Truth and Power EP Brian Knappenberger Talks Politics and Previews “Hacking the Presidency” [Exclusive]
I don’t know about you, but I’m engaged and quite passionate about politics this election cycle. But I’m one of those people who has been registered to vote since I was 18 and voted the first time I was able to. Putting politics aside (impossible, I know), the bigger issue for this and every election going forward is how money influences our representatives. Whatever your party affiliation, the vast majority of Americans believe money plays too large of a role in both local and national races as well as policy making. And the average American probably doesn’t even know that much about how Super PACs work or who is behind all the “dark money” in politics.
You may not remember, but Larry Lessig declared his candidacy for President last year and made his one and only issue that of campaign finance reform. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to move the dial enough to be included in the November 2015 debatesÂ â€“ and has suspended his campaign, but he has legitimate issues about whether our current democracy is for everyone or just the ultra elite who donate big money to campaigns.
Truth and Power EP Brian Knappenberger knows Lessig personally and wanted to document his journey. We talk about that, big money in politics and even Donald Trump.
TV GOODNESS: I was looking at your credits and wondering what made you want to do a show like this.
Brian Knappenberger: “Iâ€™ve been following people that are fighting abuses of power for a while and a lot of my work has been with technology and the intersection between technology and civil liberties and human rights.
So when Pivot asked about this show it seemed like a natural fit. They asked what I was interested in doing and I just said, â€˜A show about people fighting these abuses of power and going up against these broad institutional failures and using those personal stories as a way to jump off and investigate the things ourselves.â€™”
TV GOODNESS: How did you decide what topics to tackle?
Brian: “We started looking at stories weâ€™d been following already in terms of technology and this evolving world of surveillance and the way it intersects with the constitution and freedom of speech and the fourth amendment.
We started with stories we were already looking at and then we got into lots of other areas that we thought are important. Money and politics, obviously, is a critical issue this election cycle. So we went from there as we met people. We based it on individual stories and also those bigger pictures issues that we really wanted to tackle and get into.”
TV GOODNESS: Letâ€™s talk more about â€œHacking the Presidency.â€ I remember when Larry Lessig announced his candidacy. How did he come to your attention?
Brian: “Iâ€™ve actually known Larry for a while. He was in my previous film, The Internetâ€™s Own Boy. I knew how passionate he was about this issue of money in politics. When he said, â€˜You know what? Iâ€™m thinking about running for President, declaring my candidacy,â€™ I said, â€˜You have to let me film this and cover this story.â€™
Heâ€™s completely passionate about this issue and his point is that itâ€™s the first issue. It may not be the most important issue, but you donâ€™t fix anything else you care about until you fix this issue of money in politics. It affects all the other things that we care about and itâ€™s at this base level of something that is broken in our system. So he decided, â€˜Thatâ€™s it. Thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m running on.â€™”
TV GOODNESS: In the piece, itâ€™s mentioned that 84% of Americans believe that money has too much influence in politics. Do you think they realize how Super PACs work and how theyâ€™re impacting this election cycle? Same goes for dark money. It seems like people have no idea.
Brian: “Yeah, I agree. I think the reason for that is that itâ€™s very complicated. People hear â€˜Citizens Unitedâ€™ and they understand thereâ€™s that negative impact on the situation, but they donâ€™t necessarily know the ins and outs of it or how it came about. So, thatâ€™s one of the things weâ€™re trying to tackle. Weâ€™re trying to make that as accessible as we could and to paint this picture where a lot of unlimited outside money can be filtered into these campaigns and that gives the uber-wealthy a significant advantage over the average citizen or candidates that arenâ€™t backed or vetted already by these interests.
I think people have a vague sense that money is corrupting the system. The average person would probably say that, but the amount of money and the ways in which the system has been subverted clearly needs to be a broader part of the conversation.”
TV GOODNESS: I didnâ€™t realize local elections were so affected as well. You could argue, and I think itâ€™s true, that local elections are so much more important because local government affects us more than national government. I like that you looked into that, too. Can you tell me more about how that part of the story came together?
Brian: “Yeah, I think thatâ€™s true. One of the things thatâ€™s so shocking when you look into this, is how systematic this approach has been. Itâ€™s not just at the national level. Itâ€™s in local communities at the state level. Itâ€™s in state legislatures. Thereâ€™s coordinated plans in order to get certain legislation passed or to push through things and to lobby for certain things. This happens at all levels of government and I think thatâ€™s the sophistication of these groups that do this and understanding where they can be most effective, even if itâ€™s not necessarily the most flashy or sensational.”
TV GOODNESS: I like that Bernie Sanders has talked about Super PACs and I feel like, in some way, heâ€™s educating at least part of the population about the damage these groups can do. Did you know when you were making this episode how big this issue would become?
Brian: “Not really. I mean, I knew it was gonna be a major force in shaping the outcome. Bernie is interesting in that Bernie has been talking about this for a while. Heâ€™s been very consistent with it. He certainly didnâ€™t place it at the same level that Larry did. [Larry] directed his entire effort on this.
