Citizens United has put together some 24 films over the past few years, including the famous “Hillary: The Movie,” which resulted in the landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision. So it was no surprise to me to learn that the group was putting together a film on Colorado, a state with its share of interesting political trends and competitive races in recent years. What was a surprise to me was to learn that I appear in this film. How that happened and how I come off in the film strike me as a pretty decent cautionary tale for political scholars and analysts, which I offer to you now.
You, too, could end up in an advocacy film
I was initially approached back in July by a filmmaker named Jason Meath, who explained that he was doing a documentary on Colorado politics and wanted to ask me some questions on campaign spending and demographic shifts in the state. As these are issues I’ve researched and taught, I happily granted the interview. My university’s communications office signed off on it, and I even checked out the filmmaker’s Web site to look at some of his past work. Everything seemed fine. The questions seemed perfectly neutral in tone, and I thought my answers came off well. I heard nothing more about this for months.
A few weeks ago, I was informed that Citizens United was putting together a film concerning the gubernatorial race in Colorado. I was also informed that I was in it. This was rather stunning to me. I suspected that this might have stemmed from the earlier Meath interview, but I couldn’t be sure, and my e-mails to the filmmaker went unanswered. Only last week did I learn that that interview was one of many used in the making of “Rocky Mountain Heist.”
The film itself (trailer here) started airing last weekend on various cable channels in Colorado and will run some 20 times before Election Day next month. It argues that Republicans who ran for state legislature were smeared by extraordinary levels of spending directed by a cabal of liberal activists. It describes the Democratic-controlled Colorado legislature as “elitist” and “arrogant.”
The film is hosted by conservative political commentator Michelle Malkin and contains interviews with the likes of Republican former congressman Tom Tancredo, Independence Institute president Jon Caldara, and, well, me.
Innocuous, factual statements may end up serving a very partisan purpose
At one point in the film, I claim the following:
Latinos have not only been increasing in their potential to vote, but they’ve been voting increasingly Democratic over the last 10 years in Colorado.
By itself, this is not a particularly controversial statement. It is empirically verifiable that the number of Latino voters has increased substantially in Colorado over the past decade and that those voters are more likely to vote Democratic than they used to be. But this quote is inserted in between some footage purportedly showing that Democrats are trying to encourage illegal immigration, an insinuation by Tom Tancredo that the Obama administration is essentially recruiting Democratic voters via undocumented Mexican immigration, and a paean by Michelle Malkin to her Filipino parents who “immigrated here legally. It wasn’t easy. They learned English, they learned our history, they followed our rules.”
So now my uncontroversial quote is helping to legitimize an argument that undocumented immigrants from Mexico are invading our country, affecting our elections and undermining our culture.
Disclosure is important
One of the ironies of my appearance in this film is that I found out about it while providing expert testimony in a federal court case on disclosure. Citizens United was seeking to air the film without revealing their donors. The Colorado secretary of state disagreed, saying the film was functionally a campaign advertisement, and I was there testifying about the value of disclosure of donations. During my cross-examination, Citizens United attorney Ted Olson asked me if I knew I was in the film. That was the first I’d heard of it.
I would have declined the initial interview if I’d known it would result in this kind of film. The only reason I ended up doing it was because of a lack of disclosure by the filmmaker.
I certainly have my political leanings, but I’ve worked pretty hard over the years to develop a public reputation as an unbiased observer and analyst of political phenomena. So to find that my comments had been, without my knowledge, inserted into a partisan film whose sole purpose is to affect the outcome of an election really irked me. (And for what it’s worth, I was not the only one so deceived.) I’ll certainly be very circumspect about granting future interviews to organizations and individuals that are not clearly established media entities, and I’d encourage others to do the same.