WASHINGTON — It has headlines and bylines, an original story 834 words long, and links to 10 articles from other outlets concerning health policy and drug pricing in New Jersey. But readers expecting journalism from the upstart HealthNewsNJ.com may be in for a surprise: It’s fake news.
In reality, it’s a campaign site run by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who is facing a re-election challenge from Bob Hugin, the former CEO of the pharmaceutical company Celgene
The site, with the exception of a small-print disclosure at the bottom and a link to Menendez’s campaign website, does plenty to leave the impression it is a journalistic outlet and little to make clear it is a political messaging tool.
One post on the website, which runs below a byline crediting it to “HealthNewsNJ Staff,” is titled: “How greedy drug company CEO Bob Hugin gouged cancer patients and enabled Donald Trump.”
And on Facebook, the faux-news outlet’s page classifies itself as a “news and media website,” at no point acknowledging that it is associated with the Menendez campaign. Its nascent Twitter account, too, uses a line of attack centered on greed and price gouging, but does not acknowledge the site’s ties to the campaign.
Above a graph showcasing spiking prices for Revlimid, a cancer drug manufactured by Celgene (CELGZ), the site encourages visitors to subscribe for email updates. But after entering one’s name and email address and clicking “Sign Up,” the website redirects a user to a Menendez-branded page on ActBlue.com, a Democratic fundraising platform. The fundraising page again slams Hugin for Celgene price hikes and solicits cash in denominations ranging from $5 to $250.
Drug prices are already central to the New Jersey race. On Thursday, the independent advocacy group Patients for Affordable Drugs unveiled an attack ad that labels Hugin “the guy who made a killing,” slamming him for hiking the price of Revlimid while at Celgene’s helm.
Menendez’s campaign chairman, Michael Soliman, had paid to promote tweets criticizing Hugin’s past at Celgene, including one from May that read: “$18,546 per bottle. Bob Hugin jacked up the price of drugs for cancer patients three times in one year.”
Soliman, who did not immediately respond to STAT’s request for comment, is a New Jersey health consultant and a registered lobbyist in Washington. Among his clients: Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, and the government of Qatar.
In an email to STAT hours after the publication of this article, campaign spokesman Steven Sandberg pointed to a Thursday news release announcing the site’s launch, which he included in an email but had not been published on the senator’s campaign website. While he stressed that all of the information presented on the site was fact-based and came from credible news outlets, he did not address questions about whether the site intended to leave the impression it was a news outlet itself.
“It was all up front and the senator this morning was asked and spoke about it openly during a TV interview,” he wrote.
Even Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Menendez’s fellow Garden State senator, drew attention to the faux news site, tweeting a link to it Thursday evening and including only the message: “A very important read for New Jersey residents.” Neither his post nor that of Ravinder Bhalla, the mayor of Hoboken, N.J., mentioned the link’s ties to the campaign.
Menendez remains a heavy favorite in the race. He has led the few early polls conducted by wide margins, and multiple election analysts expect a Democratic victory. But he has been dogged for years by allegations of impropriety, including in a federal corruption trial. That case culminated in a hung jury in fall 2017, after he was indicted on corruption charges. Federal prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss all charges against Menendez in January.
Political figures or their campaigns have in a number of cases created campaign pages branded as news sites. President Trump’s reelection campaign in 2017 launched its “Real News Updates” following years of baselessly accusing media outlets of fabricating stories about his campaign and administration.
In 2015, as governor of Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence introduced but quickly backed off a plan for a news outlet to be run by state-employed communications staff.
And in February, Kelli Ward, a far-right candidate for the Republican Senate nomination in Arizona, touted a positive editorial from the Arizona Monitor — which later proved to be an anonymous blog.
Rebecca Robbins contributed reporting from San Francisco.
This story has been updated to include a comment from the Menendez campaign.