With Northam Picture, Obscure Publication Plays Big Role in Virginia Politics

A racist photograph on the 1984 yearbook page of Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia.

An accusation of sexual assault against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.

Both reports — the first triggering an earthquake in Virginia politics last week, the second setting off an aftershock on Monday — were originally published by an obscure right-wing news site, Big League Politics, which has promoted conspiracy theories and written favorably about white nationalist candidates.

But as mainstream news outlets scrambled to confirm the photograph on Mr. Northam’s medical school yearbook page on Friday, it became clear that Big League Politics — and its mission of promoting the Trump agenda and nationalist causes — had assumed outsized influence in an increasingly Democratic state.

The website has dealt a severe blow to Mr. Northam, who first admitted to posing for the photograph, then reversed himself and has refused to resign despite enormous pressure from fellow Democrats in Virginia and around the nation, throwing his state’s politics into a crisis.

A cloud also now hangs over the head of Mr. Fairfax, who would succeed Mr. Northam if he resigns, after Big League Politics published unsubstantiated accusations that he sexually assaulted a woman he met at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

Big League Politics is a relatively new entry to the constellation of right-wing media outlets that sprung up during Donald Trump’s rise, and until the bombshell yearbook report, its readership had remained small.

Patrick Howley, the editor in chief, said he received the photograph showing a pair of figures in blackface and Ku Klux Klan robes from a “concerned citizen,” declining to add more details.

But one of Big League Politics’s owners, Noel Fritsch, described the source of the photograph as “some people who were classmates of Northam,” who brought it to light out of anger at the governor’s remarks early last week defending late-term abortions.

In its mission statement, Big League Politics purports to be “not conservative” and “not liberal,” but it has trafficked in conspiracy theories favored by the far right, like the case of Seth Rich, the Democratic National Committee staff member whose murder in Washington was falsely seized on by conservative commentators as linked to WikiLeaks.

And Mr. Fritsch, a North Carolina-based political consultant, has worked for Paul Nehlen, an anti-Semitic Wisconsin congressional candidate who challenged former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, and Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate accused of sexual misconduct with teenagers. Last year, Mr. Fritsch was fired as a top aide by Corey Stewart, the Republican senatorial nominee in Virginia, after reports of anti-Muslim comments he had made on social media, as well as saying Senator John McCain “sold all his comrades down the river” as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Mr. Howley, before hanging up his own agitprop shingle, had a rocky tour of duty at some of Washington’s leading conservative news organizations.

Provocation is a stock-in-trade for right-wing writers in Washington, but former colleagues said Mr. Howley’s behavior, in public tweets and private emails, went beyond mischief and into darker territory.

His tenure at The Daily Caller, then overseen by Tucker Carlson, was marred by a vicious online attack directed at a female reporter for BuzzFeed News; Mr. Howley later apologized.

Later, at Breitbart News, Mr. Howley earned colleagues’ ire when he questioned the credibility of Michelle Fields, a Breitbart reporter who said she was assaulted by Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, at a Florida rally.

Mr. Howley, 29, co-founded Big League Politics in 2017, after deciding that Breitbart, which had aggressively backed Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, had gone soft.

“They got very scared after Trump actually won, which I think the management was not expecting, out of concern for what people would think and toned things down for a while,” he said.

In an article in The Daily Caller in 2017, Mr. Howley called the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has claimed the Sandy Hook school massacre was faked, as “basically my Walter Cronkite now.’’

On Sunday night, Big League Politics was the first to publish the accusations the woman aimed at Mr. Fairfax, after they had been privately circulated by both Democrats and Republicans in Richmond, according to people who were sent a screen shot of a private Facebook post by the woman.

On Monday, The Washington Post said it had been aware of the accusation for more than a year, and had investigated but declined to publish a story because it could not corroborate the woman’s account or find people she had told about the alleged assault.

Mr. Howley defended running the story without trying to verify its truthfulness.

“The fact The Washington Post did not run that despite in other cases running things about Brett Kavanaugh and other people based on thinner sourcing is, I think, a dereliction of duty,” he said.

In an overnight response to the story, Mr. Fairfax’s office denied the woman’s accusation and added, “Tellingly, not one other reputable media outlet has seen fit to air this false claim.”

Mainstream Republican operatives said Big League Politics, and similar sites, are friendly places for candidates and campaigns to leak damaging research about political opponents without their fingerprints showing and without the kind of independent scrubbing done in the mainstream press.

“They don’t practice journalism in the traditional sense of trying to tell the story from both sides; they speak to their audience, which is far-right base conservatives and ethno-state types,” said a Republican consultant who has worked extensively in Virginia politics, and asked to remain anonymous to protect professional relationships.

Mr. Fritsch, who acquired an ownership interest in Big League Politics in 2018 with another North Carolina-based consultant, Reilly O’Neal, described the mission differently: “To rip off the mask of the corporate media,” he said, adding that “many conservative media, so-called conservative members of the media had evidence that was easily verifiable of Ralph Northam’s racism.”

In December, the site received about 550,000 unique visitors, a pittance in the world of online news. The site averaged about 500,000 readers in the last half of 2018, compared to an average of 7.4 million for Breitbart News, according to statistics from comScore.