A far-left website called Courier Newsroom has managed to drive liberal messaging in key states online and on social media, with piles of cash and no financial disclosure — but former Nevada Attorney General Adam Paul Laxalt thinks it will soon “erode the public’s trust in media” if the business model is allowed to continue.
Courier Newsroom, tied to a multibillion dollar left-wing dark money operation, has strategically placed websites in key battleground states running "news stories" that often appear to be little more than Democratic Party talking points. The same operation also promotes its content on social media platforms and places expensive ads on Facebook, where it's categorized as a Media/News organization.
The undertaking is a creation of ACRONYM, a nonprofit organization that has picked up funding from at least one dark money group — Arabella Advisors. The multibillion-dollar private company has funneled millions of dollars over recent years to dozens of left-wing groups and initiatives.
While the Courier Newsroom appears overtly political, its newsroom status allows it to avoid financial reporting and disclosure requirements — meaning the amount of cash that can be used to publish and promote its content is essentially limitless, with no oversight.
“I think it’s an unprecedented political news organization. While there are complaints of media bias, fake news, no media outlet is doing what Courier Newsroom is,” Laxalt told Fox News. “They were stood up by a large, left-of-center political world and they appear to be directly engaged in political persuasion.”
Earlier this month, Politico published a story about the Courier Newsroom headlined, “Newsroom or PAC? Liberal group muddies online information wars,” which detailed how the group “is blurring the lines between campaign advocacy and a newsroom.”
The Courier Newsroom has set up websites that appear to be local, small-town news organizations in major swing states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Arizona, all complete with names such as “Up North News” and “The ‘Gander” to give them a local feel. Laxalt feels that Courier Newsroom intends to influence House races and push electoral votes to Democrats.
“They’re all set up to appear as local news, genuine, authentic local news,” Laxalt said.
Courier Newsroom editor-in-chief Lindsay Schrupp maintains the legitimacy of the operation.
“Courier Newsroom publications provide factual, local reporting, and are staffed and run by professional journalists. While transparently progressive, we work to provide audiences with facts to counter misinformation,” Schrupp told Fox News.
Courier Newsroom lists more than two dozen employees with multiple current job openings. Laxalt feels it is probably gearing up for November's election by beefing up the staff. He said that Courier Newsroom is a “very scandalous” group that “appears to be a completely fake news organization set up with the sole intent of tipping elections” but a look at who funds the project makes things even dicier.
Courier Newsroom bills itself as “a progressive media company owned by the nonprofit ACRONYM and other private investors." ACRONYM is a nonprofit dedicated to "advancing progressive causes through innovative communications, advertising and organizing programs."
The New Venture Fund gave ACRONYM $250,000 in 2018 and is one of a number of nonprofit groups controlled by Arabella Advisors, a Washington-based philanthropy company. Both Arabella and New Venture Fund were founded by Eric Kessler, who worked in President Bill Clinton’s administration.
Arabella has been alleged to be behind a “hydra-like” network that blurs the line between philanthropy and political advocacy on hot-button issues, and has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars to advance left-wing causes.
A report last year by the conservative watchdog Capital Research Center said that, due to financial arrangements and lack of donor disclosure, “it is impossible to know which organizations subsidize the various campaigns and political movements spawned by Arabella’s funds.” The group was also tied to Shadow, the company that created the infamous Iowa Democratic Party's app that resulted in confusion and a muddled result back in February.
“Arabella has weaponized a newsroom and while Democrats typically cry about fake news, we can all kind of debate what that definition is, this is clearly, absolutely fake news,” Laxalt said. “It appears it is invented with the sole intent of persuading swing voters in swing states.”
Last week, the Courier tweeted an out-of-context clip of White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, a move that was also made by CNN's Jim Acosta and NBC's Chuck Todd. The misleading clip made it appear McEnany said "science should not stand in the way" of reopening schools.
Courier does not operate like thrifty a startup news organization, as it has spent over $1.5 million on Facebook ads since August 2019, according to Facebook's ad library.
Facebook’s ad library indicates that Courier regularly places advertisements that appear to be news stories on the social media platform. The advertisements include stories pushing vote-by-mail, attacking President Trump’s coronavirus response and praising Democratic members of Congress.
The ads were “mostly to promote its flattering articles and videos about more than a dozen endangered House Democrats at the top of the Democratic Party’s priority list this November,” Politico’s Alex Thompson observed.
“But because Courier is organized as a media outlet, it does not have to disclose its donors or the total money it spends promoting Democratic politicians,” Thompson added.
