On April 6, Politico magazine ran a profile of Charlie Kirk, the founder, chief fundraiser, and public face of Turning Point USA (TPUSA). Though TPUSA is perhaps best known for a misguided 2017 protest in which members wore adult diapers to “trigger the libs”, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit’s stated mission is to “identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government.” Politico magazine reported that TPUSA’s donors generally “inhabit a conservative media universe that pumps them with anxiety about liberal kids,” and that “Kirk is not shy about saying he’s selling them a solution to those worries”:
“You can’t watch Fox News without seeing five or six segments a day about the nuttiness on college campuses,” Kirk told me in one of several interviews we conducted starting in November of last year. “You pair that nuttiness up with people in their 60s and 70s who are beginning to map out where they want a significant portion of their wealth to go, and they’re saying, ‘I don’t want my money to go to my university. It’s not representing my values.’ Then we come along.”
Kirk isn’t wrong about the “nuttiness” on Fox News. Between March 1 and April 5, Fox ran at least 53 segments promoting supposedly outrageous stories on American college campuses. Of these 53 segments, 40 were stories previously reported by a conservative organization called Campus Reform, and 15 of those 40 segments either cited Campus Reform specifically, or featured a Campus Reform representative to comment.
Campus Reform is a project of The Leadership Institute, a decades-old nonprofit that trains young conservative activists and policy leaders to sell right-wing ideals through seminars on media, fundraising, communications, and campaigning. TPUSA’s website lists The Leadership Institute as one of its “partners,” meaning that Kirk uses manipulative stories originating from his allies to fundraise for his own organization, with little acknowledgement of his partner relationship to the source of many such stories. Put another way, Kirk’s donor base is filled with “anxiety about liberal kids” because Kirk’s allies actively fuel and encourage that anxiety.
Some examples of Fox pushing Campus Reform stories over the past year:
Fox & Friends aired a video from Campus Reform's Cabot Phillips in which he lied to students about Trump’s State of the Union address to make college students appear uninformed. As Media Matters reported, this deceptively edited video got heavy playtime on Fox News and was also featured on Alex Jones’ Infowars.
On Fox & Friends, Phillips dismissed high school- and college-aged March for Our Lives demonstrators for their “lack of appreciation and understanding of the Second Amendment.”
Laura Ingraham and her radio producer complained about a Christian college “changing history” by removing its Crusader mascot -- a story Campus Reform had covered several days before.
Fox & Friends mocked gender-neutral pronouns, using a list from Campus Reform. While discussing Kennesaw State University’s guide to using gender-neutral pronouns like ne and ey, multiple people in the studio laughed as Fox host Jillian Mele said, “I don’t even know what I just read, oh my goodness.” Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade added, “that makes 2 million people.” Later, when Kilmeade read the headline himself, he commented, “I’m not sure of who’s who, but I know I don’t like it. … What planet am I on?”
The relationship between TPUSA and The Leadership Institute previously revealed itself in one of Kirk’s best-known projects, “Professor Watchlist.” The Campus Reform-sourced operation targets professors nationwide who allegedly “discriminate against conservative students,” collecting tips on them to a database. According to Politico magazine, “the list is also ill-maintained and often inaccurate,” with “multiple cases of professors being listed for things they didn’t exactly say or do, and others listed for petty criteria, like being rude to students or making quips about Trump.”
Media Matters searched SnapStream for variations of the words “campus,” “university,” or “college" from March 1 to April 5 on all Fox News Channel programming. Including “Headlines” segments, we counted mentions if their framing played primarily into existing right-wing college narratives about college campuses, such as anti-Trump professors or free speech issues, and/or if a host explicitly mentioned “Campus Reform.”