The Orange County Register's newest weekly sections on local colleges, which are being financed in part by the colleges themselves, are raising concerns about conflicts of interest and credibility from both inside and outside of the newspaper.
At issue is the financial arrangement the Santa Ana, CA, daily has with three local campuses: Chapman University; California State University, Fullerton; and the University of California at Irvine.
Under an agreement reached earlier this year, the paper is publishing a separate, weekly six-page special section devoted to positive coverage of each university's news and events. Each of those sections include two columns authored by top university staffers.
In exchange, each university is paying the newspaper $275,000, supposedly for advertising that will appear in that section for one year. The sections began running on April 1.
The financial arrangement and partial control of content by the universities has some at the paper and on campus concerned.
"It does make me a little uncomfortable," said Bill Johnson, a Register columnist. "In this business, appearance is everything. Appearance-wise, it is a bit troubling. If you know people are paying for coverage does that affect the coverage? I would like to think we are way above that, writing good news to satisfy an advertiser."
Jeffrey Brody, a journalism professor at Cal State, Fullerton, and a former Register reporter, called it a "disguised advertorial."
"That's a breach of the wall between editorial and advertising of traditional newspapering," he said. "A newspaper should not be making these kinds of quid pro quo agreements. It seems that that does damage the credibility of the university."
A review of the most recent sections from April 15, 16, and 17, finds stories written by Register staffers, along with two pieces from each university's faculty or administration.
A half-page color ad for the university appears on the back page of each section.
The stories range from a review of the number of bronze busts on the Chapman campus to a report on UC-Irvine's annual "Undie Run." None of the stories could be described as critical of the school.
While newspapers often clearly label such content as "advertisement" or "advertorial," the only note related to the Register's arrangement is a small box on the inside of the page alongside the staff list stating "while the university is the section's primary advertising sponsor, all editorial decisions are independent of the university's control."
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert Caro criticized conservative media coverage of President Obama during an appearance in New York City, describing it as "something quite horrible" and venomous.
Caro, known for his biographies of President Lyndon Johnson, spoke during a March 29 interview at Strand Books in Manhattan conducted by New York magazine writer Frank Rich as part of promotion for the paperback version of his fourth Johnson book, The Passage of Power.
Caro, who won Pulitzer Prizes for his third Johnson book, Master of the Senate, and his 1975 book about Robert Moses, has long used newspaper and media coverage in his research about U.S. political history.
Asked by Media Matters what he thought of today's conservative media coverage given his experience with historic news accounts, Caro said there had been strong conservative news coverage of past political figures, but stressed today's approach is worse.
"I think today is something [different], the venom, the absolute venom, whatever we think is really underneath it all, it is something quite horrible," he said, later adding, "Here in New York you live in a different world. I was just giving some lectures and you know when you get out in the rest of the country you realize the depth of the anti-Obama feeling."
Caro's comments follow years of conservative media figures smearing President Obama and his family with outlandish conspiracies, regular falsehoods, trumped-up pseudoscandals, and outright attacks.
Dick Morris is working with Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus on a new television advertisement that will include Preibus seeking to attract Latino voters, Morris revealed during an appearance in New York City Thursday.
Speaking at the Poli Conference, a political consulting event for Latin American campaign professionals, Morris said the ad will feature Priebus reaching out to "those Latin Americans who've come to the United States to help us build our country, to help harvest our food, to help make our economy work and [Priebus'] message is 'welcome, we need you, you're making our country younger, more prosperous, harder working and we need you for the future.'"
According to Morris, the ad will make use of "that concept of reflecting back to people their own value and their own worth. In the advertisement he [Priebus] says, 'we honor our ancestors who took covered wagons to settle the west and brave the Indians, but you are the new pioneers, you are the new people in America doing that.' And I think that is a very, very interesting thing to do in a campaign."
Republican Party Spokesman Ryan Mahoney did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ad. Asked about when it might run or where, Morris declined to offer more details.
Morris' work with the Republican National Committee is noteworthy given the implosion of Morris' stature and credibility following the 2012 election and his now infamous prediction of a "landslide" victory for Republican Mitt Romney. After the election Morris was effectively banned from appearing on Fox News, where he worked as an on-air contributor until the network declined to renew his contract in early February. Morris also brings with him a host of ethics problems -- Morris' group Super PAC for America reportedly spent significant amounts of money renting Morris' own email list in the months before the election, allowing him to simply pocket money raised by the group.
Veteran media and criminal defense attorneys agree that the Daily Caller could be subject to a possible libel or defamation lawsuit or even criminal charges if it is proven the publication paid women to lie about having sex with Sen. Robert Menendez for money.
