Independent Journal, Blue Nation Review blur the lines of media and politics

A screenshot of Independent Journal Review’s website. (Image credit: Independent Journal Review)

Public trust in journalism is low, with a 2015 Gallup poll showing only 40 percent of Americans trust the media. In 2011, a Pew survey showed that 80 percent think news media are “often influenced by powerful people and organizations,” and 63 percent think they’re “politically biased in their reporting.” And the evolving digital media landscape creates new possibilities for coziness and influence. We’ve written before about news sites’ in-house political ad agencies — a growing form of difficult-to-track political ad spending. But what about when news sites share leadership or office space with a political consulting firm? Such is the case with Independent Journal Review and Blue Nation Review, media websites that maintain close but quiet ties with political agencies.

Independent Journal Review (IJR) describes itself as “dedicated to reporting political and cultural news in an objective, fair, and entertaining way to a large and engaged independent-minded audience.” Republican political operative Alex Castellanos described the site last year as “like if you crossed RedState with BuzzFeed.” Like BuzzFeed, it gets huge amounts of traffic, though its traffic has been falling, according to the analytics firm comScore.1

Many of the stories on IJR are standard viral fare — “The ‘Reason’ Why Nasty Boss Fires Employee Who Has an Allergic Reaction at Work is Infuriating” – but its politics stories have a clear conservative slant, with headlines like “Trey Gowdy Crushes the Obama Narrative on Saving Benghazi Heroes in Just 38 Seconds” and “6 Times Donald Trump Was Downright, Totally and Utterly Obscene…ly Generous.” IJR has denied it’s just for conservatives, noting that only 45 percent of its audience identifies as Republican.

IJR attracted attention last year for creating viral videos with Republican presidential candidates: One featured Ted Cruz shooting an assault rifle wrapped in bacon. BuzzFeed has produced similar videos, such as one featuring Bobby Jindal participating in a push-up contest against opponents wearing shirts that said “TAXES,” “OBAMACARE” or “HYPHENATED AMERICANS.”

IJR has a sister organization, located in the same building: IMGE, a “full-service digital firm” that “specializes in designing and executing integrated digital campaigns that reach audiences in a highly targeted, measurable, and cost-effective way.” Both are under parent company Media Group of America and were founded by Alex Skatell, who previously worked at the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican Governors Association; IMGE was founded in March 2013 and IJR in December 2012. IMGE’s clients have included Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., as well as the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The International Business Times’ Brendan James asked Skatell about potential overlap between the organizations last year:

Asked if there is any interaction between the news and the firm, Skatell answered, “right now, no.”

Will there ever be? Could the data collected on IJR’s audience, attractive to political and corporate clients alike, make it into the hands of the operators at IMGE?

“Down the road we might want to be smart about how we handle the data. It’s not out of the question,” Skatell told IBTimes. “We just want to be careful. We don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize what we’re doing to build a brand.”

But it is worth noting that IJR has, at times, written about politicians at the same time that those same politicians were paying IMGE for digital services.

Between October 2013 and October 2015, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., paid IMGE $107,033 for digital consulting and web services. During that time, IJR wrote some very positive posts about Stefanik – like this post from January 2014 claiming her resume was “already better than Obama’s” – and some negative posts about her opponent.

On Aug. 5, 2014, less than a month after IMGE received $9,146 for digital consulting by Stefanik’s campaign, IJR posted a story about Stefanik’s Democratic opponent, Aaron Woolf, and the health violations at a food store he owns: “Democrat Congressional Candidate’s ‘Organic’ Food Stores Go All Natural, Complete With Rats And Roaches.” (Note the use of “Democrat” instead of the correct term “Democratic,” which some Republicans use as an insult.) A week later, on Aug. 12, IJR ran a story attacking Woolf for owning stock in companies “dependent upon corn products” and in fast food companies, because Woolf also made a documentary about the corn industry – or, as the author put it, because Woolf “has made a career of pandering to the hysteria about modern agriculture.”

