In April of 2017, a little less than four months after the inauguration of Republican Phil Scott, Vermont’s new governor got himself an internet “fan club.”
Initially branded as “The Phil Scott Fan Club,” the online video web series features club “co-chairs,” “Elizabeth” and “James,” sitting on a small couch in a nondescript living room, chronicling the tenure of their “favorite” politician.
The duo has gone on to post more than 60 online episodes.
And at first blush, it all sounds like a dream scenario for any politician: An outside group with reasonably sophisticated production skills, using its own money and time to pump out online videos that have in some cases racked up nearly 40,000 page views.
In fact, “Fan Club,” as the series now goes by, is one of Scott’s most public and persistent detractors.
For close to a year now, “Fan Club” has mocked Scott as a “RINO” — Republican In Name Only — and used satire and sarcasm to criticize the governor for adopting left-leaning stances on immigration, marijuana legalization, gun control and other hot-button policy issues.
The “Fan Club” videos are a product of a website called “News Done Right,” a pun that nods to its conservative ideological leanings. And the series frequently takes aim at another prominent Vermont politician — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
While the targets of “Fan Club” may be clear, the source of the attacks is not. It’s increasingly clear, however, that the source dislikes Scott’s politics and is working to galvanize opposition against him.
When Scott came out against President Donald Trump’s plan to enlist local police agencies in federal immigration enforcement, for example, “Fan Club” dubbed him a supporter of “sanctuary” states, saying he wanted to “fill in the population gap with illegal aliens who will then pick apples in Vermont with impunity.”
More recently, when Scott came out in favor of gun control measures, “Fan Club” posted a Facebook meme in which the governor was portrayed as a “gun grabber.”
The post has gone on to generate more than 400 responses, wherein commenters call Scott a “back-stabbing coward,” “sellout,” and gun-grabbing piece of s**t.”
There are no credits at the end of “Fan Club” episodes, nor has anyone taken responsibility for launching the site. Neither “Fan Club” nor “News Done Right” is registered with the Vermont Secretary of State, either as a business or a political action committee.
While efforts to unmask the forces behind “Fan Club” have yielded the identity of the Los Angeles-based actor who plays “Elizabeth,” the person or people responsible for producing “News Done Right” have thus far kept themselves hidden from public view.
The mysterious origins have raised the eyebrows of more than a few Vermonters.
VPR first began looking into who is funding the videos after Ian Hartman from Burlington posed a question to VPR’s podcast, Brave Little State.
He wrote that “from the divisive nature of the videos … the advertising budget and the level of anonymity surrounding the whole production, I get the impression that this is a well-polished political marketing campaign.”
Brave Little State question-asker Ian Hartman is not the only one curious about who is funding News Done Right. A Twitter exchange between Vermont satire site, The Winooski, and News Done Right on March 15, 2018, after an article in Seven Days identified the L.A.-based actress who plays Elizabeth in the Fan Club videos.Credit screenshot from TwitterEdit | Remove
“I’m curious who might be funding such a campaign, and what their motives might be for being so opaque,” Hartman wrote.
In the age of Russian troll farms and social media saboteurs, the provenance of online political attacks is, for Hartman and others, filled with new urgency.
As Seven Days’ Taylor Dobbs reported last month, Vermonters on Reddit have been working over the past year to uncover the creators of “Fan Club” and “News Done Right.”
As Seven Days also reported, at least one person has filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office, alleging that the “Fan Club” content runs afoul of Vermont laws governing electioneering communications.
Despite all that, the question of who’s using “Fan Club” to disparage Phil Scott on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms remains unanswered. Also unclear is perhaps the more important question: Why are they doing it?
Another internet video series that takes aim at Vermont politics, and politicians, has been more forthcoming about its origins.
Len Britton and Bradford Broyles are the founders of Public Spectacle Media, a production company, incorporated in Vermont, that infuses its content with decidedly right-of-center themes.
Britton now resides in Santa Monica, California, but Vermonters may remember him as the Republican candidate who challenged U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy in 2010.
Broyles, a resident of Mendon, Vermont, served as campaign manager for Britton’s unsuccessful run.
The show, according to Right & Funny Productions’ website, follows a “middle-class American family” that’s “trying to negotiate the choppy and ever-changing waters of today’s politically correct world.”
