The Republican operative behind Big Sky Headlines has some funny ideas about journalism 

The political operative behind a Montana online news startup says the website isn't a platform to push his right-wing agenda, but you wouldn't know it from reading Big Sky Headlines.

While hardly a household name to Montanans, Jake Eaton for the past decade has been one of the people who greases the gears of the Republican Party's campaign apparatus. He's best remembered for an attempt, while Party executive director*, to challenge the voter registration of 6,000 residents in left-leaning counties during the run-up to the 2008 election. A federal judge mocked the effort as "political chicanery" and Eaton resigned a week later.

Eaton later emerged in the backrooms of partisan politics. He created a political consulting firm and purchased the Billings print shop AlphaGraphics. In 2016, he was treasurer of an independent group that spent $283,000 to attack state Supreme Court candidate Dirk Sandefur as soft on child pornographers, rapists and satanic child abusers. About $12,000 of that money went to Eaton's consulting company.

While running the "Stop Set 'Em Free Sandefur" committee, Eaton also launched a digital media business, Big Sky Headlines, to cover statewide political and business news. Eaton envisions the platform as an alternative to the larger corporate-owned outlets that dominate the Montana market. Big Sky Headlines began life by publishing links to those companies' stories, but in the last few months has begun to post original reports as well. Unlike other regional media outlets, Eaton's company aims to "provide a truly statewide news and information source rather than focus primarily on one local geography."

That's publisher lingo, not partisan plotting, which is how Eaton says Big Sky Headlines and parent company Big Sky Broadcasting will operate. His ambition, he says, isn't to provide news with a conservative bent (at least "no more so than Lee Enterprises has the liberal agenda") or to promote his political clients and causes.

"We're trying to build a legitimate alternative news source," he says.

Big Sky Headlines shares one trait, though, that's more closely associated with the attack mailers Eaton is accustomed to producing: It's difficult to know who's publishing it. Big Sky Headlines does not identify a single individual associated with the publication. The company's founders are described only as a "group of young entrepreneurs," while stories are published under an anonymous "staff" byline. Only by looking up the corporate filing with the Montana Secretary of State's office can readers learn of Eaton's involvement.

Big Sky Headlines is run by Jake Eaton, a former state Republican Party chairman who also owns a political consulting business and print shop. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JAKE EATON
  • photo courtesy of Jake Eaton
  • Big Sky Headlines is run by Jake Eaton, a former state Republican Party chairman who also owns a political consulting business and print shop.

The site's opacity raises red flags for Lee Banville, an associate journalism professor at the University of Montana who specializes in media ethics and politics. While partisan-funded news has a long tradition, such organizations rely on transparency and editorial firewalls to maintain credibility. Banville says those safeguards are especially important when a backer such as Eaton is simultaneously consulting for candidates and issues that the news organization would be expected to write about.

Eaton says the fledgling site is still looking to hire a permanent publisher and staff, whose names will be posted online and who will manage editorial decisions. He identified himself as an investor and board member of the parent company while serving as "managing director" for the site itself.

"It's not exactly a big secret that I'm involved in this project," he says, adding that "we've been talking about it in political circles for a while now." Eaton declined to identify other partners or board members associated with the company. According to secretary of state filings, the company's other principal is Tyler Schott, the former executive director of the dark money group Montana Growth Network.

The one place Eaton's name does appear on the Big Sky Headlines website is as a source in a recent article. The site reported last month on a lawsuit filed by Democrats to keep Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl in office (see "When is Motl's job done?" Dec. 29). The article identifies Eaton only as a "Republican political consultant" and quotes him describing the suit, in an echo of Eaton's own legal embarrassment, as "political chicanery." The article's anonymous author goes on to describe Motl's tenure as a "mostly one-sided affair" against Republicans, then lists allegations against Motl contained in a different lawsuit—one filed by Eaton.

The Motl article illustrates how easily a media outlet owned by a partisan operative can function as a Trojan horse for its owner's larger political machinations when conflicts of interest aren't disclosed. "The assumption should be it's a purchased piece of political communication until they prove it's not," Banville says.

Eaton says the article was written by a freelance reporter, and that his involvement in the story didn't extend beyond providing requested quotes. Still, he says, his relationship to the website should "probably" have been disclosed. "It's barely a month in," he says. "There's going to be some mistakes."

Asked whether the site would append a disclosure note to the Motl story, Eaton said he would "probably" consult the rest of the company's board for an opinion. As of press time, the article had not been updated.

*This story has been corrected to accurately describe Eaton's position within the Montana Republican Party in 2008.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Fine print"

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