Citizens United's most recent film, Rocky Mountain Heist, was in the news earlier this month after a federal court allowed it to be aired as a documentary despite its lack of financial disclosures. But the issue of disclosure extends beyond the films release. It's also at the heart of the director's casting method. Bob talks with Professor Seth Masket, an unwitting cast member of the film, who recently wrote about his experience for the Washington Post.
Rocky Mountain Heist
BOB: On the subject of Citizens United, I'm delighted to report that a new TV film, timed for the midterm, that savages unregulated spending by billionaires, political attack ads, gerrymandering, partisan groups posing as public interest organizations, and the imposition on unwilling voters of an extremist social agenda.
Malkin: This is how a tiny club of secretive elites assumed control over a state of five million people.
BOB: That's Michelle Malkin in the documentary titled "Rocky Mountain Heist," about a shadowy cabal that subverted democracy in Colorado. The producer? A little outfit called Citizens United.
Malkin: You might not recognize Colorado today. To understand the Rocky Mountain heist, you have to begin with the Colorado model, an underground network of extremist liberal groups so secretive, that veteran conservative lawmakers like Ted Harvey didn't see it coming.
Harvey: There was no way we could respond, we didn't have the resources to be able to respond and the media was totally off guard.
BOB: What follows is a thoroughgoing sober analysis of what ails our democracy.
...tiny club of secretive elites... radical far-left agenda... an underground network of extremist liberal groups... the radical environmentalists... open season on economic liberty and personal liberty.. .the most partisan, most brutal, most activist and most elitist I have ever seen... it's definitely an attack on liberty... liberal elites, the radical agenda... widespread fraud... liberal East-coast values on freedom-loving Rocky Mountain citizens... ultra-liberal agenda... You lose your individual liberty... through secrecy, deception and coordination...
BOB: Can we discuss irony? It was a legal challenge against Citizens United's previous docu-horror flick, Hillary: The Movie, that in 2010 lead to the Supreme Court decision we just discussed. And earlier this month a Federal Court affirmed Citizens United's right to broadcast the Rocky Mountain Heist as a documentary, as opposed to a 45-minute campaign ad. And what evil does the documentary warn us of? The unholy alliance of money and ideology that threatens to deprive us of our liberty. Paid for by the following donors... Oh wait. We have no way of knowing. Rocky Mountain Heist has a wonderful and diverse cast consisting entirely of Republican politicians, operative and pundits, plus one gaggle of utterly fried stoners....
STONER: ...And I love myself and I love everybody, and I want the best for everybody and myself, and Colorado...
BOB: Plus, Seth Masket. He's an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver, who you could categorize as "none of the above." Masket wrote about his role in the film for a Washington Post op-ed titled, "How I Ended Up Starring in a Citizens United Film." He says his star turn began with a call last summer from the film's director and co-writer, Jason Meath.
MASKET: He contacted me, identified himself as an independent filmmaker, said he was working on a documentary on Colorado politics. And had some questions from me on things like campaign finance, and the changing political nature of the state, and these are all things that I've written on before, and I teach in my classes, and given a number of interviews before so I was happy to grant this interview. I didn't know this person, but checked out his website, looked at some clips from some previous films he'd made and everything really seemed on the up and up. I was not told at the time the title of the film, or who was backing it and who was going to be putting it out. I did sign a release form, but the name Citizens United didn't appear on that at all. I actually didn't have much sense of where the interview was going to end up, only just assuming it was going to end up in some sort of documentary.
BOB: AFter that was over with, did you have any sense of what was to come?
MAKSET: Well, not really. The interview, I thought, went really well, then really didn't hear back from the guy for several months. It wasn't until I was doing expert testimony in a federal court case, Citizens United was seeking to release a new film, Rocky Mountain Heist in Colorado, and they didn't want to disclose who had donated money to produce the film. The Colorado Secretary of State informed them that, because this was a campaign activity, they had to disclose their donors, and so they were suing the Secretary of the State for the right to air this without donors. The Secretary of State's Office retained me as a witness to basically talk about the value of campaign finance disclosure, and it was during my cross-examination that their lead consul asked me, first he asked me if I had seen the film, and I said no, and then he asked me if I knew I was in it. Uh...
BOB: I just want to make sure this is clear. You were testifying as an expert witness in favor of disclosure of the so-called dark money in political campaigns--
BOB: - and the subject at hand was this film Rocky Mountain Heist, which was kind of exhibit A and... you're in the film you're testifying against!! That must've been a little on the surreal side.
MASKET: This was the first I knew about it, so I was rather stunned. The attorneys who brought me there were also a bit stunned by it. And I spent the next few hours trying to figure out just where they would've gotten an interview with me. And, traced back to what I had assumed was this previous interview earlier in the summer.
BOB: As I counted it, you were in the film three times. The first two were very small tape cuts that seem to have been gathered and presented pretty straightforwardly:
MASKET: The State House switched from Republican to Democratic for the first time in about 40 years... There was an analysis done by the Denver Post looking at the 2010 race, and it was just hopelessly complex.
BOB: OK, so except for maybe the haunting music, it's pretty neutral, right?
MASKET: Right, I don't remember the menacing music while I was speaking, but otherwise, yeah...
BOB: And then clip three, which, as I understand from your piece in the Washington Post, you regard as a textbook case of how to twist something by abusing the context. Here's what it sounds like:
MASKET: Latinos have not only been increasing in their potential to vote, but they have been voting increasingly Democratic over the last ten years in Colorado...
CUT TO: If those folks coming across that border, all ended up voting conservative Republican, there'd be a 50-foot high wall with broken glass on the top...
MASKET: I simply recorded on a demographic and political shift. That the number of Latino residents in Colorado has been increasing, their tendency to vote Democratic has been increasing. And that's easily verifiable, it's a pretty uncontroversial statement. It was just sort of the context that was put it in that makes it sound much more emotionally charged.
BOB: Did you try to get in touch with the director of this film?
MASKET: I was bothered there, that guess you could view it in either of two ways, one that I was endorsing this rather sinister-sounding narrative, or on the other side, that my very neutral approach was helping to support this narrative that others were portraying. Either way, I didn't really like the way I was being used in there. The filmmaker got in touch with me just a few days before the release of the film, to thank me for my appearance in it, and he offered me a link so I could view it, and I asked him to remove me from it. This is again just a few days before and that was really the first time I'd been able to confirm that I was indeed in this film, and that my appearance stemmed from my interview with him. And he said no no it's too late at this point, you signed a release, I'm not going to remove you from this film. And at that point, my understanding was that I really had very little recourse, it was just going to happen.
BOB: Is there any larger lesson that you see that you think that you'd like to be your closing thought on this subject?
MASKET: Two quick thoughts: if you're ever asked to do an interview, do some research, be very clear about who you're interviewing with. The other is just the point about the importance of political disclosure. There's certainly no shortage of money and filming and advertising going on in politics today, and I don't necessarily have a problem with that. I think generally the more information that's out there usually the better. But people should really know where it's coming from. That's just one of the basic things that voters need in order to make reasonable decisions.
BOB: Seth, thank you so much.
MASKET: Thank you for having me.
BOB: Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver. We reached out to the president of Citizens United, David Bossy, and to the director of Rocky Mountain Heist, Jason Meath. They both declined to be interviewed.