This story was originally published on February 18, 2016.
Over the past 20 years, the internet has changed the age-old profession of sex work in major ways. Sex workers labor in an intensely hostile cultural climate. Due to the illegal nature of their jobs, they are vulnerable to rape, murder, theft, and police violence. In recent years, sex workers have used the internet to make their jobs safer: They use websites to screen clients and have private forums to provide support and knowledge to each other. Like any other entrepreneur or small business owner, those providing sexual services use industry-specific websites to advertise and promote their services.
In the interest of ending human trafficking, anti-trafficking charities, and federal law enforcement have steadily boosted security measures on sex workers’ websites, with expansive investigations often culminating in the closure of such sites and strings of prostitution-related arrests. Human trafficking and sexual slavery are, of course, absolutely heinous crimes. Ending trafficking and raising awareness about the violence that creates trafficking is crucial. However, the sweeping raids of sex work websites have threatened the well-being of many who consensually sell sexual services.
This January as part of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness month, the mayor of Boston and the attorney general of Massachusetts co-hosted an event called #hacktrafficking4socialgood. The well-intentioned event asked MIT students to develop surveillance tools which, in the future, could assist law enforcement to monitor sex-industry websites in order to “disrupt” and “identify” the online market for commercial sex. These digital tools are meant prevent trafficking, but online security measures like these would put consensual sex workers in a bad position. The climate of fear created by online stings pushes the sex market even further underground, where isolation and invisibility make workers easy targets for violence. Heavy-handed online surveillance measures also push bonafide trafficking victims further from our view, making it more difficult for them to be identified and assisted.
In Seattle last month, law enforcement used digital tools in an anti-trafficking sting. The county sheriff and local police teamed up with the FBI to shut down a Seattle-based sex industry website called The Review Board. Listening to Seattle’s Sheriff John Urquhart, it’s easy to be convinced that this led to only positive results. “These women are victims,” Urquhart said. “We wanted to rescue them out of the horrible life that they found themselves in.” Subsequently, law enforcement issued 126 search warrants, arrested 14 people, busted 12 brothels, and identified 12 victims of sex trafficking, at least some of whom are South Korean women the officers say were brought into the United States on tourist visas and forced to sell sex to pay off family debt. Freeing women from sexual slavery is definitely a noble task. But whether the women caught up in this bust were actually victims is an uncertain truth.
According to court documents, the South Korean women traveled to Seattle “of their own volition.” It’s fathomable that an undocumented immigrant would opt for the immunity and visa status granted by the label “victim,” rather than the seizure of assets, imprisonment, and deportation that can come with the label “prostitute.” The founder of Seattle’s Sex Worker Outreach Project, Savannah Sly, told a reporter from The Stranger that many of those affected by the raid were actually women earning a living in the sex industry by choice. She expressed concern about the website bust, saying that many consensual sex workers relied on The Review Board to safely advertise for clients. Having the FBI shut down the site was “extremely frightening,” said Sly. “It’s like punching into work and seeing FBI tape all around your building. I think there’s going to be a lot of sex workers around Seattle who have a hard time making rent this month, who are extremely concerned about their safety and worried if they’re going to get a knock on their doors from police officers.”
While any instance of forced prostitution merits a response, there are alternative means to advocate for the rights of trafficked sex slaves. Consensually working adult service providers—who share massage parlors, strip clubs, and in-call locations with potential victims—are in the best position to survey their environments for plausible criminal activity. Seeking their input could more effectively and directly confront the real issue of victims being coerced into the sex trade. For example, last year, utilizing input from sex workers Oregon set up a statewide hotline for strip club employees to report workplace problems and potential abuse.
As a result of online raids and website closures, workers lose the ability to mediate transactions through the internet and are forced to negotiate on the street, where they are more likely to suffer harassment and violence. In 2010, Craigslist was forced to close its adult services section under pressure from attorneys general and anti-trafficking organizations who claimed it promoted child sex slavery. Unsurprisingly, the closure of Craigslist’s adult services section failed to halt the world’s oldest business. Instead, the business moved to sites like myredbook.com and Backpage. Accused of money laundering and racketeering prostitution, myredbook.com was shut down by the FBI in 2014. That website, local to the Bay Area, featured a forum where workers could discuss blacklisted clients and safety strategies and was, at the time, the only free online advertising venue for female workers. Backpage, on the other hand, in an anomalous but remarkable lawsuit, was able to push off law enforcement by noting that third-party publishers cannot be held accountable for reviewing every post for legality. Backpage frequently works with law enforcement by flagging suspected cases of actual trafficking—an example of the ways in which cooperating with the industry, rather than penalizing it, may be an effective means to terminating sex slavery for good.
