Art by Alvaro Dominguez

A Little to the Left

In 2016, far-right outlets upended the media. Now a new brand of liberal ventures is claiming turf online.

June 10, 2024

Barbara Hawkins—a grandmother from Arizona who is a registered independent—discovered the MeidasTouch Network eighteen months ago, when she was between books, scrolling idly on YouTube. Until then, her news diet had been the “old reliable mainstream media,” she told me, but she’d been getting fed up. “It’s rare to see mainstream media doing anything except treating this election cycle as business as usual,” she said. “There’s little discussion regarding the various threats we face as a nation.” Then she found MeidasTouch, which describes itself as doing “pro-democracy” journalism, and provides commentary on national politics seemingly calculated to appeal to those for whom Rachel Maddow is too subtle.

The name is a play on King Midas, the Greek-mythological figure; the network was founded by a trio of brothers from Long Island (Ben, Brett, and Jordan) with the last name Meiselas. They started producing videos in March 2020, while cooped up at home and watching Donald Trump give press conferences about COVID-19. A typical MeidasTouch video features one of the brothers sitting in his living room, usually in a hoodie, the sight of a eucalyptus plant or a stuffed animal in the background; there’s a distinct work-from-home quality, though the guys include some graphics, outrage-inducing Fox clips, and screenshots of tweets. Often, the coverage is a Trump play-by-play: his missed shots on the golf course, his wife “hiding” from him on Mother’s Day. The YouTube channel is flooded with videos (“Bye Ivanka”; “Bye Don Jr: Love Me, Daddy!”; “CRY BABY Trump has MAJOR EMOTIONAL ISSUES”) on a near-hourly basis. The network also has sixteen talk-show-style podcasts on Spotify, discussing Trump’s farts, among other subjects; Michael Cohen is a host. MeidasTouch calls itself “the fastest-growing independent news network in the world,” which may not be wholly inaccurate: it has about 2.4 million subscribers on YouTube, and its videos have been viewed billions of times.

In May 2020, within a couple of months of getting their video project off the ground, the brothers registered MeidasTouch as a super-PAC. In their first year, they raised close to five million dollars. Around the same time, they were joined by an orchestra of other new left-leaning digital ventures—different from one another in approach, but all claiming to have arisen out of a shared discontent: with the country facing the prospect of a second Trump presidency, something about the traditional mechanisms for delivering information to the American electorate was broken. Each began racking up followers and funders. Notably, with the exception of MeidasTouch, all were established by Democratic strategists, who were perhaps in a special position to appreciate the failures of the mainstream press.

There was Courier Newsroom, a network providing local coverage in eleven states, much of it on social media platforms. Courier came from Tara McGowan, who ran digital operations for Priorities USA, a Democratic super-PAC, and who has a tattoo on her forearm tracing Barack Obama’s writing of the words Yes, we can. (McGowan has a background in journalism; she worked as an associate producer for 60 Minutes.) More Perfect Union, a progressive outlet focused on the story of labor unions, was started by Faiz Shakir, a senior adviser for Bernie Sanders. Marc Elias, the longtime Democratic Party elections lawyer, founded Democracy Docket, a “leading digital news platform” dedicated to voting rights and election law. During the same period, David Sirota, a former Sanders speechwriter and author, established an outlet called The Lever, though he positioned it as an investigative, nonpartisan site with the tagline “Hold Them Accountable.”

Something about the traditional mechanisms for delivering information to the American electorate seemed to be broken.

This emergent class of media entrepreneurs had followed along in the previous election as a proliferation of right-wing outlets—Breitbart, the Daily Caller, the Gateway Pundit—were credited for boosting Trump to the presidency, including by actively spreading fake stories on social media. When I spoke to members of the left-leaning—or, in many cases, “pro-democracy”—cohort, they told me that they were not inspired by the “success” of right-wing content producers per se, nor did they want to suggest that they were offering a liberal equivalent. “There’s a distinction between places that genuinely report truthful information with a slant versus those that might be reporting misinformation,” Rick Hasen, a law professor at UCLA, told me. As McGowan put it, “We’re not fighting fire with fire, we’re fighting fire with water.” Even so, in a new book, The Death of Truth, Steven Brill describes “creative political operatives” of both parties seizing on new media platforms and advancing the notion that “this core instrument of the democratic process, independent journalism, can and must now be cast aside.”

