The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, employed a Republican consultant and opposition researcher to help put together two of this year's biggest stories about former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
In February, the site published "The Hillary Papers," a report that unearthed papers belonging to Diane Blair, one of Clinton's closest friends, from the archives at the University of Arkansas. Last week, the Free Beacon released audio recordings from an unpublished 1980s interview, in which Clinton discussed a child rape case she took on in Arkansas. In the tapes, Clinton suggests the accused attacker, a man she successfully defended, was guilty.
The stories, both by Free Beacon reporter Alana Goodman, were a legitimate and hard-to-find commodity: new reporting on the most covered woman in America. They both landed large, lighting up the internet with headlines on the Drudge Report, occupying the political press for days, and ensuring the Free Beacon a place among the new partisan outlets whose reporting makes them impossible to ignore. Goodman's most recent story hit during the first week of Clinton's media tour to promote a new memoir, Hard Choices.
Shawn Reinschmiedt, a former research director for the Republican National Committee, provided Goodman assistance with both stories, according to documents released by the University of Arkansas and published by Business Insider on Sunday following a copyright dispute over the Clinton tapes.
The documents include a special collections request, signed by Reinschmiedt on March 5, for duplicates of the audio recordings, as well as a subsequent email and letter from the library to Reinschmiedt about his request.
Reinschmiedt has served as a consultant to the Center for American Freedom, the nonprofit that houses and funds the Free Beacon, since its founding two years ago. Tax filings show the organization paid Reinschmiedt's "political intelligence" firm, M Street Insight, a total of $150,000 for "research consulting" in 2012.
Michael Goldfarb, founder of the Center for American Freedom and the Free Beacon, said it is standard practice for his reporters to rely on outside consultants for help with stories that have a research component. The Free Beacon also used a production firm to help present the audio from the Clinton tapes, he said.
Political reporters often work closely with partisan opposition researchers on stories; those researchers are typically employed by campaigns, however.
Reinschmiedt supplied assistance with paperwork and helped sift through archives, according to Goldfarb. (The Diane Blair collection includes thousands of documents, organized in 109 boxes in the basement of the university library.)
"The Beacon provides research and production support to all our reporters just like every other media outlet," Goldfarb said Sunday night.
Until earlier this year, the Free Beacon had an "entire in-house research operation," Goldfarb added. That project was shut down, but the website still uses outside firms, including M Street Insight — a fact "we made clear to anyone who cared to ask from the moment we launched," he said.
Tax filings show the organization also paid the Republican firm CRAFT Media Digital about $233,000 in 2012 for "media consulting."
Laura Jacobs, a spokeswoman for the University of Arkansas, said the school used Reinschmiedt as a go-to in its dealings with the Free Beacon.
"Reinschmiedt was the primary point of contact," Jacobs said in an email.
The Center for American Freedom and the Washington Free Beacon were formed as part model, part parody, to their progressive counterparts: the Center for American Progress and its partnering news website, ThinkProgress.
In 2012, Free Beacon editor Matthew Continetti named ThinkProgress and liberal news sites like Talking Points Memo as outlets whose success "at the cutting edge of ideological journalism" he hoped to emulate on the Republican side.
Judd Legum, editor in chief of ThinkProgress, said his reporters and editors have "never used consultants or research firms to help us on stories."
"Although I'm not sure I see anything wrong with it," he added.
David Brock, the founder of the liberal groups Media Matters and American Bridge, likened the Free Beacon's use of outside consultants to the "Arkansas Project" — the 1990s dirt-digging operation in which he played a central role.
The project, funded by a Republican millionaire, aimed to bring down the Clintons with stories in the American Spectator, a conservative magazine. Brock, who has since become a leading figure in the Democratic party, worked on the operation as the Spectator's investigative reporter.
"Having personally been in the middle of efforts to undermine the Clintons with negative information collected by paid Republican operatives and then laundered through the magazine where I then worked, the American Spectator, where it was presented as the product of legitimate journalistic inquiry," Brock said, the Free Beacon's methods have what he called "all the markings" of the Arkansas Project.
"All that seems to have changed is the names of the characters involved," Brock said. "The M.O. is the same. This is the Arkansas Project redux."
Brock has long navigated the straits of journalism and partisanship on both sides of the aisle. His group, American Bridge, served as the central Democratic opposition research center, and he now runs a group defending Clinton's record. This month, he launched a "journalism institute" to investigate the "nexus of conservative power in Washington" and subjects like the Koch brothers.
Through Media Matters, his group that monitors conservative media, Brock plans to release a "news advisory" to reporters and editors on Monday about what he calls a failure to disclose Reinschmiedt's involvement.
"I trust you'll agree that a journalistic news website hiring undercover Republican operatives to misrepresent themselves as journalists and secretly to provide it with information is, at best, an unusual practice," Brock says in the advisory. "I certainly know that you understand that any time a news organization pays money for information, journalistic ethics requires that it be disclosed to readers."
Goldfarb dismissed the criticism of the Free Beacon's reporting. "If Clinton allies prefer to talk about the editorial process at the Beacon instead of Hillary's decision to defend a child rapist she knew was guilty and brag about it on tape after the fact, we won't be surprised if that's the story some reporters pursue."
"If we weren't doing these stories," Goldfarb said, "the only Clinton coverage this past week would have been how many books she sold and which Supreme Court justice she ran into at the book signings."
Ruby Cramer is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Ruby Cramer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.