News or ads? Liberal sites in Michigan spend big to hype Slotkin, Democrats

Courier Newsroom has spent more than $80,000 on ads promoting stories with flattering headlines for Democratic Rep. Elissa Slokin.

LANSING — Michigan U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin is trying to distance herself from the kind of flattering news coverage most politicians would kill for in an election year. 

The Holly Democrat “Has a Bill to Set-Up Testing Programs That Can Get Economy Running Again,” declares the headline on one Courier Newsroom article that plucks statements from a Slotkin news release and includes no opposing viewpoints.

“Rep. Slotkin Calls For Michiganders to Work Together as State Starts to Reopen,” trumpets another Courier article.

Courier, created and primarily funded by a deep-pocketed liberal group that does not disclose donors, has spent more than $80,000 on social media ads promoting those stories and others about Slotkin, who has championed campaign finance reform and criticized the role of dark money in elections. 

Partisan news sites are nothing new, but Courier’s targeted ad campaign appears unique. Facebook data showed that Courier has pumped more than $1.7 million  in ads promoting Slotkin and other Democrats in swing districts across the country. By federal law, Courier is not required to disclose its spending or donors because it is organized as a media organization and is promoting its own coverage. 

Courier, which has also launched local sites in Michigan and other battleground states, employs real journalists and has positioned itself as a progressive counter to conservative news sites like Breitbart. But critics say Courier’s ad spending blurs the lines between a newsroom and political action committee in ways that could further undermine confidence in journalism when objective truth is already under assault. 

"The news media as Fourth Estate just kind of evaporates under this model," said Philip Michael Napoli, a professor specializing in media and democracy at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy. "It's news as a political tool: ‘Let's create an offensive here, and a defensive front there.'"

Slotkin, who began her term by voting for legislation that would expand disclosure rules for election spending and has pledged not to accept contributions from corporate PACs, had “no involvement or contact with [Courier] or any other dark money group,” said Maggie Kadifa, her re-election campaign spokesperson. 

"Elissa believes that the best way to inform voters is a free and open press, and that truly independent media organizations are most effective at keeping citizens engaged," Kadifa said. "Political sites trying to imitate independent, local news organizations only confuse the public in ways that do not advance our democratic ideals.” 

That’s easy for Slotkin to say now, said Tori Sachs, a GOP operative and executive director of Michigan Rising Action.

Facebook data showed that Courier has pumped more than $1.7 million in ads promoting Elissa Slotkin and other Democrats in swing districts across the country.

“Slotkin waited until Courier spent nearly $100,000 for her to disavow the ads and now her House Democratic colleagues who have collectively benefitted from over $1 million in ads should do the same,” Sachs said.

Slotkin flipped the 8th Congressional District, which stretches from Lansing to northern Oakland County, in 2018 by defeating Republican Rep. Mike Bishop by about 4 percentage points. Slotkin’s victory helped Democrats regain control of the U.S. House. 

She’s now running for re-election against GOP challenger Paul Junge of Brighton. His campaign manager Rob Wagener said Slotkin’s pledge to not accept dark money is “phony.”

“This latest example of spending literally from a fake news site shows that liberal Elissa Slotkin is not the person she sold to voters in 2018,” Wagener said.

Gordon Trowbridge, senior adviser of communications for Slotkin's campaign, said it is "ironic that Congresswoman Slotkin's political opponents are criticizing her on this issue even though she has called for limits on unlimited outside campaign spending, called out partisan imitation news sites, and declined to accept corporate PAC donations — all steps they have refused to take." 

"She will continue fighting to reduce the influence of money in our political process."

A liberal counter

Courier did not respond to requests for comment from Bridge Michigan, but company leaders have defended the site's journalism elsewhere.

The newsroom pairs "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,” COO Rithesh Menon told Politico in a statement last month. 

“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 was founded by Tara McGowan, a former director of the Super PAC Priorities USA and a digital producer for Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. She also co-founded Acronym, a nonprofit that Courier says is a majority funder. Company officials told OpenSecrets in May they have attracted other investors, but records are not readily available to verify that claim.  Acronym does not disclose its donors. 

The media company this year launched liberal news sites in several states expected to play a key role in the November election, including The ‘Gander in Michigan.

Aimee Rinehart, research director of First Draft, a nonprofit that works to combat misinformation and disinformation online, compared Courier to conservative partisan sites like Breitbart and Drudge Report. 

“The fact that it is owned by an organization that supports a candidate and a party, you know, that's not journalism,” Rinehart said.

The political right has long dominated the partisan news wars with sites like The Daily Caller and The Blaze that promote conservative viewpoints but do not appear to have any significant advertising presence on Facebook like Courier. 

