Floyd Brown couldn’t believe what he was watching. It was November 11, 1993, and NBC was doing a story about Whitewater, a failed real-estate venture involving Bill and Hillary Clinton. As one of the leaders of Citizens United, a conservative advocacy group, Brown had provided sources to the network, and his colleague, David Bossie, had even guided a producer on a helicopter fly-by of the Whitewater properties in Arkansas. The conservative activist had been confident the story would make the president and first lady look bad. But as he watched the segment, he was shocked and delighted: NBC had linked Whitewater to a larger conspiracy, the death of White House aide Vincent Foster. “It was [Brown and Bossie’s] first success on a national news broadcast,” writes James Stewart in Blood Sport, his book about the Clinton scandals. “A success even beyond their fondest expectations.”
More than two decades have passed since that NBC segment aired. The Clintons were never charged with any crimes regarding Whitewater, and two investigations ruled that Foster’s death was a suicide. Brown, meanwhile, has gone on to build a media empire with his son, Patrick. The younger Brown runs the sites, while Floyd Brown helped provide the funding for them, serves as the chairman of the board of their parent company and contributes columns to WesternJournalism.com.
As of December, the Browns’ sites, Conservative Tribune and Western Journalism, get approximately 32,986,786 unique visits per month, which means they together receive more monthly unique views in the U.S. than almost any adult entertainment site besides PornHub, according to the analytics site Alexa. During the 2016 election, many of their most popular stories had a pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton spin, and they were shared by prominent conservatives such as Mike Huckabee.
Critics say much of their content is, at best, misleading. While pundits spent 2016 blaming Pepe the Frog–loving trolls for sharing fake news, the Browns’ sites were pumping out bogus articles claiming the FBI had proof Hillary Clinton took several trips to Jeffrey Epstein’s “orgy island” and saying there was “new evidence ” linking the former secretary of state to Foster’s death. “Brown’s sites,” writes Lee Fan of the Intercept, “churn out bombastic headlines with little regard to the truth.”
Not all of their stories are completely false, and that’s what makes them more “dangerous” than completely fake news sites, says Judy Muller, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California. “If you hate Hillary Clinton or you hate Barack Obama and someone dangles this kind of red meat in front of you, you're going to want to believe it. They put just enough in there to make it sound like it could have happened.”
Via an email to Newsweek, Floyd Brown declined to be interviewed for this story. In a separate email, the younger Brown said his sites post legitimate news and simply offer an anti-establishment point of view.
The burgeoning success of the Browns’ sites come as fake-news outlets have received increased scrutiny in the aftermath of Trump’s electoral victory. And Floyd Brown’s career is a testament to how media manipulation has evolved. As the head of Citizens United, he spent the 1990s leaking stories to mainstream outlets, backing up his work with primary sources and working hard to make sure the media trusted him. By 2008, however, his goals had changed. He spent that year’s presidential campaign running online ads claiming Barack Obama was a secret Muslim.
This shift away from traditional media was informed by his experience with political advertising. In 1988, he created the infamous Willie Horton ad, which played on racist fears of black criminals to make Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee, appear soft on crime. (Brown’s Citizens United later successfully challenged federal election laws before the Supreme Court.)
In 2009, he took over the Western Center for Journalism, a nonprofit that trains conservative activists to use social media. Five years later, his son Patrick established Liftable Media, Inc., which acquired the domain WesternJournalism.com. Since 2009, the site’s page views have increased from 1,000 a day to often more than 1 million, according to Patrick’s bio on the Western Center website. “For many years,” the younger Brown writes on that site, “the same few media entities have largely...decided what is newsworthy, what is worthy of discussion, and, ultimately, what is ‘true.’” Now, he says, there are alternatives.
Deciding what’s news and even what’s true has become increasingly difficult for Americans. Fake or misleading stories became far more prevalent during the 2016 campaign because of social media. As BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman wrote, fake-news sites garnered more interaction on Facebook than “19 major news outlets” combined during the last three months of the election.
The Browns’ sites make deciphering the truth even more difficult by hedging their language and manipulating what quotes mean. In one article titled “BREAKING: American Muslims Ordered to Vote Hillary,” the author uses an innocuous statement from a Muslim leader and makes it sound like something sinister. Another twists a quote by Obama to claim the president “possibly” encouraged “illegals” to vote. (He didn’t.)
Muller, the University of Southern California professor, believes Western Journalism and Conservative Tribune don’t necessarily fit the definition of fake news, but “they are not real news sites. They are not verifiable, independent, accountable news sites…. If [a publication] doesn’t match those three things, it’s something else. And in this case, I’d say that something else is propaganda.”
Either way, with the election of Trump, Floyd Brown—and his websites—may soon become more influential. Bossie, once his chief pupil, was Trump’s deputy campaign manager and is on the president-elect’s transition team. (Bossie says he doesn’t stay in touch with the elder Brown, who, in his email declining to be interviewed, said he’s had no interaction with the Trump campaign during the election). But according to Bloomberg and sources close to the Trump transition team, Bossie, the man who once arranged the helicopter flyover for NBC, is now angling to become the next chairman of the Republican Party.
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