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Jul 7, 2024, 7:22pm EDT
mediapolitics

Top Democratic lawyer backs mysterious news site

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The Scoop

A secretive local media network with ties to high-profile national Democratic operatives wants to convince regulators in Arizona that despite the political tilt of its stories, it is not a political entity and should not be subject to campaign finance disclosures.

Star Spangled Media operates a series of left-leaning websites including the Morning Mirror, a difficult-to-find, barebones blog that for the last few months has periodically published a few unbylined stories about seemingly random topics. Its “About Us” page simply reads: “Welcome to the Morning Mirror—where reliability meets fresh insight. Stay informed with us as we deliver on the matters that impact your life.”

Over the last few weeks, Star Spangled Media has started spending a modest amount to boost Morning Mirror stories on Facebook that tout the pro-abortion rights records of local Democratic candidates running for Michigan House seats.

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The site is low on content, but it has the backing of the law firm led by Marc Elias, perhaps the Democratic Party’s best known elections litigator and a central player in 2024’s politics. And Elias’ law firm is moving to ensure the odd blog is treated as a journalistic operation, not a political one.

In a letter to the state’s campaign finance regulator, the Arizona Citizens Clean Election Commission, in late May, Jonathan S. Berkon, an attorney at the Elias Group, asked the state finance regulator to opine on whether the state’s campaign finance law applies to Star Spangled Media. The company’s activities, argued Berkon, do not constitute campaign media spending, and it shouldn’t have to report extensive financial info to state or federal campaign finance regulators.

“Star Spangled Media is a for-profit media company that is in the business of publishing and distributing original news stories, commentaries, and editorials,” he wrote. “Star Spangled Media accepts funds in the ordinary course of its business from grants from nonprofit organizations that are interested in funding the type of news coverage that Star Spangled Media undertakes and building an audience for the news coverage via targeted advertising. For tax purposes, this revenue is treated like any other revenue derived from a commercial transaction.

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“Because any funds that Star Spangled Media spends on content and news boosting are the monies it receives via these ordinary course commercial transactions,” Berkon concluded, the company is not a “covered person” under Arizona campaign finance law.

Despite Berkon’s argument, it is clear that there are some ties between institutional Democrats and the Morning Mirror. Many of the articles on the site do not have author bylines, making it difficult to understand who is producing the content.

But the site’s source code reveals a few clues about the its ties to Democratic politics: The Morning Mirror was created in part by Lucas Anderton, a creative director for SBDigital, a progressive digital advertising firm. Cesar Vargas-Torrico, a former Democratic comms staffer working for a left-leaning Democratic PR shop, is listed as an author on stories.

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Know More

Arizona regulators don’t know what to make of the Elias Group’s argument. In a response late last month, the commission said that, “because The Morning Mirror has extremely limited output, and there is no information available about its editorial process, it is impossible for the Commission to determine whether its political articles—many of which appear to be generated by using campaign created media—go through the same process as its non-political articles.”

“Because the Commission cannot conclude the press exception applies, the Commission cannot conclude that Star Spangled Media is not a covered person and does not intend to engage in campaign media spending,” the letter said. “Equally importantly, however, the Commission is not concluding the opposite—simply put more facts about Star Spangled Media’s internal operations and news presence in Arizona would be necessary for the Commission to reach a reasoned conclusion about whether the press exception applies.”

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Max’s view

The Morning Mirror may not explicitly be a partisan enterprise, but from the outside, it is hard not to view it as part of a political operation. Democratic consultants — represented by a law firm that does much of the legal work for Democrats’ House, Senate, and state legislative committees — are running a website with positive stories about Democratic candidates in an election year, and using paid ads to boost those stories.

It’s part of a multi-pronged push by Democrats to counter conservative media across the country through increasingly creative and sometimes opaque digital strategies — ones that blur the line between even the most activist political journalism and paid campaigning for the Democratic Party.

Last year, I reported that Democratic consultants and progressive media activists were pushing wealthy Democrats to invest in for-profit media companies and social media influencers in the wake of the collapse of a generation of youth-oriented digital news outlets like Vice and BuzzFeed News. Part of the diagnosis of a widely-circulated 85-page report by longtime Democratic operative and communicator Arkadi Gerney was that center- and left-leaning philanthropists and investors should invest in local television and radio in places where local media has disintegrated.

Left-leaning groups have gotten more involved in the digital landscape, as well.

As Semafor previously reported, Courier Newsroom, a network of local news sites with close ties to the Democratic Party, ramped up its ad spending to target progressive voters ahead of the 2024 election. While the sites have a fairly transparent point of view, it’s not always easy to tell who is behind the stories.

Earlier this year, Iowa Starting Line ran paid Facebook ads boosting critical articles about a bill that would alter the state’s education funding, a proposal opposed by state Democrats and the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union. But as Semafor previously noted, the articles did not disclose that the union is a major funder of Courier, having contributed half a million dollars to the organization since 2022.

To its credit, Courier is far more sophisticated than other players in the space. Prior to this article, the only other piece written about the Morning Mirror was in FWIW, Courier’s must-read digital political newsletter.

Some of these types of sites may undermine confidence in independent journalism, but it’s not clear that paid Facebook advertising to the web is the major communications channel it was eight years ago. As news consumers’ habits change, boosting these articles on Facebook also seems unlikely to change many minds — even if it becomes a favored channel for spending the money of Democratic political donors.

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Room for Disagreement

In an email with Semafor, Berkon cast Star Spangled Media as a transparently left-of-center replacement for diminished local media.

“Star Spangled Media is aiming to fill a hole in the media landscape: providing factually accurate information about legislatures, legislative policies, and legislative candidates, and non-policy issues such as the weather,” he said.

A person familiar with the outlet said that it was not owned, operated, or controlled by a campaign, political party, or political action committee, didn’t endorse candidates, and had editorial independence.


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Notable

  • In his book, The Death of Truth, Steven Brill describes a similar phenomenon: “pink slime” media. “They are secretly financed by partisan funders and created to boost their favorite political candidates and tear down their opponents while piously masquerading as independent, nonprofit start-ups launched by civic-minded donors to fill the gap created by the decline of local newspapers.”
  • Alex Thompson’s own Courier deep-dive for Politico: The operation’s backers say it’s “where news is heading in the Wild West of social media, where partisan stories often thrive and the old business model is failing. “
  • NOTUS’ Maggie Severns zooms in on Courier’s North Carolina site.
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