Hiding in Plain Sight: PAC-Connected Activists Set Up ‘Local News’ Outlets

Star News Digital Media, Inc. may look like a media company that produces local news, but a Snopes investigation reveals deep, undisclosed connections to political activism.

  • Published 4 March 2019
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Editors’ Note

Some stories practically write themselves, the details simple and clear. This investigation, spurred by a reader’s tip, was no such story. In collaboration with reporter Bethania Palma and operations staffers Vinny Green and Chris Reilly, lead reporter Alex Kasprak spent weeks untangling the reality behind a group of entities posing as newspapers in key battleground states going into the 2020 election. Even if you’re jaded by the torrent of daily headlines, including Russian meddling in U.S. election processes, you will want to spend some time with this story. Please let us know what you think and what more you want to know. All tips and feedback are welcome here.

On 6 February 2017, a website of uncertain origin named “The Tennessee Star” was born. At the time, it was unclear who funded or operated this “local newspaper,” which was largely filled with freely licensed content from organizations tied to conservative mega-donors. After some prodding by Politico in early 2018, the Tennessee Star revealed its primary architects to be three Tea Party-connected conservative activists: Michael Patrick Leahy, Steve Gill, and Christina Botteri.

Now, a Snopes investigation reveals in detail how these activists used the appearance of local newspapers to promote messages paid for or supported by outside or undisclosed interests. Gill, for example, is the political editor of the Tennessee Star, but he also 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. Several Star writers have in the past or currently work for PACs or political campaigns that they write about, without disclosing that fact. Though its owners claim that the Tennessee Star is funded by advertising revenue, it appears to be supported by wealthy benefactors. Whatever the Tennessee Star is, it is not a local newspaper producing transparent journalism.

But this story is about more than just the Tennessee Star. Leahy, Botteri, and Gill have been expanding their version of journalism to other battleground states in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. They are, they say, co-founders of a new, Delaware-registered company, Star News Digital Media, Inc., whose explicit strategy is to target battleground states with conservative news. So far, Leahy, Gill, and Botteri have added The Ohio Star and The Minnesota Sun to their network of purportedly local newspapers. These papers are effective carbon copies of the Tennessee Star.

 

If you were to search for these three “newspapers” in Google, they would each show up described identically as the “most reliable” newspapers in their respective locales, providing “unbiased updates on Investigative Reports, Thoughtful Opinion, Sports, Lifestyle”:

SOURCE: Google Search

Across the political spectrum, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, local news is considered more trustworthy than other more national sources. It is perhaps for that reason that an estimated 30% of all links pushed by the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency during the 2016 presidential election were to stories on local news websites. In some cases, these Russian imposters created their own fake local news sites.

While Star News Digital Media does have actual ties to Tennessee politics, that company’s incursion into Ohio and Minnesota may be more about the appearance of being local. They don’t always nail it, either. For instance, The Minnesota Sun website, when we first began reporting this story, displayed a local weather bar on its home page. Its default location was Columbus, Ohio, likely because it is an incompletely altered clone of the Ohio Star website. The Ohio Star website, purportedly local to the state of Ohio, reproduced a “Letter to the Editor” titled “If You Want to Change State Politics Then Support Bill Lee for Governor.” Bill Lee is the governor of Tennessee.

An August 2018 press release in The Ohio Star announced the formation of the new, multi-region company, Star News Digital Media, Inc., listing three people who have either described themselves as conservative activists or have been described that way by their peers as founders:

Michael Patrick Leahy, Steve Gill, and Christina Botteri are the co-founders of Star News Digital Media, Inc, a for profit corporation based in Nashville, Tennessee. Leahy serves as CEO and editor-in-chief. Gill serves as vice president and chief marketing officer, as well as the political editor for The Tennessee Star and national political editor for The Ohio Star and The Minnesota Sun. Christina Botteri serves as vice president and chief technology officer, as well as managing editor of The Tennessee Star and executive editor of The Ohio Star and The Minnesota Sun.