Still experts say Courier is evidence of Democratically aligned groups using dark money initiatives and digital marketing techniques that conservatives pioneered with nonprofits and super PACs.

“There's been an explosion of ways that political operatives are trying to take advantage of big money-funded organizations in the election context.” said Michael Beckel, the research director of Issue One, a national nonprofit focused on campaign financial transparency. “In more recent years we've seen more and more Democratic operatives wanting to use every tool they can in order to win elections.”

Facebook records show Courier Newsroom and its state outlet are not the only source of Acronym ad spending in Michigan. 

In the month leading to the August primary, Acronym and Facebook pages connected to it spent at least $438,000 ads targeting Michigan readers, according to a review by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. 

The spending gave the organization a wide reach. 

According to Facebook’s own disclosures, it represented about 7 percent of political ad spending on the social media platform that month in Michigan. The ‘Gander Newsroom spent $142,294. Courier Newsroom, $14,704. Another page called Four Is Enough, funded by Pacronym, Acronym’s super PAC, spent $143,483. 

About $53,000 was spent advertising United Research Group, a Facebook page that advertised a form of slanted surveys called push polls, meant to persuade voters rather than gauge their opinions. The connection with Acronym was first reported by The New York Times.

“They are raising money from the same political donors that are funding candidates and the national parties, they are employing people who work for the national parties, they are almost working arm-in-arm with political organizations and doing so to benefit their team, their side,” Beckel said. 

Partisan news goes local

With traditional media companies battling declining readership and revenue, experts say more readers are seeking out new sites that confirm their own beliefs. Research shows partisan polarization in the use and trust of media sources has grown in recent years. 

"There are plenty of people who will happily and knowingly consume hyper-partisan news," Napoli said. 

Courier and other partisan sites are increasingly targeting those readers at the local level with sites that have names similar to traditional newspapers.

“Having a name that sounds like you are part of the community or part of the state that the group is active in can be a very persuasive measure,” Beckel said. 

On the conservative side, as the Lansing State Journal first reported, an outfit called Metric Media last year began blanketing Michigan with a series of local “news” sites like Ann Arbor Times, Grand Rapids Reporter, Lansing Sun and Detroit City Wire — 37 in total to date.

Metric Media, which has ties to GOP operatives and produces coverage that tends to highlight Republican officials, did not respond to a request for comment. Online, the company claims it is working to “fill the void in community news after years of decline in local reporting by legacy media."

But the company is opening sites in communities that are politically relevant — not simply lacking a local newspaper, said Napoli, whose research team at Duke has mapped the "location" of hundreds of hyper-partisan sites masquerading as local news. 

If successful, they could steal readers from traditional news organizations and perpetuate their decline, he said. Established partisan sites like Brietbart and The Gateway Pundit now attract more than 1 million unique visitors apiece per month.

"This downward slide that the role of nonpartisan journalism pays in our overall news ecosystem and our political ecosystem is really troubling," Napoli said.

Metric Media now operates sites in every state but Illinois, where a related conservative news network already has a strong foothold in the market, according to Priyanjana Bengani, a senior research fellow at Columbia Journalism School's Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

One counterpart to Acronym’s spending in Michigan is a network of nonprofits founded by conservative activist John Tillman. Its news arm The Center Square, like The ‘Gander, boasts about editorial independence while remaining tied to related advocacy organizations. Metric Media’s sites regularly draw on reporting from The Center Square.

Tillman said the publication “does not have an ideological bent at all,” though its coverage frequently coincides with policies of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit that drafts conservative legislation for state lawmakers. 

In an interview in May, Tillman said he and the organizations connected to him work to engage everyday people in discussions on those issues, so “rank-and-file folks who are not connected to the powerful have an opportunity to have their voices heard.”

“We take a very marketing-focused approach to identifying people and giving them the kind of content and information they're looking for to help them be better informed and help them make better decisions about how they do their civic engagement,” Tillman said.

Unlike Courier or The Center Square, which employ full-time reporters, more than 95 percent of the articles published by Metric Media sites are either automated content or press release rewrites — content known as “pink slime journalism” — while only about 4 percent of stories have a human byline, she said. 

Their original stories have a very evident conservative angle, and a lot of the op-eds are written by people who are either conservative members of the state Legislature or Congress... or conservative things tanks," Bengani said. Although Media Metric sites have a small presence on social media, they publish 40,000 to 50,000 stories per day combined.

Metric Media sites say they are funded by the Metric Media Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit founded in August 2019. The foundation has not yet filed any tax documents, and even when it does, it will not be required to disclose donors. 

"We have no view into how they're getting paid," Bengani said, “if this essentially a grifters’ organization where they're just trying to make money from ad revenue, or if there's something more to this." 

