Apr 29, 2022 - Politics & Policy

FEC tosses case against progressive news network

The seal of the Federal Election Commission at the agency's headquarters.
The Federal Election Commission headquarters in Washington. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call

The Federal Election Commission has unanimously rejected allegations that a network of progressive news sites had operated as a de facto Democratic political outfit, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The decision reaffirms that even biased or ideologically driven news reporting can’t be regulated as “political” activity.

  • Inside the FEC, there's debate about going even further.
  • At least one commissioner wants to expand allowances for political media to include digital communications not generally thought of as traditional news reporting.

What's happening: The case at issue centered on Courier Newsroom, a network of progressive news sites run by veteran Democratic digital strategist Tara McGowan.

  • Courier was initially organized under the auspices of ACRONYM, a digital strategy nonprofit.
  • The complaint, filed in 2020 by the conservative group Americans for Public Trust, alleged Courier existed to promote Democratic candidates in key political contests and, therefore, had to register as a political committee.
  • Courier maintained it is a bona fide news operation — albeit with a progressive perspective — and pointed to a stable of news reporters it has hired to fill out its various state-focused newsrooms.

The FEC sided with Courier, voting 6-0 last week to dismiss the complaint.

  • Evidence presented in the case showed "Courier is a press entity whose activities at issue in this matter fell within the scope of the [law's] press exemption," it ruled.

What they're saying: "We have always been confident that this partisan, frivolous complaint from a GOP Senate candidate’s controversial group would be thrown out,” Courier spokesperson R.C. Di Mezzo told Axios in a statement.

  • APT executive director Caitlin Sutherland reiterated the group's position in a statement. "There is a reason why the FEC investigated Courier Newsroom in the first place, and why even Facebook cracked down on their ads: they are a liberal dark money group masquerading as a news outlet."

The big picture: Operatives on both sides of the ideological divide have turned to news content as a persuasion tool in recent years.

  • The FEC has a two-part test to determine whether such entities are bona fide news-and-opinion outfits, or just partisan fronts subject to political spending and disclosure laws.
  • To qualify for the media exemption, a publisher must be a "press entity," which it's defined to mean an entity in the business of regularly disseminating news and commentary.
  • The organization must not be owned by a political campaign or committee, and the communications in question must serve a "legitimate press function."

Looking ahead: As digital publishing tools proliferate, even that standard may be too restrictive, FEC commissioner Sean Cooksey, a Republican, indicated in comments on the Courier decision.

  • It "limits the exemption to professional journalism and corporate media, and grants this class of 'institutional press' a 'constitutional privilege beyond that of other speakers,'" Cooksey wrote.
  • He urged the commission to do away with its "press entity" standard altogether, and instead base its decisions on whether content serves that "legitimate press function."
  • "Whether done by individuals or corporations, regularly or sporadically," he wrote, "all of it is protected by the First Amendment."
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