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How GOP used misinformation, partisan news sites to flip California House seats

Political smears distributed by on social media helped flip four California Congressional seets in 2020. Here is what that might mean for a Newsom recall.
Credit: AP
FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2018, file photo, Young Kim, then a Republican candidate for the 39th Congressional District in California, speaks to supporters in the Rowland Heights section of Los Angeles. This year, Kim narrowly defeated Democratic Rep. Gil Cisneros in a Southern California district the GOP lost two years ago. Kim, a former state legislator, won her rematch with Cisneros and gave Republicans their second House victory over a Democratic incumbent in Orange County this election. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

CALIFORNIA, USA — This story was originally published by CalMatters.

The story twisted facts and omitted context to fit a partisan narrative. It implied then-California Rep. Gil Cisneros engaged in criminal insider trading and knowingly profited from confidential congressional coronavirus briefings in the early days of the pandemic. 

Cisneros’ opponent, now-Rep. Young Kim, issued a press release featuring the story that was published Sept. 17 by the California Globe, a partisan news site. Kim also tweeted a link later that day that was retweeted 32 times and posted the story on Facebook, where it was shared 52 times and generated 40 comments attacking Cisneros. She never retracted the press release or the social media posts — not even when the Globe removed the story from its website in response to a letter from Cisneros’ attorneys. Not when Cisneros publicly called on her to do so. Nor would her spokesperson answer repeated CalMatters’ questions about it.

The damage was apparent once the votes were counted.

Last fall, Republicans flipped four California Congressional seats previously held by Democrats. In addition to Kim’s win in Orange County, David Valadao defeated T.J. Cox in the San Joaquin Valley; Michelle Steel beat Harley Rouda in Orange County, and Mike Garcia defeated Christy Smith in northern Los Angeles County. Although the races varied in their rhetoric, they had one thing in common: the National Republican Congressional Committee targeted all four Democratic candidates in dossiers posted publicly that were filled with information, some of it false, used by some candidates for negative campaigning.

The misinformation in turn was amplified not only on social media but by a handful of upstart conservative partisan news outlets such as The San Joaquin Valley Sun. As politically independent newspapers have closed or slashed reporting staff, these sites have rushed in to fill the void. The Columbia Journalism Review last August reported California has at least 74 partisan sites — the most in the country, and listed those it found. The sites became friendly landing spots for political smears like the Globe story, allowing widespread distribution of misinformation or innuendo at no cost to the campaigns.

And nobody expects that to change anytime soon. There’s a likely campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom on the horizon, and the NRCC recently released another four targets, for 2022: Reps. John Garamendi in the Sacramento Valley, Josh Harder in the northern San Joaquin Valley, Katie Porter in Orange County, and Mike Levin in San Diego County. 

Dossiers posted on democratfacts.org, an NRCC-funded website, featured information labeled as “Hits,” as well as video footage available for political advertisements. The website recently deleted the 2020 dossiers on Democrat candidates across the country, but CalMatters archived the portion of the site devoted to California congressional candidates on archive.org. 

‘Rare decision to unpublish’

CalMatters obtained a copy of the story the California Globe removed from its website, titled “Did California Rep. Gil Cisneros Profit from Pharma Drug Price Hits and Insider Stock Trades?” The story details certain Cisneros stock trades and references stock trades by U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, Dianne Feinstein of California and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma — all of whom were investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for insider trading. It then calls it “surprising” that U.S. congressional members “were not scrutinized as well.”

Cisneros did sell stocks during the early days of the pandemic, but the Globe story omitted the fact that Cisneros also bought stocks during that period, and continued to trade stocks after the stock market crashed. The Globe story claimed Cisneros’ sale of 219 stocks after Congressional briefings was “a serious offense” akin to the insider trading allegations against the three senators. Tom Rust, staff director and chief counsel for the House Committee on Ethics, declined to comment on the Cisneros trades.

“It is unfortunate that there are outlets out there that are claiming to be legitimate media outlets and they’re not,” Cisneros said, “whether it is the California Globe or Breitbart, which are just an extension of the Republican agenda. They’re not there to tell legitimate news stories or to report the news.” 

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In the cease-and-desist letter sent to the California Globe, Cisneros’ attorneys called the article “false and defamatory” and pointed out that Cisneros was never investigated for any wrongdoing. 

“By focusing only on the sales, and ignoring Rep. Cisneros’s purchases, the article intentionally seeks to cast Rep. Cisneros’s activities as dishonest and illegal, when they were not,” the attorneys’ letter states.

The California Globe is a subsidiary of Sea of Reeds, LLC, a company founded by Ken Kurson. Kurson is the former editor of the New York Observer, a publication owned by the family of Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of former President Donald Trump. The Observer endorsed Trump for president in 2016, and before he left office, Trump pardoned Kurson for interstate stalking and harassment charges

Katy Grimes, editor of the California Globe and one of Breitbart’s “Top 25 Conservative Voices in California,” declined to comment on the sources or reporting for the removed article. She said Kurson occasionally writes articles for the California Globe but “had nothing to do with this one and hadn’t read it or heard about it until the lawyer contacted us.”

“(W)e heard from a lawyer representing Cisneros, and after further investigation decided that some of the points raised were valid enough to warrant the very rare decision to unpublish the article,” she said in an email. “The lawyer thanked us for our ‘prompt response’ and said it was ‘much appreciated.’” 

