The Minnesota Sun—according to the terms that appear when you Google it—promises to be the “most reliable local newspaper across Minnesota,” a provider of “unbiased updates” on investigative reports Minnesotans care about.
If you happen to visit the website, you’ll find a lot of interesting headlines, like these:
“Popular Minnesota Gun Control Group Makes ‘Dubious’ Claim That It Is ‘Nonpartisan’”
“Ilhan Omar Pictured With Anti-Semitic, Sharia Law Apologist Who Partied With Muslim Brotherhood”
“Twitter Bans Misgendering Trans People but Allows Porn”
“Minnesota Media Ignores Story of Ex-Muslim Who Was Arrested at Mall for Sharing Christian Faith”
And this piece on new Minnesota IDs, which allow applicants to mark their gender as non-binary rather than male or female, respectfully portrayed by a picture of “Pat,” the ambiguously gendered character from ’90s-era Saturday Night Live.
It’s clear from the get-go that the Sun is a site with a certain point of view. What isn’t immediately clear is that it’s not totally local, and it’s not totally independent.
A recent report by Snopes determined that the Sun, along with its sister publication, the Ohio Star, is one of several sites launched in political toss-up states by the same handful of Republican consultants. They’re funded in large part by the conservative candidates the sites cover.
This all goes back to winter 2017, and the creation of another news site: the Tennessee Star. At the time, Snopes says, it was unclear where the site had come from or who was operating it, but it claimed to be a local newspaper and was mostly full of free content produced by organizations backed by “conservative mega-donors.”
After Politico poked around in early 2018, it was revealed the site’s chief operators were three conservative activists with Tea Party ties: Michael Patrick Leahy, Steve Gill, and Christina Botteri. Gill, according to Snopes, also owns a media consulting company that at least one political action committee “paid before receiving positive coverage in the Tennessee Star.”
“Though its owners claim that the Tennessee Star is funded by advertising revenue, it appears to be supported by wealthy benefactors,” Snopes said. “Whatever the Tennessee Star is, it is not a local newspaper producing transparent journalism.”
The Star has since expanded its operations with the help of its new, Delaware-based company: Star News Digital Media, Inc. Its network includes the Ohio Star and the Minnesota Sun. Its goal, as stated in an article published last year, is to target “battleground states that will figure prominently in the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election.” Gill added that the company could expand to as many as 15 additional states within the year.
Snopes’ analysis of Star News’ content found that many of the Sun’s stories—39 percent—are actually sourced from third-party organizations. Nearly 40 percent comes from the Daily Caller News Foundation, which is funded, in large part, by the Charles Koch Foundation or the Charles Koch Institute. Other notable sources include the Daily Caller (40 percent), Voice of America News (24 percent), the Daily Signal (9 percent), the Center for American Greatness (9) percent and ConservativeHQ.com (7 percent).
Sometimes, the Sun and its sister publications fail to keep up even the appearance of being local. The Ohio Star once ran a letter to the editor titled, “If You Want to Change State Politics Then Support Bill Lee for Governor.” If you live in Ohio, supporting Bill Lee for governor will do absolutely nothing to change your state politics, as Lee is the governor of Tennessee.
The Minnesota Sun, according to Snopes, used to have a weather bar on its homepage set to Columbus, Ohio. The website’s only listed physical address is also in Ohio.
Is it wrong to produce conservative content? No. As Journalism Ethics professor Kathleen Bartzen Culver told Snopes, the issue here is “disguising conservative activism as journalism.”
“When you are opaque about funding sources and their influence, when you don’t disclose to readers where the money is coming from and where the conflicts of interest may be, you are robbing those people of important information they need to judge credibility,” she said. It should be noted that a 2017 Pew Research Center study found that across the political spectrum, local news is considered more trustworthy than national sources.
The Sun didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Leahy defended his company to Snopes:
“Snopes.com is fully aware that Star News Digital Media, Inc. is a legitimate news organization and any statement made in print by your organization that we are a ‘political advocacy group’ rather than a legitimate news organization is one that you know to be false.” He and fellow leaders would “vigorously defend” their reputation as a “news organization.”