In her 2016 book Dark Money, New Yorker staff reporter Jane Mayer fearlessly documented conservative American billionaires’ rising influence over the past decades in politics; social, environmental and business regulation issues; and even academia.
I say fearlessly because, as Mayer details in the book, billionaires like the Koch Brothers have repeatedly used their money to undermine critics in ugly ways. Mayer herself became a target in 2011, when Koch operatives and private detectives tried to lay the groundwork for plagiarism allegations against her.
But it certainly was chilling for an experienced journalist like me to read, and my Miami University political journalism students were horrified.
My Miami students read Dark Money during a fall semester in which they reported on local and national politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer as interns. Covered Trump and Clinton rallies. Reported difficult profiles of judicial and unusual congressional races. Dug into campaign finance and political advertising. Covered a stunning presidential Election Day from the polls, political parties and boards of election.
As we discussed Dark Money’s chapters in fascinating online threads during the fall, I could sense the students becoming more uncomfortable with the idea of political reporting career.
Mayer’s deep reporting certainly dovetails with my students’ goals of revealing truth, holding public officials accountable, and finding “perceptual scoop” stories, as we used to call them at The Cincinnati Enquirer.
But her reporting also showed over and over again how difficult it is to know what really is going on in the democratic process.
And how America truly has a third major political party today, one funded by secretive conservative billionaires.
How crystal clear that became with Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. A woman who came from wealth and also married into money, and who has spent millions to promote school voucher systems and to defeat campaign finance regulation. Mayer wrote about the DeVos family extensively in Dark Money.
My journalism students have many lingering questions after reading Dark Money. We’ve reached out to Jane Mayer many times to arrange a time to talk to her about the book.
We hope that she can find the time to email some answers to these questions:
From Abigail Kelly, who is from St. Louis: Why did you choose to focus on conservative “dark money” as opposed to the left or both sides?
From Mary Schrott, who is from Detroit: What was the hardest piece of information to find in your research? What information did you research but could not find? Why do you think that was?
From Mackenzie Clune, who is from Barrington, Illinois: What stuck out to you as most shocking from your findings?
From Elizabeth Mechley, who is from Mason, Ohio: Have your own political viewpoints changed as a result of your research?
From Jacob Stanley, who is from Cincinnati: The widespread changes to North Carolina politics (that you wrote about) have led to controversial laws and financial backlash. Do you believe the situation in N.C. will keep other states from allowing the same to happen?
From Charles Blades, who is from Hamilton, Ohio: Do you think your book has had an impact on awareness of dark money in Washington? In other parts of the country? Was a book the best media platform for this kind of topic?