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How Right-Wing Money Is Secretly Funding College Politics

The next time Chris Matthews and Hardball embark on a college campus tour, here’s a topic: the sleazy politics of student government campaigns.

Yes, be reassured that while parents shell out $60,000 a year for a kid’s tuition, their beloved offspring can still get financial aid, albeit secretly, if they’re conservative candidates for campus office.

Just ask Michael Vasquez, a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter who parlayed a tip and Freedom of Information Act requests to break open a story that tracks how a right-wing group is wielding influence by funneling thousands of dollars to candidates for student government.

This is an exposé — and not from a left-wing website or blogger but the Chronicle of Higher Education — of Charlie Kirk, a frequent Fox News pundit, and his nonprofit Turning Point USA, which is a de facto super PAC for conservatives’ student government campaigns.

Why care? Well, some student leaders have had an impact on state legislation. One played a big role in Colorado outlawing “free speech zones” on campuses. But at Ohio State and the University of Maryland at College Park, student candidates were outed for violating spending rules.

We may have the image of student government as a high-minded breeding ground for future politicians. This, however, is a tale of corruption and of stealthy attempts to influence.

Vasquez covered the Florida legislature and, he said Monday, “I can safely say that state lawmakers (both Republican and Democrat) routinely wade into education issues that they don’t fully understand. The number of poorly conceived and outright harmful education bills that are filed on a regular basis is staggering.”

That’s where the symbolic power of student body presidents can be crucial. They can prod forward passage of an idea, even if it’s a bad one.

This investigation took about seven weeks. An old source mentioned to Vasquez how Turning Point seemed to be gaining influence. There had already been some reporting by a few campus papers, but Vasquez then filed FOIA requests to universities for campaign finance reports filed by student candidates.

“This was a frustrating experience,” he says, with most coughing up only heavily redacted counts due to student privacy laws.

The Chronicle learned of student expenditures but generally not of their donors. Still, the expenses did lead, for example, to an Oregon T-shirt vendor who was paid $7,500 directly by Kirk.

Then there were 990 tax form filings by Turning Point and email records from the University of South Florida. Some documents were leaked to him by student government leaders or former Turning Point members.

Unlike the larger political universe, there are limited downsides to student skullduggery. That’s even as Turning Point urges candidates to keep its support a secret and students submit fraudulent finance reports. As Vasquez said Monday:

“Because it’s just ‘student government,’ there are no real penalties other than being potentially disqualified from the race. But when real politicians falsify these campaign finance documents, they can go to jail.”

Disney reports earnings today

Inevitably, ESPN’s performance will be under a microscope. MarketWatch reminded readers that recent layoffs are a pittance when it’s paying the NFL $2 billion to air just 17 games per season.

The Wall Street Journal cuts the company some slack. It argues that the numbers “could soon stabilize” and highlights one analyst’s thesis that a sharply declining subscriber base could be overcome in part by the ability to get hefty distribution fees from pay TV distributors and streaming services.

$3.9 billion deal

“TV station owner Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. said Monday it is acquiring Tribune Media Co. for $3.9 billion, a deal that would create a behemoth with more negotiating leverage over programmers and distributors and the ability to launch new channels or wireless streaming services.”

Yes, it will now have more than 215 stations. But it will have to divest some of them, carry hefty debt and inherit pension liabilities. Sinclair becomes a much bigger company but whether “consequentially so,” as one media executive put it to me, is far from clear, even as some argue it pushes an ideological slant to news coverage.

Says that executive about Sinclair, “The country has a conservative broadcaster (Fox) that enforces an on-air viewpoint throughout its group but the markets they add are not ones where that would mean very much given the plethora of existing outlets and the political leanings of those markets.”

Pissed-off Oliver creams the FCC again

“A John Oliver net neutrality rant has crippled the FCC website a second time.” (TechDirt)

If you missed it — yes, I was watching an 18-inning Yankees-Cubs game with 48 strikeouts — “Oliver notes that he registered the gofccyourself.com domain, making it simpler for annoyed net neutrality supporters to find the relevant FCC proceeding comment section on the agency’s website.”

“And, once again, it appears that the FCC’s website was crippled by the massive influx of viewers.” The agency claims there were other reasons, notably a “distributed detail of service attack” that preceded the Oliver HBO show.

Amazon about to kick butt again?

