With the 2020 elections quickly approaching, millions in “dark money” are being poured into ads and digital content masquerading as news coverage to influence voters. And the sham newsroom behind it all? The Arabella-linked and Acronym-backed Courier Newsroom.
As previously reported by APT, Courier Newsroom is anything but the local news outlet it purports to be. Instead, their “newspapers” are political instruments designed to get you to vote for Democrats. And because they are organized as a for-profit newsroom, they do not face restrictions on microtargeting their political ads like their dark money and super PAC counterparts.
An analysis of recent media buys by major party committees (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee) and super PACs (House Majority PAC and Congressional Leadership Fund), compared with Courier Newsroom’s digital spending, demonstrates that the “newsroom” is largely working to prop up vulnerable members. Election forecasters also agree that these are the most competitive districts.
Courier Newsroom has already demonstrated its willingness to work in concert with these outside groups engaged in political spending. In late 2019, Courier Newsroom’s parent organization, Acronym, teamed up with the dark money group House Majority Forward (HMF), an affiliate organization of HMP, to test messaging in ten competitive House races. Facebook advertisements containing virtually identical messaging, and paid for by Courier Newsroom, appeared shortly thereafter supporting Democrats in many of those races, including Representatives Elissa Slotkin, Lauren Underwood, Gil Cisneros, Antonio Delgado, and Tom Malinowski.
Additionally, back in February 2020, Courier Newsroom announced a new series of articles called “Twenty for 2020: The Work of a Freshman Democrat,” an initiative which they claim “digs into the real experiences of freshmen Democrats as they navigate their first term in the House—and all the ups and downs that come with it.” However, a deeper look into this series fails to provide objective reporting, only presenting positive and glowing stories to support the efforts of these Members. No similar articles can be found for Republican members. In fact, what Courier Newsroom has used its platform to generate a positive, hyper-partisan news stories which are then promoted with paid Facebook ads. While other media outlets have been quick to provide a great deal of coverage to Democratic members, such as Representatives Adam Schiff, Ilhan Omar, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who reside in non-swing districts, it’s clear Courier Newsroom serves a unique purpose in propping up and promoting those members who may not receive as much media attention, but who represent more competitive districts.
The lineup of Democrats profiled, and subsequently promoted through paid social media buys, is nearly identical to the list of Members who represent congressional districts that will be bombarded by millions of dollars of outside spending this fall. For example, Representative Andy Kim, who represents New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District, has alone reportedly benefited from Courier Newsroom’s spending to the tune of $40,000 worth of positive Facebook advertisements.
The thinly-veiled attempts by Courier Newsroom to be a legitimate news outlet, capable of providing objective journalism, have failed. The fact is that the organization has “deep ties to Democratic political operatives.” It carries out partisan objectives in a manner that is no different from the Super PACs that it has shadowed in these competitive districts. Yet, Courier Newsroom has successfully evaded the legal constraints required for such overt campaign activity governing dark money groups and super PACs. Super PACs must register with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), and they cannot coordinate with, or make direct or in-kind contributions to, campaigns. These entities must also disclose their donors. Courier Newsroom fails to adhere to any of these requirements. Instead, they masquerade as a “mom & pop” news outlet while running political ads for Democrats, with no limits on coordination, and no oversight by the FEC.
The public deserves transparency and accountability in all matters related to these elections and the money influencing them. It is in this spirit that Courier Newsroom should remove itself from the shadows of non-disclosure by registering with the FEC, just like the super PACs it so closely mimics.