Back in 2011, when Silicon Valley entrepreneur Matt Galligan was helping to launch Circa—a mobile news app pitched to consumers who liked their journalism no-frills in short, concise bursts—Circa’s basic precept was boldly counterintuitive.
At a moment when American media outlets had established a profitable business model exploiting the entertainment values and tribal urges of partisan polarization—witness the success of Fox News, the Drudge Report, and even MSNBC and CNN—Galligan and his Circa co-founders, Ben Huh and Arsenio Santos, “worked very, very hard to build a platform that would be as neutral as possible,” Galligan told The Daily Beast.
“We built features into our CMS [content management system] that required our writers to cite their sources, because it was helpful to have a paper trail and we wanted our readers to be able to fact-check us,” Galligan added. “Neutrality and accuracy—those were our core tenets.”
Circa went live in October 2012, raised nearly $6 million in venture capital, and became an instant sensation in the tech and business press—notably a December 2014 feature in Wired magazine that chronicled Circa’s nimble news-breaking capabilities in easily digestible bites. But the experiment ultimately foundered for lack of finances. The company suspended operations in June 2015 and searched for a corporate buyer.
Several promising discussions with Twitter came to naught; CNN made an offer, only to withdraw it at the last minute.
In late 2015—less than a year after that Wired valentine—Circa was purchased for an estimated $800,000 by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation’s biggest owner of local television stations.
Sinclair owns more than 170 stations currently, but if its $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media receives regulatory approval that number could conceivably grow to more than 230 stations across 108 television markets, including the widely watched cable channel WGN.
Sinclair promptly remade Circa in its own image, yet has stoutly denied reports in both Politico and The Washington Post that it cut an access-for-favorable-coverage deal with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. It was recently the target of a John Oliver takedown as a powerful purveyor of right-wing nonsense.
Discarding the original vision and replacing it with what critics claim is a stealthy emphasis on right-leaning, Trump-friendly content, Sinclair launched Circa News last July and, in recent months, has become a favorite of Sean Hannity among other Fox News personalities, along with embattled presidential son Donald Trump Jr. (a serial retweeter of Circa News stories), tendentious White House talking head Sebastian Gorka, and alt-right populist Trumpkin Mike Cernovich.
“I’m a fan. They are doing great work,” Cernovich told The Daily Beast. “I think it’s a cool trend that you have news sites with names like Axios and Circa that almost sound like think tanks. It’s giving a fresh coat of paint to the media… I think Circa’s working the other side of the street [from the mainstream media]. There are two sides to every story, and Circa is telling the other side of the story.”
As for Circa News’ national security reporter, Sara Carter, Cernovich said: “She’s become a real player, that’s for sure.”
Carter is a frequent guest on Hannity to discuss her “blockbuster” stories alleging various improprieties by former President Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice and fired FBI director James Comey, and casting doubt on rival media reports of possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia (often alongside pugnacious Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, with whom Carter is said to be close).
Don Jr., meanwhile, is also a fan of Carter and Circa News, tweeting a link to a Carter story in late June, and adding: “Did the FBI retaliate against Michael Flynn by launching Russia probe?| Circa News - Learn. Think. Do.”
The story—co-bylined, like several others, with then-Circa News chief operating officer John Solomon (a onetime Newsweek-Daily Beast employee who on Monday abruptly left Circa News to run the digital operation of Washington’s The Hill newspaper)—was widely touted in Trump-friendly media, especially Fox News.
It suggested that President Trump’s fired national security adviser, currently under criminal investigation for allegedly lying to federal law enforcement officers, is the target of FBI revenge for his support in 2014 of a sexual discrimination complaint filed against the brass by supervisory special agent Robyn Gritz.
Gorka clearly agrees with young Don, exhorting Sean Hannity on May 16—during a Fox News appearance in which he lamented the mushrooming White House leaks, the “dishonest media,” and the supposed misconduct of Comey and Rice—“You have to keep doing what you do, Sara Carter has to keep doing what she does, because you’ve nailed it Sean… When Sara Carter, when Sean Hannity gets to the bottom of that [Rice’s so-called unmasking of Flynn’s discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador and the subsequent leak to The Washington Post], we will have a story that makes Watergate look like a fairy tale.”
