Two major mainstream media reporters pulled out of previous plans to work with a booming small business when they learned its founder backs GOP frontrunner Donald Trump for president, emails obtained exclusively by Breitbart News show.
The emails are exchanges between the two MSM reporters—one a freelancer who writes for business magazine Inc. who’s also written for the New York Times Magazine, Time, Fortune, Esquire, GQ and more, and the other a writer for Forbes Magazine—and executives at 25K Startups, a small business on Long Island that serves as an incubator for innovative business ideas.
The emails, in which the two separate writers are extraordinarily explicit, offer what may be the clearest look at bias in favor of liberalism against conservatism ever seen—and are basically proof that there are people in the media infrastructure who are deliberately wielding their positions of influence to support political candidates and causes they admire while harming those they oppose.
The story began in early December when, as the emails show, 25K Startups’ Founder and Managing Partner Michael Sherman reached out to Paul Keegan—the freelancer who’s written for Inc. and many other major magazines—about asking him to consult on media strategy for his company.
“In a nutshell, I’m hoping you can help me in two ways, helping us craft stories for projects we work on and weighing in with feedback on ideas before we move a them forward to determine whether or not it can be newsworthy,” Sherman wrote to Keegan on Dec. 2. “Essentially acting as a sounding board.”
Sherman then described his personal and business history—he had a “great business from about 2005 to 2012,” and put money he made during that timeframe “aside to use as an investment in transitioning away from the business I was in.”
“I’ve been working very hard for the last 14 months trying to find one really great business concept that would be the big revenue generator but haven’t found it yet,” Sherman wrote.
At present, all we’re doing is ideating and brainstorming daily and everything we do is out of pocket. We launched a pitch competition to scale out the process – I wanted to speak with you about that. I’ve never done any PR and can’t recall any great media placements. I’m finding it to be very difficult to craft a story or even decide what is newsworthy at this point and really need a hand.
From there, Sherman asked Keegan if he’d be open to working for him for a few hours a month, helping him in the media.
“You’ve been very successful in your career and I think you’re uniquely qualified to help us,” Sherman wrote. “I’m wondering what you would charge at minimum per hour if I needed between one and three hours of your time per month, via email, and only when time allows you to respond.”
Sherman has had a fairly successful career in the start-up business. “I operate a few small businesses, most notably Year Three (yearthree.com), a search engine marketing company,” he told Breitbart News. “More recently, I put together a private, exploratory-style startup incubator — 25KStartups.com. Together (the advisory team and myself) we brainstorm business ideas and look for opportunities to convert the most innovative and viable ideas into startups each year.”
So it’s only natural he’d be looking to take the next step and start garnering publicity for his company in the press. He hadn’t worked with press before and his initial engagement with the media was fairly pleasant.
Keegan’s initial response was cordial and very open to an arrangement.
“Great to meet you, and congratulations on your success and your launch to bigger and better things. I’m impressed with – and a little overwhelmed by – how many pots you have cooking!” Keegan wrote back to Sherman on the morning of Dec. 3.
I’d be happy to help but think I should work on a volunteer basis first so you can determine whether the advice I am offering is worth paying for. My consulting rate is $125/hour and daily/weekly rates are simply multiples of that. But I am also open to a barter arrangement since you and your cohorts seem to have a lot of digital experience that I am sorely lacking in (website building, SEO, social media, etc.).
In the email, Keegan also began detailing how the media operates.
“One thing I will tell you is that getting the attention of the media is extremely difficult. I’ve been doing this for a long time and still struggle to figure out exactly what my editors want when I pitch them. I am also pitched daily by PR folks and their biggest mistake is telling me the story THEY want to tell rather than finding a way to help me tell the story that * I * or my editors want to tell,” Keegan wrote.
Which brings me back to my first point – that’s very hard to do, and requires, more than anything, relationships with those editors – knowing their quirks and interests – so you can gain access to what they are thinking about and thus be ready to offer your client’s story up when it happens to fit the story ideas that particular magazine/website/TV show is thinking about. It’s basically a battle of control – the media wants to control the stories and tell it their way, and companies want to control the story and tell it * their * way. That’s why, as the media business struggles with the transition to digital, brands are becoming media companies themselves so they can shape stories the way they want – and, of course, they now have the digital tools to do so.