When these websites are targeted, workers spooked by lurking law enforcement may turn to the street, where the immediacy of such interactions makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to screen clients. Scott Cunningham, a Baylor University professor who studies prostitution and web-based black markets, told Wired that in wake of myredbook.com’s closure, the Internet may have actually decreased the number of street-based workers between the ages of 25 and 40.
Sex worker supporters in the 2011 Pride Parade in New York. (Photo credit: Jason Pier/Creative Commons)
In order to avoid attracting the attention of law enforcement, workers on the street sometimes hop impulsively into a john’s car, where they are stuck with a stranger and at the whim of child-safety locks. It can also be harder for street workers to negotiate condom usage. In some places, a street worker’s possession of a condom may even be used against them as evidence to prosecute them for prostitution. In this climate of fear, workers may be more likely to seek the support of a potentially abusive third party to assist in arranging their work. Thus, the possibility for trafficking, rape, and murder of sex workers can actually rise with the heavy-handed monitoring and closure of these websites. It is an understatement to say that the use of hypervigilant security practices on industry websites does more harm than good.
It’s important to note that human trafficking isn’t created by Craigslist, myredbook.com, The Review Board, or any one of a litany of industry websites. The issue is rooted in our globalized economy, which demands increasingly flexible, low-cost, and unprotected laborers. According to the International Labor Organization, only 11 percent of trafficking victims are part of the sex trade. Internationally, forced labor is a huge problem in more mundane industries like fishing, mining, and farming. Online stings are costly and reactionary responses to the systemic problems associated with the global economy’s demand for cheap labor. Putting an end to human trafficking requires a response that takes into account those systemic problems—not just busting website after website. Creating legal passages to citizenship for working class migrants would, for example, open up a legal and safe means for workers to enter the country without seeking the help of a trafficker, which, due to our heavily restrictive immigration system, is often the only option.
At the same time, if we were to remove the penalties associated with consensual sex work, sex workers would be able to report exploitation, violence, unsafe working conditions, and instances of trafficking to law enforcement. “If the sale of sex for money were decriminalized in the U.S., we would then be able to police our industry and help those who are in bad positions. We could report serial rapists and traffickers, making our communities safer for all,” Kristin Di Angelo, head of Sacramento’s Sex Worker Outreach Project, told ThinkProgress.
If well-intentioned people want to hack the world to make it safer for trafficking victims, finding ways to support sex worker rights, decriminalization of consensual sex work, and comprehensive immigration reform are good places to start. Designing tools for law enforcement to crack down on the websites sex workers use to make their jobs safer will only push vulnerable people further underground.
Holiday Black is a freelance writer and poet living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work focuses on intersectional feminism, pop-culture, queer issues, and sex workers rights. She is the assistant artistic director of Gemstone Readings, an online gallery space and femme-centric reading series in NYC. You can find more at her website, www.holidayblack.com, or follower her on twitter @holidayblack.
In 2018, conversations about the future are sick with if.
If we live to see it. If things get worse instead of better. If the death rattle of patriarchy doesn’t pull all the world with it into the pit.
The gloom of encroaching dystopia is mud that’s tracked everywhere. By everyone. No matter how hard you kick your boots — it remains. Even the sky is muddled with a membrane of white noise.
But in this time of upheaval and unrest, a clear voice can crack the sky like lightning — slicing the clouds of static … and we can see the moon again.
Janelle Monáe is one of those voices — the sound of now. Of fear peeling away. Of the “evolution” in “revolution.” Of hope. Of utopia. Of love flashing its teeth and not going down without a fight.
That’s a lot to put on a pop star. But Monáe and the Wondaland Arts Society have always been looking to the future – and not doing it with an apocalyptic if but a triumphant when. And it just so happens that when begins now.