One thing I thought was telling is that Hillary [Clinton] didnâ€™t have a plan for this or any coherent message on this until Larry Lessig announced his candidacy. When he did and when he made a big deal about how this was the most important issueÂ â€“ he was gonna run only on this issue, then literally within a day or two, her website had changed and had a whole policy on this. Sheâ€™s been a very careful political person and really didnâ€™t respond to this, hasnâ€™t placed this center stage at all unless the political winds told her to. If you look at what effect [Larryâ€™s] effort had, I think it probably did have some effect in bringing this issue closer to the front of peopleâ€™s minds and fueling Bernieâ€™s rise, too.”
TV GOODNESS: I agree. Are you gonna do any follow-up with Larry? After watching this episode Iâ€™m interested and so personally engaged in this topic.
Brian: “Well, that was our whole goal. We were looking for these stories in which people hopefully can respond to these personal compelling human stories and then that gives us as much of a launching point for a bigger picture issue. Thatâ€™s our goal, so thatâ€™s great news to hear that.
Larryâ€™s effort continues. He and Zephyr Teachout both continue the same effort right now. Sheâ€™s now running for congress. Sheâ€™s in the episode, too. Weâ€™ll certainly follow their progress for sure and see how this goes. I would love to get updates on this.
Itâ€™s not an issue thatâ€™s going away. As other issues come to the forefront, this â€“ which I agree is the most important issue â€“ quietly gets filtered towards the back, right? Because this is a hard problem to deal with. It could be fixed instantly by legislation, but then the legislators are all part of the system which makes it very difficult. Itâ€™s both an easily fixable problem and an almost impossible-to-fix problem. Really the only thing we have is to shame them and push them into doing the right thing and making a democracy thatâ€™s more equal for everybody.”
TV GOODNESS: It seems like voters donâ€™t realize the power they have to also make this happen. So, I hope watching an episode like this will make people realize they need to register to vote and then actually vote.
Brian: “Thatâ€™s a critical, critical thing â€“ active participation in this. Iâ€™ve been following enough of these stories in the tech world and otherwise. Youâ€™re always battling this apathy. ‘What can I do?’ But itâ€™s really clear to me that things change when people show up. Thatâ€™s it. That is really true. When people show up and care about something, the discussion shifts, it changes. Youâ€™re battling that apathy at every turn. I just donâ€™t believe single individuals donâ€™t have power. They do.”
TV GOODNESS: I agree with you. Even one vote can make a difference.
Brian: “And also just speaking up and writing about these things and talking about these things and organizing and being engaged in the system. It does make a difference. It just does. When thereâ€™s heat on an issue and when people show up and participate things change. The discussion changes.”
TV GOODNESS: I do want to ask you a question about Donald Trump because it been frightening for me personally to watch his rise in popularity. But itâ€™s interesting, too, because he claims that heâ€™s self-financed, which isnâ€™t really true. Heâ€™s taking donations and heâ€™s basically made a loan to himself for this campaign, which heâ€™ll get paid back for. How do you think he plays into all of this and why do you think he wonâ€™t release his tax returns?
Brian: “Thatâ€™s a good question and I can speculate on that stuff. Donald Trump is this really, really interesting figure in this context, right? Because he said right away that heâ€™s self-financing his campaign, that heâ€™s not owned by any of the big donors.
You have to credit some of his success to that statement and that concept. People are responding to that. Thereâ€™s no question. The fact that that has gained him popularity â€“ and he keeps saying it over and over again â€“ is an indicator of how people really actually do care about this issue and understand that the funders do control the candidate. That happened early and he said a few things early â€“ I mean, I think the guyâ€™s is absolutely repugnant. He did say some things early that resonated with a lot of people including myself, where he said, â€˜Look everybody on this Republican debate stage, I know how this works. Iâ€™ve donated to all your campaigns. I basically own you.â€™ Thatâ€™s how it works.
â€˜Nobody owns me.â€™ Thatâ€™s a pretty prescient statement for our modern times and it was made by this clown of our political system, but thatâ€™s also true. Whether heâ€™s actually funding his own campaign â€“ which seems to be nonsense, he clearly has donate buttons on his page and heâ€™s raised over $8 million now. Heâ€™s not self-funding entirely. Heâ€™s also loaning his campaign money, which is a trick politicians do sometimes so they donâ€™t go out-of-pocket.
Why is he not releasing the tax returns? Itâ€™s probably because heâ€™s just not as wealthy as he says he is. He says he worth $10 billion, I think. ForbesÂ said itâ€™s closer to $4 billion. And another person recently put the estimate closer to $150 to $200 million. Heâ€™s clearly exaggerating his own wealth to emphasize this oversized caricature of a successful businessman in order to gain approval and success. That seems to me the most the most obvious reason, although I donâ€™t know.”
TV GOODNESS: What is one thing youâ€™d like views to take away from the episode?
Brian: “I canâ€™t pick just one. Iâ€™ll pick two. [Laughs.] One is just how bad it is. Obviously, thatâ€™s what weâ€™re getting atÂ â€“ just how bad this corrupting influence of money is on our political system and how adversarial it is to the basic concept of democracy. Thatâ€™s one thing. The second thing is the thing that you hit on earlierÂ â€“ the ability to participate. There is still this window in which we have organizing ability. We can get out and argue about this and talk about this and get the word out about this and be angry about it and be frustrated about it and vote about it and encourage candidates that care about it. That ability to participate and be a part of this system, that, ultimately, is the bigger point. And thatâ€™s the point I hope we get at even beyond this episode through the rest of the series.”
Edited for space and content.
Truth and Power airs Fridays at 10/9c on Pivot.
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