The ending was a cordial message from Keegan that he would need a few days before he could get to working with Sherman.
“I’m swamped today, and possibly tomorrow, with a deadline for Inc. but let’s stay in touch and please let me know if you’d like to move onto the next stage of presenting some specific issues you need advice about, and I’ll try to see if I can help,” Keegan wrote.
In response, later that morning, Sherman wrote back that he wanted to move forward with a business relationship with Keegan.
“Great meeting you as well. I would absolutely like to move forward. I would ask to start at $50/hr (as everything I do is out of pocket) and we can ramp up or look for performance related incentives and other greater synergies between the two of us in the future,” Sherman wrote back to Keegan. “Do you have any issues with a standard non-compete?”
On Friday, Dec. 4, Keegan followed up: “Let’s talk next week. It’s been a crazy few days and likely to spill over into next week, but will connect soon.”
He included a link to a piece he wrote for Inc. on liberal businessman Dan Price—the top executive for the Seattle-based credit card processing company Gravity Payments—who shifted his company business model to pay all his employees at least $70,000 per year. That move by Price was hailed by the institutional left, and the politically left-of-center financial press, as heroic. A previous piece from Keegan ran on the cover of Inc. magazine hailing Price’s liberal move as having “turbocharged a debate now raging across the American landscape” about wages—and in that piece Keegan takes some not-so-veiled shots at radio icon Rush Limbaugh.
“Price has been pilloried on Fox News and trashed by the multimillionaire Limbaugh,” Keegan wrote.
But in the piece, Keegan lionized the liberal Price as a hero for cutting his own $1.1 million salary to pay to increase the salaries of all his approximately 120 employees at Gravity to at least $70,000.
“The reaction was tsunamic, with 500 million interactions on social media and NBC’s video becoming the most shared in network history,” Keegan wrote.
Gravity was flooded with stories from ecstatic workers elsewhere who suddenly got raises from converted bosses who tossed them out like Scrooge after his epiphany — even, in one case, at an apparel factory in Vietnam. Price was cheered at the Aspen Ideas Festival and got an offer from The Apprentice reality-show impresario Mark Burnett to be the new Donald Trump on a show called Billion Dollar Startup. Gravity was inundated with résumés — 4,500 in the first week alone — including one from a high-powered 52-year-old Yahoo executive named Tammi Kroll, who was so inspired by Price that she quit her job and in September went to work for Gravity at what she insisted would be an 80-85 percent pay cut. “I spent many years chasing the money,” she says. “Now I’m looking for something fun and meaningful.”
The piece Keegan was writing about during his correspondences with Sherman was not as glowing. All wasn’t well in liberal wonderland, and Keegan was in full damage control mode over new revelations made by Bloomberg Businessweek that his pay increases to staff weren’t so altruistically motivated as Keegan’s original cover piece on Inc. magazine would suggest.
The Bloomberg piece’s title noted that Price “has something to hide,” before walking through how mounting evidence suggests that Price only did this pay raise scheme as a way to avoid liquidation amid a legal battle with his brother. The Bloomberg piece proceeds to absolutely eviscerate the glowing image that many in the mainstream media—including most notably Keegan on the Inc. cover—crafted around Price.
So what Keegan was so busy doing that he couldn’t talk with Sherman that week about was writing a follow-up story for Inc. in which he doubles down on his original claims and argues in the headline that Price is “being unfairly accused” of having an “ulterior motive” for the liberal pay increases at Gravity Payments for which evidence “doesn’t add up.”
“(As we all know, media publicity is a double-edged sword),” Keegan told Sherman at the end of that email on Dec. 4 at 4:52 p.m.
“Sounds good. The sooner, the better. We are kicking around ideas for the competition to find a unique angle and I really wanted to get you involved,” Sherman replied less than an hour late that Friday evening.
The following Monday afternoon, Dec. 7, things started moving along just fine again.
“Are you able to discuss this soon?” Sherman wrote to Keegan shortly after 3 p.m.
“Yes, I’m free this afternoon until 5 pm, and the rest of the week looks fairly open,” Keegan replied moments later. “A standard non-compete is fine.”