Monáe understands the language of pop deification. Not like the grotesque worship of “rock gods” or celebrities, but figures like David Bowie, Prince, Kate Bush — pop artists whose music and intent are matched with presence. They take the stage and screen with persona and vision, galvanizing their craft into powerful audiovisual statements that don’t just empower themselves; they empower all. Their humanity is intrinsically bound to their larger-than-life persona — becoming not exclusionary, but inclusionary. This power can be yours too. Make art. Be freaks. Be free. We’ve all got the spark of a deity within us, but sometimes it takes a music maker to snap their fingers and light the fire.
However, in this instance, Monáe goes one step further. With her 2018 record, Dirty Computer, she ascended to high priestess of a revolution – just when the world needs her most. For anyone who feels disenfranchised in America or in the world at large, all our collective trials and fears are there, but that echoed vulnerability is armored in anthems of hope, strength, self-love, and glorious defiance. Tyrants and haters: have your pathetic moment of dystopia. Have your fear. Have your hate. A tribe of love is rising, and the future is ours to make. “You fucked the world up/ Now, we’ll fuck it all back down.”
Monáe came out with courage, color, and cunning in a transmedia tapestry celebrating queerness and otherness in all its beautiful forms and demonstrating the power of pride in a dancable, singable, tearful sonic tapestry. Paired with the poignancy of Dirty Computer is the “Emotion Picture” of the same name, a 50-minute music-driven sci-fi film collaging music videos and the world of Monáe’s continuing concept album story line. And the videos! The fluorescent labia britches of “Pynk”, lighting the desert up with sassy, sapphic feminist fire. “Django Jane”’s enthroning of a rap warrior queen. The indulgent self-actualization of the flamingo milk bath in “I Like That”. The pansexual power party of “Make Me Feel”. And that’s all in addition to the Emotion Picture’s harrowing tale of erasure and love against all odds in an oppressive near future.
Her profile as an actress is also on the rise — Moonlight and Hidden Figures paving the way to the forthcoming Welcome to Marwen and Harriet. But with the Emotion Picture, she and Wondaland Pictures took their first step into a larger world. They’ve now signed a first look deal with Universal to focus specifically on projects that champion underrepresented voices. She’s our Artist of the Year now, but it’s like she’s only getting started.
When we caught up with her, Monáe was taking her first week off in a year and spending some time with her mom. But even still, here she was, speaking with us.
“I’m never off the clock, and that is the reason why I’ve been made to be an android — to deal with this level of high demand and pressures.” She was looking forward to taking time to “download” new ideas. Just take a look at the liner notes to Dirty Computer and it’s easy to see that for Monáe, inspiration is everywhere and nothing is what it seems. The new record, for instance, can be easily assumed to be wholly a byproduct of everything that’s come in the wake of the 2016 American Presidential Election, but in fact, it’s that reality, jarringly, caught up with her fiction. The premise dates back to before her first full-length album, 2010’s The ArchAndroid. She created the majority of the songs during Obama’s presidency.
Janelle Monáe, photo by Heather Kaplan
“I was still working with other spirits in my body and in my mind and my soul to create Dirty Computer, and then, the 2016 election happened — and things changed. There was a shift in the world, there was a shift in the universe, there was a shift physically in America, and there was a shift that I couldn’t ignore. It was a shift that affected me personally and directly.”
Normally, Monáe would swear off going into the studio if she was angry or upset, but circumstances required a different approach.
“I needed to use what I was going through as therapy. Even if I did not have the right words to convey all of my emotions and my thoughts, it was about getting it down, getting down to my studio and making myself available. I knew I was going to be getting deeper, so I opted to send everybody out, record myself, and then I’d say, ‘Hey, come back here!’
“They would always say, ‘You need to record yourself more often, because you’re more in tune with what you want to say when you’re by yourself recording,'” she continues. “And, you know, I agree. I love collaboration. I think that’s when innovation happens, but I also love being in solitude while recording, because I can discover myself and evolve.”
“Sometimes the water is just not on in terms of creativity. Sometimes there’s a drought. But there was a lot of water with this project. I wrote ‘Americans ‘in two days, and usually I take a minute to write my songs. There was something flowing through me with this album. Something flowing through me when I wrote ‘So Afraid’ in my car on the way to the dentist.
“I feel like the timing of this release has made it accessible to now,” she adds. “Part of me feels bad about that, but I realize that you can’t stop an idea when the idea’s time has arrived. So what you see in this album is me going through different stages of what it means to be a ‘dirty computer’ and what a dirty computer represents in society as of today.”
