Editors’ Note: This is the first installment of an interview series conducted in collaboration with the Stone Initiative on Inequality at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Directed by Professors Margaret Weir and Jim Morone, the initiative brings together the Brown community—as students, teachers, and scholars—for an urgent conversation about the consequences of great wealth and inequality on American politics, society, and culture.
Kimberly Reed is an award-winning documentary filmmaker best known for producing and directing Prodigal Sons (2008) and Dark Money (2018). This interview focuses on Dark Money, an award-winning selection at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and winner of the duPont Columbia Prize for Broadcast Journalism. The film was also shortlisted for an Oscar and nominated for four Critics’ Choice Awards and Best Documentary of the Year by the International Documentary Association. Reed has been honored as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent FIlm” and one of Out Magazine’s “Out 100.” She is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and is a frequent juror (Sundance, POV) and lecturer (Harvard, Columbia, NYU, USC). She attended UC Berkeley as an undergraduate and San Francisco State University film school.
Zach Stern: What inspired you to make a film about dark money?
Kimberly Reed: I still remember where I was when I heard about the Citizens United decision. It stopped me in my tracks because it was clear how damaging it would be to our democracy to give the richest individuals in the United States and around the world the power to secretly rewire our government. And the arguments that I was hearing that corporations are people and that money is tantamount to speech just didn’t make sense to me. I knew Citizens United was going to be terrible for democracy, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I thought that someone should make a film about it, but these films are so dependent on finding just the right characters and setup.
Then I saw that setup develop in my home state of Montana. I saw a strong independent streak in Montanans, who are very suspicious about political control of anything, and I saw bipartisanship in the state pushback against the tenets of Citizens United. That expressed itself with Steve Bullock, the Attorney General at the time and soon-to-be governor, who had a case that had the chance to overturn Citizens United and looked like it was going to make it to the Supreme Court. So I knew the terrain, and I had a character to follow that would animate a topic that is usually very abstruse. I saw a way to tell a complicated and often hard-to-visualize story because I had access to individuals that could help me tell that story.
I would also say that so often, as documentary filmmakers, we have a tendency to preach to the choir, but this project offered an opportunity to maintain a type of bipartisan storytelling that promised a wider audience and greater receptivity for the film. There are so many issues that are popular on the left that have films about them that only people on the left will go see. That works for some issues, but it doesn’t work for all issues.
ZS: One of the standouts for me watching the documentary was the way in which campaign finance was discussed as a gateway into all other policy issues. In what ways did you see issues of large corporate donations and dark money explicitly prevent action in areas that otherwise might have enjoyed widespread public support?
KR: The big one is the environment. So often, when you look at donors who don’t want their presence known, it tracks back to people who are doing something that’s potentially damaging to the environment. At the time that I started filming and pretty much continuously until we finished it, the influence of the Koch Brothers Network was profound in Montana, and their business is oil and gas. There are plenty of ways that the Koch brothers could have made all of their financial influence very apparent to folks, but that’s not what we were seeing. We were seeing an effort to obscure the source of that funding.
And these environmental issues resonate really strongly with Montanans because there’s a long history in Montana—being a very resource-rich state that doesn’t have a lot of people—of exploitation by extractive industries that come into Montana, take whatever it is they want (copper, gold, silver, and water), and ignore the long term effects of these extractive industries. A metaphor for and stark reminder of this is the Berkeley Pit, which you see in the opening shots of the film. This environmental focus is changing a bit, but these issues often do have an environmental component to them.
ZS: How has the issue of dark money changed since you began filming Dark Money in 2012?
KR: Since we started filming in 2012 and even from when we finished at Sundance in 2018, these networks of anonymous political donations have gotten more sophisticated, more secret, and bigger. The sides are also shifting a bit. The last election cycle saw more spending coming from the left than you did from the right, but you also saw a pretty strong push from the left for campaign finance reform. At the root of all of this is Citizens United, which made dark money spending the rules of the road. Now you have both political parties spending more than ever, and neither side wants to ratchet down because you don’t want to show up to a gunfight with a knife. That’s the justification you always hear, but if you take a step back and look at that system, it’s fueled by massive amounts of anonymous money spent on the issues that nobody wants to own. That does not bode well for transparency in government on any level.