“Awesome! Before we talk, will you take a look and let me know if the rate works? I’m also happy to help you in any way I can,” Sherman wrote back with a link to his standard non-compete agreement three minutes after that.
A little more than a half hour after that, Keegan changed his tune entirely. He discovered that Sherman is a Trump supporter, and he’s opposed to Trump’s candidacy for the presidency. The official support that Sherman has offered for Trump’s campaign relates back to an Oct. 8, 2015, press release circulated on PR Newswire, a business press wire:
“Calling themselves ‘the silent majority,’ this group of entrepreneurs, friends and family members came together to fundraise through a Kickstarter campaign selling official, limited edition #TrumpYourVote Tees,” the press release as captured on Reuters reads. “Proceeds will be used to fund a commercial and national advertising campaign supporting Trump for President.
Michael Sherman, founder of 25K Startups and organizer of the campaign, stated that he personally will be matching some of the contributions and putting out-of-pocket dollars into airing the final commercial regardless of their fundraising goals being met. Depending on the level of traction, he said, ‘I’d like to rent trucks, wrap them in our brand, and bring our #TrumpYourVote T-shirts and message to key states across America.’ Sherman added, ‘The final video for this campaign will be a compilation of videos that are submitted by the individual supporters and they will aim to air on YouTube, Fox News, CNN and local stations in Iowa, Florida, New Hampshire, etc.’”
That clearly sent Keegan from being a willing consultant for Sherman to going haywire.
“Hi Michael, I just did a little more due diligence. With all due respect, I have to say that I’m more than a little turned off by your support for Donald Trump. Also not clear how 25k Startups is related to Trump,” Keegan wrote to Sherman on Dec. 7 at 3:48 p.m.
Sherman replied seven minutes later by laying out how his business has nothing to do with his Trump support.
“I appreciate and respective your opinion on politics,” Sherman wrote back to Keegan. “Personally, I don’t mix business with my personal perspective or feelings on life, religion or politics. I wouldn’t ask you to participate in anything you weren’t comfortable with. What I am asking for your help on will have nothing to do with politics. I understand either way. Let me know.”
“Thanks for your reply, Michael,” Keegan wrote back 14 minutes later. “Can you explain the relationship of 25k Startups to Donald Trump or his presidential campaign?”
“There is no relationship, someone wanted to support him and asked for my help so I took it under my wing. Nothing more,” Sherman replied.
Twenty minutes after that, Keegan replied with one of the biggest admissions he’s a liberal yet—and criticized Trump as a “dangerous demagogue.” He also argued there is no separation between a person’s business and personal lives, something that would later come back to haunt him.
“Thanks for tolerating, if perhaps not completely understanding, my concern,” Keegan wrote to Sherman.
I just finished writing a book with Kip Tindell of The Container Store who disputes the notion that our business and personal lives are separate entities, arguing that the values of your personal life should be the same values as your business life. I agree with this. We are each one human being, not two. To my mind, Donald Trump is a dangerous demagogue – he would be merely an amusing curiosity if he didn’t have the support of a significant portion of the electorate – and I would not want to aid his candidacy in any way. To be frank, your support of Trump brings up a whole host of questions about who you are – and we only know each other through a few brief email exchanges. Perhaps if we met in person, or got to know each other more gradually, I’d feel more at ease. But I am really having trouble with this.
Sherman responded three minutes later with what seemed to be an end to their plans to work together.
“You sound like a guy with real values and I wouldn’t want to make you feel as if you were compromising on those values,” Sherman wrote. “Thanks for your time, Paul, and I mean that.”
In response, a few minutes later, Keegan thanked Sherman for understanding—and threw in one last dig against Trump. “Thanks for understanding, Michael. Wishing you the best of luck in everything – except for that candidate of yours!”
A few days later, Sherman followed back up with Keegan.
“Paul, I actually wanted to circle back on this one time. When we first spoke, you said you could help out with ideas/creative angles for guest posts and ideas/angles to gain serious media placements and stories? Is that right?” Sherman wrote, trying one more bite at the apple.
Then, in response, Keegan told Sherman he wanted to write a story about him losing business because of his support for Trump—even though he’s actually the one who cut off a budding business relationship with Sherman.