Across the spectrum, these projects seem to share a canny appreciation of internet aesthetics, tapping into the visual cues of “real” journalism even as they combine reporting with what might be more accurately considered a form of political performance art. Where right-wing sites often embrace a deliberately cluttered tabloid style, with bright colors and bold headlines, liberals tend to opt for softer hues (blue, purple, occasionally yellow) and visuals that suggest design-school pedigree (clean lines, a surfeit of white space). There’s variation: MeidasTouch seems keen to challenge MAGA fans decibel for decibel, while More Perfect Union has the luster of an ambitious investigative site. The collected experience of followers and casual scrollers is a gusher of takes and emotion. 

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As left-leaning digital ventures have gained attention, they have received notice from the White House, which offers cheerful cooperation; Joe Biden has appeared in videos posted by Courier, More Perfect Union, and MeidasTouch. That, in turn, has made these outlets legitimate players in the political-media sphere. Last fall, More Perfect Union facilitated a meetup between Biden and Michigan autoworkers on the picket line—first-rate access. In late November, Biden met up with Ben Meiselas in Pueblo, Colorado, at the world’s largest wind turbine tower factory. In the video, ceremonial trumpets play in the background. “You’re doing a great job,” Biden tells Meiselas. “You know, sometimes, in my view, the best politics is truth. And you’re telling the truth.” 

“‘Truth is golden’ is our slogan,” Meiselas replied. King Midas, of course, turned anything he touched to gold—a reference that sounds, probably not accidentally, rather Trumpian. As it happened, during the 2020 presidential election, MeidasTouch devised an unusual fundraising scheme: Rolling Stone reported that the PAC invited fans to click a donation link, which split proceeds with the Biden campaign ($31,623 went to Biden, $30,000 to MeidasTouch). The blurred line between journalism and advocacy drew criticism; in 2023, MeidasTouch changed the PAC’s name to Democracy Defense Action. So far, though, the drama has not stopped a loyal following from tuning in. “With varying sources and opinions, I will keep trying to keep open eyes to the dangers I see ahead,” Hawkins told me. “But when facts matter, I want MeidasTouch.”

The 2016 election did not mark the beginning of the hyperpartisan press. On the right, Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio show, syndicated nationally in 1988, was once the highest rated in the United States. Fox News has been catering to the Republican base since the late nineties. Nevertheless, many researchers contend that the 2016 campaign marked a watershed in the reach and influence of right-wing media, especially online. According to a study from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, not only did far-right media embolden its own audience, it also “played a key role in setting the agenda of mainstream, center-left media.”

On the left, there has never been a shortage of publications with open political aims: The Nation and Dissent; Mother Jones and In These Times; the American Prospect and ThinkProgress; Mic and NowThis. None of these—nor the recent crop of journalism and journalism-adjacent ventures made for social media—have mirrored the right’s approach of sowing the information ecosystem with falsehoods and hatred. On the contrary, Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts argue in their 2018 book Network Propaganda, left-leaning media is an extension of the fact-based mainstream press. Left-leaning outlets serve “as a consistent check on the dissemination and validation of the most extreme stories when they do emerge on the left,” the authors write, “and have no parallels in the levels of visibility or trust that can perform the same function on the right.”

But to some Democratic partisans, matching the intensity of rhetoric on the right is a worthy aim. Several have tried. Famously, the liberal radio station AirAmerica, which debuted in 2004 as a counterweight to Limbaugh and other conservative hosts, never really took flight. (Though it did help launch Al Franken into the Senate.) “There was kind of a generation of liberals who couldn’t understand why they weren’t represented in that format in America,” Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth, told me. Part of the problem, he said, was that “the highly interested news consumers on the left were still being served with the New York Times and NPR.” In other words, while partisan media on the right had little trouble finding consumers who were disaffected with mainstream political coverage, the potential customers for explicitly liberal outlets were happy enough with their mainstream standbys.

According to the Harvard study, media consumption during the 2016 campaign exacerbated the long-running asymmetry in the way liberals and conservatives get their news. “Media coverage on both sides of the spectrum was more partisan on social media than on the open web,” the researchers noted, and “more partisan segments of the media ecosystem appear to have been more vulnerable to disinformation and false reporting.” As burgeoning right-wing outlets attracted Trump supporters, they also managed to steer the mainstream press. What some considered to be a disproportionate focus on stories about Hillary Clinton’s email server, for instance, was partly a product of journalists struggling to contend with “reporting” that had first found an audience through MAGA sites.

