Dark money funded political activism masquerades as journalism

Courier Newsroom has pseudo newsrooms in multiple states, including North Carolina

Image from Courier Newsroom Facebook page

RALEIGH — A dark money political action committee has been revealed to be the funding source for a self-described “progressive media company” that has spawned activism sites masquerading as news outlets in at least 14 states, including North Carolina.

An extensive report from watchdog site OpenSecrets.org shows that Courier Newsroom is funded by ACRONYM, a progressive dark money group that has an affiliated progressive PAC tied to it, named PACRONYM. The report, published in May, notes that “Courier has faced scrutiny for exploiting the collapse of local journalism to spread “hyperlocal partisan propaganda.” The report also indicates that the outlets and partners of Courier Newsroom look like “free-standing local news outlets” but are “actually part of a coordinated effort with deep ties to Democratic political operatives.”

Various digital campaigns for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Emily’s List, Everytown for Gun Safety and Planned Parenthood have been run by ACRONYM.

ACRONYM is headed by Tara McGowan, a former Democratic campaign strategist and former digital director of the Democrats’ major super PACs, including Priorities USA. Also involved is David Plouffe, campaign manager for former President Barack Obama, who serves on the board of directors of ACRONYM.

In November of 2019, McGowan announced that ACRONYM and its affiliated Super PAC PACRONYM would conduct a $75 million online advertising campaign, called “Four is Enough,” targeting four potential swing states in the 2020 United States presidential election. These campaigns are aided by Courier Newsroom groups in the four states of Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

The targeting of swing states was also noted in a Feb. 6, 2020, article by Gabby Deutch at the Washington Post. Deutch writes that “Courier Newsroom is a clandestine political operation, publishing, among other things, positive stories about moderate Democrats who face difficult reelections in November.” 

Courier Newsroom’s affiliate in North Carolina is called Cardinal & Pine. The site is run by Billy Ball, former reporter for the left-leaning blog NC Policy Watch, which is a project of the N.C. Justice Center.

Heavy spending on Facebook advertising and article pushes are the main drivers of content for Courier Newsroom sites like Cardinal & Pine. So far this cycle, Courier Newsroom has spent over $1.4 million on Facebook ads. As of July 12, Courier Newsroom has sponsored around 56 ad pushes for Cardinal & Pine. Between May 2018 and July 12, 2020, Courier Newsroom has spent $1,478,784 on Facebook ads on topics that include social issues, elections or politics. 

On Cardinal & Pine Facebook ad buys, OpenSecrets.org writes, “The page’s ads give the appearance of news but are mostly focused on the coronavirus pandemic or on criticizing President Donald Trump.” 

Facebook has been considering a ban on political campaign advertising on its platform; however, because Courier Newsroom has media status, they will still be able to place their political content.

The majority of the ads paid for by Courier Newsroom targeted North Carolina audiences and focused on the promotion of Democratic congressional representatives from other states, including numerous placements for Abigail Spanberger (VA-7), Anthony Brindisi (NY-22), Max Rose (NY-11), Harley Rouda (CA-48) and Jared Golden (ME-2).

Cardinal & Pine spent $87,078 on Facebook ads between May 2018 and July 12, 2020.  At least four of the ads in the last month were Cardinal & Pine articles targeting N.C. Sen. Thom Tillis.

One Cardinal & Pine article promoted on Facebook is titled, “Thom Tillis Voted to Repeal the ACA Seven Times. He Has To Go, Healthcare Advocates Say.” Two separate ad campaigns were set up to push the Tillis/ACA article, spending $1.5K to $2K on one ad and $5K to $6K on another. 

The Tillis/ACA article’s cited “healthcare advocates” turn out to be two progressive organizations, one is “NextGen North Carolina, a coalition of progressive youth aiming to mobilize the youth vote,” created in 2013 by former 2020 presidential candidate and Democratic megadonor, Tom Steyer. The other advocate cited is “Piedmont Rising.” According to OpenSecrets.org, Piedmont Rising is a “left-leaning 501(c)(4) nonprofit” that is masquerading as a news outlet and is run by “Casey Wilkinson, the former director of North Carolina’s House Democratic caucus.” 

According to OpenSecret.org’s findings, Piedmont Rising’s main target is Tillis through digital ads and video via a site called the “North Carolina Examiner.”

“Piedmont Rising spent more than $118,000 on Facebook ads, most of which portray the website as a news outlet. In addition to pseudo news ads, Piedmont Rising paid for a handful of promoted digital ad campaigns posted by pages of social media influencers targeting Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) on health care issues,” reads OpenSecrets.org’s report.

Both local television station WRAL and OpenSecrets.org’s report indicate that the North Carolina Examiner website appears to be a local news outlet focused on North Carolina healthcare but really just mimics a television newscast and is careful not to run afoul of FEC rules about supporting or opposing the election of a candidate. WRAL’s report cites a Durham attorney specializing in media law and transparency who calls the NC Examiner reports “deceptive” and “disconnected from any additional context.”

In one story by Kim Mackey, she makes the case of why schools should not open, wherein she attacks the state’s legislature but doesn’t even mention the governor.

However, nowhere on the site does it say Mackey is a member of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), an affiliate of the largest teacher’s union in the country, the National Education Association (NEA). The NCAE has been an ardent supporter of Cooper. Mackey’s bio also fails to mention that she is a member of Red4Ed NC, an NEA-linked protest group, and an author at NC Policy Watch.

Another Cardinal & Pine story promoted on Facebook was on the topic of PPP loans to businesses in North Carolina, with subtext implying that the loans may be “too late.” Cardinal & Pine dropped $2.5k to $3k on one Facebook ad and $6k to $7k on another promoting the article between June 26 and July 9, 2020. Each ad was supposed to reach between 100,000 to 500,000 people.

The Cardinal & Pine PPP loan article mentions an earlier report from April where small businesses were allegedly having a hard time getting loans while at that time, large corporations were receiving PPP loans.  

The most recent PPP loan data shows that not only did the loans go to many small businesses in the state, millions also went to a number of progressive and left-leaning non-profit organizations, including the N.C. Justice Center. According to PPP loan records, N.C. Justice Center picked up between $350,000 and $1 million in PPP money.

Courier Newsroom did not respond to request for comment directly but passed the request to Cardinal & Pine.

“As a career journalist, I can say without hesitation that the media landscape is nothing like it was 5, 10, or 20 years ago,” said Ball. “And with traditional outlets struggling to fund their efforts, it will take the efforts of dedicated journalists like those at Cardinal & Pine to fill in the gaps.”

“Cardinal & Pine is transparently progressive, but facts guide everything that we report,” Ball said. “There is nothing ‘pseudo’ about the team that we’ve put together.”

In an email, Ball said that that he and his staff have won dozens of state, regional and national awards for their journalism. That’s true; however, those awards were received while working for N.C. Justice Center properties and not Cardinal & Pine. Ball added that, “Facts come first. They always will at Cardinal & Pine.”