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican Super PAC, highlighted the story on its website, including excerpts that still were live Thursday. The Lincoln Club of Orange County, a local Super PAC, took out eight ad campaigns linking back to the Congressional Leadership Fund’s post of the Globe story that was unpublished. Facebook showed the ads between 70,000 and 80,000 times. 

And the Young Kim for Congress campaign bought 13 ad campaigns on Facebook that, like the Globe story and NRCC dossier, insinuated Cisneros engaged in insider trading with the charge that he “traded millions in stock following Congress’s private COVID hearing.” The “Profited” ad campaigns received between 378,000 and 446,000 impressions, according to Facebook’s ad library.

Politico or journalist?

The Globe is just one of California’s partisan news sites. In 2019, Alex Tavlian, a Republican staffer, lawyer, and political strategist, founded the San Joaquin Valley Sun.

For years before that though, Tavlian worked for Rep. David Valadao, including as his campaign manager in 2018 when Cox unseated Valadao. Tavlian interned in 2013, served as the deputy district director for Valadao in 2017, and on Dec. 20, 2018, Valadao praised Tavlian in the Congressional Record as an “invaluable” member of his staff. 

But when Valadao campaigned against Cox last year to retake his seat, Tavlian was running the San Joaquin Valley Sun. On Sept. 14, Tavlian penned an article that contained much of the information featured in a democratfacts.org dossier on Cox. Two quotes in the story are word-for-word from the dossier uploaded to the NRCC website on May 29, according to the metadata from the dossier.

The dossier and the San Joaquin Valley Sun article each detailed allegations against a former business partner of Cox, Norma Childers. Tavlian does not disclose his close relationship with Valadao anywhere in the article, nor that he worked as Valadao’s campaign manager. At the bottom of the story, he repeated discredited allegations of patient abuse at a memory care facility in which Valadao invested. Valadao alleged the mistreatment in television ads for the failed 2018 campaign that Tavlian managed.  

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Although the article garnered little interaction on Facebook and Twitter, it was retweeted by Torunn Sinclair, national press secretary for the NRCC. Two outside money groups, the NRCC IE Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, ran 10 ad campaigns related to allegations in the Sun story and NRCC dossier. The ads had more than 200,000 impressions on Facebook.

The San Joaquin Valley Sun is a subsidiary of the Valley Future Foundation, a non-profit where Tavlian serves as the executive director. In a 2019 interview, Tavlian claimed he is able to write and report on candidates objectively despite his campaign work for Valadao and his recent work to elect Republicans. He has at times included a disclaimer at the bottom of his stories about his relationship to the candidate mentioned in the story.

In 2014, Tavlian founded Sultana Media, a communications and strategic media firm that works to elect GOP candidates. Sultana Media’s clients include Valadao, Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, Congressman Devin Nunes in the Fresno area, Brian Whelan for his Fresno City Council run, and many others. In 2017, Tavlian registered a partisan news site called The California Republican, for Nunes, according to Politico

Tavlian did not respond to requests for comment.

The NRCC website, where the dossiers are stored, provides hits on Democratic candidates all across the country. The dossier that features information in the San Joaquin Valley Sun article was uploaded to the NRCC website by a man named Austin Kruger, according to the metadata attached to the dossier. Kruger went on to retweet the San Joaquin Valley Sun article four times. 

Kruger did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Coordination is clearly illegal’

Ann Ravel is the former commissioner of the Federal Election Commission during the Obama Administration, a job she took after working as California’s top elections watchdog. Ravel said websites like democratfacts.org can be used to skirt federal election laws such as the Citizens United ruling. That ruling made coordination between Super PACs, political parties and candidate campaign committees explicitly illegal. 

“People recognize that they can avoid the law and the purpose of the law,” Ravel said. “Coordination is clearly illegal, because that was the whole premise of Citizens United.”

No one has alleged such coordination in the California campaigns to flip congressional seats. Yet Ravel expressed concern about the democratfacts.org site and blamed partisan gridlock for allowing such sites to remain public.  

“Unfortunately the laws about that kind of coordination are not (enforced) in a way that is very clear,” she said. “There has never been a coordination enforcement action at the Federal Election Commission.

“There are six members and no more than three can be of one political party, which means that in order to have an enforcement action it requires four votes,” Ravel said. 

Negative campaigning and political dirty tricks have been a part of electoral democracy since the inception of the two-party system. Political dirty tricks are essentially just ways of gaming the system, such as when President John F. Kennedy’s father paid a man with the same last name as his 1946 congressional opponent to run in the race, causing votes to be split between the two and giving his son the win. Negative campaigns can include true information that hurts a candidate’s reputation, or information that is twisted to mislead, or both.

Regardless, such political attacks generally were expensive.

“Pre-internet, you had to either send massive numbers of letters by mail, or you had to have a big phone bank that was calling people’s houses,” said Elaine Kamarck, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, where she specializes in American electoral politics. 

The cost of today’s massive digital outreach programs is minimal. Voters are subjected to a deluge of information and forced to discern what is true and what isn’t.

“On the internet, you can pretend you’re a reliable source, that you’re a real newspaper, and people believe you,” Kamarck said. “The more incendiary and outrageous something is, the quicker it slides on the internet.”