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The Democratic Dark Money Behind These ‘Local Newspapers’

Wealthy PACs are behind a chain of websites boosting vulnerable candidates while masquerading as 'trusted' reporting.

Photo from Courier Newsroom publication, Cardinal & Pine https://cardinalpine.com/

The non-profit that sent the Democratic Party haywire during the Iowa Caucus earlier this year has a new strategy: creating partisan news outlets in key states across the country ahead of the 2020 election. With the financial backing of Hollywood, hedge fund managers, and Silicon Valley, Acronym’s Courier Newsroom may just change local journalism and politics forever.

Courier Newsroom, created by the dark-money (not required to disclose donors) progressive non-profit Acronym, states that they were created to restore trust in journalism by helping to rebuild local media across the country. The opposite of this is true. Their true goal? Winning elections in key states.

Acronym CEO Tara McGowan, in a leaked memo obtained by Vice, has stated that the goal of establishing Courier Newsroom is to defeat Republicans on the new frontier of Internet political advertising. McGowan attributes Trump’s 2016 success to the campaign’s ability to “shape and drive mainstream media coverage” through an influx of internet spending. Courier seeks to counter this by challenging Trump on social media. By definition, Courier serves as a political advertising operation for the Democratic Party rather than a legitimate media source.

Calling for a new approach to political advertising, McGowan lambasted Hillary Clinton’s failed media strategy for its over-reliance on spending on traditional media, “In 2016, the Hillary Clinton for President campaign raised an estimated $800 million online—and spent a large majority of it on television and radio advertisements.” The 2016 election has proven to be the reason for the creation of Courier Newsroom.

McGowan explicitly states that the papers are being used to boost political results, “The Dogwood will not only function to support the flipping of both State House and State Senate chambers in Virginia this November, but will serve as a vehicle to test, learn from and scale best practices to new sites as we grow.” The Dogwood, as of the time of the writing of the leaked memo, was intended to be the prototype for future courier new sites.

Courier has established news sites across key 2020 states including: Copper Courier (Arizona), The Dogwood (Virginia), Up North News (Wisconsin), The Gander (Michigan), Cardinal & Pine (North Carolina), The Keystone (Pennsylvania), and The Americano (nationwide, intended for Latino audiences). Courier extensively utilizes social media to promote stories made by the publications, generating clicks in order to shape public voter opinion.

Courier stories are written with the intent of mobilizing women and young people. McGowan writes that Courier does this by “framing issues from health care to economic security in a way that provides these voters with more personal and local relevance than they are often targeted through traditional political ads.” While these are real stories, they are packaged with the intent on provoking a positive reaction from certain demographics of the population, in order to spur them to vote for the Democratic Party this November. Courier itself has conceded that they exist solely to challenge Republicans on social media.

Courier Newsroom Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Schrupp disagreed with the concerns regarding journalistic integrity of its writers and service. Schrupp told The American Conservative the following,

Courier Newsroom and its affiliated sites are independent from ACRONYM. We maintain an editorial firewall, just like any other media company, and the managing editor of each site, in addition to me as editor in chief, has ultimate discretion and control over content published.
Painting all partisan-leaning outlets with the same brush is dangerous and too often creates false equivalency between very different types of newsrooms. All outlets in the Courier Newsroom network operate with integrity and adhere to traditional journalistic standards. It’s offensive to our journalists — many of whom have won state, regional and national awards for their reporting — to try to make a direct comparison to partisan outlets on the right that often don’t publish bylines, don’t hire experienced or even local reporters, don’t comply with basic fact-checking standards, and don’t do original reporting in the regions where they operate.
Courier aims to combat the misinformation spread by such right-wing sites pretending to be “local news” by providing readers with transparently progressive local reporting.

According to data from Facebook Ad Library, between May 2018 and July 12, 2020 Courier Newsroom spent $1,478,784 on Facebook ads on topics that include social issues, elections or politics. Conservative alternatives, such as the Daily Wire or Breitbart, have spent considerably less money on Facebook advertising. Breitbart spent $11,404 since March 2018 and the Daily Wire spent $418,578 since March 2018 according to Facebook’s ad library.

Courier’s political agenda is obvious. By looking into their Facebook ad-buys, Courier Newsroom has spent extensively on vulnerable Democrats who came into office in the 2018 midterms. These pieces, while factual, highlight the accomplishments of narrowly elected Democrats.

Among those that are frequently featured in mass ad-buys on Facebook are:

Reps. Cindy Axne, AbbyFinkenauer, Lauren Underwood, Andy Kim,Elissa Slotkin, Antonio Delgado, and Jared Golden. These Representatives all represent crucial swing-districts; all but Rep. Fikenauer’s district voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Americans for Public Trust reported that Rep. Andy Kim received at least $40,000 dollars worth of positive Facebook advertising by Courier ad-buys. Other highlighted candidates likely have received a similar amount in positive coverage.

“Courier Newsroom’s goal is to help elect Democrats. The site doesn’t say that, but its founder, Tara McGowan, has made this clear.” Gabby Deutch of Newsguard, a journalism watchdog focused on identifying fake news, tells The American Conservative. Deutch claims that Courier is different from other partisan news outlets because their intentions are not clearly stated. Courier instead argues that they are seeking to fill a void left in local journalism.