The issue is not the creation of conservative content. The issue, according to Kathleen Bartzen Culver, the director for the Center of Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is disguising conservative activism as journalism. “I have no problem with advocacy organizations creating content that reinforces the positions they take on public policy issues on the left, right or center. The issue comes in when they’re not transparent about that advocacy,” Culver told us via phone. “In this case, if you have a conservative take on a policy issue and you want to promote that take, go ahead. But just claim it for what it is.”

We reached out to all three individuals for this investigation but received a response only from Leahy, who spoke on their behalf in a series of emails.

The Tennessee Star’s Undisclosed Conflicts of Interest

When Politico first reported on the Tennessee Star in April 2018, the Star was even more opaque with regard to content authorship than they are now. In that piece, Politico argued:

Though it looks like a normal newspaper site, many — if not most — Star stories lack a byline, and at the time [of their reporting] the site had no masthead nor information explaining who owns or runs it. A click on the “Contact Us” tab revealed a phone number, a couple of email addresses, and a mailing address that goes to a UPS store in Franklin, Tennessee.

The closest thing we could identify to a physical location for anything related to Star News Digital Media was a Tennessee address listed in their terms of service as a contact for copyright takedown requests. This address is the location of a company called Political Financial Management (PFM), which manages finances for political campaigns. Objective journalism does not typically participate in political campaigns, but PFM “provides the peace of mind of knowing that your campaigns [sic] financials are compliant with all the latest laws and regulations while you focus on what matters most to you — connecting with voters.”

Following Politico’s report, writers who produce original content show up with their own byline more frequently. These authors, though, have ties in many cases to several influence groups, political candidates, or PACs. Despite these conflicts of interest, The Tennessee Star fails to disclose the deep connections between editorial staff and the political entities they cover. When we first contacted Leahy, we asked him if it would be more accurate to describe his company as “a conservative activist group looking to sway public opinion in battleground states,” i.e., coveted states that could conceivably be won by either a Democrat or a Republican in the upcoming presidential election.

Leahy disputed that characterization, but in a somewhat counterintuitive defense against this claim, told us a story about how successfully they had swayed political discourse in Tennessee:

Our reporting on GOP gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd’s contributions of $250,000 to a Nashville non-profit organization operated by the former national Chairman of La Raza — Renata Soto — and our giving him the nickname “LaRaza Randy” created a political perception of him among Republican voters, which he was never able to overcome. He spent $20 million and finished second to Bill Lee in the August 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary in Tennessee.

Chris Butler, listed as the Tennessee Star‘s investigative journalist, covered the Lee campaign and administration for the Star. But just before joining the Tennessee Star as an “investigative journalist,” he served as a media spokesperson “for a political PAC to help elect Bill Lee governor in 2018” between May and August 2018. Though he authored a few posts for the Star toward the end of May 2018, Butler’s first credited byline as a Tennessee Star “investigative journalist” was on 8 August 2018. His second report that day was critical of Lee’s general election opponent, Karl Dean. Butler disclosed nowhere in that or any subsequent articles that he had been employed as a media spokesperson for a PAC supportive of the other candidate in that race. In Leahy’s view, this is not a problem. “If you had done your homework, you would have seen that Mr. Butler did not write for us between May 31, 2018 and August 8, 2018 during the period of time he was working for that PAC,” he wrote to us in a follow-up email.

SOURCE: LinkedIn

Butler’s coverage of Lee in the Tennessee Star, following Butler’s work as a media spokesperson for a pro-Lee PAC, was criticized in media reports as overtly political. In one notable instance, Butler authored another nickname-motivated story on 3 October 2018 titled “Bill Lee Strong in Gubernatorial Debate with Karl ‘Marx’ Dean,” referring to Lee’s Democratic opponent. In response to that story, Ken Paulson, dean of Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Media and Entertainment, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that although he had not heard of the Tennessee Star, the Marx reference suggested it was “clearly a political vehicle.” (The Appeal also reported the Star story referenced questions never asked or answered in the debate). We reached out to Butler but received no response.

