In the runup to the 2020 election, a small news organization saw an opportunity.
The Epoch Times directed millions of dollars in advertising toward supporting President Donald Trump’s campaign and published dozens of articles parroting his lies about the election — resulting in huge growth to its audience and its coffers.
The strategy garnered criticism from fact-checking groups and got it banned from advertising on Facebook, but it ultimately paid off — putting the once-fringe newspaper on a path that perhaps only its leader, who claims to have supernatural powers, could have foreseen.
Today, The Epoch Times is one of the country’s most successful and influential conservative news organizations. It’s powered by Falun Gong, a religious group persecuted in China, which launched The Epoch Times as a free propaganda newsletter more than two decades ago to oppose the Chinese Communist Party.
Funded through aggressive online and real-world marketing campaigns and big-money conservative donors, The Epoch Times now boasts to be the country’s fourth-largest newspaper by subscriber count. (Unlike most major newspapers, The Epoch Times isn’t audited by the two major independent collectors of circulation data.) The nonprofit has amassed a fortune, growing its revenue by a staggering 685% in two years, to $122 million in 2021, according to the group’s most recent tax records.
Its editorial vision — fueled by a right-wing slant and conspiracy theories — is on display in recent reports on how “Jan. 6 Capitol Hill Security Footage Challenges Key Narratives” and “Meteorologists, Scientists Explain Why There Is ‘No Climate Emergency.’” Its video series include a documentary-style film alleging widespread vaccine injury and death and an exposé of an alleged world government agenda to harm farmers, cull the population and force survivors to eat bugs.
What The Epoch Times lacks in standards, it makes up for in style and form, mirroring the aesthetics of journalism — a feature that’s attracted subscribers and big-name supporters.
Anti-vaccine activist and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. calls The Epoch Times a daily read, among his most trusted news sources. “They have a real bias against China, but on other reporting, they’re very courageous and it’s real journalism,” Kennedy said in an interview with NBC News this summer.
In July, Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., recited the history of The Epoch Times into the congressional record. “This is all about one word: freedom,” Norman said.
The Epoch Times has yet to throw its weight behind a candidate for 2024, but heading into the election cycle, it is moving into new and bigger office spaces and production studios in California, hiring mainstream news veterans who are not affiliated with Falun Gong, and revving up an ad-buying blitz.
“They achieved the goal,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based Republican strategist hired by The Epoch Times in 2018 to open doors to conservative politicians and players. Steinhauser said that a series of interviews and introductions with politicians and media figures at that year’s Conservative Political Action Conference offered access to a wider conservative audience. The Epoch Times was a “supporting sponsor” for this year’s conference.
“They take advantage of every opportunity,” Steinhauser, who is not currently working for The Epoch Times, continued. “They studied digital marketing. They learned how to work the system. And they did it. They’re smarter than people give them credit for, and they’ve got the money to back it up.”
As a nonprofit, The Epoch Times is exempt from most federal taxes. Its mission, according to tax filings, is independent journalism, “outside of political interests and the pursuit of profit, for the public benefit and to be truly responsible to society.”
Neither the chairman nor the editor-in-chief of The Epoch Times returned multiple requests for comment. Representatives for The Epoch Times have previously defended it against critical reporting, labeling reports of the paper’s conservative mission, and its penchant for misinformation, “smears.”
Epoch Times representatives also deny an affiliation with Falun Gong, despite the two groups’ clear financial and organizational ties: The Epoch Times board members and most staff are Falun Gong practitioners. The nonprofits behind The Epoch Times and Friends of Falun Gong, the movement’s advocacy organization, share executives and provide grants and services to each other, according to tax filings. And the newspaper, along with a digital production company and the heavily advertised dance troupe Shen Yun, make up a nonprofit network that the leader of the religious movement calls “our media.”
In 2009, Li Hongzhi came to speak to his followers, volunteers who worked at The Epoch Times’ offices in Manhattan. Li’s instructions for the group were simple. They needed to reach people outside of the Falun Gong religious community. And they needed to make money. A lot of it.