To some Democratic partisans, matching the intensity of rhetoric on the right is a worthy aim.

Like everything else about the 2016 election, the role played by digital media and disinformation is contested. Benkler, who was one of the authors of the Harvard study, warns against overinterpreting the results. “Progressive elites like to think that some technological exogenous shock destabilized American democracy,” he told me recently. “Putting the blame on disinformation allows us to continue to keep our heads in the sand with respect to the class-conflict element of the present crisis, leaving the field for fascists to exploit, as they have for over a century.” Benkler cautions, moreover, that Trump’s candidacy was its own independent variable, making it difficult to cleanly chart cause and effect. “It is hard to tell whether the media was driving the change,” he added, “or whether politics, and in particular the personality of Trump, released social and political forces that dragged the media along with them.” 

What seems undeniable is that the election unsettled the relationship between many liberals and their mainstream news sources—in part because of a sense that the media was being strung along by the right-wing ecosystem. As a popular argument went: taking a “balanced” approach to stories pushed by right-wing propagandists did not make you a responsible journalist, it made you a dupe. Many reporters at major outlets eventually embraced that logic, gradually applying more skepticism to stories that emerged from the right-wing click-o-sphere, and using more demonstrative language to describe Trump’s lies. But for some progressives among their audience, it was too late. Hawkins, for one, told me that she was dismayed by a lack of “pushback” of the kind she associates with Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. The popular belief that Clinton had lost the election because of legacy media’s commitment to outmoded interpretations of journalistic objectivity—combined with the supercharged environment for partisan political content in the Trump years—created a demand for something new.  

What that new thing would be, though, was uncertain. At the start, the emerging generation of left-leaning media projects shared an explicit aim of responding to failures of the traditional press, but they had a whole internet’s worth of people to serve, and the possibilities were boundless. “What’s most interesting about these sites is what they indicate about how the Democratic Party is changing, and how liberal media is changing,” Nyhan, the Dartmouth professor, told me. “The Democratic Party is becoming more liberal and more dissatisfied with mainstream media, and more open to partisan content focused on how the other side is bad.” 

Each startup came at the opportunity a different way. Courier, delivering local coverage, called itself “a pro-democracy news network” focused on “reaching audiences where they are online with factual, values-driven news and analysis.” Its mission reflected a private 2019 memo circulated by McGowan and later published by Vice News, in which she argued, “The Democratic Party, long reliant on television and radio, is losing the media war.” When I spoke to McGowan, she told me that legacy news had grown too “insular and elite” and was failing to reach voters. “I felt that the Democratic political party was just not evolving as quickly as the media ecosystem was changing, to understand where and how to actually reach different segments of the population,” she told me. Courier frequently posts short TikTok and Instagram videos—some explore local policies (what Democrats are getting right, what Republicans are doing wrong) while others offer up lifestyle fare. According to McGowan, Courier’s newsrooms have a total of 1.6 million email subscribers. “The most important part is that this audience is majority not politically active,” she said. “So these are what we call low-turnout voters or new voters. It really is a totally different approach, where most media companies don’t even care about civic behavior, they want whoever wants their news.” 

Courier was originally backed by ACRONYM—a company McGowan started, best known for the broken-app debacle of the 2020 Iowa caucus. After all the bad press, ACRONYM sold Courier to a new McGowan venture, Good Information Inc. (“I wanted to focus on scaling Courier,” McGowan said), but not before facing a complaint from Americans for Public Trust, a right-wing group, alleging that Courier should register as a political committee. (The complaint was dismissed by the Federal Election Commission; ACRONYM has since dissolved.) Good Information Inc., which is now identified as the public benefit corporation that owns Courier, began with a multimillion-dollar seed investment courtesy of George Soros, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, tech-money megadonors Kenneth and Jennifer Duda, and the venture-capital firm Incite. Each year, Good Information collects between fifteen and twenty-five million in additional revenue. (McGowan said that doesn’t surpass expenses.) The money comes from advertising, fans donating as little as two dollars, underwriting from large donors in support of issue-specific coverage, and major philanthropists such as Soros. Brill, in his book, calls Courier “the most prominent and sophisticated of the pink-slimers”—the name for partisan operations masquerading as local news—on the side of Democrats.

