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As political ads abound, a push to uncloak who is behind them

Political ads paid for by nondescript organizations such as Minnesota Forward have caused some to investigate who is donating to these nonprofits – and the IRS could be helping out.

By Staff writer / September 29, 2010

Does it seem like you're being bombarded by more political ads this midterm election season than even during the last presidential cycle? Turns out you're right – well, right on the money.

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According to the Wesleyan Media Project (WMP), a nonpartisan group that tracks political ads, special-interest groups have spent $39 million as of Sept. 15 on congressional campaign ads, up from $21 million to this point in 2008. Ballot-issue spending by these groups is also up – from $285.7 million at this point in 2008 to $353.4 million this year, according to Kantar Media Intelligence.

Media watchdogs across the political spectrum really sit up at the mention of growth in ads paid for by special-interest groups. Some of these groups, such as the Republican Governors Association, have names that make clear their purpose and affiliation. Others, such as Let's Get to Work, or Citizens United, are chirpy but noninformational.

Huh, you say? So what? Well, you wouldn’t buy a can of, say, tuna fish with a blank label, says David Perlmutter, director of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “You may have freedom of speech in this country,” he says, “but you can’t hide behind a hood if you are going to enter the radio and TV marketplace of ideas.”

In this case, the “hood” has become the nonprofit organization to which special interests of all stripes may donate freely without disclosing their involvement. In general, tax-exempt groups have not been required to publicly disclose their donors.

Concern over the issue has ramped up since a January US Supreme Court ruling that corporations and individuals have equal free speech rights, though it's not clear exactly how much of the 2010 spending spree can be attributed to the justices' ruling.

The exploitation of this “nontransparency” should concern every American, says Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, an independent watchdog group. “People have a right and a need to know who is trying to influence them.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says she has noticed the uptick in anonymous ads, too. At a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters Thursday, she called anonymous campaign cash "the untold story of 2010."


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