In terms of chronology, Dirty Computer is a prequel piece. The ArchAndroid and Electric Lady are set in the far-flung future of 2719. If you thought the repercussions of being a human-loving android were trouble, that’s not half as bad as being a subversive “dirty computer” in the near future.
Janelle Monáe, Austin City Limits 2018, photo by Amy Price
The album goes through three different stages: The Reckoning, The Celebration, and The Reclamation.
“The first two songs [‘Dirty Computer’, ‘Crazy, Classic Life’] deal with reckoning. What does it mean to have the majority of the world that you live in view you as a dirty computer? I would parallel that to being called ‘nigger ‘for the first time by a white person. I would compare it to being called ‘bitch’ for the first time by a man.
“Being a ‘dirty computer’ is a derogatory word,” she clarifies, “you are dirty and you need to be cleansed. There is something about you that is not good enough to live in society, until you change, and unless you conform to our standards, we won’t accept you. We’ll push you to the margins of society, and you won’t matter.”
The stage is set, and it’s bleak … but then comes “The Celebration” — the narrative of deciding if you’re going to celebrate what it means to be a dirty computer. Unapologetically celebrating your sexuality, your liberation as a woman, the things that make you unique, even if they make others uncomfortable. “The Reclamation” reclaims all that and what it means to be American. Claiming the freedom of the American ideal, unchained from the prejudices that wound and infect that ideal.
“This album is through the lens of a young, black, queer woman living in America, and I wanted to make an album that was uplifting, not one that stayed in a dystopian world. I wanted to make sure that we felt like there was something that we could do to not hide, to create community, to remind each other that although we are dirty computers, we too are human, we too are American, and we deserve basic rights of respect and love. I wanted to end the album on that hope of what it means to be an American. Our differences are what allow us to evolve and learn from each other, to help each other.”
With as close to the bone as this record cuts, in regards to our own world’s timeline and Monáe’s own journey, it’s easy to suspect that Dirty Computer is more about Janelle Monáe than her characters Jane 57821 or Cindi Mayweather, but that’s a take she’s quick to refute. The characters cast a long shadow, and it’s all connected, but the message is bigger than them and bigger than Monáe.
Janelle Monáe, photo by Heather Kaplan
“I don’t consider this a personal essay from Janelle Monáe. I look at myself as an evolving spirit,” Monáe explains. “I am a part of humanity. I don’t exist unless people say I exist, so I never look at myself and say, ‘This is me, this is who I am.’ I’m still finding who I am. I’m still discovering who I am. I’m still allowing my metamorphosis to take place, and I’m creating through it. I hope that I’m digging deeper, I hope that I’m not allowing even myself to get in the way of creating an album that is meant for the community of people that I want to uplift.
“That’s what this album is really about,” she contends. “I am a part of the community, but this album is not just about me, it’s about creating space for us — for us who challenge the status quo, for us who love out loud, who live out loud, who may not share the same religious beliefs, but we respect and admire and appreciate each other. We live in a civilization where we depend on each other for survival, and I think this album boils down to that fundamental question of: ‘Do you feel a responsibility to protect those who may not be as privileged as you?'”
Monáe has proudly assumed a figurehead role in the queer community that embraced her long before she’d made any definitive statements about her sexuality. It’s a role not just centered on celebration, but solidarity. On her tour stop in Orlando, FL, Monáe performed at Disney Springs’ House of Blues, where the gunman responsible for the Pulse Massacre had initially scouted to stage his shooting before before backing down and targeting the nightclub. Taking the stage for her encore, Monáe addressed the crowd, reading the names of the 49 victims, and paying respects to Sasha Garden, a trans woman murdered in Orlando the week prior.
“We celebrate them tonight,” she said. “We celebrate their bravery. I send love to all their families and friends – some of you may be here tonight. This was a difficult show. When I started my first song, I was very emotional performing here … We never forget them.”
The moment was further punctuated as she slid into a potent performance of “So Afraid”. For the audience, and Monáe, too, it was a sobering, tear-jerking, and undeniably raw gesture of togetherness in a sometimes terrifying world.
