Clickbait & LIES

The far right is trying to control the news. Recent developments signal that they’ve moved on from creating their own brands à la Fox News, Breitbart, The Daily Wire, The Federalist, etc., to colonizing existing brands.

This fall, a secretive investment group bought L.A. Weekly, a fellow Association of Alternative Newsmedia paper, then proceeded to dump nearly its entire editorial staff, including a former Folio Weekly staff writer.

Theories flew around the industry, culminating with the Society of Professional Journalists publicly slamming the investors on Nov. 30, writing, “It is an absolute outrage that the public doesn’t know who owns L.A. Weekly.” Then and only then did they reveal the seven investors’ names. OC Weekly reports that five are Republican donors; two are likely Trumpsters.

The firings tell us that they didn’t buy L.A. Weekly because they love the work that earned 21 L.A. Press Club Awards nominations this year (they won two); nor are they passionate about print, or believe in altweeklies. Nay, they bought it because, in the words of incoming head honcho and co-investor Brian Calle, they “want to once again see an incredibly relevant, thriving L.A. Weekly with edge and grit that becomes the cultural center of the city.” Which sounds kinda nice, actually.

Calle went on to trash the paper that was the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for restaurant criticism, until last week had Henry Rollins as a columnist (he bid them adieu after the ownership was announced), and has won more AAN awards than any other outlet. Any publication can bear criticisms, but one would think firing nearly everyone was insult enough. One would also think it foolish to buy a 40-year-old company, then throw out all its assets for, in the media, the assets are the talent.

Nevertheless, he’s entitled to his opinion. So why the Chicken Little act? Simple. If past performance predicts future, then the editorial direction of L.A. Weekly is going to veer hard, hard right under the self-described “free-market enthusiast” who has zero experience in hard news and once co-bylined a column that began with, “… Putin really had no choice except to act on annexing Crimea.”

Calle is also a former vice president of The Claremont Institute, which annually selects up-and-comers to teach them how to become “the thought leaders of modern conservatism.”

“Every day, they are on the frontlines in the battle with progressives,” its website says, “delivering strong, persuasive arguments for the conservative agenda.” (On Dec. 4, the L.A. Times reported that Calle said he left Claremont upon realizing that he “didn’t share its principles and values.”)

Those previously affiliated with Claremont include current White House staffers, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire, the editor of The Federalist, Ted Cruz’s former chief of staff, and now the dude in charge of a beloved, respected altweekly—and a FW sister paper. (Per bylaws, all new owners’ AAN membership is evaluated 9 to 24 months after the purchase.)

So that just happened.

Mulling over this reminded me of a call I got last winter from a local candidate, claiming an online outlet had libeled them and worried we were about to do the same story. That was not the case; I decided against pursuing it because the source had drastically changed their tale and video evidence didn’t back them up. (Calle, take note. This is what we call ‘vetting’.)

But the call made me curious. Turned out the website is a conservative aggregator that lumps its stories with clickbait, fake stories about things like Pizzagate and editorials not marked as opinion. Much of it was offensive and some of it was false, but it seemed at best a blip on the radar screen.

Diving down the research rabbit hole revealed that the site was part of a network that partners with Liberty Alliance, which operates dozens of similar sites, two of which were widely denigrated as fake or misleading after the November 2016 election. One of Liberty Alliance’s divisions is the Liberty Depot, which started as an email-forwarding operation.

Remember those propaganda-style emails that used to clog your inbox with subject lines like “Bring Home Our Troops: Send the Democrats” and “See Obama’s Kenyan Birth Cert.”? Lots of ’em were from Liberty Depot.

Surprisingly, these were not originally designed to push an agenda, but to sell merchandise, like the “Veterans Before Refugees” T-shirts and “If you can’t stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them” stickers Liberty Depot currently sells. In 2009, COO Jay Taylor told Huffington Post, “Initially it was a business opportunity. Then we saw an opportunity to get the message out.”

The words “the message” should give you pause. Media outlets—even liberal rags—may have core beliefs, but there is no message, save one: the truth. If the facts don’t back it up, we don’t report it. These far-right sites don’t keep with such basic standards.

You may not see the parallel between shadowy networks of far-right websites doling out lies to millions and conservatives secretly buying altweeklies. But where I come from, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, it’s foul. Now what are we going to do about it?


Correction: A previous version stated that L.A. Weekly had reported Calle’s statements regarding The Claremont Institute.