On April 12, the conservative Website WorldNetDaily published an expose on newly appointed White House “green czar” Van Jones that labeled the environmental activists a “an admitted radical communist and black nationalist leader.”
Based on readily available online sources, including an alternative weekly paper in Oakland, California, Aaron Klein’s piece had a sensational title–”Will a ‘red’ help blacks go green?”–and a sensational spin. In the 2005 profile of Jones that Klein cited, reporter Eliza Strickland recalled Jones’s first year out of Yale Law School, working for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in the Bay Area, and how when he was “observing the first large rally since the lifting of the city’s state of emergency, he got swept up in mass arrests,” then came to sympathize with the black radicals and communists who’d been arrested with him, before leaving them behind to become an environmental activist. In Klein’s hands, the story took on a different, more sinister tone: “Jones said he first became radicalized in the wake of the 1992 Rodney King riots, during which time he was arrested.”
Klein’s story made some small waves online, but it wasn’t picked up by the mainstream media until July 23. That was when Glenn Beck first told his Fox News audience about Jones. “This is a guy who is a self-avowed communist,” said Beck, “and he is in the Obama administration …
Beck took a shot at the “avowed communist” Jones again on July 28, again on Aug. 4, again on Aug. 11 (“this is : America’s Future,” in which Jones became exhibit A of the “Beck’s segments about Jones were based in part on WND’s reporting that Jones was as an admitted radical communist and black nationalist leader.”
The 12-year-old Website, with 17 full-time editorial staffers, has a White House correspondent, Les Kinsolving, who is most often used by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs as a punchline. One staff reporter, Jerome Corsi, co-wrote the bestselling Swift Boat Veterans for Truth book “Unfit for Command,” but has been derided by other conservatives for what Politico called “outrageous assertions and fringe theories” about a plan to merge the United States with Mexico and Canada and a shadowy relationship between President Barack Obama and Kenyan Prime Minister Rail Odinga. And the site has relentlessly covered the conspiracy theories about Obama’s citizenship, with hundreds of articles, several petitions, a billboard campaign, and a $17.99 in-house documentary on the issue.
But WorldNetDaily’s Web traffic, revenue, and influence are impressive. It frequently leads the pack in conservative online media. According to James R. Whelan, the Florida-based marketer who runs WorldNetDaily’s ad operations, the site has already surpassed $1 million in ad revenue for 2009. It has a mailing list of more than 355,000 e-mail addresses, which has been built up through tools like daily polls on the site, and has been rented (through third-party vendors) by the Republican National Committee.
“I don’t listen to what idiots like Katie Couric say, about how this is a bad economy and how you can’t do business right now,” said Whelan. “We’re having a great year. We have a great, loyal audience, made up of politically active people who are more or less after the truth.”
The driving force beyond the site’s financial success is its traffic. Whelan tells potential advertisers that the site reaches “6 million unique viewers every month.” That number is difficult to confirm with public information, but it’s not far off. According to siteanalytics.compete.com, WorldNetDaily had more than 1.9 million visitors in July, the month when the “birther” story peaked. That was the slowest month for the site in more than a year. In June, a more average month, it drew in more than 3.9 million visitors. For comparison, that month Free Republic had around 3.2 million visitors, The Washington Times had roughly 2.9 million, Townhall.com had 2.5 million, HotAir.com had 2.4 million, National Review had roughly 2.2 million, Human Events had 1.4 million, LewRockwell.com had 1.1 million, CNSNews.com had around 532,000, and The American Spectator had around 358,000. Among conservative news sites, only Fox News, with roughly 50 million monthly visitors, and Newsmax, with around 6.2 million in June, regularly beats out WND. It’s tougher sledding for Websites that attempt to carve out a more refined audience of conservatives: in June, David Frum’s New Majority had only 42,000 visitors. (According to Google Analytics, it fared quite a bit better at 72,000 unique visitors.) WND, unlike New Majority, has a permanent link at the Drudge Report; according to Alexa.com, Drudge accounts for 13 percent of WND’s traffic.