Courier has a section on its website outlining its funding model. Some backers are identified, including the Dudas, Incite, and Vero Media Investments; Soros doesn’t come up. The page states that “editorial independence is a core tenet of our work and we maintain an editorial firewall between our funding sources and newsrooms that ensures the integrity of our journalism.” But according to Politico, Courier spent more than $1.4 million on Facebook ads during the 2020 election cycle—promoting content that often appeared more like the posts of a Democratic PAC than a newsroom. In 2022, when Brill asked McGowan about Courier’s political motivations, she said, “We are up against a right-wing propaganda disinformation machine”—a response that he summarized as “because the other side does it, we can do it.” McGowan told me, “We don’t endorse candidates. We don’t take any underwriting from political parties, campaigns, or super-PACs, and we never have.”

Shakir’s More Perfect Union is, by contrast, transparent about being an advocacy organization. In February 2021, shortly after Biden’s inauguration, the staff put out their first video: a visit to Bessemer, Alabama, showing Black women workers trying to organize at an Amazon factory. Almost immediately, the video received more than a million views. “We had zero Twitter followers, zero Facebook, nobody knew what More Perfect Union was—we didn’t do anything to promote who was behind the organization, because I was really hell-bent on a rollout where the content speaks for us,” Shakir told me. “There’s a lot of politics coverage out there, and it’s all superficial and substanceless too often. Economic-justice issues in America, fundamentally, are under-covered. But it’s one of the things that matters the most to a lot of people.” 

Recently, videos have taken place in small towns across the country, from a factory in Stanton, Tennessee to Pearce, Arizona, where wells are running dry. Other segments—usually under ten minutes—take aim at those seeking to buy political power, such as the bankrollers behind Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential campaign. On Instagram, More Perfect Union has a modest 258,000 followers. But Shakir sent me data compiled using Rival IQ, a social media analytics firm, indicating that More Perfect Union receives stunningly high rates of engagement: eleven times more than MSNBC and about twenty-three times more than the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Politico. (Rival IQ said that it collects its information from APIs on social channels.)

When More Perfect Union started, its revenue was close to half a million dollars. It is now more than six million. (Ninety-four percent of the revenue is put toward overhead, Shakir said.) The model is sustained by 80 percent philanthropy from big progressive donors—the Open Society Foundations, Omidyar Network, the Ford Foundation—and the remainder from small grassroots donors, plus advertising revenue from platforms, especially YouTube. Shakir aims to hire people who have experience working in journalism and in advocacy. “We want a mix of both,” he told me. “The goal is to have a team with creative thinking around impact journalism.”

Democracy Docket, with its focus on election-related law, does not refer to itself as partisan, preferring the term “pro-democracy”; the contributor list includes journalists and lawyers. “For years people would always ask me about the courts and democracy, but there was never one place for me to point them to specifically for reliable and up-to-date information about what’s happening with voting, elections, and democracy in the courts,” Elias told me. “Of course, 2020 turned out to be a good year to start a pro-democracy news outlet, since the courts were so central, particularly in the post-election period, in preserving our democracy.” The venture started as a newsletter with two thousand subscribers, a number that increased tenfold by Election Day. Democracy Docket now claims more than 175,000 newsletter subscribers. Its Defending Democracy Podcast—featuring guests Hillary Clinton and Eric Holder, among others—is predominantly accessed on YouTube, where it’s been viewed 2.3 million times. 

Unlike many other outlets, partisan or otherwise, Democracy Docket does not disclose on its website where it gets backing. A spokesperson said, “We are funded by contributions from our readers as well as from our founder during our early stages.” The spokesperson wouldn’t disclose who those readers are—though recently, one made herself known: America Ferrera, the actress, asked fans on Instagram to donate to Democracy Docket for her birthday. The site does not receive institutional support from any major liberal donors or organizations, the spokesperson said, but “we get a small percentage from ads, merch sales, and other services and partnerships.” (When asked what the services and partnerships are, the spokesperson didn’t say.) The site’s merch—a “Democracy’s Favorite Dog” bandanna, a mug with the phrase “I Fight for Voting Rights”—suggests, in line with peers, activism more than journalism.

None of these projects have matched MeidasTouch—which, more than any, exploits the perception (justified or not) that the mainstream media was too sympathetic to Trump in 2016 and 2020. The Meiselas brothers, who did not respond to multiple interview requests, refer to MeidasTouch as an “independent news network,” despite their self-professed partisanship. When they began, Brett Meiselas told CNN that their mission was to “take the oxygen out of the news cycle from Trump.” His brother Ben added, “These videos are not just anti-Trump ads, they are pro–Joe Biden ads and show why we think he’s the right person for those specific states, utilizing speeches that he’s made.” But the guys quickly realized that, from the point of view of engagement, Trump was a gift. Every day, MeidasTouch videos get more than a million views.

