Is there still black money in Montana politics?
Although “dark silver” was filmed less than 10 years ago, its depiction of politics seems almost quaint, taking the viewer back to a time when politicians and special interest groups kept physical boxes of files and distributed themed advertisements by mail. In 2022, the reason black money is used – to gain influence – is the same, but the mechanisms by which to wield that influence have changed.
We spoke to John Adams, the editor of the Montana Free Press, to discuss what happened after the cameras stopped rolling. Could black money still influence politics in its home country?
This interview has been edited.
What was it like helping to make this documentary?
John Adams: [Director Kimberly Reed] first contacted me as a source to talk about my reporting, to share sources, documents. As a print journalist perfectly comfortable with my byline being the most visible part of my life, I was happy with that.
But when I lost my job at the Great Falls Tribune, which was the Gannett-owned daily I worked for at the time, I think Kim realized that the decline of state media was part of the story. At a time when there was an increase in corporate spending that was unexplainable and untraceable in elections, the watchdogs that would try to get to the bottom of these attempts to influence our politics were disappearing.
Kim made the decision to turn the camera on me as subject rather than source, and I trusted her. I believed she was chasing an important story, and she convinced me that I could be a vehicle to help tell that story.
What happened after the documentary premiered in 2018?
When people asked me, “How do you start a successful nonprofit journalism organization? I used to – jokingly – say, “Get yourself a documentary maker and get started at Sundance.”
There’s no ifs and ors about it, the attention “Dark Money” brought to what I was trying to do with it. Montana Free Press was a game changer.
We started Montana Free Press with no money or any idea how we were going to pay for it. In 2019, I had about $65,000 in the bank, which was enough for me to go ahead and pull the trigger to hire journalists. And once we were able to start producing content on a regular basis and showing people that we weren’t just “John Adams with a website”, we were able to generate more and more reading revenue, grow our audience, attract additional donors.
And that’s really exciting because a lot more people understand how important nonprofit journalism is. Readers understand. Non-profit institutions that fund things like journalism are now mushrooming.
With disclosure laws in place, is there still black money in Montana politics?
The short answer is that we don’t know.
What we documented in “Dark Money” was kind of an old-fashioned version of dark money. Everything was analog, everything was in documents, spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations. And a lot of it was done by hand. But the world has moved rapidly towards digitization.
One of the scary things is that we now have all these digital platforms that have different ways of microtargeting their audiences and sales opportunities for microtargeting. A political campaign or a black money group or a foreign government, for that matter, may say, “I want to target everyone who fits this demographic of likely voters,” and then they present an ad just to those people. And there is no state or federal reporting requirements.
So in some ways you could say the campaigns are a bit cleaner, but with the rise of digital technology, micro-targeting, and the lack of government oversight or disclosure requirements for digital ads, I mean , we’re really in uncharted waters there.
We don’t know if disinformation sites are simply people with their own political agenda who volunteer to write their own opinions, or if they are funded by organizations that seek to disrupt their political system.
There’s a scene in the movie where the outgoing chairman of the Federal Election Commission says it could be foreign money being used to influence the election. There are a lot of countries that would like to point the finger at the United States and say, “You see, democracy doesn’t work. One way to do that is to go through our political system and cause chaos and disruption and do it, essentially, anonymously.
And does the internet make it cheaper to wield that kind of influence?
Yes, and easy. I think it would be so easy, with a little money and the right amount of sophistication, to create all kinds of false narratives that take root and influence the behavior of voters in a local, in a hot local race. That’s my biggest concern, and that’s why I’m focusing less and less on campaign finance laws and more and more on education and media literacy, and how we rebuild trust in the information we consume online.
How do you build a solid news institution that people with broad political ideological beliefs can all agree to be a reliable source of information, whether they voted for Trump or Biden?
I think our path out of this mess is to rebuild trust in community institutions and local journalism and statewide journalism, and ultimately, God forbid, national journalism.
Please let us know what “Dark Money” made you think of. Email your thoughts to [email protected] We will feature some of these responses in an upcoming newsletter.