News staffs get smaller; political money gets bigger and darker


We really don't expect great documentaries at the start of a TV season, but three of them were set in the first weeks. Last week it was HBO's "Jane Fonda in Five Acts" and PBS' "Mayo Clinic"; now it's PBS again, this time with the compelling "Dark Money," Monday (Oct. 1). Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Right now, opposite
forces are tugging at democracy:

Political budgets
get bigger; newspaper budgets get smaller. Voters keep seeing louder
ads and claims ... with fewer reporters to probe them.

One Montana newsman
had his own solution to the jobs crisis: “I spent some time living
in a cabin in the woods,” John Adams said.

Then he became a
strong force in probing invisible influences in elections. The result
is probed in “Dark Money,” which premieres Monday (Oct. 1), under
PBS' “POV” banner.

The issue began
after the Supreme Court's 2010 decision allowed unlimited political
spending. Montanans found their mailboxes stuffed with political
pieces, many of them fiercely negative; most had no hint – except
for vague committee names – who was behind them.

“If we have all of
this money coming into our politics, trying to change policy ... we
need to know what those dollar influences are,” said Kimberly Reed,
the “Dark Money” producer-director.

She's a
fourth-generation Montanan who studied film in California and
returned home to do two films. “Prodigal Sons” (2008) was about
her return as a transgender woman to her 20th high school
reunion; “Dark Money” asks what happened to a state once known
for its strict election laws.

Eventually, Reed
said, some of the deluge was traced to one source: “A national
organization actually had a plan it was running in five other states.
(It was) the National Right to Work Committee. I'm still trying to
figure out where their money is actually coming from.”

Much of this was
uncovered by newspaper reporters ... before the jobs crisis hit. The
Lee Newspapers closed their capitol bureau in Helena, Montana. The
Great Falls Tribune – the Gannett paper where Adams was a capitol
reporter – took a different approach, he said. It “rewrote the
job descriptions for new positions and they they asked us, all of us,
to re-apply.”

Instead, he quit,
sometimes living in his truck or in his friends' cabins. He did
free-lance work in Montana and in his home state of Wisconsin. And in
2016, he started the Montana Free Press web site. “It's not in
print, but ... we give away our stories to traditional newspapers,
who do print our stories.”

The impact has been
solid. In Montana, a powerful legislator faced a trial and was
defeated in the primary. In both Montana and Wisconsin, staffers
leaked key details about dark-money projects.

People became wary
of the negative ads they were barraged with, Adams said. “That
basically took their power away.”

That's as close as
“Dark Money” comes to having a happy ending, he said. “People
started tuning out these dark-money groups, and I think they really
lost their effectiveness.”

“Dark Money,”
10-11:30 p.m. Monday (under the “POV” banner), PBS (check local
listings)