Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Dark Money coming back into Maryland politics - and to a theater near you

After covering media in the 2016 Baltimore mayoral race, I was as disheartened as I can ever remember being about anything on my beat.

The reason: my inability to more successfully expose the sources of dark money behind TV advertising that clearly played a significant role in the election. I had been decrying dark money for years, but I thought it was mainly a national issue — something that cropped up in presidential and congressional races. Even as I came to appreciate how bad the problem was locally during that election, I felt that I was always one step behind the ads doing their dirty work onscreen despite federal disclosure rules.

And here we are again with what’s shaping up to be a bare-knuckled governor’s race, and the dark money is already starting to flow for TV ads. If I know anything about media politics, it will be a deluge by November.

Based on talking to Baltimore TV executives, I recently predicted ads attacking one or another of the candidates would show up as early as the first Baltimore Ravens exhibition game August 2 — as opposed to the more traditional date of Labor Day.

Forget it. The night after that column appeared in The Baltimore Sun, an ad attacking Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous aired during an Orioles telecast. That was July 9.

The ad is now running almost everywhere on Baltimore TV. The Republican Governors Association made a confirmed buy of $229,000 on WBAL-TV alone.

According to sources and incomplete public filings, it appears that the full buy in the Baltimore market including cable could be as high as $1.2 million. And that is only through August 8 — nearly a month before Labor Day.

Spending by the Republican Governors Association is not the darkest of dark money. Voters can find out what the association itself is — or at least, what it says it is — with a little web surfing.

But the best anyone can ever get is a general idea of where the money for those ads on Baltimore TV stations actually comes from. Even though donors to the association, like Charles and David Koch, have to disclose contributions to the organization, one does not know whose dollars are behind the ads seen on TV as they air. In fact, money from your pension or retirement account might be buying such airtime, as Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin wrote in The Nation. All viewers see is the Republican Governors Association.

And the ad receiving that $1.2 million push here could do a lot of damage in defining Jealous for some voters if his campaign does not get out and counter it fast.

The words in the ad describe Jealous as a “big spender who wants to raise your taxes” to pay for giveaway plans he doesn’t even understand.

But that’s the tamest part of the ad. What is more powerful is the way the ad frames Jealous visually in darkness and shadows and consistently shows him with facial expressions that would best be described a snarling, glaring, frustrated or angry.

This ad, titled “Big Spender,” is clearly trying to define him to viewers as a dangerous or menacing figure. If that sticks, it is going to be very hard for Jealous to undo.

This ad, by the way, is listed as an issues ad, rather than a candidate ad, under federal filing rules. It’s an issues ad as long as it doesn’t advocate any direct action like, “Vote for Candidate X.”

The attack ads produced by Gov. Larry Hogan’s campaign that aired right after the primary labeled Jealous “TOO EXTREME” and “TOO RISKY.” The RGA has taken it to a nastier level, which is the way it works with surrogates. The idea is that the mud-slinging cannot directly be blamed on Hogan when it comes from a PAC, which is not allowed to co-ordinate with a candidate.

Jealous is sure to have the same kind of money behind him in this campaign, and that’s going to make for a spiral of spending that will only end the day after the election if the race is close.

One of the questions I have been repeatedly asked since that 2016 mayoral race is what a citizen can do to combat dark money.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission ruling of 2010 that allowed corporations, labor unions and interest groups to spend unlimited amounts advertising against candidates, the practice can’t be legally stopped.

But its effects can be blunted by more information and education about the political practice. And a documentary that shines much light on the matter is set to premiere July 27 at Baltimore’s Parkway Theatre.

Titled “Dark Money,” the film looks at the struggle between untraceable corporate money and political action committees (PACs) versus citizens, journalists and a few good public officials trying to save their communities and democracy. If you care about any of that, seeing this film might the best and most illuminating two hours you can spend in front a screen this summer. I mean that. No exaggeration here.

The focus is Montana, the home state of director/producer Kimberly Reed. But under her skilled hand, the film expands that microcosm to Wisconsin and ultimately the nation.

I grew up in Wisconsin, went to the university in Madison for graduate school and started my career as a press secretary and speechwriter to a progressive Democratic lieutenant governor, so I know a little about the history of the state’s politics. But I left in 1976, never to return, and a question that has been rattling around in my head since the rise of Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s current union-busting governor, is how my home state had gone so far to the right.

Reed answers the question showing how big conservative money men like the Koch brothers found their candidate in Walker, and once they bought the governorship, their dark money went on to purchase control of the legislature and even the state Supreme Court. You will be shocked when Reed details how the state supreme court ended an investigation that appeared to reach into its own chambers — and then ordered all evidence in the probe destroyed.

Maybe shocked isn’t the right word. It was more like I was mad as hell, as in the movie “Network,” as I watched.

“Dark Money” is an emotional experience. While it is smart and committed to historical and cultural context at every turn, it is not one bit preachy or didactic. Reed knows how to craft a narrative that will make you care.

One of the people you will care about and admire most is John S. Adams, an investigative reporter who is forced out of his job when his paper downsizes. But he cares so much about what dark money is doing to his state that he keeps doggedly following the money even after he has to move out of his house and live in his truck with his dog following his job loss.

All praise to Adams for his commitment to journalism and the website he founded, Montana Free Press. And all praise to Reed as well for understanding the connection between newspapers closing bureaus in state capitals in places like Montana and the dark money moving in and corrupting the political process in part because there is no one left to expose what’s going on.

Adams is one of the heroes of this film, and his hero quest is a powerful and resonant story.

In the end, “Dark Money” is more than educational, it’s inspirational.

It left me inspired to do better in 2018 with the Maryland governor’s race and midterms than I did with the mayoral campaign two years ago. We all have to be better, smarter and more informed about the political information we get from media if we want to have a democratic future.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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