The Daily Caller first reported in a November 1 story allegations from two anonymous women who claimed they were Dominican prostitutes who had been paid by Menendez for sex. Over the past month, the story has slowly fallen apart.
Dominican law enforcement officials have said they determined that the three women who had made allegations about Menendez had actually been paid to do so by Miguel Figueroa, a Dominican attorney who was the only named source in the original Caller report. One of the women has reportedly signed an affidavit retracting her claims and said she was paid to lie.
Last week, the head of the Dominican National Police said Figueroa had blamed the Caller for the entire debacle, claiming that someone allegedly from the publication had supposedly paid him to find prostitutes who would lie about having sex with Menendez.
The Daily Caller has strongly denied making any payments.
Nonetheless, one criminal defense attorney told Media Matters the news outlet or anyone else who paid the prostitutes for their false story could face criminal charges that might involve wire fraud.
"Suppose all of these individuals lied and they were paid to lie and the advantage in some proprietary way flows to the people who paid them and there was a communication over U.S. or U.S and foreign communications facilities, you might make out a wire fraud," said Stuart Pierson, a Washington, D.C. attorney who specializes in white collar crime and media issues. "If there is a communication involving U.S. transmission communication facilities and the purpose of this lie and fraud is to adversely affect the proprietary interest of somebody in the United States or a U.S. Citizen."
A Department of Justice spokesperson declined to comment on any investigation that might be related to the reporting of the story.
Pierson and other attorneys agreed a defamation or libel civil charge is likely if it is found the Daily Caller knew the information was false, and is increased if it is found they paid someone to lie, or knew that someone was paid to lie.
Despite widespread recent criticism of the role conservative media outlets played in the 2012 election and its aftermath, most attendees at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference had a positive view of the current state of right-wing journalism.
The calls for reform of conservative media are unconvincing to journalists who have found that the current model has given them a large audience.
Mike Opelka, editor-at-large for Glenn Beck's The Blaze, said the popularity of conservative media proves that they are doing good work.
"Fox dominates the conservative cable media," he said. "We [The Blaze] are averaging 10 million uniques a month. I think it is on target for what we like. We are a center-right source and we think they like what we give them."
Dana Loesch, the conservative radio talk show host whose past work for the Breitbart family of conservative news websites helped generate appearances on CNN, Fox News and ABC News, also gave high marks to conservative outlets.
"I think they are doing a really good job," she said of her fellow right-wing media outlets. "It's a good market, I always think there is an appetite for conservative media because there are a lot of people, myself included, who think you don't get that perspective when you turn it on, CBS, NBC, the channels like that."
Their optimism comes at a time when numerous media voices, including several prominent conservatives, have raised questions about the state of conservative media following a 2012 election in which right-wing media outlets convinced their readers, viewers, and listeners that Mitt Romney was cruising towards a comfortable win over a villainous President Obama. Last week, American Conservative published an extensive piece critical of "groupthink" among "several conservative publications."
Similarly, in a February post at his influential Red State website, new Fox News contributor Erick Erickson criticized the conservative "echo chamber" for "trying so hard to highlight controversies, no matter how trivial" at the expense of basic reporting.
But these concerns, alongside a recent flurry of embarrassments (like the Breitbart.com "Friends of Hamas" debacle), were not shared by most at CPAC, who were quick to paint a rosy picture of their work in interviews with Media Matters.
Top conservative media voices spoke out on the need to keep stories accurate and in-depth, while at the same time citing some of the right-wing media's worst stumbles as points of honor during a panel discussion Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
It has been a rough few months for the right-wing media. After a variety of observers pointed to its ineffectiveness during the 2012 election, it has come under fire again over the last month as major stories from The Daily Caller and Breitbart.com have imploded.
But such concerns were largely ignored during the CPAC panel titled "Survivor: Conservative Media," which was billed as an examination of the future of right-wing publications. This comes as little surprise, given that representatives from both the Caller and Breitbart.com were featured panelists.
Moderated by Scottie Hughes of the Tea Party News Network, the panel included Katie Pavlich, news editor at Townhall.com and a Fox News Contributor; Seton Motley, a Breitbart.com columnist; Keith Urbahn, co-founder of Javelin; and Lars Larson, a conservative radio talk show host.
While defending their past work, each appeared to espouse traditional journalistic values of accuracy, in-depth reporting and balance.
"Listen to what everyone else is saying, but don't be afraid to break from the pack," Larson said. "When there is a story, get on it, because there are too many stories that are a sleeper. Fast and Furious was a sleeper for a long time."
Larson referred to the botched ATF mission, which Pavlich and others had baselessly spun as a a conspiracy by the Obama administration to implement stronger gun laws.
