must say, I wasn’t in favor of it; I underestimated it. And I think your movie really captured it that way.
JA: I wanted to weigh in on the issue about the future–you know, the current state of journalism and the future of journalism. And I think, I’m one of these people who by circumstance found myself trying to make a decision like the decision that a lot of people make in this situation, which is do I try to stick with it, or do I do what a lot of folks do and go into public relations or go into some other, you know, communications field, which a lot of journalists really thrive at and make good money at and make good careers at. And I respect that. I wasn’t ready to do that yet, and I by circumstance decided that if I couldn’t find a place that was going to employ me to do it, I would try to figure out a way to do it myself. And what I’ve learned over the course of the last few years while doing that is that I think that there is still a place, and there is still a desire, and there is still a way for that kind of journalism to thrive in our current environment, our digitally driven, information-fueled environment. But it requires new ways of thinking about it than the old systems. The old systems of, you know, owning a huge operation with a printing press and a distribution network and everything else, you know, the overhead that it takes for that–those systems worked well for a long time in an era where people didn’t get their information instantly on their phones. And so we have to just find new, innovative ways to continue to tell the stories, but people still want to hear the stories; those stories still have impact. And what we’re trying to do at the Montana Free Press is just find new and innovative ways to keep doing that kind of journalism, but deliver it to people in the ways that they are now accustomed to receiving it.
RS: So let me bring in the Montana Free Press, and our director Kimberley Reed. I thought one of the terrific things about your film is it’s not a downer. And you have this scene which I think, oh, this movie’s going to end, it’s going to be really depressing, because John here–
KR: [Laughs] Because it’s a documentary.
RS: gets in his pickup, you know–well, because it’s a documentary, right. [Laughs] But he gets in his pickup truck, you know, with his dog, and puts all his possessions in. And he says, oh, I’ll find some friends who got cabins I can stay in, you know, and I’ll figure something out, but I’m going to still keep this writing going. And then here we have the introduction of the Montana Free Press. And there you are, you’ve got a little board of directors meeting to try to raise some money. And so tell us about this reincarnation of journalism.
JA: I haven’t figured it out yet. It’s not–you know, we’re still a long way from being financially sustainable–
RS: You’re never going to, you’re never going to–I’m here to tell you, the myth about the internet is that content providers are ever going to do well. No. Google and Facebook and these people are going to get, you know, most of the profit, and you’re going to have chump change. But–
JA: But what we’re doing, we’re finding that there are people that, they believe in what we’re doing. And I’ve found that if you are, if they believe in you and they believe in what you’re doing, then they’ll support you. And those are the folks that we’re looking for. You know, it was obviously fortunate for me that while all of this was unfolding, you know, this thing that I was just thinking about as my life, there happened to be this documentary filmmaker who would pop in from time to time with her camera and record chunks of it. You know, and I didn’t know at the time–I never really realized until very late in the game, you know, the significant role I was going to play in the film. I thought I was just helping Kim tell a story; I didn’t know that she was going to make me part of it. [Laughs]
RS: What this documentary not only shows the value of a guy like John here, that you need that dogged investigative reporter, you just need ‘em, you know. And if we lose them, we got to find some other way of reinventing them, and maybe the Montana Free Press is the new model. I also want to take my hat off to the role of the documentary filmmaker. I think that your film–and people should go see it if they really want to understand why Citizens United is a big deal, and what it unleashes, and what the danger of it is in trampling over the sensibility of ordinary folks in a place like Montana. That state had great rules, great law, preventing corporate influence from once again raping the environment, you know, and destroying the lives of people. And what undermined that sensible restraint, coming from the state–which after all, used to be a conservative value, you know; states having a say, that’s why we have a senate and so forth. And what your film shows is big money can come in and just wipe out the power of the citizens.
KR: Yeah, and hopefully it shows the citizens pushing back against that, and paying attention to it, and having a strong press that’s in place that’s following it, and having not only the laws on the books, but enforcement mechanisms that are going to hold that accountable. Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a lot of hopelessness when it comes to these issues of money and politics, and a lot of people throw their hands up and feel like they can’t do anything about it as voters. They certainly don’t want to get involved in the whole system by running for it. There’s just a lot of, like, disaffection. And I hope that our film shows–and I think it does–that by engaging in that system and taking it back over from this corporate influence, can really put power back into the hands of people.
RS: That’s it. I want to thank you folks for coming in, Kimberley Reed and John Adams. Our producers for Scheer Intelligence are Rebecca Mooney and Joshua Scheer. Our engineers at KCRW are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. And Sebastian Grubaugh here at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has done stellar work in engineering this particular session. Read more