LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
There is more money than ever this election season, flowing from supposedly nonpolitical groups into TV ad campaigns. Most of these ads are negative attacks sponsored by groups with fuzzy names like Americans for Job Security and the Commission on Hope, Growth and Opportunity.
Who exactly are these groups? NPR sent two political reporters, Andrea Seabrook and Peter Overby, to one battleground to try to find out.
PETER OVERBY: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
ANDREA SEABROOK: Three fierce races come together here: two for the House and one for the Senate.
OVERBY: And that means that Pittsburgh TV stations are airing as many ads now as they used to run in the last fiery days of a campaign season.
SEABROOK: We get to our hotel, drop our bags, and set our recorders to tape the TV.
(Soundbite of TV ads)
Unidentified Man #1: What planet is Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper living in?
Unidentified Man #2: Job killer Pat Toomey. Maybe he ought to run for Senate in China.
Unidentified Man #3: (Unintelligible) says...
Unidentified Man #4: I believe in free trade.
Unidentified Man #3: We know what that means.
Unidentified Child: We're $13 trillion in debt. Who is going to pay for all his spending?
Unidentified Woman: Joe Sestak, laughably liberal.
SEABROOK: Each local station is airing 12 or 14 ads per hour during the evening news.
OVERBY: These ads are not all the same. Some come from the candidates themselves, others come from party committees, like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The ones we're interested in come from other groups.
SEABROOK: Two of them advertising in Pittsburgh: Americans for Job Security and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
OVERBY: Here's what we know about these groups: they're both 501Cs, organized under the tax code as nonprofits. The law says they can't engage in politics as their primary purpose. The law also says they can accept unlimited donations and they don't have to report their donors.
SEABROOK: Unlimited donations from unreported donors.
OVERBY: Couple that with Citizens United, that decision from the Supreme Court last winter, and you have a wide open path for corporate money to flow into partisan politics.
SEABROOK: That's what makes these ads different from those others. Candidates and party committees have legal limits on the size of donations they can take from each donor, and they have to report the names and numbers, the donors, and how much they gave. It gives context to the ad. But with these non-candidate, non-party, supposedly non-political groups, with these there is almost no context. We have no idea how much they have or how much they're spending.
OVERBY: But even these groups do have to disclose something. Not to voters, but to the TV stations.
SEABROOK: And whatever they disclose to the TV stations, the TV stations have to disclose to us - the public. It's the only way to track down how many ads these groups are running and just how much they're spending.
Now, Peter won't tell you this, so I will. Peter Overby has spent a career tracking down money in politics. He's an expert at this. Today, he and I are going to dig into the public filings at a couple of Pittsburgh TV stations. We head over to the first one and I stop Peter in the parking lot.
OVERBY: We're at WTAE, which is the ABC affiliate here in Pittsburgh. We're going to go in and look at the political file, which is the documentation of all the political advertising that they've sold for this election cycle.
SEABROOK: What do you expect to find?
OVERBY: Not sure. We'll definitely find records of who's been buying the ads, how much theyve been paying for them, and in a very general way why they say they're buying them.
SEABROOK: Remember, these are public files; anyone can look at them. A station employee, who asked not to be named, lugs the files into a conference room.
Unidentified Man #5: I'm not quite sure what you want to look at. I tried to separate it by candidate and issue, action committee, that kind of thing. So here we go.
OVERBY: These are big files and we find some big numbers. Take the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It's one of the most powerful voices in these midterm elections. In a period of three weeks, WTAE logs 206 ads by the Chamber, ads for the Senate race and two House races. The cost: $134,000.
SEABROOK: That's for one station in one market in the Chamber's nationwide campaign. We also come across many disclosure forms that give less than full disclosure. Peter points at a blank on the form.
OVERBY: They totally skipped that. So is that...
Unidentified Man #5: It's not atypical. It's not atypical. Unfortunately, it's not atypical.
SEABROOK: And when we visit another station, KDKA, we find more huge ad buys.
OVERBY: For instance, you have Americans for Job Security. This thing shows on September 7th they booked basically a month's worth of ads, paid $105,560.
SEABROOK: And more incomplete paperwork.
OVERBY: You got to fill in the name of the candidate that the ad is talking about here. And Americans for Job Security left it blank, which is okay, except that the ads that they are running specifically mention candidates. They mention the Democratic incumbents that they're attacking.
SEABROOK: Peter's looking at the standard filing for political ads, this one from Americans for Job Security. The group is supposed to declare if the ad is talking about a national issue, and if it is, which candidates are named. Americans for Job Security left this blank. Here's the ad.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Woman: With Pelosi and Altmire's agenda, it can feel like you're getting robbed. This November, vote against Jason Altmire.
OVERBY: So the groups are filing their paperwork with stations but they're not taking it very seriously. Some answer a few questions, most leave the important lines blank. It's an indication that TV stations can't act as a watchdog for these groups.
SEABROOK: This is where the trail goes cold. We called some of the groups behind these ads. They either said they were busy, they're complying with the law, or they didn't call us back at all - and they don't have to. For most of these groups, there's almost nothing required in terms of donor disclosure. They can keep their funding sources comfortably hidden.
But from sifting through the public files at two Pittsburgh TV stations, we did learn a few things.
OVERBY: We learned that these groups are spending amounts of money that were unimaginable just a few years ago. One group can easily spend $100,000 or more at one station in a few weeks. Multiply that by four or five local stations in each area, and five or six groups spending at that level, and the amount of money flowing from secret sources to fund attack ads across the nation is easily in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
SEABROOK: In our two days in Pittsburgh, we saw ads attacking candidates of both parties, but the ones attacking Republicans were all from Democratic candidates or party committees, groups that have to disclose their donors. We did not see one ad from the supposedly nonpolitical groups that attacked a Republican. Here those are all aimed at Democrats.
OVERBY: We know that this year, in the wake of Citizens United and other court decisions, corporations and rich donors can give as much cash as they like to these groups.
SEABROOK: As for who they are exactly, that's what we don't know.
OVERBY: In our next report, we'll talk to a candidate being attacked and a campaign benefiting from those attack ads.
SEABROOK: And we'll talk over what this all means with the people the groups are trying to sway: the voters.
OVERBY: That's in our next story on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED tonight.
SEABROOK: Andrea Seabrook.
OVERBY: And Peter Overby, NPR News.