Laura Baigert, listed as a Tennessee Star “senior reporter,” also serves as the treasurer for a group called the Roving Patriots PAC. Her husband, Kevin Baigert, who was at one point also a writer for the Star, is that PAC’s director. On their PAC’s website, the couple say they “are a couple of Roving Patriots, and when you get one, you get both of us!” No firewall is apparent between the work of the PAC and the Tennessee Star. For example, on 7 July 2017 the PAC shared an article on their Facebook page written in the Tennessee Star about the PAC’s launch. “We are grateful for the work they are doing at The Tennessee Star,” the PAC said of the media outlet that both members of the PAC currently or previously worked for:

SOURCE: Facebook

According to their website, Roving Patriots PAC is “focused on achieving, supporting and maintaining a true conservative majority within the Tennessee House of Representatives.” In 2018, they supported four candidates who ran in GOP primaries or the general election for Tennessee state House seats: Justin Lafferty, Mark Hall, Scott Cepicky, and Clay Doggett. Both Cepicky’s and Doggett’s campaign launches received coverage in the Tennessee Star. Doggett defeated incumbent Republican Barry Doss, a man the Tennessee Star had been regularly critical of, in an August 2018 primary. “We … reported on the way State Rep. Barry Doss jammed through an unpopular gas tax increase — giving him the nickname ‘Boss Doss’ — reporting that was influential in his defeat at the polls in the August 2018 Republican primary,” Leahy bragged to us in one of his emails.

Based on their Facebook page, the PAC has been around since 22 June 2017. In November of that year, the Tennessee Star reported in glowing terms that Roving Patriots PAC would be lending financial support to Doggett without disclosing in that story the PAC’s conflict of interest with the Star. Another story, written by Roving Patriots treasurer and Tennessee Star reporter Laura Baigert about the Doss-Doggett race, is highly critical of Doss but lacks disclosure of her ties to a PAC invested in that race. We reached out to her via the Roving Patriots PAC email address but received no response. Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University specializing in election law and governance issues, called the Star‘s activities vis-a-vis political candidates and PACs “ethically problematic.”

“When it comes to the voters, they need to be able to evaluate messages, and one of the ways to evaluate them is to figure out who is actually speaking to them,” Levinson told us in a phone interview. “That’s why in campaign finance law there are disclosure rules. People evaluate things differently based on whether the source is a PAC or candidate’s own campaign, or the New York Times or Washington Post, for example.”

Perhaps more concerning is the potential role Gill’s consulting company, where he serves as CEO, has had in driving political coverage on the Tennessee Star website. Gill Media, Inc., as described on an archived website, “counsels companies, individuals and organizations on development and implementation of marketing, media and grassroots-oriented communications strategies.”

SOURCE: Facebook

Publicly available campaign finance disclosures indicate that Gill Media provided services to several clients during the time he was political editor of the Tennessee Star while they also received coverage on that site. In a second follow-up email from Leahy, who again spoke on behalf of Gill and Botteri, he told us that, “Gill Media, Inc. is a separate entity from Tennessee Star” but that “as a media buyer [Gill Media] has occasionally purchased advertising on the Tennessee Star.” 

Between 12 December 2017 and 11 January 2018, Joe Carr, a Tennessee state Senate candidate in the GOP 14th District special Republican primary election held in January 2018, paid Gill Media nearly $32,000:

SOURCE: Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance

Beginning on 6 December 2017, the Tennessee Star began reporting on Carr’s race with a story (“State Senate Candidate Joe Carr Launches Radio Ad Campaign”) announcing his candidacy, primarily by publishing a verbatim transcription of his first radio ad. (“The Tennessee Star obtained an advance copy of the ad,” that story noted.) From that point on, until his loss on 26 January, the Tennessee Star posted at least nine either positive stories on Carr or negative stories about his opponent, Shane Reeves, and provided space for Carr to write one commentary piece. Levinson told us the fact that the Tennessee Star printed a transcription of Carr’s campaign ad, rather than writing an objective news story, “makes it look like this is not an independent media organization.”

Some of these stories noted that “Both the Shane Reeves for State Senate Campaign and the Joe Carr for State Senate Campaign are Tennessee Star advertisers.” It is unclear what the Tennessee Star is referring to when they say both candidates are advertisers on the Star, or if the “ads” perhaps are the stories that appear on that site. We asked Leahy for clarification on this point, but he did not respond to that request for comment. Either way, such a disclosure does not reflect the fact that Carr paid almost $32,000 for media consulting to a company whose CEO was the editor of the paper covering his race. Similar payments have been made to Gill Media from groups like “Tennessee Jobs Now,” who later saw positive coverage on the site.

