A variety of Republican Party messaging websites has been popping up, styled after local news sites. These sites claim to be “unbiased,” but they are actually funded by Republican donors, candidates, and organizations. Politico has been chronicling the appearance of these sites, and an investigation from Snopes published last week reveals GOP funding sources for three similar sites: The Tennessee Star, The Ohio Star, and The Minnesota Sun.
The trend started gaining steam in 2017. In Maine, a website called the Maine Examiner was revealed to be owned by a top Maine Republican Party official after the site had reportedly influenced a contentious mayoral election. Democrats lodged an ethics complaint, but the party official, Jason Savage, said his work on the website was not related to his work for the party.
The Maine Ethics Committee declined to investigate the Democratic Party’s complaint, but recent news of leaked emails that were passed to Savage and the Maine Examiner during the election could reopen the possibility of an investigation.
The tactic marks an aggressive shift in how politically motivated information is distributed. Poynter notes that Americans across the political spectrum trust local news media more than any other kind of media, whereas Americans trust online-only news sites the least. Making an online-only media site look like an extension of a truly well-established local newspaper or TV station is a way to capitalize (or prey) on some of that trust.
California’s Devin Nunes, a Republican US Representative, tried a similar tactic in recent years. In February 2018, he started a blog called the California Republican—an obvious-enough name—although the website described itself as a “media/news company” that focused on “the best of US, California, and Central Valley news, sports, and analysis.” Like any local news site, it broke headlines down by region and had some limited sports coverage. Still, the site accurately notes at the bottom (albeit in very small print) that it is “Paid for by the Devin Nunes Campaign Committee.”
Most of these politically motivated sites do not disclose who is paying for them, and in many cases, the content does not include bylines.
In 2018, Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward extensively promoted an endorsement from The Arizona Monitor (which no longer exists). Soon, however, the Monitor was revealed to be a blog that had been set up jut a few weeks before it published the endorsement. The Arizona Monitor classified itself as a “news site” on Facebook, according to Politico. Like the Maine Examiner, it operated anonymously, without any disclosure of who was working for it or where its funds were coming from.
Local? Or Local-like?
The latest spate of GOP messaging sites masquerading as local news sites is more subtle. The Tennessee Star looks like a local news site, though it is allegedly funded and run by people with close ties to the GOP, with advertisers that have a history of making large donations to GOP candidates.
In April 2018, Politico noted that the stories on the Tennessee Star rarely had bylines, and no masthead was published, although the site did publish a masthead after Politico’s story ran. The owners of the site include Steve Gill and Michael Patrick Leahy. The former is “a conservative commentator and radio host,” according to Politico, and the latter is a “local political activist who also writes for Breitbart, though Breitbart is not itself involved in the Star.”
According to a story published last week by Snopes, Gill “owns a media consulting company that at least one candidate and one Political Action Committee (PAC) paid before receiving positive coverage in The Tennessee Star.” Other writers for the site have worked for PACs that they write positively about, without disclosing that fact, according to Snopes.
Still, the site claims in its Google text that it is the “Most reliable local newspaper across Tennessee.” The Tennessee Star claims it “provides unbiased updates on Investigative Reports, Thoughtful Opinion, Sports, Lifestyle,”
Leahy claimed to Snopes that The Tennessee Star was funded by advertising, as traditional local news sites are, but Snopes only found three advertisers on the site.
“All three are owned by prominent Tennessee conservatives who have donated significantly to conservative candidates, causes, and PACs in the past,” Snopes wrote.
Replicating the model
Gill and Leahy, along with conservative activist Christina Botteri, have recently started two more sites that appear to be local news sites despite essentially being GOP messaging sites: The Ohio Star and The Minnesota Sun. These sites include stories about Ohio and Minnesota politics, but the sites have a lot of content in common.
Gill, Leahy, and Botteri have also apparently started an umbrella company, Star News Digital Media Inc., that aims to replicate this “local news” format in other battleground states, despite an opaque funding situation.
Besides leveraging the trust that Americans have for local news sites to spread Republican Party messaging, they also may serve a financial purpose. These so-called news sites can act as a vehicle for essentially unrestricted campaign advertising. Snopes notes that “because Star News Digital Media is neither a candidate nor a PAC,” campaign contributors can buy ads on these sites without limit, which “blurs the line between journalism and political campaigning.”