PR professionals involving themselves in the creation of news is a far more troubling phenomenon, some media observers warn. It reminded media scholar Robert McChesney of a period in the late 19th century when fabricating stories and bribing reporters was commonplace.
At first glance, Checks and Balances Project looks like a traditional if scrappy news site — an “investigative watchdog blog,” as it bills itself, filled with serious stories scrutinizing corporate activities and government officials. It employs an editor who used to work at USA Today. For more than a decade, its investigations of powerful interests have been picked up by local and national news outlets.
Yet a closer look suggests the site is not always the independent crusader it appears to be. When it investigated the hotel industry, it was after it had received a grant from Airbnb. A high-profile investigation into Arizona utility regulators came after Checks and Balances received money from a solar power company, the company disclosed in 2015.
Now Checks and Balances is investigating a massive hospital system in Virginia named Sentara, publishing regular stories and asking patients and employees to send tips that might reveal how the nonprofit hospital “piled up $6 billion in liquid assets,” among other issues.
These stories started appearing the same month that a medical school in a complex dispute with Sentara hired a public relations firm that happens to share a founder and financial ties with Checks and Balances.
The executive director of Checks and Balances said that its funding sources do not influence the course of its investigations. In the case of Sentara, he said the site’s two-person staff chose to cover a powerful institution that has largely been overlooked by mainstream media. And the PR firm and medical school said the payments between them did not fund the website’s investigations into the hospital chain.
But the relationship was not divulged to readers, nor publicly acknowledged until The Washington Post inquired about it — an arrangement that unnerves transparency advocates who have been keeping tabs on a proliferation of unconventional news sites and watchdog outfits that may be blurring the lines between PR and journalism.
As traditional local newsrooms have shrunk or shuttered, a sprawling new landscape of online news outlets has emerged. Some of these sites focus on specific topics, investigate pressing social issues and fill news vacuums. But some can also depart from journalistic practices and ethics in ways not always clear to readers.
“In this new age, many groups have seized the opportunity to give the illusion that they are traditional news organizations to pursue their own agendas,” said Bill Adair, a journalism professor at Duke University who created the site PolitiFact, which debunks false news. “They’ve often done that without disclosing who fully funds them or what their leanings are. Consumers usually aren’t always savvy enough to discern the difference between these sites and a traditional news organization.”
The nation’s newspapers have shed half their workforce since 2008, and more than a quarter closed altogether during a similar period. Meanwhile, the public relations industry has been booming. PR specialists now outnumber journalists more than 5 to 1, according to 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. And the relationship between PR and news has grown hazier.
The most extreme examples include outfits such as Metric Media — a national network of 1,300 sites that have the look and feel of local news outfits. They cover city councils and schools under innocuous-sounding banners such as “Illinois Valley Times” and the “Lansing Sun.” But a New York Times investigation last year reported that their stories were essentially propaganda, partially funded and directed by PR firms and conservative political groups in support of Republican candidates. (A company executive later called the report “patently absurd.”)
There are also examples of news sites with links to the political left. Eight local sites in electoral battleground states are run by Courier Newsroom, a media group backed by a liberal nonprofit, Acronym, which has ties to Democratic donors. (Its founder, who has been public about the effort, has insisted the sites do objective, fact-based reporting.)
Some emerging nonprofit newsrooms have been criticized for not being more upfront about their affiliations. News and watchdog sites need to disclose conflicts of interest to combat a rising distrust of media, said Diana Fuentes, executive director of the nonprofit Investigative Reporters and Editors.
“The public needs to be able to trust what they’re reading, and for them to be able to trust it, they need to know who is paying for it,” she said.
In the case of Checks and Balances Project, it’s not so clear. The site states that it receives “strategic support” from Tigercomm, a PR firm specializing in renewable energy clients. And the site’s funding comes from Renew American Prosperity, a 501(c) (4) advocacy nonprofit group that isn’t required by law to disclose its donors and promises on its website to never reveal them, although it says it encourages them to step forward.
According to its website, Checks and Balances was co-founded about a decade ago by Mike Casey — the president of Tigercomm then and now — as a way to “address the decline of the media’s investigative reporting capacity.” It has since gone after powerful conservative donors, tech companies and the fossil fuel industry.
“What we’re doing is not PR pieces as news,” said the site’s executive director, Scott Peterson. “It is news.”
In November, Checks and Balances started publishing dozens of stories about Norfolk-based Sentara, including one asking whether the hospital system’s proposed expansion could hurt another institution based in the same city: Eastern Virginia Medical School.
The stories began publishing shortly before EVMS made its first payment to Tigercomm for work that would total $150,000, according to an invoice obtained by The Post. An EVMS spokesman said the school hired the firm for “crisis communications counsel and community engagement support.” Yet the financial arrangement between EVMS and Checks and Balances’s founder was never disclosed in the stories.
Casey acknowledged the deal on Tigercomm’s website after The Post inquired about it last month. He wrote that the school retained his PR firm to help it “avoid a form of organizational extinction that was being pushed by Sentara” — namely whether to merge EVMS with Old Dominion University and Sentara Healthcare. Casey said Tigercomm helped EVMS set up community meetings for local residents to share their health-care experiences and expectations from area institutions.
He also praised Checks and Balances as “a plucky watchdog blog” investigating Sentara with “a shoestring staff and budget,” and reiterated what he told The Post: his firm doesn’t “own” the news site. Rather, he said, the site and its parent nonprofit are his firm’s clients.
Some critics, however, argue that Checks and Balances and Renew American Prosperity are essentially front groups for Tigercomm. “They’re all the same entities,” said Michelle Kuppersmith, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign of Accountability, a nonprofit group that investigated several of Tigercomm’s outfits in 2017. Tax filings show that Renew American Prosperity, the nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting Checks and Balances, has no employees and spends most of its money paying Tigercomm for “management.”
Peterson denied that Tigercomm’s interests affected his news site’s investigations. “My colleague and I have the final say-so on what we publish,” he said. “We never expected there was this much to the Sentara story, but we plan on pursuing it.”
He also accused The Post of having used “pay to play” tactics itself, and of giving readers insufficient disclosures about its financial backing. He’s not alone in that critique. For-profit media companies usually insist that a firewall keeps their journalism separate from their sponsors, but they are often accused of being influenced by the companies that buy their ads. (And in The Post’s case, that criticism often extends to the interests of the billionaire who owns the newspaper: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.)
Mainstream newsrooms also have been scrutinized for holding corporate-sponsored events with journalists and for publishing “sponsored content,” digital ads that look at first glance like news articles, sometimes with only tiny disclaimers stating who paid for them.
But PR professionals involving themselves in the creation of news is a far more troubling phenomenon, some media observers warn. It reminded media scholar Robert McChesney of a period in the late 19th century when fabricating stories and bribing reporters was commonplace. “It gets you back ironically to the period that led to the formation of professional journalism,” he said. “The creation of professional journalism was to get the corruption out of it so people could trust the story.”
Professional standards established since that period have not been able to block the steady infiltration of PR. Last year, 11 local TV news stations broadcast an Amazon-produced segment as if it were a news story. And TV stations in three states said they would review their policies after the HBO comedian John Oliver paid for them to air interviews featuring a representative for a fake “sexual wellness blanket” company.
“The PR industry has always tried to make its message look like news. That isn’t new,” said Adair, the Duke professor. “But what’s different here is I think they’re being more aggressive in how they spread it around the country.”
McChesney put it a different way: “A successful PR campaign is one no one knows took place.”