Eerie sounds. Thudding piano notes. Rapid-fire clips of Donald Trump making disparaging remarks about women.
This minute-long takedown looks like a political ad. It sounds like a political ad. But according to the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC sponsoring it, this is not an ad. It’s simply a “Web video” — and one exempt from the kinds of public disclosures applied to paid political communications broadcast over the airwaves.
So, what’s this “Web video” doing on television?
The stinging anti-Trump attack, created by pro-Clinton hybrid super PAC Correct the Record, aired nationally numerous times this week on network news programs, including those on Fox News and CNN. It even earned “breaking news” billing on “CNN Tonight with Don Lemon,” garnering a 20-minute dissection by Lemon, chief political correspondent Dana Bash and various political pundits.
What’s notable about this anti-Trump Web video — indistinguishable in production quality from the hundreds of thousands of political ads blanketing U.S. airwaves — is that Correct the Record is getting its airtime for free via these news programs, instead of paying to air them during commercial breaks. Correct the Record therefore avoids the five-figure costs typical to reserve such an ad spot.
Earning free media time is something Trump himself has mastered better than any other presidential candidate.
The ad’s sponsor
Correct the Record came to life as a super PAC one year ago after breaking off from American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal super PAC founded in 2010 to elevate Democrats and disgrace Republicans.
So far, the Clinton campaign has used Correct the Record as its main outsourcer of negativity — often the role taken on by super PACs, which may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.
Yet Correct the Record is different.
That’s because Correct the Record, which is directly coordinating efforts with the Clinton campaign, strictly posts its political ads on its own website and through the social media accounts it operates. It doesn’t pay to place ads on TV or online, as most super PACs do.
Because of this, the super PAC says it falls under a Federal Election Commission “Internet exemption” rule that allows for some online political activity, such as content generated by bloggers and grassroots political activists, to be exempt from regulation — including rules against coordination with campaigns.
This doesn’t sit well with Paul S. Ryan, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan election reform group.
Ryan calls Correct the Record’s activities “illegal” and a “charade.”
“This is so far removed from the Internet exemption meant for volunteers and bloggers,” Ryan said. “The notion that these activities are exempt is absurd.”
The Clinton campaign and Correct the Record did not return calls requesting comment.
Who’s behind it?
The mastermind behind Correct the Record is David Brock, a former Clinton critic who’s now a staunch ally. During the 1990s, Brock, then a conservative author and journalist, made a career out of tearing apart liberal politicians — including the Clintons.
He later disavowed his conservatism to become a born-again liberal. He apologized for writing a book attacking Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
Brock used “virtually every derogatory and often contradictory allegation I had collected on Hill” in a bid to make her look “little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” according to an excerpt from his book, “Blinded by the Right.”
Brock advises or leads several pro-Clinton organizations, including super PAC behemoth Priorities USA Action.
Brock tapped longtime Democratic Party operative Brad Woodhouse to lead Correct the Record’s day-to-day operations. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, is its chairwoman. Longtime Bill Clinton adviser James Carville is a board member.
Priorities USA Action and Correct the Record are working together, too: FEC records show that Priorities USA Action gave Correct the Record $1 million in December. The Clinton campaign has also transferred about $275,000 to Correct the Record.
Since last year, Correct the Record has raked in more than $5 million. That’s significant money compared to what some super PACs raise, but a relatively small haul when one considers sister super PAC Priorities USA Action has raised more than $67 million.
Still, Correct the Record has pulled in numerous six-figure donations. A top donor, Henry Laufer, a vice president at investment management firm Renaissance Technologies, gave the super PAC $500,000 in February. Laufer has also contributed $1.5 million to Priorities USA Action.
Correct the Record is not reporting any of its online videos as “independent expenditures.” Such filings, made with the FEC, disclose the precise date and cost of a specific ad buy and identify the candidate the ad is supporting or attacking.
Instead, existing campaign finance filings offer fewer details on Correct the Record’s anti-Trump spending. For example, they indicate that during the first three months of 2016, Correct the Record spent more than $87,000 on “video consulting.” It also spent about $300,000 on payroll and entered April with about $621,000 in reserve, according to FEC disclosures.
If Correct the Record were paying rates for ad spots on national networks, they’d be paying well into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Data from the Internet Archive’s TV News Archive indicates that the anti-Trump video aired on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC a total of 18 times — without cost to Correct the Record.
Monday’s “CNN Tonight with Don Lemon” alone played Correct the Record’s anti-Trump ad three times within 30 minutes during the show.
Candidates and campaigns typically have paid upward of $25,000 for spots aired on commercial breaks on CNN and Fox News, according to various reports. Candidates’ own campaigns are charged lower rates for TV spots, per Federal Communications Commission rules.
Why it matters
Correct the Record intends, by its own assertions, “to defend Hillary Clinton from baseless attacks.”
Yet the super PAC plays offense as much as it does defense. As a rapid response task force, Correct the Record has slammed a variety of Clinton foes: Trump, Sen. Bernie Sanders, even Clinton haters on Reddit.
As Clinton marches toward the general election, Correct the Record may become a bigger player, even as it pushes campaign finance law boundaries.
And while Clinton is testing the limits of FEC regulation, she is simultaneously calling for campaign finance reform.
“We have to end the flood of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our elections, corrupting our political system, and drowning out the voices of too many everyday Americans,” Clinton said when announcing her platform to limit money in politics. “Our democracy should be about expanding the franchise, not charging an entrance fee.”
Despite decrying how big money influences politics, few presidential candidates have benefited from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision as much as Clinton has, according to a Center for Public Integrity report.
This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of its investigations on the influence of money in politics or follow it on Twitter.