“The problem is that the mainstream conservative world is not impermeable to this stuff,” Frum told TWI. He cited a persistent rumor that President Obama’s administration was setting up special camps to imprison its political foes. “The idea that the administration is setting up concentration camps has actually bled through to Fox News.”
This week, the libertarian conservative blogger Jon Henke, a consultant who worked for Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) in 2006, challenged fellow conservatives not to buy ads or otherwise do business with the site. “No respectable organization,” wrote Henke, “should support the kind of fringe idiocy that WND peddles.” That inspired Joseph Farah, the founder and editor of the site, to attack Henke. And it didn’t inspire much fear in Whalen. “The heck with that guy,” Whalen told TWI.
“On the Internet, the right is still divided into Web 1.0 and Web 2.0,” Henke told TWI. “There are news sites that arose in the 1990s and became popular with cultural conservatives, but never moved beyond. WorldNetDaily is one of those. And there needs to be a bright line in between the type of people or rhetoric or movements that traffic in conspiracy theories and the decent right.”
While some Washington conservative distance themselves from WorldNetDaily (“I don’t know anyone who reads it,” said Henke), its associations with the rest of the movement run deep. Farah founded the site after a stint as a “newspaper doctor” led to hiring Rush Limbaugh as a columnist for the Sacramento Union, and after that led to a job co-writing Limbaugh’s book “See, I Told You So.”
“Rush Limbaugh is generous, funny, encouraging, kind, and insightful,” Farah wrote in his 2007 memoir “Stop the Presses!: The Inside Story of the New Media Revolution.” “[W]orking closely with Rush Limbaugh on his bestselling book was a treat for me and a memory I will always cherish.”
Farah founded WorldNetDaily two years after that, and has seldom had trouble bringing prominent conservatives into his orbit. In “Stop the Presses!” Farah recalled how Bill O’Reilly came to him in 2000 to launch an opinion column anchored at the site. “I want my show to be the number one cable show,” said O’Reilly, according to Farah. “I want to write a bestselling book. And I want to launch a nationally-syndicated newspaper column.” That year, political pollster Scott Rasmussen wrote a column for the site, too. In 2002, WorldNetDaily launched a publishing arm, WNDBooks, that would release political tracts and memoirs by Tom Tancredo, NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre, and most impactfully, radio host Michael Savage. His first WNDBooks release, a collection of WND columns titled The Savage Nation, became their first New York Times #1 bestseller. Savage’s relationship with WND continues to provide them traffic — 6 percent of their readers arrive from his Website, according to Alexa.com — and his success would be matched in 2008 with the release of Corsi’s The Obama Nation.
“I don’t think life is long enough to go around debunking the various ideas that have occurred to Jerome Corsi,” Frum told TWI.
Corsi’s reporting is responsible for much of WND’s current notoriety. But the Van Jones model — relentlessly covering Obama appointees until the rest of the media notices–has gotten the best recent results. WND cited a 1977 book co-written by White House science czar John Holdren to report that he “called for forced abortions.” The site has run multiple articles about Cass Sunstein, the president’s nominee to run the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, alleging that he wanted to censor the Internet and that he favored “gun grabs” and “animal rights.” Not only have those allegations made it into the wider conservative media, they’ve fueled Republican holds on Sunstein’s nomination. WND’s coverage of the Obama birth certificate conspiracy, often written by Corsi, has been packaged as an ongoing, dogged investigation. Last month the site published an image of a forged “Kenyan birth certificate” appended with a column by Farah dealing with their editorial decision. “No one here has made a judgment that it is real,” Farah wrote. “What we did was report a fact – that California attorney Orly Taitz has filed a motion in federal court to determine its authenticity.”
Asked by TWI about WND’s critics, and whether his reports could reach as wide an audience at WND as they could reach on the TV shows that have cooled to inviting him on, Corsi told TWI that the question answered itself.
“If you didn’t consider WND effective,” said Corsi, “you wouldn’t be writing about us.”