Janelle Monáe, photo by Heather Kaplan
“I felt that I couldn’t come there and not recognize those heroes, you know? I decided to make it very clear that all of my brothers and sisters in the LGBTQIA+ community, you all have my support, and I’m here, and we’re going to choose our freedom over our fear.”
Dirty Computer is resplendent with messages of love, but plenty of complications, too, like the artist herself. “Dirty computer” is a slur. “Dirty computer” is a badge of honor. In Dirty Computer, imperfection is celebrated.
“I didn’t set out to make a perfect album. That wasn’t my goal,” Monáe argues. “I have definitely gone in the studio and said, ‘Hey, I want to make the perfect song.’ This was not about that. It was about the imperfections. How can I create an album that can be imperfect? When I’m recording, I feel like I have to be perfect in front of people. I’m grateful to have a team that I don’t feel that way in front of, but I try to make sure that I’m giving myself space to just mess around and have fun and get lost. I like getting lost and discovering myself all over again.
“I’m at a point in my life where I’m questioning what it means to embrace the things that make me unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable. Those who hate others because of religious belief or they’re mean-spirited or they’re homophobic, is that what makes them unique? Should we still love them? I think that is a question that we have to ask ourselves.”
In “Stevie’s Dream”, Stevie Wonder delivers wise words about speaking love: “Don’t let your expressions, even of anger, be confused or misconstrued. Turn them into words of expression that can be understood by using words of love.” It’s easier said than done.
“There are some people that I have a really difficult time loving, especially when they are so divisive at the root. For me … you still have to be accountable. You can love somebody, and respect them and empathize with them, but part of loving a person is holding them accountable.
“[Stevie Wonder would] tell me all the time to ‘lead with love.’ It’s difficult. I don’t want people to think it’s easy and that Janelle Monáe is above having moments where I sometimes don’t believe the things that I say. But I said them, and I believe that they come from a great place. I’m speaking from my loving mind. Sometimes, I’m happy I’ve recorded it, because I need to be inside that, and I don’t always feel like that.
Janelle Monáe, Austin City Limits 2018, photo by Amy Price
“I just want this album to be words of affirmation for anybody that’s struggling with accepting themselves,” she insists, “especially in a world where we have been programmed to not accept dirty computers. I just hope that everybody feels loved and seen and heard and that they can use this work to heal — to be the soundtrack of a better tomorrow.”
With Wondaland Pictures’ new deal, there could be a lot of soundtracking to do. Universal Pictures Chairman Donna Langley championed the deal and has made a career of putting an emphasis on empowering women and storytellers, a perfect pairing with Monáe, Mikael Moore, Chuck Lightning, and Nate Wonder.
“We look at ourselves not as musicians or artists specifically restricted to the music industry,” Monáe says. “We’ve always loved film, we’ve always loved TV, and we’ve always loved telling stories. [This is] an extension of that storytelling and an opportunity to collaborate.
“‘Collaboration’ is my word for next year,” she adds. “I hope to do more collaboration with my peers. I hope to also work with up-and-coming talent, of voices and directors and storytellers who, like us, want to shape this world through our storytelling and want to make sure that the representation of the people we feel have been underrepresented happens. We want to redefine what it means to tell stories, to tell universal stories in unforgettable ways.”
That declaration would be a tall order or hot air from almost anyone else, but the persistence of Monáe’s vision is inarguable. She has set her sights on the future and has seized the present with futurist music — science fiction music that does what great science fiction does: distilling human nature into its core components. Reflecting us as we are so we can become a better version of ourselves.
The National Rifle Association spent $30 million to help elect Donald Trump—more than any other independent conservative group. Most of that sum went toward television advertising, but a political message loses its power if it fails to reach the right audience at the right time. For the complex and consequential task of placing ads in key markets across the nation in 2016, the NRA turned to a media strategy firm called Red Eagle Media.
One element of Red Eagle’s work for the NRA involved purchasing a slate of 52 ad slots on WVEC, the ABC affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia, in late October 2016. The ads targeted adults aged 35 to 64 and aired on local news programs and syndicated shows like Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. In paperwork filed with the Federal Communications Commission, Red Eagle described them as “anti-Hillary” and “pro-Trump.”
The Trump campaign pursued a strikingly similar advertising strategy. Shortly after the Red Eagle purchase, as Election Day loomed, it bought 33 ads on the same station, set to air during the same week. The ads, which the campaign purchased through a firm called American Media & Advocacy Group (AMAG), were aimed at precisely the same demographic as the NRA spots, and often ran during the same shows, bombarding Norfolk viewers with complementary messages.
