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Progressive dark money launches Montana media outlet ahead of election

The American Independent Foundation says it is regularly mailing the ‘Montana Independent’ to more than 150,000 Montanans.
Posted at 8:44 AM, Apr 17, 2024

A national progressive media organization with ties to a Democratic Party-aligned super PAC has launched a self-described news outlet in Montana ahead of the state’s slate of high-profile elections, most prominently the race for incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s seat in the U.S. Senate.

Veteran political journalist Joe Conason, who oversees editorial operations for the nonprofit American Independent Foundation, told Montana Free Press via email that the Montana Independent, one of four state-level affiliates of the American Independent, was launched earlier this year. News outlets in three other political battleground states, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, are also being published under the American Independent umbrella.

In online and print editions, the Montana Independent appears superficially similar to many other Montana news outlets. Its stories, authored by named writers and reporters, cover a range of statewide and local political issues, with stories containing quotes, context, and some original interviews.

A March 2024 copy of the Montana Independent obtained by Montana Free Press.

But Montana Independent writers are almost all out-of-state journalists well-established in the progressive media sphere. (One apparent exception is Montana’s Richard Manning, a former Missoulian reporter and book author married to current U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning.) Some of the officers of the foundation that funds the American Independent are also connected to American Bridge 21st Century, a Democrat-aligned political action committee that receives substantial contributions from a dark money nonprofit of the same name founded by national Democratic operative and media figure David Brock. Former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, is co-chair of the American Bridge 21st Century PAC.

American Independent stories are generally not directly critical or supportive of particular candidates, but highlight Republicans in ways that might be expected to turn off voters (“GOP Senate candidate Tim Sheehy wants to eliminate the Department of Homeland Security”) and describe Democrats in ways that might generate voter support (“Tester secures $23 million to protect public lands in Montana.”)

According to Conason, the Montana Independent’s print editions are now reaching — through the mail, for free — 150,000 Montana readers about once a month, which would make the largest-circulation publication in the state by miles at a time when most legacy news outlets have seen dramatic cuts to staff and drops in readership.

Conason didn’t answer an inquiry about how the organization chooses where to mail its print editions.

National political forces are paying extra attention to Montana this year, with Tester’s Senate seat widely considered one of two seats the GOP has a chance to flip to take control of the U.S. Senate.

In an email, Conason stressed the American Independent’s journalistic bona fides.

“Our editors and reporters — including the award-winning Missoula-based journalist Richard Manning — deliver thorough, fact-checked, and engaging stories that adhere to strict editorial standards,” Conason wrote.

Conason himself is a veteran national political reporter who has authored half a dozen books about presidential politics featuring generally progressive and occasionally specifically anti-Republican commentary.

Conason is president of the American Independent Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which he said “produces and owns all the content on the websites and in the newspapers and employs all of our reporters and editors.” A separate, 501(c)(4) nonprofit, American Independent Media, “manages the websites for us,” he said.

Conason said he has no role with American Bridge, a hybrid super PAC-opposition research firm that tracks Republican candidates in high-profile races on the campaign trail. But the American Independent was as recently as 2017 helmed by David Brock, a former right-wing journalist famous for attacking Anita Hill in defense of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas before undergoing an ideological transformation and founding American Bridge in 2010.

Bradley Beychock, a co-founder of American Bridge, is listed as a senior adviser to (and highest-paid officer of) the American Independent Foundation and president of American Independent Media on tax paperwork filed last year.

A copy of a March 2024 edition of the Montana Independent obtained by Montana Free Press

A 2022 Washington Post story about American Independent publications in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania describes the American Independent as “run in concert” with American Bridge.

The Washington Post story also describes how the American Independent tailors its reach. For example, it ran tests on the impact of newspapers on voter behavior in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election. Jessica McCreight, who was president of the American Foundation until taking the helm at a for-profit progressive outlet explicitly funded by American Bridge earlier this year, told the Post that the foundation mailed 3.2 million newspapers a month in 2022 to readers selected because they had been identified as ideologically moderate or progressive women.

On her LinkedIn page, McCreight notes that in 2022 she, as president of American Independent, “oversaw an $18 million multi-channel, owned-news distribution program across four states — Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — to over 3 million readers monthly” and that in 2023 she “led the effort to leverage the progress made in 2022 into three special edition print newspapers targeting women readers in Wisconsin, contributing to [Wisconsin Supreme Court] Judge Janet Protasiewicz’s 11 point victory” in Wisconsin’s 2023 election. Protasiewicz, who was elected to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court last year, was explicit in her support of abortion rights and opposition to GOP-drawn legislative maps in the nominally nonpartisan race.

Neither the American Independent Foundation, American Independent Media nor the American Bridge 21st Century Foundation — the nonprofit that has contributed millions to the PAC of the same name — report the sources of their donations on their nonprofit paperwork. That leaves those donations in the realm of so-called dark money, which, while not illegal, is often the target of criticism from advocates of transparency in financial influence.

Montana has a unique history with dark money. Bullock, as the state’s attorney general in 2012, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend Montana’s campaign finance transparency law — a fight he lost in part because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allowed 501(c)(4) “social welfare organizations” to make political expenditures.

Bullock was himself once the target of a political attack masquerading as a newspaper. American Tradition Partnership, the conservative group that went to court against Bullock, sent out ostensible newspapers entitled Montana Statesman during his first gubernatorial run that featured front-page photos of three registered sex offenders and Bullock alongside an article accusing the candidate of letting convicted sex criminals go unregistered.

“Do I think that our political world would be better without 501(c)(4)s? Yes I do. Do I think any side is going to unilaterally disarm them? No I don’t.”

The articles in the American Independent are a far cry in tone and factual accuracy from the overtly partisan work of the Montana Statesman.

“Any comparison of our work with fake news operations — usually created by far-right or foreign sponsors — that deploy fabricated bylines, counterfeit articles generated by AI programs and other deceptive techniques to simulate news outlets, is obviously and unequivocally wrong,” Conason told MTFP.

Even so, the American Independent’s arrival in Montana represents the expanding reach of political money of unknown and likely partisan provenance in a consequential election year.

And Bullock, a former anti-dark money crusader, is now co-chair of a PAC that receives money from a dark-money group.

“Do I think that our political world would be better without 501(c)(4)s? Yes I do,” Bullock told Montana Free Press in an interview this week. “Do I think any side is going to unilaterally disarm them? No I don’t.”