March 27, 2023

Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller Had Pay-to-Play Education Beat

Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller Had Pay-to-Play Education Beat

Semafor has obtained a document showing that the Tucker Carlson-founded conservative outlet Daily Caller has provided donors the opportunity to “propose topics for coverage” and establish news beats for reporters in exchange for financial contributions. The memo seems to confirm, as we have long suspected, that the Daily Caller had a pay-to-play beat aimed at education issues, in a period when, as we reported at the time, the outlet repeatedly published articles leveling specious attacks against critics for for-profit colleges.

The pitch memo to prospective donors, which Semafor said dates from 2016 or 2017, promised, “News or policy beats that you care about can be the focus of a new project. Together, we can decide on a specific area that you want to see covered.”  The memo added, “investors can decide in advance of funding which topics of news coverage that their contribution can support. And, during the project, investors can recommend topics of interest for our editors’ consideration.”

The memo continued: “The cost of a journalist is dependent on the scope of the project. For example, we currently have an education reporting program that includes support for one reporter, editors and general operating expenses at a cost of $200,000 per year.” According to the memo, “One reporter is expected to write 60 stories per month. This quota can be adjusted by working with the editors to decide on an appropriate number of stories for the project at hand.”

The memo said the Daily Caller had a similar program on energy issues. 

The memo does insist that the Daily Caller maintains “complete editorial control” over site content.

In the years 2010-11, when the Obama Administration first sought to issue a “gainful employment” rule aimed at targeting federal money to effective career colleges, and away from schools that were consistently leaving students deep in debt, the Daily Caller, which was founded in 2010, persistently attacked reform advocates, echoing the arguments of for-profit colleges and their lobbyists. 

In June 2010 the Daily Caller ran a piece by DC lobbyist Lanny Davis defending the performance of for-profit colleges and criticizing Wall Street short-seller Steven Eisman, a persistent critic of the industry, for not disclosing possible financial interests in the issue. Davis soon after signed on to run the Coalition for Educational Success, a for-profit college trade group seeking to derail the gainful employment rule. Similar efforts to attack reforms by linking them to Eisman were then being made by another for-profit college industry trade group and by consultants tied to the industry.

The Daily Caller also published regular reports by its own staff reporters covering this line of attack. When the advocacy group CREW, which was itself receiving funding tied to the for-profit college industry, called on federal authorities to investigate possible manipulation of the for-profit college market by Eisman, then-Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) responded by claiming that the U.S. Department of Education engaged in “very significant inappropriate behavior in tipping hedge funds on short selling private education.” He added, “Utilization of facts in the Department of Education in advantaging investors in one segment to make significant dollars over something the government’s thinking about doing is highly unethical and if proven to be the case, some people ought to be going to jail in the Department of Education.” All of this was dutifully reported by the Daily Caller (and a few times the Wall Street Journal), and practically no other outlet. 

The Daily Caller also attacked the chief Capitol Hill critic of for-profit colleges, then-Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), claiming his staff might have engaged in “witness tampering” for a hearing on the industry.  The Daily Caller attacked the well-publicized Government Accountability Office investigation that exposed industry abuses. The Daily Caller questioned the ethics of the organization I ran at the time, Campus Progress (part of the Center for American Progress), because we — horrors — both engaged in public advocacy on the issue of for-profit colleges and published advocacy journalism on the same subject. The ethics expert that the publication chose to cite for this charge was then-CREW executive director Melanie Sloan.

When Campus Progress spent $4000 to produce and air briefly on cable TV in Washington an ad to counter the massive television advocacy campaign by the for-profit college industry, a “political consultant” named Natasha Mayer, writing in the Daily Caller, falsely accused us of taking money from traders like Eisman for “a million-dollar campaign on the exact same side of the issue as the wealthy short-sellers.”  Echoing the arguments of Mayer was Melanie Sloanwriting in Politico, who said of the Campus Progress ad, produced by our intern and run a handful of times at cheap rates, “major ad campaigns require major donors,” with a link there to Mayer’s Daily Caller piece.

The Daily Caller’s relentless and sometimes scurrilous attacks on critics of for-profit colleges raised questions at the time about why this publication was so obsessed with these matters — at a time when the for-profit college industry was seeking to take the focus off its own ethical and legal problems and avoid reforms that might imperil the torrent of $33 billion a year in taxpayer money into its coffers.

Semafor reports that Daily Caller co-founder and publisher Neil Patel “suggested to Semafor that the pitch document was fabricated,” but that after Semafor authenticated it, Patel didn’t respond to a follow-up request for comment.

The Daily Caller, a popular right-wing site, is operated by a for-profit business, but much of its content has long been produced by a related non-profit organization, The Daily Caller News Foundation, which is the operation that produced the pitch document to donors.  The legality of the arrangement, which allows a for-profit business to benefit from a charitable non-profit, has been questioned by tax law experts and advocates

To be fair, the Daily Caller hasn’t always said kind things about for-profit colleges. Casting aside years of defending the schools, the Daily Caller departed from its approach in 2014 with a piece attacking one of the biggest companies in the industry, Laureate Education as “seedy,” for “lowering” its admissions standards and making “obscene expenditures” on advertising. According to this article, bylined by Daily Caller editor Eric Owens, at for-profit colleges, “Most students never get a degree…. Many drop out within a couple months.” The bluntly altered assessment of the industry in the article may have related to the fact that, as it noted, “Former President Bill Clinton and presumed 2016 Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton have deep ties to Laureate”; Bill Clinton was the company’s paid “honorary chairman” and, under Secretary Hillary Clinton, the State Department made Laureate a partner in one of its initiatives.

Tucker Carlson sold his ownership share in the Daily Caller in 2019, leaving Patel as majority owner. Conservative donor Foster Friess was also a major investor; he died in 2021.