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In this edition: A new Democratic effort to spend campaign cash on imitation journalism.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
sunny Washington
sunny Phoenix
sunny Moscow
rotating globe
July 7, 2024
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Media

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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome back to Semafor Media, where we leak only to favored reporters.

I wrote Friday about a conversation I’d had with an anonymous Biden administration official who is “scared” and wants the president out. I spoke along the way to several of Biden’s top aides — Bruce Reed, Jared Bernstein, Ali Zaidi, Andrew Bates — who went on the record to dismiss this person’s concerns.

They also expressed dismay that I’d rely on an anonymous source. They cited as a point of pride that the Biden administration doesn’t leak to the press. And this sealed White House has allowed them to make policy efficiently, keep internal disputes to themselves, and appear “boring.”

Much of the political media has put its energy into getting information from the enthusiastically leaky, sprawling orbit of the Trump administration, even when Donald Trump is out of power.

But leaks can also be a safety valve. They ensure that image and reality don’t diverge too far from each other. And journalists will trust sources they’ve known to speak in the past against their bosses’ interests over relentlessly on-message voices.

The New York Times reported Sunday that an anonymous “senior White House official … who has worked with Mr. Biden during his presidency, vice presidency and 2020 campaign,” now thinks Biden should go. The leak-free White House has become a pressure cooker.

Also today: Max has more on another disturbing development in Democratic politics: using campaign spending to imitate independent journalism. Plus: Kevin Mayer isn’t buying that there’ll be a TikTok sale. The Beast is ravenous for content. And as the US looks inward, new reports on Russian and Chinese authorities’ control of their own domestic media. (Scoop count: 4)

Mixed Signals

In the most recent episode of Mixed Signals, we dwelled on the core question of this moment in American politics: How could the media have allowed itself to be surprised by Joe Biden’s frailty?

We’ll be attempting to steer the conversation into more summer-y terrain this week! Follow Mixed Signals wherever you get your podcasts.

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Max Tani

Top Democratic lawyer backs mysterious news site

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.

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.

“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 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.

Read on for Max's View on Democrats' move to seed progressive media. →

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One Good Text

Pierre Haski is an international affairs commentator for France Inter and Le Nouvel Obs.

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Plug

Forget scrolling through endless feeds to catch the latest in social media. Matt Navarra does the heavy lifting with Geekout — delivering an information-packed newsletter every Friday. It’s where 30,000+ social media and marketing professionals get their latest social media news, insights, and expert analysis. Join them today — subscribe for free.

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Intel
Gary Doherty/Variety via Getty Images

⁜ Tech

Tick, tock: Kevin Mayer, who did a short tour as TikTok CEO, told Ben and Liz Hoffman that he doesn’t think the timetable of a TikTok sale will give a would-be buyer enough runway to rebuild the app’s algorithm — and that he considers a sale of standalone US operations politically and structurally unlikely. He made those comments in a wide-ranging interview with Semafor about restructuring and cuts at his own firm, Candle Media.

Moscow crackdown: Russia’s state telecom regulator is forcing Apple to remove VPN apps from its app store.

Behind the firewall: In China’s controlled media environment, what is permitted is as provocative as what is censored, the inimitable Li Yuan writes. That includes a heavy dose of xenophobia: “The Chinese government runs a well-oiled public opinion machine that tolerates and even encourages this kind of message when it’s directed at certain countries and their people.”

⁛ News

Numbers of the Beast: Daily Beast editor Hugh Dougherty told remaining staff that they are expected to significantly increase the site’s productivity so the publication doesn’t get deprioritized by Google.

Though one person familiar cautioned it wasn’t a hard-and-fast edict, some staff who previously wrote just a few times a week were expected to produce multiple stories a day, with the goal of publishing at least 40 pieces on the site total every day. The site’s editors themselves have taken matters into their own hands and are pitching in: Chief content officer Joanna Coles and Dougherty have both published stories on the site. Ben Sherwood, the former president of ABC News and the Beast’s new publisher and CEO, has been covering the 100th anniversary of the Caesar salad and the impact of Hurricane Beryl on vacationers.

French toast: Channel France 24 was so surprised by the right wing’s collapse in Sunday’s parliamentary elections that it apparently didn’t have time to adjust its graphic.

The real cold war: “The Biden team remains fixated on its longest-running adversary. Not Donald Trump — The New York Times,” Max reported Friday.

Still at it: A network of sites with names like The Houston Post, tied to Russia, is spreading falsehoods about the Kremlin’s enemies, the BBC reports.

✰ Hollywood

Now they just have to win: Angel City FC upped its status as the most valuable women’s sports franchise in the world when Disney CEO Bob Iger and his wife, J-school dean Willow Bay, put in some $50 million, we scooped last week.

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