ZS: There seems to be a positive feedback loop of sorts where great inequality fuels the influence of dark money in politics and dark money contributes to that same inequality. Do you agree with that assessment? Did you see this dynamic in Montana?
KR: In some ways, this is the story of the Berkeley Pit told in present-day terms. In a state that has relatively low per capita income, a very low-density population, and rich natural resources, the state is a magnet for wealthy individuals who want to control those resources and have undue influence. So, yes, it does become a feedback loop where the rich are able to gain more control over our political system and our resources, thereby making them richer and turning a large portion of the population into a workforce that is subservient to their interests and dependent on lower and lower wages.
You also have to look at unions. This whole effort that we discovered in Montana was really driven by a few individuals based in Virginia and DC who led a nationwide program to kill unions—what they would call Right to Work. That is a system that leads to the disempowerment of working individuals and the right to collectively bargain and achieve higher wages while favoring those who already have access to wealth. Politics has always been a story about gaining power, keeping power, and increasing power. I don’t want to pretend like that is something new, but having access paid for by secret wealth—that is something new in a state like Montana, and it becomes glaringly obvious when that influence starts throwing itself around.
Federally, you see the same thing happening on a much larger scale. The topics have shifted a little bit. They’ll continue to shift. But this idea of secret spending to influence politics—that’s what’s fueling everything.
ZS: How do you think dark money influences political polarization?
KR: There are a number of connections, but I’m going to jump into a hyper-focused example. Speaking anonymously brings out the worst in people. People on the internet with fake names are a lot meaner on chat boards and comment threads than they are in real life. You see all the time in local elections that when speech is anonymous, it just gets nastier and increases polarization, especially when you’re looking at rural areas or purple-red states in the Mountain West like Montana. In a smaller town where you know everyone, you’re less likely to say something that’s outrageous, horrible, or knowingly untrue because those who you know will hold you accountable. But if you have an organization that’s based in DC that runs out of a PO box, nobody knows who they are, and the rhetoric that you’re going to see on postcards, last-minute mailers, and Facebook threads is just going to be nastier. I think that nastiness itself has really increased political polarization. Without accountability, the gloves are off.
I happen to be in Montana right now. Last night I went and grabbed a beer with John Adams, the reporter at the center of the film, and he told me that in his sister’s race for the county commission in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the same thing happened to her. She was blitzed at the last second by a series of anonymous mailers that were coming from some outside group that didn’t have roots in Brown County yet launched into the debate nonetheless. Until we manage to pass campaign finance reform that has teeth, this is going to continue to happen.
ZS: Assuming that we continue to live in a world where Citizens United exists, what would you like to see done? How hopeful are we that we will see real reform in the coming years?
KR: Disclosure is the number one thing that everybody can advocate for. Public matching funds is the other. It creates a strong, diverse group of elected officials who look like the places that they’re governing, and it’s harder to get them unentrenched when you have this positive feedback loop of disclosure and the election of candidates who really represent their constituents.
One of the best examples of this campaign finance reform is in New York City. The city has implemented a matching funds system where if a candidate runs and raises a certain amount, the city matches it six to one, so they end up with six times as much money as they would have just raising money on their own. This encourages candidates who don’t have deep pockets or rich backers and enables a class of elected officials from the other end of the income inequality spectrum to run and win an election. It also creates a much more diverse class of elected officials with proportionate numbers of women and people of color—elected officials that look like America instead of a moneyed class of usually just straight white men. This whole issue of income inequality is really important, but it is also bound up with questions of race and gender.
I would also emphasize a local approach. Citizens United is the rules of the road for now, whether we like it or not, but as you saw happen in Montana, statewide legislation like the DISCLOSE Act can have a major impact. Municipal proclamations and resolutions that change voting rules in specific cities can also be very effective and can become a type of flagship for the rest of their states. I think that sometimes people get discouraged when you look at Citizens United and see federal laws that make anonymous money the rules of the road, but I don’t want folks to lose hope because there is a lot of work that can be done at the state and local levels.
This issue is really important at every level. There are so many threats to democracy right now all over the world from authoritarian leaders or want-to-be authoritarian leaders, and at the source of it is the funding of the movements. We have to stay focused on the real lifeblood.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.