Media

Why Is Laurene Powell Jobs Funding Fake News?

Liberal billionaire's Emerson Collective claims to fund 'super high-quality journalism,' but backs astroturfed news sites

Laurene Powell Jobs and former Washington mayor Adrian Fenty
Laurene Powell Jobs and former Washington mayor Adrian Fenty / Getty Images

Laurene Powell Jobs has portrayed herself as a defender of the free press, but while journalistic projects she supports have laid off employees and turned to the government for help, the billionaire has funded a political group that built sham local news sites to push Democratic talking points.

Powell Jobs—worth over $26 billion thanks to her late husband, Apple founder Steve Jobs—has spent big on major media properties like the Atlantic, Axios, and Mother Jones through her "social change" investment firm, Emerson Collective. But many of those outlets appear to be floundering amid the current economic crisis, taking government loans and laying off staff.

Powell Jobs's attention, however, appears focused more on sending Joe Biden to the White House. Multiple reports have indicated the billionaire has funneled money into liberal media operation ACRONYM, which in turn operates Courier Newsroom, an umbrella over seven different sites that pose as local news outlets while distributing what one critic called "hyperlocal partisan propaganda."

This mismatch between Powell Jobs's public image and political spending raises questions about how seriously the self-professed friend to independent media takes those commitments, especially when they might conflict with her political goals. Neither a representative for ACRONYM nor for Emerson Collective responded to multiple requests for comment for this article.

Powell Jobs has more than once been listed as a major backer of ACRONYM. A March New York Times story described her as such, as did a May story from Vox.

There is also some evidence of a connection between Powell Jobs and ACRONYM CEO Tara McGowan: Emerson Collective gave $2 million to Priorities USA Action during the 2016 cycle, when McGowan worked as the PAC's digital director. McGowan has also tweeted appreciatively at Powell Jobs.

The exact relationship between Powell Jobs, Emerson, and ACRONYM, however, remains murky. That's thanks in large part to Emerson's status as an LLC, which unlike a more traditional 501(c) designation, protects the organization from having to make public finance disclosures. Courier is similarly structured.

It is clear, however, that both ACRONYM and Courier are doing well. Since February, Courier's stable of sites has grown from three to seven. One of these, North Carolina-based Cardinal & Pine, spent over $20,000 on digital advertising in March alone, according to a Center for Responsive Politics investigation. ACRONYM reported more than $9 million in receipts in FY 2018, according to documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Many of the news sites funded by Emerson Collective, meanwhile, are struggling amid a massive economic downturn. The Atlantic, in which Emerson owns a controlling stake, laid off 17 percent of its staff. Group Nine Media, which owns the Emerson-backed NowThis, dropped 7 percent of its workforce.

Many Powell Jobs-supported outlets have turned to the federal government for a bailout. Axios, which has received Emerson money, returned a $5 million loan from the Paycheck Protection Program amid backlash. The Marshall Project, an outlet focused on criminal justice reform, confirmed to the Free Beacon that it had taken a previously disclosed PPP loan. So did left-leaning news site Mother Jones, which does not appear to have previously disclosed this information.

The Free Beacon reached out to a number of Powell Jobs-backed outlets to ask about whether they had sought additional funding from outside sources. Most did not respond or declined to comment, but Marshall Project director of strategy and communications Ruth Baldwin said, "We have naturally been in touch with all our major donors since the pandemic began. Not all of them have been able to continue at the same level of support, but we have felt encouraged overall."

The state of Powell Jobs's investments—media properties faltering as a fake news operation takes off—flies in the face of her carefully curated image as a friend to the free press.

In a column penned in the Atlantic in 2019, Powell Jobs referred to journalists as "the world's most valuable troublemakers," writing, "in a struggle for the soul of this nation, in a battle for justice around the world, I am honored to be on the side of those who are fighting for the truth."

That sentiment was echoed by Peter Lattman, the managing director of media at Emerson, who told the New York Times for a flattering profile of Powell Jobs that "broadly, we invest in and support super high-quality journalism," adding "we are looking at innovative approaches to media and storytelling."

Jobs's carefully crafted image has extended to media coverage, not only in the Times, but also in the Washington Post. All of this support for "independent media," as a Times interview put it, seems at odds with the mission of Courier, whose parent Powell Jobs funds.

Courier functions as part of ACRONYM's campaign to win elections for Democrats. McGowan framed its outlets as part of combating President Donald Trump's massive 2016 social media campaign, telling Bloomberg of criticisms that her coverage is slanted, "balance does not exist anymore."

Courier sites disclose only a hint of their larger political purpose, with a mention at the bottom of their pages that they are "owned by Courier Newsroom, Inc." This, the Center for Responsive Politics noted, means that their ads—which primarily target President Donald Trump—"are not considered political by Facebook."

The project's goal is to, as Bloomberg put it, "deliver the facts favorable to Democrats that [McGowan] thinks voters are missing, and counter right-wing spin." Gabby Deutch, who works for misinformation outlet NewsGuard, stated it more harshly: "Courier and Acronym are exploiting the widespread loss of local journalism to create and disseminate something we really don’t need: hyperlocal partisan propaganda." Her organization gave all of Courier's sites failing grades for "undisclosed partisan Democratic perspective"—far out of line with any definition of "independent media."