Leahy contends that the payments to Gill Media from Carr were unrelated to the Tennessee Star. “Gill Media placed radio spots during Joe Carr’s special election candidacy for the State Senate,” Leahy told us. “During that same time period both Carr and his opponent placed ad buys with the Tennessee Star.” Via email, we asked Carr if the services he paid to Gill Media resulted in coverage by the Tennessee Star. In response, he said: “I will not discuss the details of any business arrangement I had with any of my vendors while running for office,” adding that his disclosure of such actions would not be unethical but would also not be “honorable.”

Steve Gill’s media career has long existed in a nebulous space between political activism and commentary. In 2015, then-U.S. Representative Diane Black filed a complaint with the FEC against an “organization led by conservative activist Steve Gill that has bankrolled a series of negative ads targeting Black in her race against primary challenger Joe Carr.” This was an earlier Joe Carr race that predated the 2018 special election that saw coverage in the Star. According to the Commercial Appeal, in July 2018 the Tennessee Star “published a story that took verbatim lines from an email sent out by a campaign staffer for Randy Boyd, who challenged Lee in the primary, without attribution.” Levinson, the law professor, told us “the idea that campaign material is being hidden as news is really problematic because it robs the public of the ability to evaluate messages.”

Journalism professor Culver echoed similar concerns as Levinson: “Transparency is a critically important element in journalism,” she said via phone. “When you are opaque about funding sources and their influence, when you don’t disclose to readers where the money is coming from and where the conflicts of interest may be, you are robbing those people of important information that they need to judge credibility.” This is an issue not only for the content being published on the Tennessee Star, but a potential issue for Star News Digital Media as a whole. Gill, Leahy told us, will be “national political editor” for any new Star News sites moving forward.

Who is Paying for Star News Digital Media’s Activities?

Leahy, in an email to us, said, “We are in business to make a profit, and have a number of advertisers to prove it.” Despite this claim, only the Tennessee Star runs any commercial ads, and (outside of links to political groups such as the Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity or local GOP fundraisers that are clearly political in nature), we found ads for only three companies at the time of this report: car dealer Beaman Automotive Group, local furniture store chain D.T. McCall and Sons, and financial services company Advance Financial 24/7.

All three are owned by prominent Tennessee conservatives who have donated significantly to conservative candidates, causes, and PACs in the past. Lee Beaman, owner of the eponymous automotive group, and A.J McCall, owner of the furniture store, for example, were both named as individuals in an 11 December 2017 Nashville Post story as part of a Tennessee-based effort to support embattled Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore in his race against now-Sen. Doug Jones:

Prominent Middle Tennessee conservatives have not been shy about their support for Moore. Lee Beaman, the Nashville auto dealer, contributed $2,700 — the maximum allowed per campaign — to Moore just three days after the Washington Post broke the story alleging sexual misconduct by Moore.

A.J. McCall, president of regional furniture store chain D.T. McCall & Sons, and his wife, Beth, contributed a combined $5,400 to Moore before the allegations were made public. But when reached by the Nashville Post after the Washington Post story broke, A.J. McCall stood by Moore.

Advance Financial is owned by Mike Hodges, who serves as the company’s chairman. During the 2018 election cycle, Hodges was the 175th most significant individual contributor nationwide to political campaigns, parties and/or traditional PACs. In Tennessee, he and his wife, Tina Hodges, donated at least $16,000.00 to the Bill Lee for Governor campaign between 28 July 2018 and 25 August 2018.

We reached out to representatives for all three companies but heard back only from Advance Financial. Via email, we asked Hodges why his company picked the Tennessee Star as an ad venue. He replied, “We chose the TN star as they are largely read online by Tennesseans and they have a strong social media push that introduces AF to consumer that may not see our ads on other mediums.” Hodges declined to answer how much Advance Financial paid for ads but told us “both the price and renewal terms are in market with our many outlets.”

