John Fredericks, one of Virginia’s most influential talk radio hosts with close ties to President Donald Trump, is using a hyperpartisan blog masquerading as a local news site to solicit support for Trump’s reelection campaign and spread right-wing narratives while promoting his own radio program.
The Virginia Star, which was launched this summer, is the latest addition to Fredericks’ budding media empire and is also a part of the hyperpartisan right-wing Star News Digital Media network. At first glance, the site looks like an ordinary, low-budget local news site. Its Facebook page describes the site as a “NEW source for investigative news, thoughtful opinion and more.” On its Google search landing page, the site is billed as “Leading the Way in News and Education.”
But in reality, The Virginia Star contains little more than partisan bile.
A quick scroll through its home page reveals headlines making dubious claims about voter fraud and criticizing local leaders for spending tax dollars to remove Confederate monuments. Scroll further and find the podcast of Steve Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart News and a Trump ally, embedded along the sidebar. That’s the same Steve Bannon who has used his platform in recent months to spread xenophobic conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and has long been a white nationalist idol.
This conservative framing continues among The Virginia Star’s articles. One recent “news” story, for instance, mocked a “racially equitable” fair-housing initiative put forth by Mayor Levi Stoney of Richmond, Virginia, writing that in the wake of the summer “riots,” the mayor “continues to propose measures other than improving law and order in his city, including legalizing marijuana and removing Confederate monuments.” Another recent article shamed Democratic legislators for appropriating funds for a text messaging service that allows teens to ask questions about sexual health and discreetly find medically accurate answers. The only person quoted in the article is a Republican state senator who proposed a failed measure to eliminate the educational service, calling it “a sex to text talk line.”
The Star has also begun publishing semi-daily updates from the Trump campaign trail. The site’s “Trumpdate" missives solicit political donations to a limited liability corporation registered to Fredericks (through a link that appears to be broken) and also direct readers to the Republican National Committee’s “Trump Victory” page, encouraging readers to volunteer for the campaign.
The Star is just the latest addition to Fredericks’ budding media empire. In addition to hosting his own show, Fredericks owns three conservative talk radio stations in central Virginia. In recent months, he has used his platform to sow distrust of measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Fredericks is also a close ally of Trump, serving as the Virginia co-chairperson of the president’s 2016 campaign and as an advisory board member of the Trump 2020 campaign. He's interviewed Trump upward of a dozen times and sometimes serves as a surrogate for the president on CNN.
Though The Virginia Star lists Fredericks as its CEO and editor-in-chief, the site is operated by the Star News Digital Media network, a journalistic organization of dubious origin that was founded in 2017 by tea party-connected conservative activists Michael Patrick Leahy, Steve Gill, and Christina Botteri. The company runs similar pages in Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota, and The Virginia Star seems to be the only publication in the network that doesn’t list Leahy on its masthead.
The Star News network is but one example of thousands of mostly conservative partisan media outlets that have swept in to fill the nationwide void in coverage by masquerading as local news. Although right-wing media such as the National Review have attempted to suggest that a scourge of liberal-leaning partisan news pages are aggressively targeting voters on Facebook, internal research from Media Matters and reporting from Nieman and Columbia Journalism Review have confirmed that nearly all of the networks pushing partisan content online have a conservative bent. Such sites have been around for nearly a decade, but their numbers have grown exponentially since 2016. Recent reporting suggests that in key swing states, partisan local websites “masquerading as traditional local news outlets” are deluging voters with right-wing talking points at an increasing rate as the election nears.
In 2018, Politico dubbed the Star News network’s sites “baby Breitbarts” for their similarity in tone and demeanor to Breitbart News. In fact, Leahy, who manages the other Star network sites (except for the Virginia outlet), is a regular Breitbart contributor. Like its swing-state peers, The Virginia Star mixes original content with articles it reprints from right-wing media outlets like The Daily Caller, The Daily Wire, American Greatness, and others.
Indeed, this seems to be the standard way the Star network sites operate, producing a mix of original content and reprints from right-wing outlets that promote conservative viewpoints -- and sometimes misinformation. Although The Virginia Star emulates many of the same practices as other pages in the network, Fredericks’ influence appears to have resulted in more original content about Virginia politics.
Fredericks also appears to be cross-promoting his content between the site and his own radio network. His radio show's website runs ads for The Virginia Star, while the Star prominently features an advertisement for Fredericks’ show on its home page.
According to social media analytics tool BuzzSumo, roughly 40% of the links Fredericks shared with his almost 20,000 Twitter followers since July go to The Virginia Star. But Fredericks doesn’t list his association with the network or The Virginia Star specifically in his Twitter bio.
With its slanted coverage disguised as local news, The Virginia Star appears to be another example of right-wing radio hosts exploiting a media platform to promote conservative misinformation to their impressionable audiences.