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‘Dark Money’ Debate: Two Views on Whether the Term is Fair Game

As the rules around campaign finance have changed, so has our vocabulary. Yet while the term “dark money” has gone mainstream – referring to dollars flowing in from nonprofit groups that are not required to disclose their donors – there is disagreement over whether the phrase is too loaded to be used by journalists. Organizations branded with the label claim that it unfairly suggests sinister intentions. Groups advocating for more disclosure in campaign finance, however, insist it is appropriate shorthand.

This week, reporter Robert Faturechi speaks with leaders from both sides of the debate. First up: Brad Smith, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), who remains a powerful voice in calling for less federal regulation of money in politics. He’s followed by Larry Noble, formerly the top lawyer for the FEC and now with the Campaign Legal Center, which supports strong enforcement of campaign finance laws. Both sides make a case for the merits or drawbacks of the phrase “dark money” and take their best shot at recommending alternatives they’d like to see.

Photo: Men walk outside the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. (Jeff Hutchens/Getty)

Highlights from their conversations:

  • Smith says reporters should avoid using the language because “it’s not intended to be a neutral term; it’s intended to create an atmosphere of alarm in the listener that makes it harder for the listener to evaluate objectively what’s going on.” (8:45)
  • A zero-tolerance policy against any political spending without public disclosure can come with high costs, says Smith, including the loss of privacy, harassment for voicing one’s political views, and a chilling effect on the advancement of new ideas. (12:10)
  • Noble says “dark money” is fair, as it represents “the opposite of sunlight.” In several Supreme Court cases on campaign spending, including Citizens United, justices have emphasized the importance of disclosure and transparency. (20:32)
  • Disclosure matters for voters, says Noble, because “you can often tell more about a candidate…by who’s supporting them than you can by what they say.” He argues that only with disclosure can the public know to whom candidates are beholden. (23:56)

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more on Faturechi’s reporting on campaign finance, read his latest, Could Scott Walker’s Legal Victory Expand PAC Superpowers?

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