“Ensure that the paper gains a foothold in ordinary society and turns profitable,” Li said.
Falun Gong — or Falun Dafa, as some followers call it — is a kind of personal development movement started by Li in China in 1992. It combines tenets of Buddhism and Taoism, and followers practice with meditation and flowing breath and movement exercises, and by studying Li’s teachings.
To his followers, Li is a God-like figure who can levitate, walk through walls and see into the future. His ultra-conservative and controversial teachings include a rejection of modern science, art and medicine, and a denunciation of homosexuality, feminism and general worldliness.
In 1999, after thousands of Li’s followers silently protested its repression in Beijing, China banned it altogether. Labeling it a cult, the Chinese government confiscated Falun Gong books, blocked websites, closed teaching centers and arrested practitioners. Human rights groups reported a brutal crackdown: Some adherents were sent to labor camps; others were tortured and killed.
International human rights organizations condemned China’s attempted eradication. In the U.S., where Li and some of his practitioners had fled, a new collection of followers organized a campaign to raise awareness and sympathy with parades, demonstrations and pamphlets that touted the benefits of Falun Gong and the brutality of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Epoch Times was born out of that leafleting campaign. Started in Georgia in 2000 by John Tang, a Falun Gong practitioner who remains its CEO, in essence it was a Chinese-language public relations newsletter. The group’s long-term goals were ambitious: to expose the Chinese Communist Party and to save the world in a supernatural war against communism.
Through the early aughts, The Epoch Times grew from an online effort to a weekly physical newspaper, with a home base in New York and a TV production company, New Tang Dynasty Television. It raised money from followers and was staffed by unpaid volunteers. It ran aggregated articles on international issues from Voice of America next to Thanksgiving Day explainers, dispatches from Falun Gong parades, and exposés on atrocities alleged to have been committed by the Chinese Communist Party.
By 2019, it had gone mostly digital and was spending millions of dollars on creating a network of Facebook pages and groups and running aggressive pro-Trump ad campaigns. The move toward explicit support of Republicans, despite Li’s teachings to stay away from U.S. politics, was foreshadowed by Li’s comments at a Falun Gong conference a year before.
Li said that Falun Gong’s media ought to put a “constructive” spin on the news, to advance the group’s aims. It wasn’t wrong, he said, to favorably cover a politician who shared Falun Gong’s conservative values and whose goals aligned with their own.
“If someone comes along now who can help to halt the downward spiral that the world is in, then he is truly someone extraordinary!” Li said. “He would in effect be helping us! Wouldn’t he be helping us to save people?”
The Epoch Times also employed a tactic more often associated with fake news content farms and scammers than news organizations, creating a network of inspiring and cute-content pages and fake accounts to inflate The Epoch Times’ reach.
In 2019, following reporting by NBC News, Facebook found that The Epoch Times had “leveraged foreign actors posing as Americans to push political content” and banned it from future advertising, citing a violation of policies, including trying to circumvent review systems.
Undeterred, The Epoch Times pivoted to video, specifically YouTube, spending millions on internet-infamous ads featuring Roman Balmakov, a former Epoch Times delivery person who now hosts the online show Facts Matter. In the ads, Balmakov rails against the mainstream media, communism and the persecution of Trump.
The Epoch Times also revisited a tried-and-true strategy that the original anti-communism newspaper had been built on — free physical copies. Instead of boxes on street corners, this time The Epoch Times printed and distributed unsolicited special editions of the paper from California to the Carolinas to the U.K. In Philadelphia alone in 2020, the company mailed 280,000 free copies of its newspaper, “to increase subscription,” according to tax documents.
The aggressive online and real-life marketing campaigns paid off. The group reported $76 million in subscription revenue in 2021, compared to nearly $7 million in 2019. A former employee of a regional Epoch Times operation who asked not to be identified because he feared retribution said that in order to send the papers to the most likely customers, they bought lists of addresses from data brokers, specifically for conservatives aged 60 and over. And many of the new subscribers are seniors, according to an employee’s account shared at a Falun Gong conference.
