It was a Helena reunion last week when Montana Free Press editor-in-chief John S. Adams sat down with filmmaker Kimberly Reed to discuss their involvement in Reed’s 2018 documentary film, Dark Money. Their conversation is the latest installment of the Montana Lowdown podcast, a weekly production of Montana Free Press.
Reed says she was drawn to the topic of dark money in politics after watching the state of Montana mount a defense of its century-old prohibition on corporate political spending against the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United ruling in 2010, which effectively overturned the state law. Reed spent six years making the film, which focuses much of its attention on her home state of Montana. The film illustrates the influence of untraceable corporate money on Montana elections in an era of diminished watchdog journalism, and features Adams as a reporter investigating the issue. The film was shortlisted for the Academy Awards in 2019.
The issue gained prominence during Montana’s 2008-2012 election cycles, when a scandal involving dark money groups, including the American Tradition Partnership and National Right to Work Committee, ensnared nine Republican candidates in an investigation into campaign finance violations. Allegations of dark money coordination have continued to dog both Republican and Democratic candidates.
As Reed tells Adams, “I felt like Montana was the canary in the coal mine when it came to some of these tactics that were being used. But you know what? The canary lived.” Reed adds, “You can’t have a healthy democracy unless you have a healthy fourth estate, unless you have healthy watchdog journalism that is holding power accountable.”
Much of Dark Money focuses on a paper trail of postcard mailers that were sent to Montana voters sharing disparaging — and sometimes dishonest — remarks about challengers to candidates supported by the dark money groups. Reed notes that this paper trail is notably absent from today’s political disinformation campaigns, which are largely waged online. She tells Adams, “One of the reasons that we were able to tell the story that we did in Dark Money is because there was this physical evidence … One of the things that’s scary about how democracy is being thwarted today is because it’s really hard to track those digital ads.”
Reed continues to be involved in campaign finance transparency and watchdog journalism issues through the film’s social media outreach, and via national speaking engagements promoting the film. Dark Money has garnered a number of awards and accolades, most recently as one of five films to earn the 2019 Silver Gavel Award for Media and the Arts, an annual honor awarded by the American Bar Association.