Interviews with current and former Real Clear staff members, along with a review of its coverage and tax filings, point to a shift to the right within the organization in late 2017, when the bulk of its journalists who were responsible for straight-news reporting on Capitol Hill, the White House and national politics were suddenly laid off. Though the staff always knew the website’s founders were conservative and harbored strong views about liberal media bias, several said they never felt any pressure from above to slant their stories.
“One day we were all called in and told it was over,” said Alexis Simendinger, who was the White House correspondent for Real Clear Politics. “It was a very surprising thing.”
They were never given much of an explanation why, the former employees said. But they were surprised to learn who was replacing them in some cases: writers who had worked in the conservative movement or for the Republican Party. One hire was the former chair of the Manhattan Republican Party and was married to a senior Trump administration official.
Top Real Clear executives also developed business ties with a hard-right conservative outlet, The Federalist, that is frequently promoted on the Real Clear flagship website. Public records and interviews show that The Federalist, whose funding sources have been largely secret, draws from the same pool of donor money as Real Clear. In their statement, Mr. McIntyre and Mr. Bevan emphasized the website’s independence but declined to address specific questions about their donors.
Given the challenges of turning a profit in digital media, political publications often have a hard time existing on advertising revenue alone. Some right-of-center outlets like Real Clear and National Review, along with left-leaning ones like Media Matters for America and Mother Jones, fund part of their operations through foundations that can accept anonymous tax-deductible contributions.
Publishers and media scholars said that while these gifts provide a measure of financial stability, they can also cost an outlet its editorial independence — or the perception of independence. And accepting money from ideologically motivated donors, especially ones who wish to keep their giving private, opens the door to a host of ethical questions….
From 2016 to 2017, donations to the Real Clear Foundation more than quadrupled to $1.7 million, with nearly all of that coming from two entities that conservatives use to shield their giving from public disclosure requirements, Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund. In 2018, the Real Clear Foundation had its best year yet, reporting more than $3 million in donations. One donor whose identity is disclosed on tax filings is Andrew Puzder, who was briefly Mr. Trump’s nominee for labor secretary and writes opinion pieces for Real Clear.
Public records from those years and interviews show how the leadership and donor base of Real Clear and The Federalist overlapped.
One of The Federalist’s major financial backers is the conservative, pro-Trump businessman Richard Uihlein, according to two people with knowledge of the website’s finances. Mr. Uihlein and his wife, Elizabeth, who runs their family’s multibillion-dollar packaging business, have been known to steer money toward hard-right candidates that many other Republicans have avoided, like Roy S. Moore, the former Alabama judge whose Senate campaign unraveled after women accused him of pursuing them and fondling them when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers.
Ms. Uihlein was also known for her outspokenness against public health lockdowns and revealed last week that she and her husband had contracted the coronavirus.
Together the couple have become one of the biggest sources of investment in conservative politics in recent years. They have given $250,000 to the Real Clear Foundation through their family nonprofit, tax records from 2017 and 2018 show.
The Federalist’s funding remains opaque, but its ties to Real Clear are detailed in public documents. Two top executives at Real Clear Politics were named in disclosures filed by Federalist entities. Mr. McIntyre, the Real Clear co-founder, is listed as a director of The Federalist’s umbrella corporation on a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that also bears his signature.
The Real Clear publisher David DesRosiers was listed as a director with The Federalist’s nonprofit foundation. And as reported by BuzzFeed and others, The Federalist has used the same address that Real Clear Politics uses as the location of its Chicago office.