But hundreds of online complaints suggest that not all of the new customers are satisfied.
“I’ve had the terrible misfortune of being subscribed to the Epoch Times without my consent,” one reads. Another says: “I want to stop receiving Epoch Times emails. That is all I want.”
As The Epoch Times’ marketing strategy shifted, so did the content — and by 2020, it became a megaphone for the U.S.’s most extreme right-wing stories.
There was plenty to write about: An election marred by disinformation, the bubbling culture wars and, most helpful for a media company missioned with ending the Chinese Communist Party, a pandemic originating from China provided endless opportunities for takes that aligned with hawkish conservatives and conspiracy theorists.
The Epoch Times was early to lay blame on China for Covid — labeling it the “CCP Virus” in its coverage. (The origin of the outbreak is unknown; the best evidence still points to natural transmission from an animal market.) China’s documented handling of the virus, including withholding information from researchers, a crackdown on whistleblowers and an authoritarian public health response, added credibility to The Epoch Times’ unproven claims.
“The dynamic for The Epoch Times changed in 2020, partly because of their criticism of China around Covid,” said A.J. Bauer, an assistant journalism professor at the University of Alabama who studies conservative media. “An entire new kind of ecosystem of Covid deniers and skeptics overlapped with right-wing media and were citing and drawing heavily upon The Epoch Times.”
The Epoch Times’ subscription page began hosting glowing testimonials from Steve Bannon, Glenn Beck and the far-right Arizona congressman Paul Gosar. The organization became a reliable source for misinformation around Covid, its treatments and the vaccines.
The Epoch Times was also an early and aggressive promoter of election misinformation, according to the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of researchers that documented misinformation and the 2020 vote. The group cited the news organization as a “repeat spreader” of false and misleading voter fraud stories as well as a major promoter of debunked conspiracy theories around Dominion voting machines and the “Stop the Steal” movement, aimed at overturning the election results. Months after the election, The Epoch Times refused to acknowledge the results.
With the new bedfellows came a new revenue stream. Though Falun Gong practitioners had been a reliable source of small donations in previous years, in 2020 the group started to receive gifts and grants from big money conservative donors.
While The Epoch Times is not required to list its donors, it reported $8.4 million in revenue from contributions and grants in 2020 and 2021. Tax documents from that period filed by scores of donors, accessed through ProPublica’s nonprofit explorer, show some of those funds came from conservative donors and foundations.
In 2021, The Epoch Times received $55,750 from the National Christian Charitable Foundation, which connects anonymous donors with Christian causes, and $31,000 from Donors Trust, a fund for conservative and libertarian donors. Smaller donations came from individuals — real estate agents, investors and surgeons among them — and small family foundations, most of which support right-wing causes, including evangelical Christian groups, anti-vaccine groups and far-right media organizations.
Most of the donors contacted by NBC News did not respond to interview requests; two declined.
The Epoch Times is pouring its revenue back into its own organization and others connected to the Falun Gong religious movement.
In the first half of this year, The Epoch Times spent 65% more on ads than in the first six months of 2022, with about half of its budget going to the X platform, formerly Twitter, according to the market intelligence firm Sensor Tower. Other recent ad buys were made on the right-wing sites Drudge Report, Breitbart and Rumble.
The Epoch Times paid a company called Data Managing Corporation $2.7 million for advertising services in 2021, according to tax documents. The company’s listed address is a single-family home in New Jersey owned by a reporter for The Epoch Times, who did not return requests for comment.
In addition to running its business, The Epoch Times provided about $30 million in grants to its own affiliates and connected organizations in 2021, including $10.4 million to the dance troupe Shen Yun, and $8.3 million to New Tang Dynasty, which produces videos.
The three groups, united under the Falun Gong religious movement, made up a nearly quarter-billion dollar industry in 2021, according to tax documents. Li holds that the Falun Gong messages, shared in articles, videos and dance performances, will result in the salvation of humankind as the end of the world nears.