Even progressive organizations have taken note of the shady tactics. Back in February, Vice published a 2019 internal memo sent by ACRONYM CEO Tara McGowan that outlined plans to create news properties in seven 2020 battleground states.
That same month, Salon reported that Courier Newsroom appears to be a news site but is actually “propaganda efforts aimed at creating content to be shared on social media to boost moderate Democrats” in key states.
“Acronym's activities are serving to further undermine the market for reliable news, making it even harder for voters to separate the truth from propaganda,” Salon’s Richard L. Hasen wrote.
ACRONYM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“It is clearly designed to snooker unsuspecting citizens to think it is legitimate news when it is actually political activism."
DePauw University professor and media critic Jeffrey McCall said Courier Newsroom is “quite unhelpful” to the public sphere.
“It is clearly designed to snooker unsuspecting citizens to think it is legitimate news when it is actually political activism. Setting up as a news organization and business allows the operation to circumvent normal FEC regulations required of political action operations,” McCall told Fox News. “This sneaky maneuver underscores the importance of news consumers to carefully assess from where they get information.”
In a recent statement to Politico, Courier Newsroom COO Rithesh Menon said the company intends to provide a "powerful counter to conservative misinformation which dominates platforms like Facebook," expressing the hope that "others in the progressive space invest in this type of digital media ecosystem - because the Right has for years."
Laxalt acknowledged that there are plenty of conservative news organizations but says Courier Newsroom is "incredibly unique" compared to other traditional outlets seen as partisan.
“They were set up exclusively in these swing districts to mimic small-town papers,” Laxalt said. “Also, they are actually spending money to target political advertisers and they’re actually targeting, at least it appears, individual voters. I’m unaware of any news entity that is part of a billion-dollar, left-of-center political network.”
A normal PAC would target swing voters in specific districts, but Courier Newsroom is able to avoid the regulations by calling itself a newsroom.
“This is essentially doing that. The difference, of course, from a public trust perspective is disclosure. A PAC would have a mandatory tax disclosure, an SEC filing, donor disclosure rules and the newest one, is a micro-targeting restriction,” Laxalt said. “Well, that does not affect a ‘newsroom.’”
Laxalt feels that it would be a national media crisis if a conservative group attempted to mirror what Courier Newsroom is actively doing.
“I think for many media outlets this would be a huge scandal if this was a right-of-center fake news organization,” he said.
“It is backed by this $1.2 billion left-of-center umbrella, as Arabella Advisors continues to invest in all sorts of entities that are tipping the country, toward the direction it desires,” Laxalt said. “If this is allowed to carry on, everyone is going to follow this model, we’re going to have 100 Courier Newsrooms. People are worried about fake news now, you can only imagine the proliferation of this model in years to come.”
Courier Newsroom has lately been pushing vote-by-mail, using talking points that are popular among Democrats and downplaying potential voter fraud, which Honest Elections Project executive director Jason Snead doesn’t appreciate.
“Forcing nationwide vote-by-mail and dismantling voter safeguards for the presidential election endangers voters’ trust in democracy. Right now in New Jersey, four people have been charged with voter fraud in an all-mail election, including a city council vice president and a councilman-elect. Vulnerable voters should be able to request absentee ballots, but a hastily jury-rigged all-mail election carries grave risks,” Snead told Fox News. “Courier Newsroom doesn't cover that aspect of the issue, it simply promotes one side. That sounds more like propaganda than news."
Politico's Thompson wrote that media ethics experts “worry that the advocacy-cloaked-in-journalism tactic is pouring gasoline on a raging fire of consumer trust and online disinformation” in an era where public trust in the media is eroding.
“It is little wonder many Americans now look at all political ‘news’ with skepticism. Citizens today must work very hard to become fully informed about the political issues of the day,” McCall said. “Multiple forces are at work in both traditional and new media outlets to push agendas and influence the minds and votes of unwary Americans.”
Laxalt agrees and feels "the proliferation of Courier Newsroom-style organizations would evaporate the trust in media."
New Venture Fund president Lee Bodner Provided Fox News with the following statement: “The New Venture Fund is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization that incubates and accelerates philanthropic projects. We provide non-profits with tools and administrative support, including human resources, legal, accounting and compliance services, which enable leaders to focus on the work at hand and operate more efficiently. Our projects have for years reached out to Americans on a range of issues and we have periodically made grants to an ideologically diverse set of news organizations from the Courier Newsroom to the Daily Caller News Foundation.”
Fox News’ Tyler Olson and Adam Shaw contributed to this report.