When talk radio host Steve Deace invited Bob Eschliman to appear on his show the week before Christmas in 2014, so that he could “help an American patriot and his family who are in need,” Eschliman, the recently terminated editor-in-chief of the Newton Daily News who was preparing to spearhead a new conservative media website, chalked up his recent misfortune to the devil’s handiwork.
That April, Eschliman had made the fateful decision to condemn the Queen James Bible, a recent modification of the King James Bible with eight passages altered to be more gay-friendly. The “LGBTQXYZ crowd and the Gaystapo” were attempting “to make their sinful nature ‘right with God,’” Eschliman wrote on a personal blog he’d managed since before arriving at the Daily News in the summer of 2012. They exemplified the “deceivers” and “false prophets” who Jesus warned would cause “lawlessness [to] abound,” he said. “If you ask me, it sounds like the Gaystapo is well on its way. We must fight back against the enemy.”
The next day, the post took on a life of its own when Jim Romenesko, a popular media industry reporter with an eponymous blog that has a national audience, pointed readers to it.
“One way or another, the liberal blogger Jim Romenesko — he blogs about the media from a liberal perspective and by liberal I mean as far left as you can go,” Eschliman said. (“He’s a Marxist,” Deace cut in. “Pretty close, yeah.” “Okay.”) “He got wind of the blog post and decided to suggest that for writing that, I disqualified myself from being able to lead a newspaper newsroom operation.”
From there, Eschliman said, it was his understanding that Romenesko tipped off the Des Moines Register about the post (which is no longer online in either its original or archived form), encouraging the paper to do a story. “You would only do so if you assumed there were people there who would be friendly to his persuasion,” Deace responded, “because why wouldn’t you send it to [the conservative blog] RedState? You send it to someplace where he thought there’d be people friendly to his persuasion — even though they ostensibly pretend to be an objective news source, and we all know they are not.”
(In an email, Romenesko called the suggestion that he was a Marxist “hilarious” and said his blog post was routine: “I got a tip and wrote a fairly short post. I hardly conspired with anyone. And I never said [Eschliman] should disqualify himself as editor; I laid out the facts and let readers decide.”)
Whatever the case, the day after Romenesko’s post went live, Daily News publisher Dan Goetz summoned Eschliman into his office, informing the editor that he was being put on paid suspension indefinitely while the paper’s parent company, Dixon, Illinois-based Shaw Media, took a closer look at the blog post. In the meantime, according to a religious discrimination complaint Eschliman later filed, he was advised to take down his blog and forbidden to speak to reporters about his situation. It didn’t matter much: Just five days later, the complaint noted, Eschliman was called into another meeting with his employers, handed a severance agreement form (which he refused to sign, believing it “would severely limit my civil rights”), and fired without further explanation.
“I think the thing that people get caught up in is when you talk about who really is behind all this in the end, and between you and I, we know that’s Satan,” Eschliman told Deace.
“There’s a lot of folks that just don’t get that.”
The news site Eschliman would head, The Iowa Statesman, seemed well-positioned for success. The national media coverage over the fallout from his blog post branded him as a homophobe, but in other circles that was just another sign of the left’s encroachment on the religious liberties of social conservatives. With campaigning just around the corner for the 2016 Iowa caucuses, whose past two Republican winners were evangelicals endorsed by the state’s preeminent anti-gay marriage activist, Bob Vander Plaats, and no alternative news outlet catering to social conservatives, Eschliman’s martyr status made him a natural fit to fill the void at an opportune moment.
Eschliman was recruited for the position by Craig Bergman, a Des Moines-based political campaign consultant who founded the Statesman in 1999 as a printed, election-themed tabloid featuring a voter scorecard. Since then, with the exception of this year, he said, “I’ve printed one every election cycle. I mean, we’ve printed several million copies over the last 15 years.” Bergman registered theiowastatesman.com in 2012 to upgrade the “crappy, ugly, 2002-type website” he’d had online elsewhere, and said he’d been attempting to recruit Eschliman away from the Daily News to run the site long before his termination from the paper.
“The Iowa Republican is bought and paid for by the Iowa ethanol lobby.”
Another conservative activist, Cedar Falls resident Judd Saul, joined Bergman and Eschliman as one of the revamped Statesman’s three directors, as they are identified in the for-profit business application filed with the Secretary of State’s office. Saul, like Bergman, was attracted to the idea of establishing an alternative news source for conservatives that wasn’t connected to the establishment like The Iowa Republican, a news site rife with undisclosed conflicts of interest run by Craig Robinson, a political consultant and former political director of the Iowa GOP.
“The Iowa Republican is bought and paid for by the Iowa ethanol lobby,” Saul told the Informer before the Feb. 1 caucuses, criticizing the site’s ties to political operative Nick Ryan, whose presidential super PACs have funneled cash to Robinson’s direct mail company Global Intermediate LLC — a fact Robinson didn’t disclose in his posts about the caucuses. “Whatever Nick Ryan’s political project is up to, The Iowa Republican will automatically report against a particular candidate who’s not their guy,” Saul said. “That’s why Craig Robinson is unleashing on Ted Cruz right now.” (Robinson did not respond to requests for comment.)