Despite claims of a “strong social media push,” the Tennessee Star at the time of this reporting has a modest social media presence, with just over 11,000 followers on Facebook and 1,867 on Twitter. (For comparison, The Tennessean had 223,769 followers on Facebook and 278,000 Twitter followers at the time of this report.). Furthermore, the ads sold to Advance Financial and the other two prominent companies do not work like modern online advertising. Online advertising for publishers is typically a complex web of programmatic processes that connects advertisers to online advertising space. Most important, the process imparts easily identifiable code on web pages that tracks the success of a brand’s marketing efforts and prevents businesses from spending money on ads being shown to non-local consumers.

This calls into question several elements of the Tennessee Star advertiser story, including claims that the ‘newspaper’ is a for-profit, advertising-supported venture, and that the companies that advertise do so to tap a local audience to benefit their brand. Is it possible that the Tennessee Star has a few high-profile benefactors who support the company’s mission financially and in return see their family businesses promoted on the site? Would such an arrangement be considered advertising? Potentially, but this type of advertising arrangement would be an outlier when compared to virtually any other internet media outlet.

The owners of these businesses do nothing untoward in supporting candidates and PACs or in buying advertisements in the Tennessee Star. But because Star News Digital Media is neither a candidate nor a PAC, no limit exists on how much these families could spend in supporting the organization’s reporting, which as we have shown blurs the line between journalism and political campaigning.

After we reached out to the Star‘s three primary advertisers, Leahy told us via email that he was “aware that snopes.com has contacted several of our advertisers,” suggesting that at least one of the entities we reached out to ran our questions by Leahy before not providing a comment to us.

Beyond these issues, we find the broader business strategy of Star News Digital Media is simple: fill pages with content that costs nothing. Such a strategy may be no surprise to those familiar with Leahy, whose 2009 book Rules for Conservative Radicals includes the statements “it is better to be 85% right and quick than 100% right and slow” and “use free and cheap technologies at every opportunity.”

Based on a Snopes analysis of link posts shared between 6 November 2018 and 5 February 2019, an estimated 30 percent of the linked material that Star News shared on Facebook from their own sites is republished from other sources. Much of this third-party content was published across multiple sites in their network, and many of the sources of that content were either directly or tangentially funded by mega-donors that provided their content for republication free of charge.

How Do So Many Stories Appear on These Small “Local News” Websites?

Leahy told us in an email that Star News Digital Media is focused “on local, fact-based, news that provides readers information from a center right perspective as an alternative to the mainstream media outlets that are increasingly moving further to the Left.” Despite being hailed by Leahy as “local” and described in Google search text as “unbiased,” Star News websites offer a good deal of content sourced from conservative national sources who are funded by dark money — funds raised for the purpose of influencing elections by nonprofit organizations who are not required to disclose the identities of their donors.

Using the analytics tool Crowdtangle, we developed a historical dataset of all link posts appearing on the Facebook pages of Star News websites that pointed to content published by the Tennessee Star, the Ohio Star, or the Minnesota Sun between 6 November 2018 and 5 February 2019. Nearly a quarter of the Tennessee Star’s link posts we analyzed pointed to third-party material, and the percentages of third-party content were even higher in the case of the two newer sites, the Ohio Star and the Minnesota Sun:

Third Party Content

Our dataset shows the extent of the relationship that Star News has with third-party content providers.

Third-Party Content by Site

We estimate that 24%, 39%, and 41% of content we analyzed on the Tennessee Star, the Minnesota Sun, and the Ohio Star, respectively, came from a third party during the period our dataset covered.

Nearly 40 percent of this third-party material, we found, comes from the Daily Caller News Foundation. Sludge, a media outlet that funds investigative journalism into political donations and lobbying efforts, reported in November 2018 that “83 percent of the Daily Caller News Foundation’s annual budget” in 2017 came from either the Charles Koch Foundation or the Charles Koch Institute.

In a 2015 opinion piece published in The Chattanoogan, Gill wrote that “While Koch brother-funded [Americans for Prosperity] activities are taking place throughout the country, their repeated, tangible successes in Tennessee are increasingly attracting national attention.” Several prominent links to the Koch-founded and -funded Americans for Prosperity, or articles about it, appear in material found on all three Star News websites.