Others who received positive coverage while paying IMGE for services include:

  • Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who paid IMGE almost every month between May 2013 and December 2015, was covered in positive terms several times: “Senator Tim Scott Talks More Common Sense About Fixing the Economy in 3 Minutes Than Obama Has in 5 Years,” and an article aggregating racially charged tweets about Scott’s Senate victory, which ended: “We send our congratulations to Senator Scott – now, get to work!”
  • Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who was featured in the article, “12 Women Who Would Never Be Included on Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year List.” The article appeared on Nov. 3, 2015; on Nov. 10, Rodgers’ campaign paid IMGE $4,500 for fundraising consulting.
  • Dan Bongino, the 2014 Republican candidate for Maryland’s 6th District, paid IMGE for web development and strategic consulting between August 2013 and February 2014. In January 2014, a post on IJR titled “The Hate-Filled Tweet One Lefty Sent Dan Bongino Will Make You Sick” lamented that “liberal trolls don’t usually let facts get in the way of their hate.”

Still, there are many candidates who paid IMGE for consulting services who didn’t get any coverage on IJR, and even a couple of examples of candidates who paid IMGE but received unflattering coverage. When a senior aide to Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., resigned after a prostitution scandal in April 2015, IJR wrote about it. Ayotte’s campaign paid IMGE $34,754 between June and November in 2015. GOP Sen. Richard Burr, one of the firm’s biggest clients, was included in an article criticizing Republican senators titled “11 Republicans Didn’t Sign Onto Senate Measure Condemning Obama’s Amnesty–Here are Their Excuses.”

Matt Manda, communications director of Media Group of America, which owns both IJR and IMGE, denied that IMGE has any interaction with IJR:

We’re extremely proud of our growth and of how far we’ve come in a short time, and our credibility matters the most. We’ve never shied away from our company’s history, and as has been reported numerous times, we keep complete separation between editorial and agency. Editorial content is in no way interacting with IMGE.

There are plenty of examples of news companies that report on campaigns, products, or businesses, who happen to also purchase advertising with those very outlets.

IJR isn’t the only media outlet with close ties to a political firm. The website Blue Nation Review (BNR) was acquired last fall by Clinton ally David Brock, who runs several nonprofit organizations and super PACs, including the pro-Clinton super PAC Correct the Record. Correct the Record coordinates with the Clinton campaign, which super PACs normally can’t do; representatives claim it can because the group isn’t making independent expenditures.

A screenshot of Blue Nation Review’s website. (Image credit: Blue Nation Review)

BNR frequently writes material praising Clinton. On June 8, CEO Peter Daou, formerly a digital strategist for Hillary Clinton, boasted about the site’s increased traffic, attributing that to “covering Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in unapologetically positive terms and without the typical caveats, reservations or negative narratives.” BNR has also written a significant amount of negative content about Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

There’s been some overlap in staff between BNR and Correct the Record as well. Susan Madrak posted almost daily at BNR from January until the end of February. In March, she was paid $3,694 by Correct the Record. By April 11, she was back to writing for BNR, with posts praising Clinton and criticizing both Bernie Sanders (“OUTBURST: Bernie Angrily Lectures Sandy Hook Families About Hillary”) and Donald Trump. When asked on Twitter by reporter Andrew Perez about this overlap, Daou said Madrak only worked at Correct the Record in March and returned to BNR in April. (We won’t be able to corroborate this using Correct the Record’s FEC filings until the next filing on July 20.)

At least four other people have both worked at Correct the Record and written for BNR: Katie Paris, Daphne Zhang, Shawn Drury and John Brammer. They all appear to have been hired by Correct the Record in March — about a month before Correct the Record announced its “Barrier Breakers” project, intended to be “a resource for supporters looking for positive content and push-back to share with their online progressive communities.”

It’s not entirely clear whether BNR is supposed to be a news site, though it does consider itself both a “media platform” and an “outlet.” When Brock acquired the site, the Huffington Post quoted him as saying, “The publication would be ‘a focal point in liberal journalism,’ producing daily content, investigative journalism and video.”

On July 11, we received this statement from MWW PR, a public relations firm representing Blue Nation Review:

BNR is transparently Democratic. We have a point of view and a commitment to the facts. Our publicly posted mission is clear and unequivocal: “BNR is the media platform Democrats trust. We challenge conventional wisdom and advocate with conviction for candidates and causes we believe in.

Nothing outlined here is evidence of impropriety, or violation of campaign finance law. But readers deserve transparency about the relationship between the sites they trust to provide the news and any relationships with candidates for office those outlets might have.

1 A comScore representative told Sunlight via email that IJR received around 22 million unique hits in June 2015, down to just under 15 million hits in May 2016. (Back to top)