The two purchases may have looked coincidental; Red Eagle and AMAG appear at first glance to be separate firms. But each is closely connected to a major conservative media-consulting firm called National Media Research, Planning and Placement. In fact, the three outfits are so intertwined that both the NRA’s and the Trump campaign’s ad buys were authorized by the same person: National Media’s chief financial officer, Jon Ferrell.
“This is very strong evidence, if not proof, of illegal coordination,” said Larry Noble, a former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission. “This is the heat of the general election, and the same person is acting as an agent for the NRA and the Trump campaign.”
Reporting by The Trace, which has teamed up with Mother Jones to investigate the NRA’s political activity, shows that the NRA and the Trump campaign employed the same operation—at times, the exact same people—to craft and execute their advertising strategies for the 2016 presidential election. The investigation, which involved a review of more than 1,000 pages of Federal Communications Commission and Federal Election Commission documents, found multiple instances in which National Media, through its affiliates Red Eagle and AMAG, executed ad buys for Trump and the NRA that seemed coordinated to enhance each other.
Individuals working for National Media or its affiliated companies either signed or were named in FCC documents, demonstrating that they had knowledge of both the NRA and the Trump campaign’s advertising plans.
Experts say the arrangement appears to violate campaign finance laws.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a situation where illegal coordination seems more obvious,” said Ann Ravel, a former chair of the Federal Election Commission, who reviewed the records. “It is so blatant that it doesn’t even seem sloppy. Everyone involved probably just thinks there aren’t going to be any consequences.”
National Media, the NRA, the Trump campaign, and the White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment. AMAG does not appear to have any employees or contacts independent of National Media; a lawyer who has been identified in news accounts as representing AMAG did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The web site for National Media, which is based in Alexandria, Virginia, describes it as “a nationally recognized leader in media research, planning, and placement for issue advocacy, corporate, and political campaigns,” and says that its “goal is to maximize every dollar that our clients spend on their media.” Those clients have included the Republican National Committee as well as the GOP’s congressional and senatorial campaign committees.
Publicly available corporate documents do not indicate who owns or runs AMAG, but a lawyer representing the company acknowledged to the Daily Beast in 2016 that it was affiliated with National Media. PBS has described AMAG as an “offshoot” of National Media. The Trump campaign paid AMAG more than $74 million for “placed media” in September and October of 2016.
Red Eagle Media, the firm that the NRA used to place its pro-Trump ads, is merely an “assumed or fictitious name” used by National Media, according to corporate records. Corporate, FEC, and FCC records for all three entities list the addresses of 815 Slaters Lane or 817 Slaters Lane, a pair of adjacent brick buildings that share a parking lot in the historic Old Town section of Alexandria.
The NRA was free to spend as much money as it wanted on behalf of Trump in 2016. But under federal election law, if an independent group and a campaign share election-related information, then the group’s expenditures no longer qualify as independent and are instead treated as in-kind donations, subject to a $5,000 limit.
When an outside group and a candidate use the same vendor, staffers working for either client are prevented by law from sharing information with each other. Typically, such vendors make staffers sign a company “firewall” policy, which functions as a pledge not to coordinate and an acknowledgment that there are civil and criminal penalties for doing so. Under the law, National Media staffers working for Trump should have been siloed from those working for the NRA. Documents suggest, instead, a synchronized effort.
Records in the FCC “public inspection files”—files that television stations maintain in order to comply with transparency regulations around political advertising—show that Red Eagle and AMAG often bought ads around the same time, on the same stations, for the NRA and the Trump campaign, respectively. During the last week of October, for instance, Red Eagle bought $36,250 worth of ads on the ABC affiliate in Cleveland on behalf of the NRA. A form the NRA filed with the station described spots mentioning the Second Amendment, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and the 2016 presidential election.
At the same time, AMAG spent almost the exact same amount—$36,150—on a series of Trump campaign ads on the same Cleveland station during the same week. Both the NRA ads and the Trump ads aired during many of the same programs, including local newscasts, Good Morning America, and NCAA football.
We identified at least four current or former National Media employees, including CFO Jon Ferrell, who are named in FCC filings as representatives of both the Trump campaign and the NRA during the final stretch of the 2016 presidential election.
