From the Archives: How the Citizens United Decision Changed U.S. Political Campaigns

February 1, 2023

In 2010, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision changed the landscape of campaign finance in America.

The decision held that political spending is a form of protected speech and let corporations and unions spend unlimited amounts of money in campaigns. But to avoid corruption, the court said the money can’t go directly to candidates; it has to go to independent outside groups. 

What did that mean in reality? 

The 2012 documentary Big Sky, Big Money, from FRONTLINE and APM’s Marketplace, offered an on-the-ground look. 

With that year’s election cycle underway, correspondent Kai Ryssdal traveled to Montana, a battleground over campaign finance at the time, and uncovered startling new evidence of outside interest groups’ influence on local campaigns. 

Directed by Rick Young, the documentary raised questions about how secret “dark money” was transforming U.S. politics and looked at a boom in ads made by tax-exempt nonprofits known as 501(c)(4)s, which generally weren’t required to disclose their donors publicly. Big Sky, Big Money also probed evidence that appeared to show one of these tax-exempt nonprofits’ possible coordination with campaigns in Montana. 

“[T]he picture it paints of American electioneering certainly suggests a beast out of control,” The New York Times wrote of the documentary when it premiered in 2012.

Big Sky, Big Money is the latest documentary from FRONTLINE’s extensive archives to be released on the series’ YouTube channel. You can also watch it in the PBS App and in FRONTLINE’s  online collection of more than 300 streaming documentaries.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Senior Digital Writer, FRONTLINE



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