Other notable sources of Star-published material include The Daily Signal, a publication of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank; The Daily Torch, a publication of the Koch-linked Americans for Limited Government think tank; and the conservative Center for American Greatness. The right-leaning Conservative HQ website and the non-partisan, government-run Voice of America network are other common sources of third-party material:

Sources of Third-Party Content

The most common source of third-party material during the period our dataset covered is the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Furthermore, all of the websites share their (frequently outsourced) content extensively, and the home pages of all three sites are barely distinguishable from each other. Here we visualize our sampling of posts shared by those sites on Facebook, showing that much of the underlying content is likely identical on two of the sites, or all three:

Overlapping Content Across Star News Digital Media Sites

Our dataset reveals significant overlap in content between the three Star News sites. In the above figure, 237 entries appear to be exactly the same on all three pages during the period we investigated.

In his email to Snopes, Leahy compared his websites to Gannett media, the umbrella company that publishes legacy newspapers such as USA Today, the Tennessean, and the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Will Snopes ‘out’ Gannett for the exact same practice that other national and regional publications utilize and which has apparently raised concerns about the Tennessee Star by the liberals who operate Snopes?” Leahy asked us, while pointing to the fact that the Gannett network of websites shares stories and posts wire articles from the Associated Press.

Among the many differences between Gannett publications and the sites operated by Leahy is that Gannett papers have rules against conflicts of interest. Michael Anastasi is editor and vice president of The Tennessean newspaper and vice president of news for USA Today, both of which are Gannett papers. We asked him by email if The Tennessean would employ a political editor who concurrently served as a media buyer that placed ads for political entities covered in The Tennessean, and he told us “no.” Asked if The Tennessean would ever allow a political editor to buy ads through their personal media company for candidates that The Tennessean covered, Anastasi told us “hell no,” adding that “if we discovered someone ever engaging in such blatantly unethical behavior, they would be terminated immediately.”

The Big Take-Aways

Star News Digital Media has been inconsistent in how they refer to themselves. Sometimes they have suggested they are “unbiased” local news, and at other times they told us they provide a “center right” perspective. Sometimes they claim to be profit-driven, and at other times they claim to be a “hand-to-mouth” operation of true believers. One thing they have consistently claimed to be, however, is a network of local newspapers that practice transparent journalism.

Culver, the journalism professor, views it differently. “Honestly, if you have an organization that is trying to shield the identity of people writing for it, is not straight about its funding sources, [and is] allowing people with partisan points of view to push those points of view and not be upfront about that, I don’t understand how you can call that a news organization.”

Leahy defended his organization and its practices: “Snopes.com is fully aware that Star News Digital Media, Inc. is a legitimate news organization and any statement made in print by your organization that we are a ‘political advocacy group’ rather than a legitimate news organization is one that you know to be false,” he said to us in an email, adding that they would “vigorously defend our reputation as a news organization, and will particularly not tolerate false statements made about us.”

The Tennessee Star is an example of a strategy — repackaging free conservative content alongside campaign- or PAC-sourced material as local news — that appears to have seen some success locally and seeks to expand on a national scale. The strategy that gave birth to the Tennessee Star may be identically employed in politically important regions under the aegis of Star News Digital Media Inc. This new venture would follow “the exact same plan we used to launch in Tennessee,” Leahy told us via email. Leahy, Politico reported in April, purchased several newspaper-sounding domain names in battleground states for future use:

Just days after registering the Tennessee Star domain in January 2017, according to records, [co-founder Michael] Leahy also registered domains for americandailystar.com, minnesotanorthernlight.com, mosundaily.com, newenglandstar.com, thedakotastar.com, themichiganstar.com, thencstar.com, theohiostar.com, thepennstar.com, thevirginiastar.com and thewisconsinstar.com.

These websites may amplify partisan voices in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, and if they follow the Tennessee Star playbook, may publish politically or financially motivated content created by authors with undisclosed ties to PACs, lobbyists, and politicians.

“The information sphere is so polluted right now that the average citizen has trouble telling what is real and what is not,” Culver told us. “I find that very troubling within a democracy.”