Stealth Chevron consultants administer Richmond news website

Nowhere in its site description does Radio Free Richmond disclose its ties to Chevron's campaign  consultants.

Nowhere in its site description does Radio Free Richmond disclose its ties to Chevron's campaign consultants.

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?”

Additional reporting by Laki Sarah.


  1. When I go to RichCon’s web site I don’t see anywhere on the site where their funding comes from.

    When I had this discussion with the author of this article he told me that the University funded it. When asked if he was sure, he hesitated. I mentioned that when RichCon was first started they were grant funded and that last year, when RichCon barely existed, we were told that the grant had run its course.

    If the site is grant funded, why doesn’t RichCon divulge that information on their home page so the public will know which individuals or which corporations are funding the site?

    If the site truly is grant funded, then should we question the articles written and posted on the site as being tainted and leaning towards the interest of the funders?

    How is this any different than Radio Free Richmond?

    Mr. Tobias and I also discussed why RFR doesn’t list a phone number so readers can contact the administrators. I threw the question right back at him about RichCon which fails to publish a phone number as well. I’ve tried numerous times over the years to reach out to the people running RichCon without success.

    He did point out however, that they list the names (with email links) for their reporters and for half of their editors. I had to point out to Mr. Tobias that his name and email were not on that list.

    Furthermore, why would I call a production line worker at the car factory to discuss my new car when I really want to talk to the head guy? Why would I email a writer—or even an editor—when I really want to speak with the publisher? So why is there no way to reach out to the RichCon publisher?

    Again, I ask the question: why is RFR being singled out by RichCon when they are equally guilty of the same offenses?

    The Chevron haters have been using this as their rallying cry just like the uber conser4vatives use Benghazi or Obamacare as the focal points of any and all arguments they make. They seem to think that if I filled my car with Chevron gasoline, that’s the same as me being bought and sold by Chevron and that every word I write is a lie coming directly from Chevron. Are they really that out of touch with the real world?

    Why is it that they think that everyone is corrupt except them? Why do they believe that they’re the only ones who are beyond being bought off and everyone else is evil (their word) and so easily bought out?

    Since RFR started in February, not a single article has been edited. Sometimes some of the authors have accepted assistance in polishing their thoughts so the article reads better. But how is this any different than speeches or articles presented by most major politicians and civic leaders? Does anyone really believe that President Obama writes every word of his speeches? There’s noting at all wrong with someone accepting a little polish on their ideas as long as the ideas remain their own.

    That cannot be said about my own articles. Every word is my own and I’m extremely resistant to any suggestions for “polish”. No matter what lies the haters may put out, I’m my own person and what you hear from me and what you read from me comes directly from me.

    The article was only partially correct when it pointed out that RFR has posted articles written by Chevron basher Jovanka Beckles. It’s also printed articles by Mayoral candidate Tom Butt and Councilmember Jael Myrick.

    Just recently it reprinted an article from the Daily Californian about workers rights at the Richmond Bay Campus. These are employees of the University of California that were demanding rights that most workers would expect without a fight. I know that RichCon is fair and balanced but if their funding really does come from the University and this story makes the University look bad, I have to wonder why this important story here in Richmond was not covered by RichCon. Were they being controlled by their funder? Is that why they hide who funds their newspaper?

    I’m being facetious here because I have complete faith that these reporters and the editors are free and independent and would rather quit than have their funders tell them what they can write or what they should exclude. So why are they pointing the finger at RFR and suggesting to their readers that something nefarious is going on?

    When we look at the title of this article and what it suggests, couldn’t we also draft a title suggesting that RichCon is being controlled by their secret benefactor?

    And I’m curious about the opening line of this article: “a slick new website”. Of course, except when describing a lubricant the word “slick” is rarely used to describe something without trying to make the reader think it’s unsavory or immoral. What exactly about the site is all that “slick”? For the most part, it’s just a plain old web site.

    And the article goes on to explain about Radio Free Europe and how it “broadcast Western propaganda into the homes of Soviet-bloc citizens”. When we hear the word propaganda we think about Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels. Russia’s state run news service Pravda would describe it as “propaganda” while the US government described it as the “truth”. I suppose it just depends on which side of the issue you’re on which word is used to describe what we post on RFR. When we post restaurant reviews, is this propaganda? When we post YouTube links to the candidate forums, was this propaganda? Or how about when we reprint RichCon articles, is this propaganda?

  2. Edwin

    WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THIS! I am shaking my head from left to right, with a tear in the corner of my eye as I read this article. This information hurts the heart of readers, just heart breaking news, like losing a friend. By the way, very good article Mr. Jimmy Tobias great investigative reporting.

  3. Already the haters are picking up on some of the language used here. On Facebook they are already picking up on ‘propaganda’ and using it as if they coined it. And even though they cannot say where the funding comes from for RichCon and cannot respond to the lack of contact info for RichCon’s publishers, their rants keep on coming. The story has been posted here in RichCon for less than an hour and already the haters are massing as they gird their loins and prepare for battle.

  4. Felix Hunziker

    The story is exactly what I figured they’d write. Zero mention that before RFR there was no way for average residents to make their voices heard, the years of community activism by both Don and I which motivated this project, or that BMWL’s involvement was freely mentioned back in March and broadcast to thousands again by Tom Butt in June. There’s no “stealth” and other news outlets like Richmond Pulse and La Voz don’t list their supporters either.

    It would have been nice if RichCon had included my full quote and done some more homework to provide the context this article lacks:

    “Don Gosney and I founded RFR with BMWL to provide average residents a way to make their voices heard in a media environment dominated by Tom Butt’s E-Forum and various RPA outlets (La Voz, Sun, RPA newsletter, etc.). Anyone can submit an article and it will be published without the relentless censorship or qualifying narrative that the RPA and Tom respectively engage in.”

    Anyway, it’s a silly, breathless story that can’t see beyond it’s Chevron-tinted blinders. Onwards!

  5. michael

    I just have to ask – why does anyone need to partner with a PR Firm to launch a community news web site. It’s not like there aren’t numerous low-cost and free software and hosting solutions out there. Going to a PR Firm from the get go – just raises a lot unnecessary questions about intent. I’ve commented before on RFR but now I’m concerned my info has been data mined by an unscrupulous PR company – very misleading and disheartening. RFR should sever that connection immediately or just go dark.

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