The charity arm of the conservative Daily Caller offered donors the opportunity to “propose topics for coverage” and news beats for reporters in exchange for financial contributions.
“News or policy beats that you care about can be the focus of a new project,” a document circulated by the Daily Caller News Foundation between 2016 and 2017 offered. It priced a single reporter on a beat at $200,000, adding: “Together, we can decide on a specific area that you want to see covered.”
“Investors can recommend topics of interest for our editors' consideration,” the document says.
The pitch also said the Caller maintains “complete editorial control” over the site’s content.
The document is more than five years old, and it's unclear how closely it matches current practices. Before Semafor was able to authenticate the document, Daily Caller co-founder and publisher Neil Patel suggested to Semafor that the pitch document was fabricated, citing “many inconsistencies in the document which make it suspect and appear false.” After Semafor authenticated it, Patel didn’t respond to a request for further comment.
The Daily Caller, co-founded by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, remains one of the biggest names in conservative news, sharing red-meat culture, politics, and sports stories. It’s also been the launching pad for many conservative pundits and staffers, and for journalists. But few understand that much of the content on the site comes from the publication’s nonprofit sibling.
The Daily Caller News Foundation is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization that operates separately from the Daily Caller, but has often shared some of the same staffers, offices, leadership, and general editorial views.
The nonprofit creates a free wire service of articles, which the for-profit version then often syndicates, and sells ads against. Other digital news organizations also syndicated DCNF articles, and the pitch document boasts to donors that some of these stories could be picked up by partner sites at mainstream news outlets, including Business Insider and Yahoo.
But the Daily Caller relies heavily on DCNF articles. When I checked on Saturday evening, five out of the top six stories touted on the website were written under the Daily Caller News Foundation brand.
Tax experts interviewed by the Washington Post in 2017 said that the foundation’s structure “appears to violate the spirit of a federal law governing nonprofits.”
Other experts consider the arrangement acceptable as long as the articles are offered for free to all. The Caller weathered a complaint in 2020 from a watchdog group alleging that its for-profit and non-profit arms are inappropriately mingled.
“I think the guardrails against improper donor or sponsor influence on reporting are found in journalist ethics, not in nonprofit law,” said Benjamin Leff, a professor at American University who specializes in US federal tax law and nonprofits.
The group’s donors also include conservative organizations and figures that receive regular coverage in the Daily Caller, the Daily Beast reported last year after obtaining a list of donors to the foundation.
It’s not unheard of for nonprofit newsrooms to accept tax-exempt donations with the purpose of covering certain beats. Many nonprofit news organizations are explicitly ideological, and attract donors who agree with their organizing principles, and who wish to encourage certain types of coverage.
But the DCNF document details how agenda-driven donors could have granular influence over the organization’s editorial coverage, down to the number of stories published on a specific topic, and the cost of running those journalists.
Donors have a say over the types of beats and stories they would like to see on the Daily Caller. And these articles won’t just be on the website itself: Numerous websites publish the Daily Caller’s work, meaning some of the donor-suggested stories were likely republished by other outlets where there are no disclosures or hints about the financial links between donors and the articles.
ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT
In an email to Semafor earlier this month, before he challenged the authenticity of the document, Patel wrote that “it’s pretty clear in that language that our editors retain complete editorial control and independence.”
- Tucker Carlson sold his stake in the Daily Caller in 2020, leaving Patel the majority owner. The late Republican megadonor Foster Friess was also an investor.
- The Caller began as a voice of the conservative establishment, but shifted with the party’s base. “Whatever sort of was fashionable among smart young conservatives tended to be the trend in the office,” said Jim Antle, a former editor and writer at The Caller, said in a long Times series on Carlson that documented the site’s ties to covert white nationalists. “When The Caller started, most smart young conservatives were libertarian. Within a few years after that, a lot of them were populist, nationalist types — which also meant that they were sometimes attracted to things that were much worse than that.”