American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas defended giving a speaking slot at the organization's 2013 CPAC conference to Donald Trump while snubbing Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
In response to questioning from Media Matters' Joe Strupp at a press conference, Cardenas said that despite Trump's history of racially inflammatory remarks and ongoing promotion of conspiracy theories about President Obama's birthplace, Trump had been invited to speak because "we can't have thirty people saying the same thing with the same backgrounds."
Former Fox News commentator Dick Morris says he still "love[s]" the network and expects to return to its airwaves.
In February Fox confirmed that it had declined to renew Morris' contract. The network had benched him from bookings for several months following his repeated on-air prediction of a Mitt Romney "landslide" in the days leading up to Romney's defeat.
During a March 14 appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) just south of Washington, D.C., Morris told Media Matters, "I love Fox, you know. You come and you go in this business, I'll come again."
Asked if he thought he would return to the network in the future, Morris said, "Sure, probably."
A top executive at a Colorado newspaper has sparked controversy after he sent an email to a state senator opposing legislative efforts to strengthen gun laws that the legislator took as a threat of retaliation by the paper.
Ray Stafford, general manager of the Pueblo Chieftain, sent a March 3 email to State Sen. Angela Giron (D) in which he highlighted his position with the paper and said he opposed legislation to strengthen the state's gun laws. Giron had been undecided on the legislative package under discussion, but ultimately voted for the five bills which passed the state Senate on March 11.
The email from Stafford, sent on his official Chieftain email account, stated: "I am the General Manager and responsible for the entire newspaper, including the newsroom ... I have never written a legislator, but I want you to know I oppose all the bills currently being considered involving guns, ammunition, magazines and ownership transfers because I think they're poorly written and a knee-jerk reaction to recent deaths. I also believe such legislation is a challenge to our Second Amendment."
Stafford denies that his email was intended to intimidate Giron. But Jane Rawlings, assistant publisher of the Chieftain, criticized Stafford for failing to clearly indicate his complaints were his own opinion in the email in which he emphasized his role at the paper.
"A person who works for us should identify this as their personal opinion and he did not state those words in his email, 'this is my personal opinion' and he probably should have," Rawlings told Media Matters.
Giron told KRDO-TV in Colorado Springs, "You don't use work e-mails to send personal stuff out and you certainly don't send and he's literally typed in his name, general manager of The Chieftain and a gun owner. I didn't even know his name so if he didn't send it from The Chieftain, if he didn't say he was the general manager, if he didn't say he was in charge of the newsroom, it probably wouldn't have even been noted."
Stafford's email also did not sit well with Colorado Senate President John Morse, who raised concerns during an appearance on Friday with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, stating, "He threatened her with how he's going to cover her and then followed through, really, she was on the paper and the front page for practically a week straight."
The dispute comes during a highly charged gun debate in Colorado and elsewhere across the country, during which state legislators who support stronger firearms laws have been subjected to intimidation and threats.
The bogus story that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had filed for bankruptcy appeared on Boston.com, the sister website of The Boston Globe, through a third-party content provider that posts content without editorial approval and provides such content to more than 200 web outlets.
That provider, meanwhile, took the story from an Austrian-based blog without any editorial review or fact-checking of its own, a practice that is becoming more and more common in the Internet content sharing world. The blog has since deleted its post and all posts from the author appear to have been removed from Boston.com.
The false story, which had its roots in a satire by the website Daily Currant, was subsequently picked up by the conservative site Breitbart.com, a move later criticized by Krugman himself and numerous news outlets from The Atlantic to Politico. Breitbart.com has deleted the post, with its author blaming Boston.com, which he says he "trusted" for the story.
But according to Boston.com, they played no role in the creation of that post, an editorial mechanism which troubles some observers.
He said he reached out to financialcontent.com at roughly 9 a.m. EDT today to have the item removed. It was removed at 11:34 a.m. EDT.
"The reason why we partner with them is to provide stock data," Agrella explained Monday, just hours after the item was taken down. "That is why we contract with them. The stories are additional content provided on the side. We have partnered with them for 10 or 12 years."
Financialcontent.com had picked up the item from an Austria-based business blog, Prudent Investor, without any editorial review of its own, according to financialcontent.com CEO Wing Yu.
"We are a technology company, we don't have an editorial desk," Yu explained. "There is an RSS feed that we parse from each content provider. We have categorized [Prudent Investor] as a business content provider and the content is syndicated along with the byline."
YU said Prudent Investor is one of more than 400 content providers that financialcontent.com draws on for news and data, which it then forwards to some 200 news outlets such as Boston.com, as well as others owned by McClatchy, Media News Group and AOL.
The Prudent Investor website is based in Vienna, Austria, and run by Toni Straka, who describes himself on the blog as "an INDEPENDENT Certified Financial Analyst who worked as a financial journalist for 15+ years and now evaluate global market trends."