Democrats lump conservative views with child porn, terrorism to justify advertising boycotts

"Like Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, if they say 'Project 2025' enough their presidential candidate becomes alive again," Ben Shapiro jokes at antitrust hearing on campaign to starve conservative publishers like The Daily Wire of ad revenue.

Published: July 10, 2024 11:00pm

Faced with communications among international advertising giants, their "brand safety" consortium and tech platforms that suggest coordinated campaigns to starve conservative and heterodox publishers of ad revenue, Democrats went nuclear at a Hill hearing Wednesday.

They lumped conservative views, Donald Trump's presidential campaign and skepticism of elite consensus, especially on COVID-19 and Hunter Biden's laptop, with child and adult pornography, domestic violence, rape, terrorism and foreign propaganda to justify the blacklisting efforts by the Global Alliance for Responsible Media and its members.

Advertisers don't want to be associated with someone who "went into Bergdorf Goodman and got a woman and took her into a locked dressing room and molested her," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., alluding to jury finding Trump liable last year for sexually abusing advice columnist E. Jean Carroll in 1996. 

In the House Judiciary Committee hearing, Republican members repeatedly called GARM, whose members control 90% of the global advertising market, a "cartel" that is violating antitrust law by informally directing members which outlets and platforms to blacklist or pressure to censor content.

Through their probe of the Brussels-based World Federation of Advertisers' initiative, Republicans want to force brands to advertise alongside "exploitative images and videos of children …. disinformation and racist and violent propaganda" among many other objectionable categories, said New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, the committee's top Democrat. "This hearing is an exercise in intimidation of free speech.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., invoked "anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, child sexual abuse material or content promoting terrorism." And Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., referred to "child porn, or ISIS videos, or hate speech, or an advertisement from the Heritage Foundation about Project 2025," one of many Democratic denunciations of the proposed roadmap for the next administration should Trump win the presidency in November.

"Like Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, if they say 'Project 2025' enough their presidential candidate becomes alive again," conservative commentator and The Daily Wire cofounder Ben Shapiro, Republicans' star witness, joked when Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., asked if he supported the proposal.

Swalwell went much further, interrogating the Orthodox Jew about his religious beliefs on abortion, sexuality and same-sex marriage, to demonstrate why major brands would shy away from his publication. Shapiro retorted that most major religions agree with his distinction between legally recognized relationships and private sexual behavior.

Advertising revenue is crucial to startups because they don't have subscribers yet, Shapiro told Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Wis. While The Daily Wire is flush with subscribers now, Shapiro said he's concerned about new entrants locked out of the ad market for political reasons. 

He assailed the "informal pressure system created by Democratic legislators, this White House, legacy media, advertisers and pseudo-objective brand safety organizations." 

Social media companies adopted GARM standards "under duress" from legislative threats, Shapiro said. He blamed the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for a 1,000% increase in "content enforcements" against The Daily Wire's YouTube channel over two years.

Shapiro called out Johnson and Jayapal by name.

"You're using the tacit threat of government action to compel private companies to throttle viewpoints you don't particularly like," he said.

The Daily Wire, Breitbart and Fox News are specifically mentioned as news outlets GARM and its members were closely watching to find grounds for blacklisting in the communications disclosed by the committee GOP's interim staff report Wednesday.

Executives for GroupM, the world's largest media buying agency, discussed whether to blacklist Shapiro's publication given that it hadn't done so against Breitbart despite "hat[ing] their ideology and bullshit," as Executive VP for Global Brand Safety John Montgomery said.

It wouldn't make sense to block The Daily Wire and not Fox News, Montgomery said. Joe Barone, then-managing partner of Brand Safety Americas, responded that The Daily Wire was already on its "Global High Risk exclusion list, categorized as Conspiracy Theories."

The only person to sit for a transcribed interview with the committee was GARM leader Robert Rakowitz, who denied discussing GroupM's "list of news outlets that are worthy of monetization" when he talks to the GARM cofounder. 

Rakowitz played into GOP talking points by telling WFA colleagues in 2019, shortly after cofounding GARM, that the ad industry was plagued by the "extreme global interpretation of the US Constitution," which was written by "exclusively white men."

He recognized the antitrust implications when telling a GARM member he "can’t publicly advise all clients to do X" because it "gets us into hot water by way of anticompetitive and collusive behaviors," but offered to “help [brands] formulate a [point of view] 1:1," the GOP report says.

It emphasizes the alleged contradictions between Rakowitz's internal communications and his interview. 

He bragged in 2023, months after Elon Musk purchased Twitter and exposed its prior censorship, that the platform is "80% below revenue forecasts" since Rakowitz "challenged Musk on brand safety issues." (X, formerly Twitter, recently rejoined GARM.)

While he told GOP staff this was a "self-effacing joke" about his viral Musk tweet, Rakowitz's email shows he was elated by the attention his tweet was getting. An employee of WFA told a potential GARM member they had "extensive debriefing and discussion" about Musk's purchase, which Rakowitz denied.

He denied only that GARM or WFA recommended a Musk-owned Twitter boycott a month after GOP staff asked about several months of emails from GARM member Ørsted, a Danish energy company.

The firm asked GARM about a "possible boycott from many companies" when Musk's purchase went through and told Rakowitz in April 2023 that Ørsted had stopped advertising "based on your recommendations" but wanted to return to Twitter, "an important platform for us to reach our audience." 

Democrats frequently went to their expert witness, Spencer Waller, a Loyola University Chicago law professor, to explain why the coordination didn't affect antitrust law. 

GARM participants aren't competitors, they have "legitimate business justifications" for ad-placement choices, and Supreme Court precedent immunizes "publicity campaigns" against antitrust liability, Waller said, comparing the initiative to the NAACP's civil rights boycott of white merchants.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., questioned Waller's analysis in light of his former role as senior adviser to Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan, whose investigations have "found everything to be antitrust."

GARM "clearly smells like a cartel," but Waller seems to think it's the only exception to Khan's rule, Issa said.

The FTC "destroyed the evidence" of Waller's advice to Khan when he left the agency, Issa said. Because Waller said he didn't take the records either, Issa deemed his testimony suspect.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said GARM's objectives were "clearly political" and a "manifestation of the ESG movement," but cautioned the GOP against adopting the "strictly situational" ethics of the political left by using antitrust unless the government is involved. 

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., pressed GARM cofounder Unilever USA President Herrish Patel why its vice presidents Rob Master and Luis Di Como emailed Facebook employees a month before the 2020 election to ask whether a Trump ad, which said challenger Joe Biden "REFUSED drug test & DECLINED an earpiece inspection," violated Facebook's policies. 

This was "not some intern at your company," Gaetz said. When Patel said he didn't know what their intention was, Gaetz noted what GARM's Rakowitz told a colleague after Facebook said the ad did not threaten "real world harm" and was exempt as presidential candidate speech: "Honestly reprehensible."

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