As Donald Trump rose to take over the Republican Party, conservative media splintered: Some outlets became his mouthpieces, some his enemies, and others found shelter in an anti-anti-Trump stand.
But as they were all figuring it out, one of the sector’s key investors considered combining a pair of strange bedfellows: In an acquisition attempt that hasn’t previously been revealed, the owners of the Weekly Standard and the Washington Examiner explored purchasing the Federalist, according to four sources familiar with what happened, as well as emails obtained by BuzzFeed News from 2017.
Clarity Media never ended up buying the Federalist. But emails show Steve Sparks, the president and chief operating officer of Media DC, the Washington media branch of Clarity Media, saying in November 2017 that the company had considered buying the Federalist. In the emails, Sparks mentioned that nondisclosure agreements had been signed the previous year when the purchase was being explored, meaning 2016.
The sale would have been a potentially awkward ideological fit; the Weekly Standard stayed determinedly anti-Trump throughout the election, while the Federalist adopted more of an anti-anti-Trump or pro-Trump stance over time. Clarity Media closed the Weekly Standard at the end of 2018, firing all of its employees. (Sparks did not respond to requests for comment. Clarity Media CEO Ryan McKibben did not respond to a request for comment.)
The path of conservative media has largely mirrored the challenges of digital and print news operations broadly over the last decade, with wild experimentation in form and content, waves of consolidation, and a series of high-profile collapses.
Some outlets, like the pro-Trump Breitbart News, experienced a boom during the election and initial stages of the Trump presidency, only to see their traffic crater — as often happens to the opposition voice of a party that suddenly takes power. Some, like the Weekly Standard, collapsed under the weight of Trump’s rise, their audience shrinking as Trump’s dominance of the right grew.
And others have adapted to his rise and his style. The Daily Caller went populist, amplifying Trump’s anti-immigrant politics. Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire remained skeptical of the president but drew a huge following "owning" his liberal enemies. The Federalist followed a version of this second path.
The site launched in 2013. In a post introducing the outlet, publisher Ben Domenech compared its mission to that of the original Time magazine, which “aimed to cover and distill the news of politics, economics, world affairs, and culture for the nation’s rising middle class.” The site published a wide-ranging group of writers on a variety of political and cultural topics. Over the years, it has adapted to the Trump moment by criticizing perceived excesses of his detractors in the media and relentlessly questioning the Russia investigation.
Unlike some peers and more like Breitbart, which only revealed its ownership structure under pressure from a committee from which it was seeking congressional press credentials, the Federalist has been resolutely opaque about its finances. The site is owned by a private company and doesn’t have to disclose its ownership or funding structure; its parent company, FDRLST Media, was incorporated as a limited liability company in Delaware in 2016. And the omertà on the topic has prompted a considerable amount of speculation in the political media world, with the phrase “Who funds the Federalist?” becoming a recurring meme, often tweeted at the site’s top brass. The Federalist has winked at the controversy, selling at one point an “I Fund the Federalist” T-shirt.
Despite the air of mystery, publicly available information does shed some light on some of the Federalist’s financials, though it's not necessarily the full picture — or anything that explains why the secret has been so closely guarded.
One investor, the George E. Coleman Jr. Foundation, lists an investment of $148,022 in FDRLST Media in 2017 tax filings.
The nonprofit lists Daniel Oliver as the organization’s trustee. A Daniel Oliver has written frequently for the Federalist, identified in his bio on the site as “chairman of the board of the Education and Research Institute and a director of Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in San Francisco. In addition to serving as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Reagan, Oliver was executive editor and subsequently chairman of the board of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review.” Oliver is also the proprietor of the Candid American, a site whose slogan is “Repristinating Conservatism one issue at a time.”
There is no disclosure of the financial ties between Oliver’s foundation and FDRLST Media on the Federalist’s site. The George E. Coleman Jr. Foundation does not appear to have made other media investments, but it lists a range of standard contributions to civic, cultural, and conservative causes, from the Federalist Society to the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the State of New York.
Oliver didn’t return requests for comment.
Also in 2017, FDRLST Media filed a document with the Securities and Exchange Commission that lists John McIntyre as a director, along with Domenech and fellow cofounder Sean Davis as executive officers. The document lists FDRLST Media’s address as the same Chicago address as that of Real Clear Politics. In the document, the company reported putting $750,000 worth of debt securities up for sale, as well as that two investors had bought $200,000 of the offering. It is unclear who the investors in question were. McIntyre, the cofounder of Real Clear Politics, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Tom Bevan, the site's president and cofounder, told BuzzFeed News "RealClearPolitics has nothing to do with The Federalist."
Domenech didn’t return requests for comment, instead suggesting on Twitter that naming one of his investors, whose own organization filed publicly available information listing its investment, was “doxxing.” “Tomorrow a blog will attempt to doxx one of our supporters,” Domenech tweeted early Tuesday in an apparent reference to this story. “Not a big one - we have no big money supporters. They will do this because they want to shut us down.”
On a recent appearance on the podcast of conservative writer Jamie Weinstein, Mollie Hemingway, a senior editor at the Federalist known for her combative Twitter presence, told Weinstein “We don’t talk about it” when Weinstein asked why the Federalist doesn’t talk about its funding, and that those who ask about the Federalist’s funding are engaging in a “clear, coordinated attempt to silence the Federalist because we don’t follow the way that most other media outlets follow.”
Brandon Hardin contributed reporting.