All of these sites, to varying degrees, maintain at least implicit interest in Trump. As a contemporary, The Lever stands apart for that reason; its attention is mainly on corporations and the people who run them. (The Lever is funded by subscribers and by the Jacobin Foundation, which syndicates its coverage.) “I don’t believe that the problem of the media is that there isn’t enough volume around how dangerous or problematic Donald Trump is,” Sirota told me. “I think the problem of media is that it’s almost the other way around—it’s that Trump was able to emerge in a media environment that had basically ignored the economic struggles of millions of people for a very long time.” Be that as it may, there is an apparent wealth of Democratic incentive to support partisan outlets whose coverage could tip the election in the party’s favor. And in their diversity of approach, all have managed to acquire something that most traditional newsrooms can’t these days: money.

They’ve grasped something else, too: an unprecedented stream of access. Last November, in a corner of the White House adorned with a large tree and the warm glow of Christmas lights, some four hundred people arrived for a holiday party—the first ever exclusively for liberal influencers and the proprietors of left-leaning news sites. In the East Room, surrounded by gilded curtains, First Lady Jill Biden took the stage and greeted the crowd. “Welcome to the White House,” she said. “You’re here because you all represent the changing way people receive news and information.” The goal of the event—as Kyle Tharp, who leads Courier’s national content team, reported in an interview with Christian Tom, the White House director of digital strategy—was to “both thank people who’ve been supporters of the president or our administration, who’ve helped to highlight our policies looking back, as well as to cultivate relationships with people whom we want to go and work with in the future.” The guest list included the three Meiselas brothers; Courier staffers; and emissaries from Betches Media, a female-run company best known for its liberal memes. According to Tharp, the invitees had a cumulative social media audience approaching a hundred million.

Around the time of the party, Biden was popping up in random corners of the internet. The videos seemed like sound bites from his campaign—soft promotions of policies he’d enacted and bills he’d signed, each no longer than a minute or two, the average time a news consumer spends reading an article online. In Illinois, an interviewer from More Perfect Union asked Biden to convey his message to the thousands of nonunionized people hoping to join the United Auto Workers. “Join, join, organize, picket, protest,” Biden told the camera. On Twitter, the video got more than a million views. Three days later, Biden stood next to Liz Fleming, a Courier reporter, in a video for TikTok. “I heard you’re Joe from Scranton,” Fleming said. “I’m Liz from Iowa.” The video, shot selfie-style, lasted less than a minute. “You’re the one who’s really doing the work and bringing those jobs back,” Liz told Biden. “Is this the American comeback story?” 

There is an apparent wealth of Democratic incentive to support partisan outlets whose coverage could tip the election in the party’s favor.

For Biden, the emergence of a friendly new media contingent offers an appealing alternative to traditional journalists, many of whom wish to ask tough questions about his policies, his age, or his son. During his presidency, Biden has rarely sat for interviews with legacy news outlets. “For anyone who understands the role of the free press in a democracy, it should be troubling that President Biden has so actively and effectively avoided questions from independent journalists during his term,” a spokesperson for the Times said. “Systematically avoiding interviews and questions from major news organizations doesn’t just undermine an important norm, it also establishes a dangerous precedent that future presidents can use to avoid scrutiny and accountability.” (The White House did not respond to requests for comment.) Trump—though no ally of the traditional media, nor a reliable source of honest answers—gave more than three hundred interviews and almost three times as many press conferences as Biden in his first year. 

Democrats are not fully ready to abandon mainstream news. (The Times continues to grow, having gained around three million subscribers since the end of 2020.) But with a wider array of “pro-democracy” options this time around, many news consumers are embracing a sense of skepticism—a feeling that they are in control of their own informational destiny—no matter that Democratically aligned donors are behind the scenes. “What I appreciate about the MeidasTouch Network is their contributors troll sites I refuse to go to, air footage, and allow me to make my own decisions,” Hawkins told me. “I believe Thomas Jefferson placed the media above government. It’s called the fourth estate for a reason. Journalism faithfully and truthfully moves the masses. Never take it for granted.”

Maddy Crowell is a freelance journalist based in New York.