Newsroom or PAC? Liberal group muddies online information wars

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.

The $1.4 million in Facebook ads is likely just a fraction of the money behind the Courier project, which includes a newsroom of at least 25 people and eight separate websites with content often focused on local issues in presidential swing states. But this activity — creating an unregulated advertising stream promoting Democratic officeholders, more akin to a PAC than a newsroom — diverges from other partisan news outlets that are proliferating online as local newspapers struggle.

And in setting up the enterprise, Acronym — which is financed by some of the deepest pockets in progressive politics, such as liberal billionaires Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, and Laurene Powell Jobs, the majority owner of The Atlantic — has stirred outrage and provoked debate about the ethics of such political tactics and the future of the press.

Backers believe they are simply ahead of the curve. Courier, they say, is where news is heading in the Wild West of social media, where partisan stories often thrive and the old business model is failing. With public-facing editorial standards similar to other media organizations, Courier is an answer to the deluge of false partisan content consumers face, they argue. They also point to the long history of explicitly partisan news outlets in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“More quality reporting with integrity — even if it has a partisan bent and as long as it that bent is disclosed — anything to combat the spread of misinformation is important,” said Nicco Mele, the former director Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, who is supportive of Courier.

But while some Democratic operatives concede the premise that their party needs to be more competitive online, they believe Courier and Acronym’s tactics are unethical but also ineffective given the high cost.

Courier is not the first to experiment with versions of this model, but it is likely the most robust attempt so far. In 2014, the Republican Party’s congressional campaign arm set up “news” sites that criticized Democrats and bought ads on Google to promote the pieces. At the time, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blasted the Republicans for “deception.” Asked if they approved of Courier’s 2020 tactics boosting their members, the DCCC did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“We look forward to Democrats denouncing these dark money fake news groups meddling in our elections,” said Bob Salera, a spokesperson for the National Republican Campaign Committee, who said the party no longer operates such sites. “Since they represent everything Democrats claim to oppose in politics, this should be an easy call.”

Courier’s operations differ from the NRCC in that it is a for-profit newsroom, and election law doesn’t regulate the press due to its First Amendment protections. As a result, Courier raises new digital-age questions about what is and is not a news organization — questions that political ad regulators are unlikely to answer, according to election experts, leaving this murky space open for “abuse,” said Brendan Fischer, the federal reform director at the Campaign Legal Center.

“I don’t know how the FEC would treat Courier because the ‘media exemption’ is the third rail of campaign finance,” Fischer said. “Neither the Democrats or Republican want to be in the business of determining what is a media entity.”

So far, Courier’s web traffic has been light. Its signature site is ranked 76,004 in the United States, according to the Amazon-owned Alexa, and has under 6,000 “likes” on Facebook. The organization did not release any other traffic information. Its most-watched video on YouTube, with over 570,000 views, was a well-reported story showcasing Amazon’s ability to place laudatory stories about itself in local news broadcasts. But the next most-viewed video only had about 2,500 views, and the company’s laudatory clips of their favorite congressional candidates have far less than that. Its YouTube channel has just 735 subscribers.

While campaign finance watchdogs worry about the trend of “dark money” influencing American politics and media experts say that Courier and similar endeavors only further undermine trust in news and shared facts, Courier and their supporters dismiss these concerns as liberal hand-wringing more concerned with being pure than with winning.

“Coupling original, fact-based reporting with paid content distribution, Courier is reaching Americans in their newsfeeds and is providing a powerful counter to conservative misinformation which dominates platforms like Facebook,” Courier Newsroom COO Rithesh Menon said in a statement through an Acronym spokesperson. “We’re so proud of what Courier has built in its first year, and hope others in the progressive space invest in this type of digital media ecosystem – because the Right has for years.” Courier and Acronym did not make anyone available for an on-the-record interview.