A specter is haunting the news sharing realms of the social media ” the specter of IJR Blue. In recent months, growing numbers of progressives and liberals, as well as conservatives, have been sharing content on social media from the outlets IJR Blue and IJR Red, respectively. IJR Blue in particular has gained a sizable audience. As of March 26th, its Facebook page had well over 600 thousand followers.
The outlet has attracted attention through its aggregation and sharing of viral content, such as rehashed footage of responsible gun owner Scott Pappalardo, who had posted a video of himself destroying his AR-15 in the aftermath of the Parkland, FL school shooting. IJR Blue also lures in viewers with varying shades of daily doses of content about resisting Trump or about the Russia probe. While, in our virtual macrocosms of confirmation biases, there is almost an inherent and automatic inclination to post information that reflects one’s own political views, folks who share content from IJR Blue or IJR Red don’t seem to realize an almost obvious and disconcerting reality. While the nominal color coding of IJR Blue and IJR Red may suggest an adherence to the established partisan landscape of American mainstream politics, these outlets are not, in fact, opposites, let alone competing entities. They are, in fact, two birds of a feather, or two fuzzy willow buds on the same twig. (Can you tell that Spring has finally sprung?)
This may come as a surprise to some, but IJR Blue and IJR Red are brands of the same parent company: Independent Journal Review, a conservative news aggregation outlet, which, in turn, is a subsidiary of Media Group of America. While IJR Blue disseminates decidedly liberal content in contrast to IJR Red’s established conservative calibration, both outlets originate from the same commercial source, and they are run and administered by the same people in the same company. This millennial-focused model of an aggregate news source that taps into the duality of the established political culture is yet another perfidious way that serves only to perpetuate the already stale and inaccurate dichotomy of the mainstream American political media narrative. It reinforces the simplistic notion that there are two sides to everything, all while implying that an independent position, by definition, floats somewhere in between the blue shore and the red shore.
The parent publication of IJR Blue and IJR Red, Independent Journal Review, was founded under the name Conservative Daily in 2012 as a center-right online news outlet on Facebook. Its founder, Alex Skatell, is a former digital director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. But Skatell isn’t the only Republican in this endeavor. In Phil Musser, Skatell got a fellow GOP operative into the boat. Musser had already served as executive director of the Republican Governors Association and as an advisor to Mitt Romney. Together Skatell and Musser founded IJR’s parent company, Media Group of America.
Within two years, IJR grew from an aggregate news start-up into a publication with paid staff writers, editors, and contributing writers. In early 2015, Media Group of America was doing so well financially, that it was projected to churn out $30 million in revenue that year. At this point, yet another Republican insider joined the roundel. Peter Snyder, entrepreneur, investor, and Fox News contributor, put $1.5 million into the company through his investment firm Disruptor Capital. But the icing on the cake is perhaps the recruitment of confirmed serial plagiarist and professional click-baiter Benny Johnson, who was working as social media director at National Review at the time, and who had previously been released from his position at Buzzfeed because of his many transgressions in terms of plagiarizing information. When Johnson joined IJR in the summer of 2015 as Content Director, Media Group of America’s structure as a commercial clickbait enterprise had come full circle, with Skatell and Musser at the helms, Snyder as a notable investor, and Johnson as click baiter-in-chief.
From that point on, IJR became relatively successful. In February 2016, IJR co-hosted the Republican Presidential Debate with ABC News. Later that year, when the Newspaper Association of America rebranded itself as the News Media Alliance, IJR became one of its two inaugural digital-only members. While the News Media Alliance was looking for members with an innovative news culture in the digital realm, IJR was looking to gain further experience and legitimization from this arrangement.
This step seems to have paid off. According to a POLITICO story, IJR is said to have been first in breaking the news that Neil Gorsuch would be Trump’s nominee for the seat on the Supreme Court bench that had been vacated by the death of Antonin Scalia almost a year prior. IJR’s scooping up of this story could have very well been indicative of assumptions at the time that “Trump’s administration would give media from outside the mainstream, especially from the right, the kind of access that previously was given to only the largest outlets.”
Perhaps an even more significant indicator of IJR’s growing influence was the fact that, when newly-confirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had blocked reporters from accompanying him on his first trip to Asia in February 2017, he made one specific exception to allow an IJR reporter to travel with him. Tillerson justified this decision by insisting that he was not very keen on speaking to reporters during diplomatic trips, and that he preferred to work “behind closed doors.” It is particularly noteworthy, however, to point out that one of IJR’s partial owners, Nick Ayers, was also a close advisor to Vice President Mike Pence, and had ties to the Trump campaign. One would have to suffer from a special case of naÃ vete to believe that this was a mere coincidence.
Yet despite IJR’s rising stock, the company underwent some restructuring last year. Between March and October 2017, Benny Johnson and other staff members were suspended amidst wrongful allegations against Barack Obama. Moreover, Phil Musser left the company to become Senior Vice President of Communications at Boeing. However, this internal shakeup did not seem to have any adverse effects on IJR. In early summer of 2017, IJR launched its own liberal off-shoot, called “The Response,” which is the brand behind the Facebook page “IJR Blue Presents,” and which has over 300 thousand followers as of March 27, 2018. The intention behind this new branch within IJR was to “produce original commentary as well as counterpoints to IJR’s conservative opinion pieces.” Alongside The Response, IJR had already launched its own conservative equivalent of a viral content platform, which operates under the Facebook page “IJR Red Presents.” This outlet is arguably even more successful than its blue sister, having amassed almost 1.2 million followers as of late March 2018, while its parent page IJR Red itself already counts well over 7 million followers.
Skatell affirmed that IJR created these two outlets, and IJR Blue in particular, to break through the “filter bubble” on social media in order to provide a “counter-narrative,” and to “have a response and present information across the spectrum.” Of course, this spectrum is nothing more than a reheated stew of the self-contained American media landscape in which mainstream liberal and conservative viewpoints are juxtaposed, while the company that owns both outlets milks both audiences for clicks, likes, and shares. If you run a commercial news aggregation and clickbait enterprise like IJR, those clicks, likes, and shares translate into profits. In other words, when folks share or like IJR Blue or IJR Red content, they not only provide greater exposure to these outlets, but they also actively help conservatives like IJR CEO Alex Skatell or investor Pete Snyder line their already deep pockets, all while assisting Facebook further in strengthening its post-net neutrality content filter algorithms.
I can already hear folks say, “What’s the big deal? Don’t you know that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post? Does that mean you can’t read or share WaPo content?” Of course, we all know about Bezos and most of us are keenly aware that the vast majority of our media is corporate-owned, profit-driven, and therefore has a vested interest in upholding the self-contained media landscape in which it prospers. The issue at hand goes further than just IJR, but there are things we can do to challenge the stranglehold of corporate media.
One way to “resist” (bad choice of words, my apologies) would be to find the original source of content that interests us, and that we wish to share with others. Instead of clicking, liking, and sharing commentary or rehashed content from commercial outlets such as IJR Blue (or Red), we could like and share the content from its original source, and give direct exposure to the author or creator of said content. In the process, we would not only avoid falling for false equivalencies and stale liberal/conservative divides and dualities, but we would also circumvent the greedy clutches of corporate news outlets in the realm of social media. Think of this as one way to democratize the media at a time when democracy itself is facing real risks of becoming an anachronism.