Simon D. Schuster is executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to highlighting the role of money in Michigan politics.

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Mon, 08/31/2020 - 7:59am

Probably a good idea to keep Tara McGowan and her Acronym outfit away from vote counting software for caucuses. She appears better suited to general, untraceable mendacity.

Get real!
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 8:14am

Until we change and enforce the laws, we can't expect only one side to play fair. That would be like shooting yourself in the foot, stupid. Until now, that has been the tired GOP argument for not addressing climate change. Why should the US change, if China doesn't? There is some truth to that. Everyone has to play by the same rules.

Be honest
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 8:20am

"There are plenty of people who will happily and knowingly consume hyper-partisan news," Napoli said.

Well that's what happens when you treat everything with legitimacy. There are not always two sides to the truth. Some ideas are just plain BS, based on scientific consensus. Consider flatearthers. They base their ideas on faith and interpretation of one word in the Bible without regard to all the science that has allowed us to travel to the moon and beyond. The science created the very internet they use to try and debunk the same science.

Jan Loveland
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 8:41am

I followed the Gander fairly early on, but within a couple of weeks, it became clear that their journalism standards were inadequate. The tipoffs were repeated lack of copy editing and then an article on Traverse City business that featured a hardware store from Alanson. I am not sure who the journalists involved are, but I'm fairly sure that they did not come from the world of newspapering.

Too late?
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 8:54am

None of this undermines the crucial role of Bridge and other sources to point out the misinformation and the disinformation regardless of source.

Trump is however the liar in chief. Never have we had a president lie this much about so much with complete impunity. Trump is everything our forefathers feared. Our Constitution was written so we would not have a president like Trump, but the Congress over the years have ceded all it's power to the supreme executive, a royal who seeks nothing more than to install his children forever more as our rulers.

We are nothing more than his subservient subjects, his property. Some are in his good graces, jesters. All are subject to immediate cancellation and everything he says the opposition is guilty of. It's all projection. We need to take back our democracy now before it is completely gone.

Tue, 09/01/2020 - 5:21pm

"Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban."

My takeaway from this, either the bridge's gatekeeper was not paying any attention before approving this post or the bridge implicitly agrees with what was written.

Which is it?

Tue, 09/15/2020 - 9:42am

One persons opinion and we all have them. When I read that comment, looked at it as someone with TDS and that’s okay. Coming from someone with TDS you have to take that with a grain of salt. Free speech.

Mon, 08/31/2020 - 9:16am

I love hyper partisan news because it shows the absolute absurdity of some things being promoted. It makes it easier for me to see through the garbage. If you have to stoop to the depths of saying Hillary Clinton eats children, then how can I be expected to believe anything else you say? Reminds me of the supermarket tabloids you used to have to pass to make your purchase.

Jan Loveland
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 9:39am

I should add that I am myself a liberal and that what offends me is the out of state contribution by people who clearly have not been around covering stories for years. I find myself asking whether we should be looking for those who are from here, already on the beat with a similar perspective.

I call BS
Wed, 09/02/2020 - 9:54am

That's what they all say.

Jake K
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 10:05am

With even the front line news organizations becoming more and more partisan, it's increasingly difficult to acquire a true picture of a candidate and their positions. I'm not convinced that there is an independent source of news anymore. It's more persuasion than it is reporting. Sadly, there are too many sheep who follow them without digging deep into the details.

Geoffrey Owen
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 10:58am

Whoa Bridge.... First you tie Slotkin to the Courier, as if she is behind it. Next you provide criticism from the opposition and as the article progresses you unravel a slew of right wing news sources doing the same, and yet you don't tie their content to a candidate in the same way you link Slotkin and the Courier. Also apparant is that you provide no fact checking of the Courier content. The few headlines you refer to seem appropriately descriptive of Rep Slotkin. As the Bridge should know, $80,000 is nothing in the games of Politics or Journalism. Except for your independent credentials it is as if you are doing the same thing that your article describes. I have never heard of the Courier or seen its postings but I do believe that Slotkin has done a great job in Congress. She has my support and my vote. I have identified my bias, can you say the same?

Mon, 08/31/2020 - 12:02pm

News organizations have along history of political bias. The truth has always been difficult to discern.

I frequently read the New York Times, Washington Post, Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, MLive, Bridge Magazine and some long established Michigan local news outlets. When multiple news organizations present the same "facts", I begin to be a believer.

Mon, 08/31/2020 - 5:31pm

That's why it's also so important to read the article comments. That's where you find the real nuggets of truthiness, other perspectives.