And it seeks to engage its audience, according to the website, “with a slightly right-of-center perspective.”
Britton and Broyles use their show as a vehicle to criticize their liberal adversaries.
One episode, for instance, is titled “The Grapes of Carbon Tax - Live From Bernie’s Backyard.”
Intended as a riff on the Steinbeck classic, the patriarch of the Potwin family, Nate Potwin, dreams of moving his family from Vermont to New Hampshire, to avoid the carbon tax he fears the Vermont Legislature will soon enact.
It isn’t Britton’s and Broyles’ only jab at Bernie Sanders.
Last December, the website Deadline reported that Public Spectacle Media planned to launch a reality show in which they’d follow Hollywood star Randy Quaid — now a resident of Vermont — in his bid to unseat Sanders.
Quaid dismissed rumors of the show as “fake news” on his Twitter account. But until very recently, Britton and Broyles were touting a “docs-sitcom reality show” on their Public Spectacle Media website, that would star Quaid-as-candidate, running against Sanders for the U.S. Senate in 2018.
Broyles declined to comment to VPR when news of the supposed show went public last December.
Broyles and Britton aren’t the only notable Vermonters affiliated with Public Spectacle Media.
The creator and executive producer of “The World According To Billy Potwin” is another name Vermonters might recognize — Lenore Broughton.
Broughton took the Vermont political world by storm in 2012 when she poured more than $1 million into a super PAC that worked to get Republican candidates elected to local House and Senate races.
It was an unprecedented expenditure at the time by a single donor in Vermont, and has not been duplicated since.
While it may not be clear who’s behind “Fan Club” and “News Done Right,” Broyles and Britton appear to have at least some familiarity with the outfit.
The namesake of “The World According to Billy Potwin,” played by Len Britton’s son, Jonah, once appeared on an unreleased episode of “Fan Club.”
The two-minute, eleven-second episode features Jonah Britton, appearing as his character, Billy Potwin. Seated between “Elizabeth” And “James,” Jonah Britton mocks the production quality of the “Fan Club” show before launching into a promotion of “The World According to Billy Potwin.”
“It’s about, me, my family, but the world keeps throwing us curve balls,” Jonah Britton says.
VPR discovered the unreleased “Fan Club” episode last month, on the video-sharing network Vimeo. The episode had fewer than 10 views on Vimeo before it was removed from the site.
But they also include collections titled “Fan Club Sizzle Reel,” and “Fan Club Shoot Last Saturday.” Those collections are “private” in Vimeo, and the videos contained therein are accessible only through a password.
In an email to Britton and Broyles, VPR asked a series of questions:
- Are one or both of you responsible for producing the News Done Right content?
- Has Lenore Broughton financed any aspect of the production of News Done Right?
- If not, who is bankrolling the project?
Neither Britton nor Broyles has responded. Lenore Broughton has also not responded to a request for comment.
While Fan Club’s sustained hits on Vermont’s governor may have prompted a complaint to the Attorney General’s office, it is unclear whether the material is subject to campaign finance regulations.
Under Vermont law, the freedom of speech becomes subject to regulation when that speech constitutes “electioneering communication.”
And under the law, electioneering is defined as “any communication that refers to a clearly identified candidate for office and that promotes or supports a candidate for that office or attacks or opposes a candidate for that office, regardless of whether the communication expressly advocates a vote for or against a candidate, including communications … broadcast on radio or television or over the Internet.”
Will Senning, director of elections and campaign finance at the Vermont Secretary of State’s office, says courts often have to make a judgment call when deciding whether speech constitutes “electioneering.”
“So your first question is always, ‘is the person that’s the subject of the communication a candidate for office?’ And then the statute requires that it attacks or opposes that candidate for office,” Senning said.
If an internet video is considered “electioneering,” then the law requires that it contain the name and mailing address of the person, candidate or political action committee that paid to have it broadcast.
While Gov. Phil Scott hasn’t formally announced a reelection campaign, he said in an interview with VPR’s Bob Kinzel recently: “I intend to run.”
And when he does, he may have a “Fan Club” jeering him on.
Disclosure: Bradford Broyles is an occasional VPR commentator.