According to The New York Times in a story published in 2019, 1 in 5 local newspapers have been forced to shut down forever. Political groups, such as Acronym, are poised to revitalize local journalism with a new twist—political advertising. Deutch warned The American Conservative of this worrying development, “With fewer local newspapers—a decline that’s gotten even worse due to the financial havoc wreaked by the pandemic—there’s room for political groups to fill the void, playing off people’s trust in local news. So they make a site that looks like local news but has few (if any) reporters in the state, and then create content to woo voters.”

There are examples on the right side of the spectrum too, she points out, including the conservative Star network (Michigan Star and Tennessee Star are two examples) and AlphaNewsMN, a conservative Minnesota site. “Readers deserve to know the agenda of the websites where they get their news.”

Browsing North Carolina’s Courier news site Cardinal & Pine, one finds it brands itself as “local news for the NC community.” Newsguard’s assessment of Courier, is indeed true, with the overwhelming majority of stories highlighting the successes of North Carolina Democrats such as Governor Roy Cooper, attacking Republicans such as vulnerable Senator Thom Tillis, and promoting Democratic policy positions—notably as it relates to COVID-19 and BLM social justice protests. Similarly, Virginia’s Courier news site, The Dogwood, did not publish an article detailing Virginia’s biggest scandal of 2019: Governor Northam’s controversial blackface yearbook photo. Nor can one find any reference of Tara Reade, Joe Biden’s sexual assault accuser who entered the public eye earlier this spring.

Even more striking, is that as a 501(c)(4), Acronym is not required to disclose donors. Acronym in 2018  received $250,000 from New Venture Fund which is managed by Arabella. Through its dark-money ties, Arabella has raised $2.4 billion dollars since 2006, making it one of the largest financiers in American politics. Arabella’s influence came into the limelight during the 2018 mid-term elections, in which they raised the most ever by a left-leaning political non-profit. Courier Newsroom is, in other words, entirely funded by secret donors that likely have significant ties to the Democratic Party and the Super PACs bankrolling the 2020 election.

Acronym has invested millions of dollars to establish these papers across the country with plans to continue their expansion into local media across the country in preparation for the 2020 election and beyond. Acronym has claimed that they are separate from Courier and allow the creators to produce their own independent ideas, although, tax documents have revealed them to be full owners.

“This is all probably legal,” says Bradley Smith, former Chairman of the FEC and foremost scholar on campaign finance. “What surprises me is that more entities–especially on the conservative side, since the majority of traditional media already lean left–don’t do this. But there are examples on the right–for example, NRA Radio.” Donors can be kept secret, as under Citizen’s United, the ‘periodicals’ of 501(c)(4) groups do not have to be filed with FECA. (Federal Election Campaign Act) Smith believes organizations such as Courier will likely be a part of a greater trend in local journalism across the country.

Pacronym, also under the Acronym umbrella, is a Democratic Super-PAC charged with the single goal of electing Joe Biden. Pacronym ads present similar content to what one would see on a Courier publication, focusing heavily on the failures of Trump’s handling of COVID-19, the struggling of small-businesses across key-swing states (North Carolina, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), and Joe Biden’s proposed response to the virus.

Courier, with the same goal, repurposes ideas by PACs and the Democratic Party by attaching a ‘news’ label for legitimacy. “The anti-Trump ads from Courier focus on the same points as Pacronym and other Democratic political groups, but if they look like news articles, the audience sees them differently than the same content coming from a politician,” According to Deutch at Newsguard.

Pacronym donors are publicly disclosed, and may have present a clue into Courier Newsroom’s finances. Some notable financiers of Pacronym   include billionaire hedge fund manager Seth Klarman, Hollywood icon Steven Spielberg and his wife Kate Kapshaw, a billionaire heiress to the Levi Strauss brand Mimi Haas, and silicon valley’s very own LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. Pacronym has targeted a $75 million-dollar digital ad campaign, primarily using Facebook, against President Trump for the upcoming election.

Acronym is also involved in another scandal, notably the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucus. Shadow Inc, also operating under Acronym’s umbrella, was established with the purpose of digitally registering and mobilizing voters. Shadow Inc’s leadership primarily consisted of 2016 ex-Clinton campaign staff. Shadow Inc received a contract by the Iowa Democratic Party for $63,183 to develop an application to help count votes in the Iowa Caucus. Shadow Inc’s application, the IowaReporterApp, failed to properly report the caucus, leading to a delayed result. Campaigns, pundits, and election officials were confused due to the inconsistencies found in the results.

Candidate Pete Buttigieg claimed victory despite the caucus results not having been properly released. According to data by the FEC, Pete Buttigieg’s campaign paid Shadow Inc. $21,250 for “software rights and subscriptions” in July 2019. Acronym CEO Tara McGowan’s husband, Michael Halle, was a senior strategist for the Pete Buttigieg campaign. Michael Halle’s brother, Ben Halle, was Pete Buttigieg’s Iowa Communications Director. Many have suspected foul play, or at least incompetence.

Courier Newsroom is distinct from both fake-news and astro-turf operations that came into the public eye during the 2016 election. Rather than produce fake content with the intent to mislead, Courier articles are legitimate and are written by real writers. In the leaked Acronym memo, CEO Tara McGowan claimed that the Democratic Party was losing “the media war.”

In 2014 the National Republican Congressional Committee established fake news websites and paid to boost them on Google. These websites were deceptive with the intent on defeating the opposing candidate. Although, these websites publicly disclosed that they were paid for by the committee at the button of the article. Courier’s funding remains undisclosed.

PACs, in tandem with a surge in online political advertising, have weaponized newsrooms to present misleading news for electoral success.

about the author

Alberto Bufalino is a student at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and TAC's summer editorial intern.

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