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Merchants of mudslinging: Tips for investigating campaign advertising

By Mariam Baksh

Michael Beckel reports on money and politics for the Center for Public Integrity, Julie Bykowicz covers money and politics for the Associated Press and Robert Faturechi covers campaign finance for ProPublica. Among them, there’s almost three decades of experience reporting on political campaigns. 

Here are their tips for navigating the worlds of political ads and campaign cash. 

  • Read the fine print. Disclosure rules require the names of sponsors to be on the ad. If they have a website, use the WHOIS database to find out who registered the site (but be aware that groups often use proxy groups that will lead to a dead end).
  • All federal PACs and Super PACs have to report donations and expenditures to the FEC. For state-level campaigns, each state has its own rules. Labor Unions report to the Department of Labor.  
  • Use the IRS business master file on that agency’s website to determine whether the group you’re researching is tax-exempt or not. The IRS requires tax-exempt nonprofit groups, like 527s, to file annual Form 990 tax forms on paper. collects and stores 990s online and uses Optical Character Recognition to provide searchable PDFs of the documents.
  • The FCC maintains regularly – almost daily – updated reports from TV stations on their political advertisers. You can find information like what shows they’re attaching their ads to.
  • Look for signs of illegal coordination between candidates and PACs. Clues: The message is mostly puffery, a former aid is leading the PAC, fundraisers for the PAC and the candidate are being held in the same city, etc. Conversely, take notice of when the message of the PAC is out of sync with the campaign.
  • Profiles of PACs on can help in spotting red flags for political consultants defrauding a PAC (if very little money is being spent on ad buys, if there are large expenditures to companies controlled by the PAC’s officers, discrepancies between the stories of payers and payees, PACs giving to other PACs).
  • Knock on doors. Go the distance to talk to PAC officers and emphasize how far you travelled just to see them. Research, then talk to donors. Confusion at the sound of a PAC’s name versus the candidate they support could be a clue as to how the fundraising pitch is being made.
  • Humanize the victims, like the smaller donors who thought they were doing something good for the country, but whose money ended up lining the pockets of consultants.

In addition to their tips, members of the panel acknowledged one unfortunate reality: Getting information from IRS applications for tax-exempt status can take up to a year or more.

"By that time, it’s kind of too late," Bykowiscz said. 


Mariam Baksh is an alumna of American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop and is finishing her master's in journalism and public affairs with a Capstone project in partnership with The Washington Post. Before enrolling at American, Baksh spent five years doing citizen outreach and communications for the Fund for the Public Interest and Environment America, and is primarily interested in identifying and exposing root causes in the public interest, especially as it relates to freedom and democracy. She also has her bachelor's in photojournalism from the University of Florida and is currently reporting on the Colorado delegation in Congress and other relevant news from DC as an intern for The Durango Herald.

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