Campus Reform

Campus Reform is an online media platform that claims to be the “#1 Source for Campus News.” The site’s explicit mission, however, is to expose so-called liberal bias on college campuses. It does so by paying students $50-100 to write outrage pieces that feed the highly partisan narrative that colleges and universities are hostile to conservatives. Each story includes a fundraising request, claiming that “The radical left will stop at nothing to intimidate conservative students on college campuses. You can help expose them.” The stories that Campus Reform posts are often presented with sensationalized headlines and often without providing the full context. They routinely distort the words of professors and others in order to feed a narrative of moralized outrage. Campus Reform works closely with Fox News and other organizations in the right-wing media ecosystem. As such, seemingly minor and nonsensical pieces written by undergraduate students can quickly gain national attention. Turning Point USA draws upon Campus Reform stories to form its “Professor Watchlist.”

Campus Reform is just one of the projects overseen by the Leadership Institute (LI). The Leadership Institute was created by Morton Blackwell in 1979 to train conservative campus activists. It offers a variety of trainings, workshops and seminars, including in right-wing journalism and social media. It provides assistance to conservative college students in establishing conservative campus publications and offers financial assistance to bring conservative speakers to college campuses. According to Anne Nelson, Blackwell and the Leadership Institute are foundational in the creation of the Council for National Policy, a stealth organization that focuses on the “recruitment and training of activists” and integrating the “political technology” and “organizational framework” that created the New Right (p.26). The Leadership Institute is part of this “political technology,” along with other groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, and numerous partisan political organizations and media outlets on the right. Blackwell claimed that: “Political technology can be roughly divided into communication technology and organization technology, with no neat line of separation between communication and organization” (quoted in Nelson, p. 84). Campus Reform is part of this right-wing political technology.

Who Funds Campus Reform?

According to its 990 tax forms, in 2020 the Leadership Institute received $23 million in contributions and grants (up from $16 million in 2018). Because of its on-profit status, the LI is not required to declare its donors. However, evidence points to considerable funding coming from conservative and plutocratic libertarian billionaires as well as corporations (more here). In 2020 the LI listed the cost of running Campus Reform at $5,933,104. In other words, LI spent nearly $6 million publishing a website with the explicit mission of accusing academics and universities of “liberal bias.”

Campus Reform by the Numbers (Summer ’21)

Between June 3 and August 5 (before we broke for the summer), Campus Reform published:

303 total stories

44 attacks on professor (defined as accusing faculty of “liberal bias”)

25 stories on Critical Race Theory

73 stories on campus anti-racism efforts

17 stories on transgender rights

35 stories on issues of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

26.5% of these stories were written by Ben Zeisloft, 8.9% by Angela Morebito, and 4.3% by Addison Smith.

Campus Reform and Far Right @ the Intercept

“A Billionaire Website with Ties to the Far Right Is Trying to ‘Cancel’ University Professors”

Alice Speri discusses the dark money funding behind Campus Reform. Speri not only follows the money but also demonstrates how Campus Reform has also become a platform for the far right. She writes:

The Leadership Institute has long been a major player in mainstream conservative politics, and its early alumni include Republican elected officials like Sen. Mitch McConnell and former Vice President Mike Pence as well as James O’Keefe, the right-wing provocateur behind Project Veritas, famous for his doctored videos targeting the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, and Planned Parenthood. There is a revolving door between the Leadership Institute, YAF, and other conservative youth groups like Young Americans for Liberty and Turning Point USA.

The group, however, also has a less-known history of ties to far-right movements and racist extremists. “There is actually a long history of close connections between the Leadership Institute and white nationalist organizations,” said Kamola, the Trinity professor. “The Leadership Institute has helped manufacture the right’s construction of anti-antifa hysteria, all while having a long history of platforming actual fascists.”

And demonstrates how material generated by Campus Reform often circulates within the far right online ecosystem:

Since rebranding as a news enterprise, Campus Reform has effectively been able to straddle between the mainstream conservative politics of its funders and a more radical audience active in fringe spaces and eager for content to feed its online wars.

According to an analysis by Media Matters for America, which monitors media and the web for conservative misinformation, Campus Reform stories have spread on Reddit as well as on social media platforms favored by the far right. Such platforms include Parler, the QAnon forum, and, formerly, a forum for Trump supporters that moved to its own site after being banned by Reddit. “Our research has found that Campus Reform’s content tends to be shared in fringe social media spaces where we have seen consistent thematic overlaps with other content we know plays well with right-wing audiences,” said Stefanie Le, Media Matters’ deputy research director. “Similar to when an article from a conservative outlet goes viral on fringe platforms, users in these spaces attempt to focus on or invent conspiratorial implications of the stories and then use it to support other far-right narratives and stoke conversation.”




CRT @ Inside HigherEd

Where does the bizarre hysteria about Critical Race Theory come from? Follow the money!

Isaac Kamola’s piece in Insider Higher Ed follows the money behind the recent outrage surrounding Critical Race Theory (CRT). Taking a close look at the people on Trump’s 1776 Commission offers considerable insight into the right-wing infrastructure that has manufactured the attack on CRT. He writes:

Where does this bizarre attack on CRT come from? Most recently it has taken the form of a frontal assault on Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project.” The Trump administration even established the 1776 Commission to respond to Hannah-Jones’s claim that slavery must be recognized as central to the nation’s founding. Published two days before Trump left office, the 1776 Commission report was swiftly condemned as highly inaccurate, incoherent and regurgitating an outdated and false narrative of American exceptionalism.

It might be tempting, therefore, to read this report as merely clumsy revanchist nonsense forced upon society by the Trump administration. However, the 1776 Commission report should also be read as encapsulating the cottage industry among conservative and libertarian think tanks that specializes in stoking culture war outrage against those engaged in the critical study of race.

For example, the 1776 Commission was chaired by Larry Arnn, the executive director of the Aequus Foundation, which gives money to right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the State Policy Network (which networks Koch-funded think tanks). Arnn also serves as president of Hilldale College, itself funded primarily by right-wing libertarian think tanks.

Another commission member, Thomas K. Lindsay, is currently a fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), which works closely with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to pass bills attacking renewable energy, denying climate change and undermining environmental protections. TPPF is funded by a “who’s who of Texas polluters, giant utilities and big insurance companies.” TPPF has received $4.1 million from Koch family foundations, millions in contributions from the Koch network’s donor-directed pass-through funds, Donors Capital Fund and DonorsTrust, as well as six-digit donations from the State Policy Network, the Bradley Foundation, Exxon Mobil, the Hartland Institute, the Cato Institute and many other prominent libertarian donors and organizations.

“Targeted Harassment of Faculty: What Higher Education Administrators Can Do”

Joan Wallach Scott’s piece in the Liberal Education journal offers insights on how to respond to the “targeted harassment” of faculty. She provides several past examples of this harassment, showing us that these assaults on faculty reputation have been around since at least the early 20th century.  For the more recent incidents, Scott focuses on the role of administrators during these crises. She explains that administrators must be able to defend their professors’ first amendment rights and right to academic freedom rather than firing them due to public outrage. You can read her article here.