“What I’d really like to do is write a story about whether an entrepreneur like you has second thoughts about his support for Trump when the candidate takes extreme positions like proposing to ban Muslims from the United States,” Keegan said. “We’ve heard about how big companies like NBC and developers in Dubai have cancelled deals with Trump after his incendiary statements but wonder whether his positions have cost him financial support closer to the grass-roots level. Have other people declined to work with you because of your association with Trump or am I an outlier?”
“Let me know if you do the story, I am happy to share,” Sherman replied. “You are not the only one to express a concern.”
“Thanks, I’ll run the idea past my editors and let you know if I get any nibbles,” Keegan followed up.
Then, Sherman asked Keegan if he could have a separate business relationship on media consulting with Keegan.
“Sounds good,” Sherman wrote to Keegan. “In the meantime, you wouldn’t allow me to compensate you for proposing creative headlines here and there related to our projects?”
Keegan said it would be a “conflict of interest” if he did that—and that he’s “having trouble” with the fact Sherman backs Trump for president.
“Well, if I did that, it would be a conflict of interest to write about you (my employer), so it would have to be one or the other, and I’m still having trouble with the Trump connection, especially since I haven’t even met you or even spoken by phone,” Keegan replied. “And I’m really swamped now, unable to do either unless I get the assignment we just talked about.”
That’s the final email between Sherman and Keegan, as obtained by Breitbart News. It’s unclear if there was any more communication between the two of them. But when pressed by Breitbart News on why it’s okay for Keegan—who presents himself to the public as a journalist—to literally make business and editorial decisions based on which candidates for public office he supports or doesn’t support, he replied by first recapping the situation as Breitbart News has done here. But then he said the fact that Breitbart News has obtained these emails makes his concerns about Sherman valid.
“The fact that you have obtained private emails sent to Michael – and that he has not responded to my query today about how that might have happened – makes me believe that my instinct to back away from working with him was correct,” Keegan told Breitbart News.
When pressed further in follow-up emails, Keegan insisted that his decision was made as a business consultant—not as a journalist.
“I wasn’t backing away from him as a journalist – he wanted to hire me as a consultant, which is an entirely different proposition,” Keegan told Breitbart News. “The way a free market works is that I’m free to work for whomever I choose, for whatever reasons I may have.”
When his quote to Sherman about his recent book with The Container Store’s Kip Tindell was read back to him—in which Keegan insisted that a person’s business life and personal life should have the “same values”—Keegan told Breitbart News that that also applies to him, but still insisted that he didn’t break those principles here.
“Sure, that applies to me, too,” Keegan said.
That’s why I’d never write a glowing profile of Donald Trump. Being a freelance magazine writer means lousy pay and no benefits. But It gives me the freedom to write the stories I want to write. I’d be a lousy choice to cover the Republican primaries for a mainstream news outlet but a good choice for longer magazine pieces that allow greater leeway for writers to express their point of view after a rigorous examination of the facts.
What’s perhaps most interesting about this whole situation is that just a couple weeks later, right before Christmas, another business press journalist with Forbes Magazine did exactly the same thing Keegan did: Cut off plans to work with Sherman’s company because of Sherman’s support for Trump.
On the afternoon of Dec. 21, Chelsea Gilbert—one of Sherman’s employees at 25K Startups—sent an email to Amy Guttman, a contributing writer to Forbes.
“Hi Amy, I have something that I think is right up your alley for Forbes. Can I send it your way?” Gilbert wrote.
“Sure, Chelsea,” Guttman replied moments later.
Later that evening, Gilbert sent Guttman the beginnings of a story pitch.
“Many thanks! I did some research before contacting you hoping one of these headlines would catch your eye. Please let me know? Three ideas below,” Gilbert wrote before listing out the story ideas.
“News – Incubator funds $200,000 innovation program to buy great ideas,” the first idea read before she listed out the others. “Feature – Startup Founders: How to Build a Rockstar Advisory Board. Guest Post – 5 Industries/Niches/Verticals Ripe for Innovation in 2016 Key Contributors – Michael Sherman and another founder from our incubator program will weigh in with exclusive contributions.”
