The company behind the non-partisan news site RealClearPolitics has been secretly running a Facebook page filled with far-right memes and Islamophobic smears, The Daily Beast has learned.
Called “Conservative Country,” the Facebook page was founded in 2014 and now boasts nearly 800,000 followers for its mix of Donald Trump hagiography and ultra-conservative memes. One recent post showed a man training two assault rifles at a closed door with the caption “Just sitting here waiting on Beto.” Others wink at right-wing conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s “ties to Islam” or the Clintons having their enemies killed, or portray Muslim members of Congress as terrorist infiltrators. The page is effusive with praise for Vladimir Putin, and one post portrays Russia as the last bastion of freedom in Europe.
It’s a far cry from the usual fare on RealClearPolitics. Founded in 2000, the site was an early online aggregator of political news, curating links to widely read politics stories and opinion articles in other major outlets. The site has become synonymous with its polling aggregator, which is regularly cited by news organizations on both sides of the aisle as an objective metric of major political races. In recent years, the site has expanded to cover health care, finance, foreign policy, and more.
There’s no hint of Conservative Country’s provenance on its Facebook “about” page, which reads in total, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence. It is force. And force, like fire, is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” (It’s an apocryphal quote attributed to George Washington.) But in 2017 Conservative Country was linked as the official Facebook page for a now defunct political news site using the same name and logo, ConservativeCountry.net.
That website featured professional writers instead of memes, but it too omitted any mention of who owned or operated the site. The Daily Beast connected ConservativeCountry.net to RealClear through archives on the Wayback Machine, which show that the website had RealClear’s Google Analytics tracker code and that some of the site’s images were served from the WordPress account of RealClear’s chief technology officer. Interviews with former editorial staff of ConservativeCountry.net confirmed that it was a stealth RealClear property.
“It was a site put out through RealClear Media,” said Kevin Whiteley, who in an interview with The Daily Beast recalled coming to RealClear in April 2016 by way of a Craigslist help wanted ad. He worked out of RealClear’s Chicago headquarters, and at first his job was writing for the publisher’s branded websites. “And then they launched Conservative Country to do conservative politics,” he said. “Once they started Conservative Country, I was just writing for Conservative Country.”
RealClearPolitics has taken major pains to be seen as nonpartisan and non-ideological in its reporting. The site’s news reporting focuses on horserace-style coverage of elections, evenly weighing opinions from both parties, while the RealClear pages curate a mix of stories and opinion articles from sites across the political spectrum.
But the willingness to share and aggregate all political views has also made the site more receptive to Trump-friendly writing than some other outlets. Of the seven featured “opinion writers” listed in a tab on the site, three—including occasional Trump adviser Steve Cortes—are openly supportive of the president’s agenda.
Conservative Country isn’t the first ultra-partisan title that’s been connected to RealClear. A 2017 SEC filing listed RealClear co-founder John McIntyre as a director at FDRLST Media and put both companies at the same Chicago address. FDRLST Media is the parent company of The Federalist, the conservative news site behind last month’s false story claiming the deep state secretly revised official whistleblower regulations to allow the Trump-Ukraine whistleblower to provide secondhand information. Even after the story was widely debunked, Trump and several GOP lawmakers pushed it on social media and the Sunday morning political shows, and a link to the Federalist article appeared in 1600 Daily, the official White House newsletter.
Although it shies away from some of the most insane conspiracy theories—there’s no mention of Q or Seth Rich—the Conservative Country Facebook page is also no stranger to fake news. During the 2016 campaign season, the page drove traffic to Macedonian sites known for publishing outrageously false stories to reap ad profits. It’s unclear whether those links appeared by negligence or design. According to a former writer for Conservative Country, RealClear monetizes the Facebook page with a pay-for-play model: Third-party publishers can put up cash to get a post featured on the highly trafficked page.
“There were companies paying RealClear for traffic, and Conservative Country was another RealClear page that companies could promote on,” the writer said. “The whole thing was money based, not activist based or anything like that.”
RealClear didn’t respond to questions about the Facebook page but acknowledged that it created the website. “The Conservative Country website was created as part of an effort to understand the flow of traffic from social media—particularly Facebook—to political websites,” said RealClear CTO Anand Ramanujan in an email to The Daily Beast. “There are no other non-RealClear titles out there.”
A count of the Conservative Country posts featuring external links suggests the page’s main purpose is driving traffic back to RealClear’s own properties. Some 240 of the 1,070 external links posted on the page since January 2017 are to RealClear Media’s flagship title, RealClearPolitics. Fox News comes in a distance second with 71 links, followed by 41 posts linking to the conservative commentary site American Thinker. “We have a contract with Real Clear Holdings to handle some of our non-editorial functions,” said American Thinker’s founder Thomas Lifson, when asked generally about his site’s relationship with RealClear.
It is unusual for media companies to run pages without disclosing their ownership. In an email to The Daily Beast, Kelly McBride, a senior vice president at the media-monitoring Poynter Institute, noted that transparency is a crucial element for readers seeking to understand whether they can trust a news outlet.
“Legitimate and respectable news organizations are transparent about their ownership,” McBride said. “It should be clear to the audience consuming a news product who the owner is. Conversely, audience members who are interested in ownership structures should be able to see all the media properties owned by a corporation.”
Others don’t see it as a problem. The more extreme, bigoted memes appearing on the Facebook page are “certainly not a good look for RealClear Media,” Dan Kennedy, an associate professor and media ethicist at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, told The Daily Beast. “But I don’t think it calls into question the credibility of RealClearPolitics.”
"I'm not sure if this is an exact analogy, but The Wall Street Journal is still one of our great newspapers, and no one expects them to disclose that its owned by the same company as the Fox News Channel, which these days has gone full Q-Anon in some of its programming," he said.
With a full-time editor and a handful of paid freelance writers, the Conservative Country website was more costly to run than a Facebook page. According to the former writer, the site’s traffic cratered when Facebook tweaked its algorithms to favor Facebook content over external links. After eight months in operation, RealClear closed the website in October 2017 without ever officially acknowledging its existence.
Whiteley, who served as ConservativeCountry.net’s line editor for the life of the site, said he doesn’t know why RealClear’s branding never graced Conservative Country. “I can confidently say there was nothing sinister about that,” he said. “Maybe whoever built the site didn’t think to put that there.”