By Trevor Schakohl
- A dark money nonprofit with Democrat ties has used a website mimicking a state newspaper to attack conservative judge candidate Dan Kelly as the high-stakes Wisconsin state Supreme Court election approaches.
- American Independent Media paid for Facebook advertising for two articles critical of Kelly within its “project” website The Wisconsin Independent.
- “It’s not scandalous when partisan operatives and PACs work to boost their party’s candidates and hurt the other party’s candidates. But it is scandalous when those partisans pretend to be ‘news’ sites,” Capital Research Center President Scott Walter told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
A Democrat-linked dark money group has used a website resembling a Wisconsin news outlet to attack the conservative candidate in the state’s current high-stakes Supreme Court election.
American Independent Media (AIM), a Washington, D.C.-registered 501(c)(4) nonprofit with ties to Democratic political operative David Brock, bought at least $90,000 in Facebook advertisements this month promoting two articles critical of former State Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly on The Wisconsin Independent, a media website labelled as an AIM “project.” Early voting is already underway in Kelly’s officially non-partisan April 4 Wisconsin State Supreme Court election contest against liberal Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz, which will determine whether Democrats take majority control of the court for the first time in 15 years, according to NBC News.
“Dark money” groups spend funds from undisclosed sources to impact political outcomes, and 501(c)(4)s engaged in politics can legally choose not to reveal their donors in most cases, according to Open Secrets.
“It’s not scandalous when partisan operatives and PACs work to boost their party’s candidates and hurt the other party’s candidates. But it is scandalous when those partisans pretend to be ‘news’ sites,” Capital Research Center President Scott Walter told the DCNF. “This drives the public’s view of journalists even lower and poisons honest debate.”
AIM, which does not seem to have its own website, has run “project” sites much like The Wisconsin Independent focused on news coverage in several other states. In 2022, the organization paid more than $300,000 combined for ads promoting The Arizona Independent and The Georgia Independent content across Facebook and Instagram, while paying tens of thousands more to advertise articles published on The Pennsylvania Independent.
Some of those advertised articles were critical of Republicans as well. One called Arizona Republicans “out of touch with abortion rights,” while another said the then-Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Assembly was prioritizing “corporate tax cuts over education or inflation” in its budget bill.
The AIM trademark is owned by the Brock-founded company True Blue Media, which publishes the “progressive news” website The American Independent. In April 2022, AIM was registered at the same Washington, D.C. address listed in a 2020 court filing for the Brock-chaired Media Matters for America, his American Bridge 21st Century PAC and the American Bridge 21st Century Foundation he founded.
Brock was once a conservative journalist, but he became a Clinton supporter as a result of writing a 1997 book about Hillary Clinton, he told Politico in 2015. In a Jan. 2021 New York Times opinion essay, he referenced how he founded the super PAC Correct The Record in 2015 to help elect Hillary Clinton president, saying, “Like most Democrats, I initially underestimated Donald Trump.”
“Democratic donors have long overlooked efforts to fund the media, but with so much of our politics playing out on that battlefield, they can no longer afford to,” Brock wrote.
Brock is tied to a 2022 print media campaign very similar to the AIM project sites. A print publication called “The Pennsylvania Independent” was sent to about 20% of the state’s households in April 2022, with “The Wisconsin Independent” and “The Michigan Independent” physically circulating as well, according to The Washington Post.
“Independent women are not cable news junkies. They are on Facebook but they don’t trust it. The thing they trusted from the survey that we did was local print news,” Brock said, the outlet reported in October. “This is in the tradition of advocacy journalism. It is coming from a center-left point of view. We are trying to shed light on actors who are standing in the way of progress.”
The American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, which has historically donated millions of dollars to the similarly-named PAC, gave True Blue Media more than $1.6 million in funding in 2017, more than $1 million in 2018, and $35,000 in 2019, with Brock owning more than 35% of the company in each of those years, IRS records indicated.
Former The American Independent CEO Allison Girvin told the media credibility watchdog group NewsGuard in spring 2020 that Brock held “less than 30%” of True Blue Media ownership at that time, according to a document NewsGuard provided to the DCNF. Girvin said she did not think there was any plan for True Blue Media to keep receiving American Bridge 21st Century funding, “and if we do it would be negligible.”
NewsGuard ruled that the “progressive news” organization The American Independent “does not gather and present information responsibly” because it fails to disclose American Bridge’s political affiliation “while covering news from a liberal perspective that supports the organization’s mission,” the document said.
The American Independent features articles that accuse congressional Republicans of pursuing “extreme bills” that would “undermine labor rights” and “the climate and environment.” A significant portion of the website’s recent content comes from the The American Independent Foundation, which produced the two Facebook-advertised articles found on The Wisconsin Independent and many articles scattered across AIM’s other “project” sites.
AIM’s Facebook and Instagram advertisements appeared on computer screens more than two million times combined. The Arizona Independent and The Ohio Independent do not appear to have published new articles since the November midterm elections, while the most recent content currently posted on The Georgia Independent was a late November American Independent Foundation article critical of then-Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker.
The Wisconsin Independent, along with some other sites within the AIM network, also republished nonpolitical articles from outlets like The Associated Press.
Brock serves as president of Facts First USA, which calls itself “a bipartisan organization focused on ensuring that our national discourse is grounded in facts and honest debate.”
Facts First USA, Media Matters, the American Bridge 21st Century PAC and The American Independent did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.
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