In response, Guttman said she was “definitely interested.”
“I’m definitely interested. I’m based in London and am currently visiting family in the US, so am on email very intermittently,” Guttman replied. “Can you send me some info about 25K Startups? Thanks for taking the time to send relevant headline pitches – it really makes a difference!”
Everything was going well—all until Guttman figured out that Sherman supports Trump for president.
Two days later, on the morning of Wednesday Dec. 23, Guttman emailed Gilbert to explain why she had to back out of her previous plans to cover these stories: Sherman was supporting Trump, a “highly controversial and alienating candidate.”
“I’ve had a chance to check out 25k startups and am afraid I will have to pass on this. I don’t involve politics in my editorial, and can not risk association with a highly controversial and alienating candidate, which will no doubt be raised in comments by my readers,” Guttman wrote. “Thanks again for your ideas and I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
Gilbert followed up, baffled that a journalist would behave like this since she wasn’t really involved in dealing with media before.
“I’m a bit new to this so I just want to make sure I fully understand,” Gilbert asked Guttman.
You seemed very interested in doing a story with us completely unrelated to politics — it was about the funding of an entrepreneurial innovation program and another on how to build a rockstar advisory board for your startup. Are you saying that you will never write anything about us, no matter how great or newsworthy a story we have, on the basis that we worked on an unrelated project in which your (and your readers) political views may differ?
Guttman replied by telling Gilbert that doing a story on 25K Startups would damage her “brand” as a journalist because of Sherman’s support for Trump.
“I did not say never – I am saying that despite the fact this is not about politics, your founder is very politically active and vocal in his support of a figure who is highly controversial, divisive and alienating,” Guttman wrote back to Gilbert.
I have not shared with you my personal view, nor does it have anything to do with my decision not to feature an interview or story with Michael Sherman. What has influenced my decision is the fact that doing so would almost certainly create backlash against my site, content, and essentially, my brand. I simply don’t want to professionally associate myself with such a controversial figure in any way, which is what doing a story about 25K Startups now would mean. I have no idea about further down the line and can not possibly look into the future.
Guttman told Breitbart News when confronted about the emails that she technically isn’t a Forbes staffer—she’s only a contributor—so she couldn’t comment.
“I am unable to comment as I am not a Forbes staffer,” she said, referring Breitbart News to her editor.
Her editor Loren Feldman also wouldn’t comment, but connected Breitbart News with the public relations department.
“Ms. Guttman is a freelance contributor to the Forbes.com Entrepreneurs Channel – one of about 150 freelance contributors to this channel. She does not write for Forbes magazine,” Mia Carbonell, a Forbes Media Corporate Communications spokesperson said. “She made the decision herself not to proceed with the story, which is her prerogative.”
When pressed on after this decision whether Guttman will be allowed to continue to contribute to Forbes—now that it’s clear Guttman makes editorial decisions based on which candidates for public office she likes or doesn’t like—Carbonell wouldn’t answer yes or no.
“Ms. Guttman made the decision herself not to proceed with the story, which is her prerogative,” she replied again.
After going through this enormous ordeal, Sherman told Breitbart News his support for Trump remains unwavering.
“Regarding Trump — the man is an icon,” Sherman said.
He appears to stick his foot in his mouth occasionally but he’s, unapologetically, a straight shooter and there’s nothing wrong with that. In my opinion, the consequences of not saying what needs to be said are far worse than pissing off a few people. He seems to get it as a candidate, the state our country is in, and simply wants to make us whole again as best he can, and I think he’s the only one that might actually do it.
Sherman added that the level of bias in the mainstream media—which he called “extreme”—is so bad that people don’t even realize it.
“As for the extreme level of bias that’s occurring in the mainstream media, it’s really sad. You know, when you hear Trump talk about it on TV, you almost disregard it as something that couldn’t possibly effect the average person,” Sherman said.
You might think that – but when several journalists refuse to do business with you or publish a story about how you’re trying to do some good in the business community, soley based on their political preference and fear of backlash from their readership, the reality of what’s happening in the world really sinks in, and it’s not only scary, but completely unbelievable. It’s disturbing on so many levels — I thought journalists were beholden to an unbiased/non-judgmental stance to cover news.