The form filed with the Cleveland station on behalf of the NRA by Red Eagle in September 2016 lists a person named Kristy Kovatch as a point of contact. (An identical form that Red Eagle filed for the NRA with WCPO in Cincinnati also lists Kovatch.) Kovatch is a senior buyer for National Media, specializing in “television media buying for political candidates, issue/advocacy groups and public affairs clients.” According to her bio on the company’s website, she’s been with the firm for 20 years.
Throughout the fall of 2016, Kovatch was also involved in ad purchases for Trump. Just three days before she was named in records as the contact for Red Eagle in Cleveland and Cincinnati, she appeared in the same role on an AMAG advertising request sheet filed for the Trump campaign with an NBC Telemundo station in Miami. FCC documents also list her as the AMAG buyer or contact for various other Florida stations.
Another National Media employee, Ben Angle, was identified in the 2018 bookInside Campaigns: Elections through the Eyes of Political Professionals as an architect of Trump’s airwave strategy. “In mid-September,” the book says, “Angle and his boss were summoned to Trump Tower and told their firm would be placing all of the Trump campaign’s television advertising during the last seven weeks of the campaign.” Angle is listed on National Media’s website as a “senior media buyer.” In October, his name appeared in FCC paperwork as the contact for an NRA ad buy, placed through Red Eagle, at an ABC station in Denver.
A fourth staffer whose name appears on both NRA and Trump campaign documents, Caroline Kowalski, left National Media in 2017. Her title was “media specialist,” according to her LinkedIn page. Within the span of one week in late October and early November 2016, she was listed as the Red Eagle contact for an NRA ad purchase in Cape Coral, Florida, and as the AMAG contact for a Trump campaign placement at a CBS station in Philadelphia.
Ferrell’s signature appeared on forms authorizing ads on stations across the country. For the Trump campaign, that included battleground markets such as Youngstown, Ohio; Cape Coral, Florida; and Reno, Nevada. For the NRA, it included Cincinnati and Wilmington, North Carolina. Ferrell also signed off on placements with national syndicators and distributors covering most of the country for both Trump and the NRA.
Ferrell, Kovatch, Angle, and Kowalski did not respond to requests for comment. According to their National Media bios or LinkedIn pages, all are specialists in the art of strategic media placement. Ferrell’s “efforts help [National Media] provide optimal financial stewardship of campaign media budgets.” Kovatch “has consistently bought the largest media markets around the country, building an extensive knowledge of ratings, costs and seasonal trends across all time periods and dayparts.” Angle uses his “extensive experience” to “strategically place efficient and effective media buys for our clients.” And Kowalski “acted as a liaison between media buyers and TV, radio, and cable networks,” and “researched voter demographic data to help create” advertising campaigns for, among others, “presidential” candidates and “issue-advocacy groups.”
Prior reporting has identified consulting firms as conduits for potentially illegal coordination between campaigns and outside groups. In 2013, a Center for Public Integrity and NBC News investigation turned up evidence that an AMAG media buyer purchased airtime both for a Texas congressional candidate and for an outside group that was supporting him. In July, we found that the NRA had been using an apparent shell firm called Starboard Strategic Inc. to produce ads for Senate candidates who employed a GOP consulting outfit called OnMessage Inc. The two entities, according to subsequent complaints filed to the FEC, are “functionally indistinguishable.” Starboard and OnMessage are located in the same Alexandria buildings as National Media, according to public records.
The FEC has the authority to launch investigations and seek civil penalties, but it’s unlikely that the NRA or the Trump campaign will face any official action. The FEC’s four commissioners—it is supposed to have six—have been deadlocked for years in an ideological split, making the unanimous vote required for significant investigations almost impossible to achieve. The Department of Justice is also authorized to launch investigations, but prosecutions under the Federal Election Campaign Act are uncommon. If convicted, violators can be subject to criminal fines and up to five years in prison.
Experts say the apparent coordination is the most glaring they’ve ever seen.
“It is impossible for these consultants to have established firewalls in their brains,” Brendan Fischer, the director of the Federal Reform Program at the Campaign Legal Center, said. “We have not previously seen this level of evidence undermining any claim of a firewall.”
