News outlet rising on the right for Russia coverage

News outlet rising on the right for Russia coverage
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Circa News, a millennial-focused media outlet that launched only eight months ago, has been embraced by Republicans for aggressive reporting on Russian meddling in the 2016 election that runs counter to reporting in more mainstream outlets.

For the past week, Circa has been dropping new exclusives on federal investigations into Russian influence on a near-daily basis. Their reporting has coursed through conservative media, where it has been held up as an example of fair and hard-hitting investigative reporting on an issue that has been a flashpoint of controversy between the White House, Congress and the press.

Circa’s Chief Operating Officer John Solomon and national security reporter Sara Carter have appeared on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity” almost every night for the past week, giving the outlet a valuable primetime perch on one of conservative media’s most-watched cable news shows.

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Sean Hannity — one of Trump’s biggest boosters in the media — has repeatedly lauded Circa as the gold standard, while blasting its counterparts in the mainstream media as “lazy,” “overpaid” and “dishonest.”

On Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer read a section of one of Carter’s stories from the podium in the briefing room as he made the case that Trump’s inner circle had likely been swept up in surveillance conducted during former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGOP rep: North Korea wants Iran-type nuclear deal Dems fear lasting damage from Clinton-Sanders fight Iran's president warns US will pay 'high cost' if Trump ditches nuclear deal MORE’s administration.

But Circa’s reporting has yet to catch on with the mainstream press, where aggregating a competitor’s stories or following up on incremental reporting in the Trump-Russia saga is otherwise routine. 

Media experts say that’s an indication that Circa is not taken seriously by their peers yet, either because they’re new to the scene or viewed by the mainstream media as the fringe or right-wing.

In an interview with The Hill, Solomon, the company’s COO and a veteran reporter, bristled at the notion that his outlet, which is owned by the right-leaning Sinclair Broadcasting Group, has a partisan bent. Solomon expressed satisfaction that their reporting is breaking through.

“We have no point of view and you won’t find any opinion pieces on our website,” Solomon said. “I think labeling media outlets is not beneficial. There are people at outlets with conservative editorial boards doing great work and reporters at outlets with a liberal bent doing the same.”

“There is also no evidence that we’re being ignored,” Solomon continued. “Our website has reached more than 1 billion people, so someone is paying attention. We’re eight months old and as we mature more people will know about us. I don’t measure success in whether our colleagues are picking up or stories.”

Solomon is highly regarded in the journalism industry and known to be deeply sourced in intelligence circles. He spent twenty years at the Associated Press and was an investigative reporter for the Washington Post before taking over at the Washington Times, a conservative political publication.

Carter previously covered national security for the Washington Examiner, a conservative news outlet. On air, she is confident and conversant in the byzantine language of the intelligence community.

Together, Solomon and Carter have reported that the FBI investigated whether a server at Trump Tower was privately communicating with Russian officials. So far, Circa has been the only news outlet to report that the investigation was brief and has been closed with no findings of wrong-doing by Trump or anyone in his orbit. It’s a story that goes over well with Republicans trying to push back on reports in other outlets that document ties between Trump associates and Russia.

Carter and Solomon have also reported that a surveillance court issued a warrant to investigate Russian hacking during the 2016 campaign. 

Many mainstream outlets have reported the same thing, but with dark intonations that Trump and his top deputies are at the center of an investigation into whether they colluded with the Russians over the election.

By contrast, Circa has reported that the investigation is taking a much broader look at Russian meddling, with only a peripheral focus on whether anyone in Trump’s inner circle had contact with Russian officials during the campaign.

In recent days, Circa has reported on a Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Overnight Tech: Equifax hit by earlier undisclosed hack | Facebook takes heat over Russian ads | Alt-right Twitter rival may lose domain MORE supporter they say is responsible for the rumor that a Trump server was in contact with the Russians. Circa has also reported that the server’s communications with Russia may have been the work of a hacker and “designed to create the false impression” of collusion.

“They are quite enterprising in approach and looking for angles not being readily pursued by traditional media,” said Jeffrey McCaul, a communications professor at DePauw University. “The main thing, I think, is that Circa isn't necessarily assuming this story is supposed to make Trump look bad. The reporting seems to be more focused on Russian misbehavior.”

Circa News first launched in 2012 as an app meant to revolutionize news distributions, only to go dark in 2015 due to financial reasons. The brand was scooped up by Sinclair — the local television news behemoth  — and launched again, with Solomon at the helm, in mid-2016.

The Sinclair connection has led many to write the site off as being on the right. Mainstream news organizations regularly describe Circa a right-leaning news organization.

In 2016, Sinclair became enveloped in controversy over reports it had “struck a deal” with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and the Trump campaign. The deal it reportedly offered included favorable coverage in exchange for access to the Trump campaign.

But Solomon pushes back on the idea of an agreement between Sinclair and the Trump campaign, which was first reported by Politico.

“Those stories were reckless, false, unfair and imbalanced,” Solomon said.

Sinclair insists they reached out to Trump and Clinton about a standard arrangement whereby the candidates would be interviewed for local television packages. Clinton declined. Sinclair has said there was never an offer of favorable coverage for Trump.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) criticized reporting on the alleged deal.

“The situation is a victim of a game of telephone,” SPJ ethics chairman Andrew Seaman said at the time. “One person makes a statement, another person repeats that statement with some errors, and it builds upon itself.”

Circa has 80 employees, with 50 to 60 of them based in Washington and about a dozen each in Los Angeles and New York.

Solomon said the website is on pace to have four or five million unique visitors this month and about 20 million page views. He said they are experiencing better than 50 percent month-over-month traffic growth. Between Facebook and their website, Solomon said Circa has reached 1.9 billion people and achieved over 600 million video views.

The website targets millennials — 80 percent of its visitors are below the age of 45 and 67 percent are 35 or younger. Solomon described their content as brief, “snackable,” “incremental storytelling” through bullet-point style stories designed for consumers “moving from mobile screen to mobile screen.” 

He sees their competitors as other youth-oriented outlets like Vice News, Vox, Mic and BuzzFeed.

In addition to its investigative work, Circa has a humor page run by Hollywood producer David Zucker, of “Police Academy,” “Airplane” and “Naked Gun” fame.

They are heavy on video content, having interviewed former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Overnight Tech: Equifax hit by earlier undisclosed hack | Facebook takes heat over Russian ads | Alt-right Twitter rival may lose domain Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea MORE at the height of the 2016 campaign and Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, from inside the “popemobile.”

Their first film — a Vice-style expose on police asset forfeiture — has won awards in the short documentary film space.

But with their Russia reporting and the ensuing attention from Hannity, Circa’s the news section that has moved to the forefront in recent weeks.

Steven Livingston, a media professor at George Washington University, said Circa will have a hard time shaking its right-wing reputation for now.

Still, he called Solomon a “legitimizing factor” and said there is plenty of time for them to be taken into the fold by their mainstream peers — if their reporting bears out. 

“There is an anti-institutional drive animating the Trump presidency and it has mainstream institutions like the press at a crisis point,” Livingston said. “It’s pushing people —  young people in particular — into new places for information. It absolutely makes it feasible for a new player like Circa to be contemplated as a new source for millennials.”