Follow the money.
It sounds so simple, the usual instruction given to reporters seeking to understand power and politics. But these days, it is almost impossible to do.
The Supreme Court ruled six years ago that the First Amendment protects the right of corporations to spend on political campaigns, a decision that unleashed a massive new wave of hard-to-trace political donations. Now, people supporting candidates can easily shield their identities as they deploy a dizzying array of trusts, partnerships and shell companies.
As unprecedented sums flooded into the presidential campaign last year, The Times dug through the layers of obfuscation and determined who was actually behind the hundreds of millions of dollars in donations.
What the reporters found was astonishing: Just 158 wealthy families and the companies they controlled contributed nearly half of the money for the first phase of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Until The Times reported it, no one, not even experts in campaign finance, understood how concentrated political money had become. Not since before Watergate had so few people exercised so much power over the financing of American elections.
President Obama was so struck by the revelation that, in his final State of the Union address, he described it as one of the most fundamental challenges facing the country. “We’ve got to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections,” he said in the address, as White House social media accounts highlighted The Times’s reporting.
To track the campaign money, the reporters scoured business and tax records, analyzing murky ownership transactions and limited-liability corporation structures. They built databases from thousands of records and teased out connections among the donors. In states where laws protect the identities of business owners, they used other corporate records to find transactions in which the companies had taken part and employed shoe-leather reporting to confirm the identities of the individuals involved.
These subjects are often difficult for readers to grasp. But this story was told in a compelling way, and the design was dynamic, even playful. (An animated mountain of Monopoly toy houses greeted readers online for the series’s introduction, illustrating how few households in the United States were providing a big share of the presidential campaign money.)
The Columbia Journalism Review saluted the innovative visual presentation and the use of campaign-finance and demographic data. “Americans need information like this to understand how our political system functions, especially given the rapid growth of campaign spending over the past four presidential election cycles,” C.J.R. said.