Circa News is considered so friendly to the Trump White House that The New York Times reported late Tuesday night that the president’s personal attorney, Marc E. Kasowitz, was planning to use the site to counter all the damaging stories in the legacy media surrounding Don Jr.’s Russia/email debacle.
With the benefit of hindsight, Mike Galligan said the sale of Circa to Sinclair was unavoidable, if unfortunate.
“When you’re between a rock and a hard place, you choose the path of least resistance,” said Galligan, who last week tweeted: “I’m so upset to see the Circa brand we worked hard to build, with truth & neutrality at its core, be twisted into what it is now.”
He added: “This is not seller’s remorse. There wasn’t anything else we could do…But they’re eroding all of the good will we had generated and it’s just heartbreaking to know that something we had worked so hard to do is not being continued by its new custodian. Now there’s a large effort being made to elevate that brand within conservative circles.”
A recent study of Circa News by the Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen documented the robust partnership between the news site and Hannity—who, along with Fox & Friends, is the president’s most enthusiastic and reliable cheerleader on cable television.
“By my count,” Owen wrote, “Carter appeared on Hannity 11 times in March, six times in April, five times in May, and 12 times in June. (Hannity in March: ‘Sara Carter has been breaking incredible news over at CircaNews.com. She’s going to weigh in on these deep state actors working to take down the Trump administration. Sara’s excellent reporting has uncovered no evidence, none, in spite of what NBC and CNN tell you every day, between President Trump and the Russians. She will join us exclusively next.’)”
Not surprisingly, Sinclair’s vice president of news, Scott Livingston, who oversees the site, disputes that Circa News’s rebirth has pushed it to the right.
“Circa serves the interests of independent-minded millennials,” Livingston told The Daily Beast. “Liberals and conservatives alike can find interesting stories on Circa, and I think that recent coverage has selectively chosen to highlight particular pieces that we’ve aired typically as commentary—and this creates a false impression. Circa is certainly committed to straight-news coverage, and I’m proud of our work and our journalism.”
Livingston continued: “We’re committed to move Circa forward as a video-first digital news force with a focus on impactful and compelling storytelling that serves the next-generation news consumer. That’s always been our mission.”
As for the withering critique of HBO’s John Oliver—who spotlighted Sinclair’s “must-run” edict to its local stations’ newscasts to air video clips featuring political analyst Boris Ephsteyn, a rabid Trump loyalist—“I appreciate his unique brand of humor,” Livingston said, “but his commentary is contextually incomplete and therefore inaccurate. We stand by our editorial decisions.”
Sara Carter didn’t respond to emails seeking an interview, and John Solomon declined an interview request, explaining through a publicist that he’s focused on his new job at The Hill—which he took after a year and a half at Circa News.
In an interview with Nieman Lab’s Owen, Solomon echoed Livingston’s protestations of fairness and balance: “We accommodate all sides in a story…we cover politics the way, when I was growing up in journalism, most of the media covered it, which is: You gave people the facts and you let people make up their minds.”
But press critic Angelo Carusone, president of the liberal-leaning watchdog group Media Matters, said that unlike conservative-leaning outlets of years past, Circa News cleverly presents itself as a straight-down-the-middle news site whose ideologically driven content is subtly masked.
“What’s different about Circa and Sinclair as well is the way in which they position themselves in the conservative media echo chamber,” Carusone told The Daily Beast. “It’s so insidious. They understood that they had to have a veneer of journalism for their political content… They’re building up this veneer of credibility the way they’re positioning themselves to appeal to disaffected millennials.”
Indeed, Tuesday’s top stories on Circa.com were:
“A hologram of a Holocaust survivor will answer any question you have about the genocide”; “These ponds filled with algae might be the key to saving the world’s fisheries”; and “Watch how this wife surprised her husband and revealed she’s a match for his kidney donation.”
Meanwhile, the big story leading most other media outlets—Don Jr.’s damaging email chain—was accorded a tiny headline giving the first son’s troubles a rare positive spin: “Trump said his son ‘is a high quality person’ for releasing an email chain.”
“They’re using a clean brand that doesn’t really have any baggage affiliated with it,” Carusone said. “It’s hollowed out, and they fill it not just with conservative misinformation but, in this case, Trump sycophants are now using that brand in order to promote what’s supposed to be original reporting but aligns very closely with Trump’s agenda.”