If you haven’t already listened to This American Life’s episode, “Take the Money and Run for Office,” I encourage you to set aside 45 minutes in your busy life so you can listen to it uninterrupted. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling that goes far and beyond my most optimistic dreams for how long-form journalism can illuminate how money affects politics (and governance) in our nation. (Plus, this Brooklyn-born Woody Allen fan was especially delighted with the clever headline This American Life used, a play on one of Allen’s earliest feature films, “Take the Money and Run.”)
As Communications Director at Sunlight, I work nearly every day with reporters to better understand our work, how government works and how to follow the money in our elections to know who and what influences our elected officials. I can’t express to you how proud I was to hear how Sunlight’s Party Time site and on-going work helped inform the narrative expertly created by This American Life, Planet Money and NPR’s congressional team.
From the episode’s gripping intro of my own representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, pleading for donations to the deft editing of appropriate music clips to keep the story moving, they did a superb job in translating the wonky details to something any listener could understand. They went above and beyond to show how we can use data to create transparency around how members of Congress raise money and the impact their fundraising has on their policy work and relationships with lobbyists. We worked with NPR's teams in their reporting, and are thrilled their work is already elevating public dialogue about an issue Sunlight (and you, dear reader), has cared about for years. It is definitely worth listening to, reading and sharing with your friends.
This episode has also taught me patience - as a PR professional, that’s not something that comes to me naturally. Nearly four years ago, Sunlight launched Party Time, the first centralized, free site where anyone could monitor the fundraising circuit that keeps members of Congress flush with cash for their re-elections--a persistent activity that keeps lawmakers busy hobnobbing with lobbyists and donors morning, noon and night. While reporters instantly began citing Party Time’s data to provide context on their reporting on political fundraising, I longed for a feature-length news piece that would create the ‘a-ha’ moment needed to really bring home why understanding the site’s data matters.
The Federal Election Commission releases campaign finance disclosures months after the money is raised and cashed; Party Time collects information on fundraisers that are happening today—and next week, and in some cases months ahead. When we created it, we thought that even though it could never be as comprehensive as we’d want since we rely upon the kindness of political insiders to leak the invitations they receive [hint, anyone can upload an invite]. But we always hoped Party Time would prove to be a useful early warning system for tracking influence in Congress, especially since it is the only data source that provides real-time and prospective insight into the fundraising activities of federal candidates. It may not be a site that attracts a lot of online visitors, but it does document daily how members of Congress chase donors, proving to be a powerful, unique resource for disclosure where no disclosure is required by law.
And, with news accounts like This American Life’s episode, I hope more people become interested in tuning into how Washington truly operates and joining Sunlight in our work to continue to shine a light on it all.
This is our democracy, after all, not one just for the one percent.
**Graphic of Party Time data by Lam Thuy Vo, NPR | Planet Money