“Amazon.com Inc. is due to unveil a new Echo speaker with a screen that will incorporate video calling capabilities, according to people familiar with the matter, keeping the online retailer one step ahead of tech rivals in seeking to control smart homes.” (The Wall Street Journal)

TechCrunch notes how several sites claimed to reveal images of the new speaker. Reaction, especially on aesthetics, was mixed. Regardless, “such a device with the described feature set would put Amazon in front of its chief rival Google Home.”

Artistic blasts from the past

“Long before today’s fast-paced news cycle, the visual memory of contemporary events in eighteenth-century Europe was shaped and sometimes even manipulated by great ‘view painters.’”

That will be underscored in Eyewitness Views, an exhibit at The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which will run May 9 through July 20 before heading to Minneapolis and Cleveland.

Yes, a world with no Instagram, CNN or BBC. “In captivating, acutely observed scenes these painters, predominantly from Italy, recorded such occasions as royal celebrations, religious ceremonies, sporting contests and natural disasters.”

Restless youth

Vice Magazine’s Restless Youth issue is out and includes looks at rural activists between the coasts, youth being shafted by rising housing prices in Europe, the Dakota pipelines holdout demonstrators and, yes, a conservative campus activist (see prior item on Chronicle of Higher Education opus).

Google loses a big employee

“Verily Life Sciences, the high-profile Google offshoot, has lost the scientist who led its search for better ways to prevent, detect and treat mental illness — the latest in a string of top executives who have left the company after a short tenure.” (STAT)

Student press victory

“After months of back-and-forth, student press protections are on their way to the governor’s desk in Vermont.” The legislature passed an omnibus education bill that includes new protection and is expected to be signed by the governor. (Student Press Law Center)

Lead of the day

From Katie Baker in The Ringer:

“As my goggle-clad toddler splashed around in his Baby Bears swim class at our local rec center on Sunday morning, I sat poolside and Googled ‘Matt Harvey dildo’ on my phone. This semi-distracted query was neither an autocorrect error nor a clandestine hunt for niche online fanfic about doomed, broody MLB pitchers. It was a genuinely earnest attempt to figure out what the heck was the latest in New York Mets news.”

This theory on Trump’s victory

The influence of FBI Director James Comey is back in fashion, now hovering with Clinton’s awful messaging, the breakup of the “Obama coalition” and economic frustration. The Comey theory has gotten a fair bit of media legitimacy.

Now, three political scientists and a think tank policy analyst marshal data and take to the Monkey Cage blog to suggest that paramount was a shift in racial groups heading to the polls, namely more White people, fewer Black people. They find the shifts especially vivid in the swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. (The Washington Post)

Outside the Beltway reality

Atop this morning’s Chicago Sun-Times: “679 Days Without a State Budget.” Yes, there’s a $13 billion backlog of bills.

Rashomon headlines

Online New York Times: “tells senators she warned Trump about tells senators she warned Trump about .”.”

Print New York Times: “White House knew Flynn lied, ex-official testifies.

Wall Street Journal: “ warned that warned that misled officials about contact with Russian envoy.”misled officials about contact with Russian envoy.”

And Breitbart: “Still no evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump administration.”

Morning babble

Fox & Friends defended the White House, saying there was nothing new in Monday’s Senate testimony by Sally Yates and derided all three broadcast networks’ coverage as hyperbolic. No surprise, even as it admitted Michael Flynn told some lies.

CNN’s New Day found the White House intent on not knowing about Flynn’s Russia ties and related lies. Was it loyalty, corruption or, as pundit David Drucker argues, Trump’s stubborn refusal to concede error?

MSNBC’s Morning Joe completed the Flynn-Yates subject trifecta, underscoring White House “chaos” and still finding it a “mystery” as to why Trump ignored warnings about Flynn (though Mika Brzezinski thinks he may be nuts). It noted, like Fox, no evidence yet of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.

From St. Petersburg to Evanston

Tim Franklin, Poynter’s president and a native Hoosier, can bring those sweaters and overcoats out of storage. He’s departing to be become senior associate dean at the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing at Northwestern University.

“It has been one of the great privileges of my life to lead The Poynter Institute and the remarkably talented and hard-working faculty and staff here who every day change lives and have an impact on the journalism industry,” said Franklin, who’s been editor of the big papers in Indianapolis, Orlando and Baltimore and did a tour for Bloomberg in Washington.

He’s done well in very tough times for Poynter and many nonprofits, including those whose traditional sources of contributions have their own problems, as is true for Poynter. Franklin arrived in 2014 and is Medill’s gain in a move that also makes professional life easier for his wife, a lawyer who works for a firm in the Chicago area.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.


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