Mon, 08/31/2020 - 12:49pm

Good. The GOP spearheaded this, only fair they should get some competition. What's good for the goose is good for the gander, right?

The GOP has created the downward spiral of our society dissolving, might as well have some fun on the way down.

Mon, 08/31/2020 - 2:07pm

Talk about hype!
Just last week Bridge ran a piece that said John James would not take health care away from the people of Michigan. Well, John James is a republican and republicans are against ACA and I believe there is a case in the courts to completely eliminate the ACA. So, that would mean John James intends to eliminate health care for the citizens on Michigan.

Much of Bridges reporting is reasonable but when I read a very pro republican piece I have to wonder. John James is a Trump supporter so John James is against the ACA.

Then you write this piece as if the source of your concerns is actually a legit news source, it isn't, never has been it's pure advertising so treat it as that.

Elsie Anne
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 6:04pm

I find this piece a bit disturbing in its timing and focus. Yes, the USA has a problem with partisan news sources, propelled by a population that voluntarily eats up this stuff. But that's not particularly news. Breitbart and FOX News have been doing this for years. Suddenly, a publication with liberal bias comes up and it's big news, worthy of condemnation by Bridge.
Yes, unbiased news is the ideal source, and I truly wish more people would rely on it. (I long for the days of Walter Cronkite.) Perhaps we need (if we don't already have) a ratings scale from the FCC regarding acceptable sources of unbiased news. And maybe we should require a disclaimer statement from news sources that don't meet those standards. But, for now, partisan news is a big part of our American media system, and it disturbs me that this is not considered a problem until a liberal group decides to participate.

Kathryn Houser
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 6:46pm

Thank you for pointing out the hypocrisy of this article. Unfortunately, the partisan wars are in full swing and the left would be remiss to not bring all weapons to the fight. Take care, Bridge, that you play fair.

Mon, 08/31/2020 - 8:13pm

And who makes the determination as to which sources are unbiased? A person who will bring their own biases to the table.

Tue, 09/01/2020 - 2:48pm

Yes, wondering what the GOP Anthony Weiner nothingburger surprise media frenzy will be this time that will get Trump reelected. Someone related to someone who worked for Clinton may have done something, or not, costing Clinton the election. Meanwhile Trump, the candidate, says he likes to grab women by the whohaa and gets a pass, wins the election. Thank you, Russia, you saved us from four years of calm??

Hippy punching
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 8:34pm

It's the new thing. It's making a come back!!

But in a 2017 NYT interview, Hannity said: "I'm a journalist, but I'm an advocacy journalist, or an opinion journalist."

Former Fox News anchor Shepard Smith told Time magazine in 2018 that the opinion side of the network doesn't "really have rules" and exists "strictly to be entertaining."

"We serve different masters," he said. "We work for different reporting chains. We have different rules. They don't really have rules on the opinion side. They can say whatever they want — if it's their opinion."

Hannity then called Smith "clueless about what we do every day." Laura Ingraham weighed in to claim that her show reports things

It's just hippy punching.

They can't stop themselves. They are compelled to do it. Both sides the heck out of Flat Earthers!

Because the Earth IS flat!

Prove me wrong!!

Wed, 09/02/2020 - 10:03am

Hippy, we should ask all political candidates to show us their tax returns and demand they answer whether or not they think the earth is flat. Those two things will provide all the information we need to know to make an informed decision about a given candidate.

Todd Priest
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 6:09pm

Who in the hell thought it was appropriate to make commercials for both Slotkin and Peters asking us to call them and thank them??? What the.......?

Wed, 09/02/2020 - 9:51am

People who appreciate clean drinking water.

Fake news
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 6:10pm

Courier is waaaaaay out there in fake news land. I can fact check that hack site all day long.

Wed, 09/02/2020 - 9:55am

Go for it! Have at it! Share.

Covid is in Fer...
Tue, 09/01/2020 - 9:48am

One of the three colleges is Ferris State and this comes directly from an immediately family member of the Dean of Students. Nice to have an outbreak in the dorms and then 1000s of these students back in town and crowding local business with a high prevalence of being w/o masks. Check online for photos of the Sawmill Tavern this past weekend and you will see photos reminiscent of large parties of recent months in the southern states. Go into a Family Dollar where staff don't wear masks. Go to Lowes whose management states flat out that "Corporate" has instructed them not to abide be/enforces the executive order for wearing masks or limiting the number of customers in the store. This will never end because of the ignorant, selfish deniers refuse to do even the most simple things to help slow this pandemic down.

Wed, 09/02/2020 - 9:58am

We know that won't end well, especially for our loved seniors.

Biden Harris 2020
Thu, 09/03/2020 - 8:17am

Snyder backs Biden!