Written by Jimmy Tobias with additional reporting by Lakshmi Sarah – this post originally appeared on Richmond Confidential.
In February, a slick new website showed up on Richmond’s media scene.
Dubbed “Radio Free Richmond,” it promised to offer its readers “independent Richmond news, without fear or favor.”
Since its debut, the news site has posted nearly 300 articles, from restaurant reviews and reprinted Contra Costa Times articles to op-eds from politicians and residents. It even publishes a weekly events guide.
But behind Radio Free Richmond’s veneer of independence, a group of Chevron’s campaign consultants act as the website’s administrators. And on at least one occasion, they used it to further the oil giant’s election message.
As Chevron and its consultants move forward with a $3 million campaign and multi-pronged media strategy to sway the November elections, community backlash is growing over their use of local news sites to win the hearts and minds of this small city’s residents.
According to the description on its website, Radio Free Richmond is a “middle of the road” news source that does not endorse candidates for office and focuses “more on facts and less on political ideology.” Nowhere in its site description does it disclose its ties to Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partners, or BMWL, a San Francisco-based public relations firm owned by well-known Chevron consultant John Whitehurst and his partners.
“BMWL works with us on this,” said website co-founder Don Gosney. “One of their staff people actually administers the site.” He says Radio Free Richmond originated as a joint project between him, Richmond resident Felix Hunziker and BMWL.
In an email, Hunziker confirmed BMWL’s involvement. He wrote that the site was meant to “provide average residents a way to make their voices heard” without fear of censorship.
BMWL shares partners, employees, an address and a Facebook page, among other things, with Whitehurst/Mosher Campaign Strategy and Media, a “sister firm” that focuses on campaign strategy.
Whitehurst/Mosher has received more than $650,000 from Chevron’s “Moving Forward” campaign this election cycle. The campaign and its consultants are orchestrating the oil giant’s $3 million bid to retake city government from Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and her Richmond Progressive Alliance allies and have flooded the city with political advertisements.
Radio Free Richmond — which draws its name from Radio Free Europe, a Cold War effort to broadcast Western propaganda into the homes of Soviet-bloc citizens — offers a more subtle approach. It joins the Richmond Standard, a “community-driven news” site run by Chevron’s PR firm Singer Associates, Inc., as the second local outlet with ties to the oil company and its consultants.
Much of Radio Free Richmond’s output consists of reposted articles from other news sources, including Richmond Confidential. On occasion, it has even republished commentary from progressives like Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles, whom Chevron opposes.
But the website regularly features op-eds from Chevron-backed politicians like mayoral candidate Nat Bates, who is listed as the author of at least 10 articles for the site, and former city council candidate Bea Roberson, who is credited with nine articles. And this summer, BMWL used the outlet to promote a campaign-oriented attack against McLaughlin under the guise of an op-ed credited to a local resident.
The incident came to light after the purported author disavowed the article that was posted in his name.
On June 17, in an email obtained by Richmond Confidential, Kevin Gibson, a former BMWL employee who worked for the firm from August 2013 until July 2014, wrote to Richmond community leader Antwon Cloird asking permission to post an article critical of the mayor under his name.
“Its Kevin from BMWL,” read the email. “I attached below the housing story we (John) wants to post on Radio Free Richmond under your name. Let me know if it looks good to you and give me the go ahead.”
The email contained the draft of an article blasting McLaughlin for a trip to Washington D.C. in June. It claimed she went there to lobby for the release of five convicted Cuban spies, rather than on behalf of public housing tenants and other Richmond interests. Radio Free Richmond published the article under the title, “Antwon Cloird: Mayor Wastes Opportunity in DC.”
McLaughlin’s trip to Washington, D.C. and her other travels have been a frequent theme of the Moving Forward campaign’s attack ads this year, and the article under Cloird’s name hewed closely to that message.
Cloird, who calls himself a Chevron supporter, said he did not write the piece. He called the incident a “miscommunication” and asked that Radio Free Richmond remove the article from its website shortly after publication. Gosney said he was unsure whether readers were notified of the retraction.
BMWL and Whitehurst/Mosher declined to comment for this story.
John Whitehurst, Mark Mosher and their partners have been active in Contra Costa County politics for years.
Whitehurst and his team ran the successful 2011 campaign to pass Measure J, a $47 parcel tax increase per household in West Contra Costa County to raise funds for the struggling Doctors Medical Center.
In 2012, they ran the American Beverage Association’s campaign to defeat Measure N, which would have added a penny-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugary drinks sold in Richmond. That same year, Chevron’s Moving Forward campaign paid Whitehurst/Mosher more than $400,000 to develop messaging and media for its electioneering efforts.
Whitehurst and his employees are working with Moving Forward again this year, and some say Radio Free Richmond is dishonest because the website does not disclose its connection to the consultants.
“I think what is key here is the deception,” said Jeff Ritterman, a former Richmond Councilman. “The deception is necessary because they cannot be honest about the fact that this is just a lobbying scheme on Chevron’s behalf. The deception tells you they are trying to manipulate people.”
Gosney, for his part, sees no reason why the website should make BMWL’s involvement better known. He said it has no bearing on his own writing.
“Why put their name on there?” Gosney said. “What benefit does it do to put their name on there, unless it just serves to fuel the fire of the haters that want to point their fingers and discredit what is on there because of the company that is paying for it?”