MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:
And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
Turn on a TV just about anywhere in the country right now and you'll see tough political attack ads. Millions of dollars are being spent on these ads by groups organized as nonprofits. They do not have to disclose their donors, and they do not have to tell the truth.
BLOCK: We'll get to that in a moment. First, NPR's Andrea Seabrook and Peter Overby are trying to track some of these groups. The first part of their story aired on MORNING EDITION today. In the second part, they ask this question: Do voters care who funds the ads?
ANDREA SEABROOK: First things first.
PETER OVERBY: It is perfectly legal for these groups to raise contributions in any amount.
SEABROOK: Keep their donors anonymous.
OVERBY: And run hard-hitting political ads, like this one we saw last week in Pittsburgh.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
OVERBY: Call Sestak. Tell him what's good for Pelosi is bad for Pennsylvania. The U.S. Chamber is responsible for the content of this advertising.
SEABROOK: Wave after wave of attack ads are breaking over Pittsburgh's TV airwaves - many from these non-candidate, non-party, supposedly non- political groups like the U.S. Chamber's attacks on Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak.
OVERBY: We asked several groups for interviews. They all refused or didn't call us back. But those who defend the lack of transparency give this rationale.
SEABROOK: The information in attack ads should stand on its merits. Viewers do not need to know who funded the ad.
OVERBY: Not surprisingly, Democrat Joe Sestak, one candidate under attack, doesn't agree. He's slightly behind in the polls, and he's trying to turn the tables on the U.S. Chamber.
JOE SESTAK: They really do want somebody who's going to represent them. So they've made trying to make Pennsylvania into an auction, when it's supposed to be about an election.
SEABROOK: As for Sestak's opponent, Republican Pat Toomey, well, the chamber's ads seem to help him. His campaign acknowledged this when we asked spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik: Does Toomey benefit from the ads attacking Sestak?
NACHAMA SOLOVEICHIK: I think it's important for people to know about Congressman Sestak's record. I think it is important for people in Pennsylvania to know exactly what Congressman Sestak voted for.
OVERBY: Some see anonymity in politics as a broad, constitutional right. Sean Parnell is president of the Center for Competitive Politics, an advocacy group based outside Washington, in Virginia. It works to end most restrictions on political money.
SEAN PARNELL: There is a time-honored tradition in America of anonymous speech in politics.
OVERBY: There is a tradition. The question is does it make a difference to you if a political message comes from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or a labor union or some citizens-for or Americans-for group that you've never heard of. We took that question to voters.
SEABROOK: In a bar, tucked among the old brick townhouses at Pittsburgh's North Side is the unassuming storefront of the Monterey Pub. It's a local place - the comfy, beloved hangout of neighbors who stop by after work for a great burger and Guinness on draught.
OVERBY: Both TVs are on the local news - at least until the Penguins game starts. And Andrew Wickesburg nurses a pint. He's not shy about his opinion of attack ads.
ANDREW WICKESBURG: I hate those things. They just disturb me on some inner level. It's just not good for us, not good for anyone really to watch those things.
SEABROOK: What really makes Wickesburg crazy? Having no idea who funded the ads.
WICKESBURG: Obviously, it's a viewpoint that's held by somebody, but it doesn't have any information that I can really back up without going and looking for myself.
OVERBY: Over at the end of the bar, Jana Thompson agrees, and she says researching every ad is just impossible.
JANA THOMPSON: If it takes me 20 minutes of Internet searching to find out, because, you know, I saw that ad, and there was that thing, and I had to know the name, and, yeah, I'm never going to do that. Nobody's going to do that.
SEABROOK: Over in a little booth in the corner, two old friends, Jim Lawrence and Dennis Nolan, pick at their last fries. They're both exasperated by the situation, which Lawrence says is made worse by the ambiguous names of the supposedly nonpolitical groups.
JIM LAWRENCE: You know, I mean, these things could be financed by anybody. If they want to chop down apple trees, it will be called the Green Apple Coalition.
SEABROOK: And Nolan thinks keeping the donors secret actually hoodwinks the viewer into paying attention to the attack, rather than its purpose.
DENNIS NOLAN: When you do find out who's funding them, the motivations are just crystal clear.
OVERBY: Keeping the funding secret allows a corporation to pursue its own interest, in the guise of supporting the people's interest, as Andrew Wickesburg put it.
WICKESBURG: There's a lot of corporations around here that would benefit from having a candidate that has their interests at heart, not necessarily our interests.
SEABROOK: Here in the Monterey Pub, the feeling is strong and unanimous. These voters want to know exactly who is funding the attack ads. And the fuzzy feel-good name of an organization is not enough.
OVERBY: Now, a final note: Often overlooked by stories on money and politics this campaign season, the easy path for corporate money to flow into partisan politics was opened in large part by last winter's Supreme Court decision - Citizens United - but the court itself in that very decision wrote a strong opinion in favor of rapid and clear disclosure of political spending.
SEABROOK: Quote, "The First Amendment protects political speech and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."
OVERBY: That's the opinion of the Supreme Court. And from what we heard in Pittsburgh, it's the opinion of many voters, too.
SEABROOK: And Andrea Seabrook, NPR News.