Over the weekend, an explosive scoop pushed Ralph Northam, Virginia’s Democratic governor, to the brink. A source alerted a journalist to a racist photo, on Northam’s page of an old medical school yearbook, showing one individual in blackface, and another in the white robes and hood of the Ku Klux Klan. Strikingly, it wasn’t a local paper or powerhouse investigative newsroom that got the goods; nor was it a prominent right-wing media player like Fox News or Breitbart. Instead, it was Big League Politics, a relatively obscure pro-Trump website, that broke the story that drove a national news cycle through the weekend.
Since Trump burst onto the political scene, sites like Big League Politics have been notable not for their reporting, but for their role driving an increasingly muddy, and increasingly fragmented, news ecosystem. According to The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, Big League Politics has, in its short existence, “reliably boosted Trump, attacked Democrats and liberal figures, and written many articles promoting a discredited conspiracy theory popular among far-right conservatives about the murder of a young Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich in 2016.” While some among the wave of sites that fit this profile give the impression of being run out of Trump obsessives’ bedrooms, others have significant partisan or financial heft behind them. As Farhi notes, Big League Politics’s owners include consultants who have worked for far-right Republican candidates like Corey Stewart, in Virginia, and Roy Moore, in Alabama.
Patrick Howley, the 29-year-old Breitbart and Daily Caller alum who edits Big League Politics, told Farhi that “a concerned citizen, not a political opponent,” brought the yearbook photo to the site’s attention. Nonetheless, Farhi reports that someone from Northam’s medical school cohort appears to have volunteered the tip in response to Northam’s comments, during a radio interview last week, around a state bill aiming to ease access to third-trimester abortions. Critics accused Northam of justifying infanticide for children born after failed abortion attempts. Although Northam strongly denied that that was what he had meant, some conservative outlets have since paired the abortion remarks with the racist yearbook scandal. Ben Sasse, Republican senator for Nebraska, did likewise on Fox.
Over the weekend, right-wing commentators also alleged Democratic Party—and media—hypocrisy around the photo. Fox’s Laura Ingraham decried “a double standard”: “If this had been a Republican with that photo, he’d never be seen again, [he’d] probably have to change his name and move to South America,” she said. These remarks, and others like them, were disingenuous. A cavalcade of senior Democrats, in Virginia and on the national stage, called on Northam to resign. The national news media, for its part, has quickly and aggressively pursued the story—arguably more so than it did last month after Steve King, a far-right Republican, lamented that white supremacist and white nationalist had “become offensive” terms. (King is not in South America but is still in Congress, where he represents Iowa.)
Major outlets were quick to verify the yearbook photo, and report Northam’s admission, later on Friday, that he was in it. And they held Northam’s feet to the fire when, on Saturday, he U-turned and said the photo wasn’t of him, after all, and that he would not be resigning his office. Questioned by journalists at an extraordinary press conference in Richmond, Northam acknowledged that he’d previously dressed up as Michael Jackson (but only used “just a little bit of shoe polish” on his face) and seemed set to prove he could moonwalk until his wife, standing next to him, warned him not to.
The story dominated the news cycle yesterday—even though new developments were thin on the ground until, in the evening, word broke that Northam had met with his staff to consider his options, including resigning. Northam’s resignation may, indeed, be imminent. But if he chooses to stick it out, it will become harder for the media to keep the spotlight on the story, as previous scandals involving, for example, Greg Gianforte, King, and, of course, Donald Trump have proven. Our present, polarized moment may have boosted accountability journalism, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that it’s diminished actual accountability. Pro-Trump websites that muddy the truth for partisan ends have played their part in that.
Below, more on Ralph Northam:
- On the campaign trail: Candidates for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination lined up to denounce Northam over the weekend, an indication of the prominent role race and identity will play in the primaries, the Times’s Jonathan Martin writes. Brian Stelter and guests discussed the phenomenon on CNN’s Reliable Sources.