Despite its massive war chest, conservative partnerships and clear right-wing leanings, in many respects, The Epoch Times has never looked more like a legitimate news source.
Its glossy website and physical paper are emblazoned with its name in serif font, and wire service articles sit beside Epoch Times originals.
The hard news and political coverage is bylined by a mix of longtime Falun Gong followers with no discernible journalism training, early career reporters, some with experience at right-wing websites — and in the last year, a handful of more accomplished journalists, who come with resumés that span decades at mainstream publications.
Among them, Darlene McCormick Sanchez, a former journalist at the Waco Tribune-Herald and a Pulitzer finalist in the 1990s for her reporting on David Koresh. Sanchez now tackles the culture wars and LGBTQ topics at The Epoch Times; a recent report was headlined, “The Sinister Theory Behind the Q in LGBTQ.”
Beth Brelje, a former executive editor of a daily covering Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, now writes about state politics for The Epoch Times. Her recent stories include sympathetic profiles of anti-abortion activists federally charged with blocking access to abortion facilities and a Hershey employee who refused to comply with the company’s vaccination requirement.
Janice Hisle, a former award-winning crime reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer, is covering Trump’s 2024 campaign. On Facebook, Hisle has been critical of the media and spread a conspiracy theory about Jan. 6, posting to a local radio station’s Facebook group, “FYI ANTIFA INSTIGATED VIOLENCE, not Trump supporters.”
The three journalists didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The news coverage is paired with Goopish articles like “Get Passionate About Passion Fruit” and “Pregnant Nurse With Terminal Cancer Refuses Chemo and Abortion, Lives on to Give Birth, Seeks Alternative Treatment,” written by international freelancers.
Its opinion section spans nearly the same length as news, and hosts right-wing points of view, from conservative authors, libertarian think tank fellows, political columnists and professional conspiracy theorists.
According to NewsGuard, a nonpartisan company that rates the credibility of news sites, both The Epoch Times news and opinion articles “frequently include distorted, misleading, or unsubstantiated claims.”
But that’s not how many readers see it. In 2020, AllSides, a media literacy company that rates the political biases of news organizations, revised its rating for The Epoch Times, marking it only “moderately conservative” after surveys reported people consistently considered it to be in the “center” of the political spectrum.
“The Epoch Times is a comment on how much credibility is put in things with the right look and feel. Things like naming, branding and headlines,” said Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University. “The forms and formats of news are there. But the actual goods are not.”
Rosen called The Epoch Times a sign of the times — one in which the public sphere is fractured and conservative media is ready to offer alternate realities.
“More and more, especially for the right-wing populists around the world, people approach truth and reality from the demand side,” Rosen said. “When there is the demand for something to be true, these media properties go out and meet it.”
The demand is clear. In January, at the height of its traffic, the Epoch Digital Network, which includes The Epoch Times and its video sharing website, Youmaker, clocked a little under 10 million unique viewers, placing it 78th on Comscore’s ranking of news and information websites. Though its metrics fall far short of legacy media organizations, The Epoch Times generally outperformed its conservative peers, including Newsmax and The Daily Caller.
And the media organization is expanding. Late last year, The Epoch Times signed a lease for a new 26,680-square-foot office space in Irvine, California, and it is advertising jobs for experienced journalists to work remotely, offering salaries of $40,000 to $72,000 a year.
Internationally, the media outlet also continues to grow, hiring in Canada, Sweden, Norway and other European countries where it is cementing itself as a trusted source among the global far-right.
Job boards show positions for reporters, producers, television writers, event managers and more — reflecting an expanded offering beyond newspapers. Backpage ads in the physical copy of The Epoch Times enumerate the possibilities: internet shows, podcasts, weekly magazines and documentaries.
“In today’s world of misinformation and media bias, how much is accurate, unbiased news worth to you and your family?” ads ask.
“You can’t put a price on truth.”
Source: NBC News