Effectively placing ads is among the most important tasks in getting a candidate elected to office. “The creative content is only part of the equation,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican media strategist. “Political advertising relies on smart media placement at every stage. Anything else and you might as well just throw your money in a bonfire.”
Campaign coordination, Wilson added, allows candidates and outside groups to “maximize their resources,” making spending far more efficient. “Modern campaigns are driven by data,” he said. “Pollsters and analytics people will give you a set of targets, and you want to address those targets as best you can, in as many markets as you can.”
Concurrent purchases by Red Eagle and AMAG appear to have been designed to provide such a higher return on spending. On September 15, 2016, for instance, Red Eagle executed an $86,000 deal for the NRA with Raycom Sports Network, a syndicator of sports programs, for slots during seven ACC college football games airing during the final weeks of the presidential race. Documents authorizing the purchase were signed by Ferrell, whose colleague Ben Angle, the senior buyer at National Media, has been a proponent of sports as a way to reach conservative audiences. “Every time we assist a Republican candidate, we advise him to advertise at sports events,” he told one journalist. “In sports, the audience is engaged, they like to see it live so they do not skip the commercials by using a recording device.”
Less than a week later, another National Media staffer authorized virtually the same purchase for Trump. Because stations are required to charge candidates the so-called “lowest unit price” for airtime (while charging independent groups the higher market rate), the deal only cost $30,000.
The purchases were mirror images of each other. In five of the games, both the NRA and Trump bought ads. When the NRA ran two spots either attacking Clinton or promoting Trump, the Trump campaign ran just one. And when the Trump campaign ran two spots, the NRA ran one. The pattern even persisted when there was no direct overlap: In the two games the Trump campaign sat out, the NRA ran two ads. And in the one game during which the NRA didn’t buy time, Trump bought two slots. Side by side, the spots aired across the country on as many as 120 stations, according to data provided by Raycom.
Angle’s name appears on Trump campaign paperwork documenting the Raycom purchase, directly above “AMAG.”
After reviewing the Raycom records, Wilson said the pattern suggests the purchases were part of a unified strategy by the NRA and the Trump campaign. “Sometimes you want to maximize the lowest unit rate on the campaign side,” he said. “But you still need more fire on the target. This is why the FEC says coordination is illegal.”
Aaaaaaaaand, Russia was supporting the NRA. Now, I know 2 and 2 no longer equal 4, but ...
“Reporting by The Trace, which has teamed up with Mother Jones to investigate the NRA’s political activity, shows that the NRA and the Trump campaign employed the same operation—at times, the exact same people—to craft and execute their advertising strategies for the 2016 presidential election.”
Every day I handle more money than I will ever make. Every day.
At the start of my employment, my boss showed me videos of people stealing, and we both had a chuckle about it. How silly they were! There was a camera overhead, and it’s not to watch the shoppers. See, we can’t actually stop shoplifters. They get away with it maybe nine out of ten times. But we, who are watched and tallied and witnessed? We are always caught.
At first it was hard to hold one hundred dollars bills. An amount I had never seen before. An amount that didn’t exist in my household. It’s normal now. Here is something that is not for me.
“What the hell, I’ll take another,” says the man, pondering our 200 dollar watches. What the hell. Total comes to 580 and not even a flinch in his face. I have been working for 11 hours today and made only 110 dollars. It will go to my rent. Today I work for free, it feels. When I get my check, I will have 35 dollars left for food and saving.
The six hundreds he hands me go into the cash register. For a moment, I imagine having money. Then I put it away, counting out his change.
I know for a fact we sell our products for double what they are worth. That I could be making commission. That they could hand me those 580 dollars and change my life and not even mark the difference in their checkbooks. He’s not the only sale they make today, but I am the reason they made it. He’s not the only one spending 600 dollars, but if I hadn’t spent two hours with him telling me about his life, he wouldn’t have spent any. I go home. I don’t own a watch.
I have watched and rewatched a video on how to make salmon four ways. My shopping list is always the same. Pasta. Rice. Tuna. If I can afford butter it was a good week. I dream of the world I will never walk in, where I can throw the best fish fillet in the cart with a shrug. I hold hundreds in my hand and look up at the camera. I put them under the cash drawer.
I go to work. I scrap together my savings. I eat my bowl of rice slowly. My manager takes a paid week off from work just for his birthday. He owns a yacht.