- Brought to book: Also on Reliable Sources, Jackie Kucinich, The Daily Beast’s Washington bureau chief, predicted that journalists will spend more time checking politicians’ old yearbooks from here on out.
- A league of its own: The Wall Street Journal’s Keach Hagey situates Big League Politics as “part of a growing wave of low-cost, ideologically driven news publishers.” The site’s name “is a nod to President Trump’s favorite campaign trail adverb, often misinterpreted as ‘bigly.’”
Other notable stories:
- Another round of layoffs hit the media industry on Friday, as Vice moved to cut 10 percent of its workforce (about 250 people), and newspaper chain McClatchy offered buyouts to 10 percent of its staff (about 450 people). More than 2,100 media workers have now lost their jobs this year, Business Insider’s Benjamin Goggin calculates. For CJR, Emily Tamkin, who was laid off from BuzzFeed 10 days ago, shares what her life has been like since she got the news. “Some people online tell me that I couldn’t have been good at my job because I got laid off,” Tamkin writes. “I think, but do not respond, that a part of me agrees with these trolls.”
- ICYMI on Friday, the Times’s Daily podcast featured a long conversation between the paper’s publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, and Trump on the dangers of anti-press rhetoric. Yesterday, meanwhile, CBS aired Margaret Brennan’s wide-ranging Super Bowl Sunday interview with the president. What else has Trump been getting up to? Perhaps not much: according to private schedules leaked to Axios’s Alexi McCammond and Jonathan Swan, about 60 percent of Trump’s scheduled time since the midterms has been unstructured “Executive Time.”
- If you made it to the fourth quarter of last night’s Super Bowl snoozer, you probably saw this ad for The Washington Post, narrated by Tom Hanks and focused on press freedom and democracy. Fredrick Kunkle, a Post staffer who co-chairs the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, called the ad an “infuriating expense”—it may have cost north of $10 million—given the paper’s policies on health insurance. On the field, the Pats beat the Rams 13-3 in Atlanta.
- Spotify is in talks to acquire Gimlet Media, a podcasting startup, as it looks to branch out of the streaming music business. The deal, which could be worth more than $200 million, would be “the first time Spotify has bought a content company—and one of the biggest acquisitions in the still-nascent podcasting industry,” Recode’s Peter Kafka writes.
- Graydon Carter, the former editor of Vanity Fair, and Alessandra Stanley, a former reporter at the Times, are launching Air Mail, a weekly international newsletter containing original, magazine-length journalism. Carter and Stanley aim “to keep well-heeled globalists up to speed on the latest fads, fashions, arts, riots, scandals, and political upheavals in Europe and Asia,” the Times’s Alex Williams reports.
- On Friday, Snopes, a fact-checking website, announced it was ceasing its partnership with Facebook. In a note, Snopes said it was “evaluating the ramifications and costs of providing third-party fact-checking services… to determine with certainty that our efforts to aid any particular platform are a net positive for our online community, publication, and staff.” It did not rule out going back in future. Writing for CJR last year, the Tow Center’s Mike Ananny took a critical deep-dive inside Facebook’s fact-checking partnership.
- Gretchen Whitmer, the new Democratic governor of Michigan, moved to loosen access to public records across the state government—except in her own office, the AP’s David Eggert reports. Aside from Massachusetts, Michigan is the only state where the governor’s office is totally exempt from open-records laws. Whitmer says she wants the state’s legislature, which is also exempt, to pass laws opening both branches to scrutiny.
- Also in Michigan, the mayor of Dearborn censored the magazine of a local historical commission and fired its editor after it put together an issue exploring the “Hate of Hometown Hero Henry Ford,” Anna Clark reports for CJR. “One hundred years ago, Ford bought a newspaper in Dearborn and used it to publish an anti-Semitic 19-part series called ‘The International Jew,’” Clark writes.
- And the “ReporterMate” byline on this Guardian analysis of political donations in Australia isn’t a typo—it signals that the story was written by a robot. Nick Evershed, the paper’s (apparently human) data and interactives editor, explains the tool here.