On Jan. 5, the new Statesman launched with a welcome message that asked: “Are you tired of reading the news, knowing it’s been distorted, either by political propagandists or those who only serve as public relations firms for special interests diametrically opposed to your core values? Do you want to know what’s really going on in government and politics at the federal, state, and local levels?” It added a promise: “Beginning immediately, you will find an [sic] honest, dependable, and unbiased coverage — the unvarnished truth — in Iowa government and politics.”
Although “unbiased” was a relative term for the trio — they are unabashedly conservative, with their hands in all sorts of political causes and favoring the establishment-bucking Renewable Fuel Standard foe (and latest Iowa caucus winner backed by Vander Plaats) Ted Cruz for president — they had intriguing credentials, beyond just Eschliman’s nearly two-decade background in newspaper journalism.
A self-proclaimed “religion, politics, and culture expert,” Bergman runs the Robert Morris Group, a grassroots political consulting firm, named after one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, that represents “pro-life, pro-liberty, and pro-family conservatives.” In 2011, he served as state director for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign until he got into hot water for criticizing rival Mitt Romney’s faith as the “cult of Mormon.” Currently, he’s working as campaign manager for U.S. Senate candidate Alex Meluskey, who’s challenging John McCain in Arizona’s GOP primary this August.
Bergman also hosts America’s Wake Up Call, a nationally syndicated “Tea-Vangelical” radio talk show, and is president of Iowans for Fair Taxation, which advocates for replacing America’s income tax system with a national retail consumption tax.
Saul is a graduate of Full Sail University, a prominent for-profit, entertainment-industry school based in Winter Park, Florida. He’s got a background in film production that includes executive producing Frag, a 2008 documentary about professional video gaming that premiered at the American Film Institute Dallas International Film Festival. Saul calls the film his most notable work, claiming it “changed the professional gaming industry” by uncovering corruption that led to the downfall of the Cyberathlete Professional League. “They were the biggest in the world at the time, and after we launched the movie they shut their doors down,” Saul said. “No one else would sponsor them.” The full story is a lot more complex than that, but Frag has become a cult classic; in 2014, the Daily Dot named it the fourth best esports documentary of all time.
In 2012, Saul switched his focus to political documentaries, partnering with Bergman to found Gadsden Films LLC — the name a nod to the yellow “Don’t tread on me” coiled rattlesnake flag popular among Tea Partiers. He directed Unfair: Exposing the IRS, a documentary released in 2014 and endorsed by Mike Huckabee, who appears in a trailer for the film saying, “The IRS has become a criminal enterprise, much like the Mafia, except the Mafia operates at least with the honor of not whacking the women and the children.” Unfair was executive produced by John Sullivan, who also co-directed Dinesh D’Sousa’s 2016: Obama’s America and co-produced Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, an anti-evolution film hosted by actor Ben Stein. Another documentary, Exposing the Enemies Within, based on New Zealand author Trevor Louden’s book of the same name that alleges a vast communist conspiracy in the U.S. government reaching all the way to President Obama, is wrapping up production and set for a spring release, according to Saul.
Saul has also been involved in a number of political efforts locally in Cedar Falls. He founded the Cedar Valley Patriots for Christ, a group that “believes politics and religion are not separate” and meets regularly to “discuss politics from a biblical world view.” In 2011, he ran for City Council and actively protested an ordinance requiring, for supposed public safety purposes, the installation of lockboxes with keys accessible to the city at commercial and residential properties that opponents argued was a violation of privacy and example of excessive regulation. After starting Gadsden Films, he and Bergman attempted to crowdfund a documentary drawing a connection between a Cedar Falls initiative to invest heavily in bike trails with Agenda 21, a non-binding United Nations plan for sustainable development that many conservatives view with deep suspicion. In a humorous trailer promoting the film, Saul mocks the local initiative by trying to bike during the winter, taking a plunge into the snow. The Kickstarter campaign failed, raising just $1,706 of its $250,000 goal.
As Eschliman and his partners prepared to launch the new Statesman, the former newspaper editor’s religious discrimination complaint, filed in July 2014 with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shortly after he was fired by the Daily News, was still unfolding. Representing him were Des Moines attorney Matt Whitaker, the former University of Iowa football star and U.S. Senate candidate in the five-way GOP primary won the previous month by Joni Ernst; and the Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based legal organization, recently rebranded as First Liberty, dedicated to protecting Americans’ religious liberties as defined by the Christian right.
The complaint accused Goetz, the Daily News publisher, and John Rung, president of the paper’s parent company Shaw Media, of discrimination based on religion and retaliation. Eschliman and his attorneys took especial exception to a short note written by Rung titled “Earning public trust our priority,” published in the paper the day after Eschliman was fired. “Last week, he expressed an opinion on his personal blog that in no way reflects the opinion of the Newton Daily News or Shaw Media,” Rung wrote. “While he is entitled to his opinion, his public airing of it compromised the reputation of this newspaper and his ability to lead it.”
“They look at my name, look at Google, and go, ‘Oh, okay,’ and then send me the Dear John letter.”
In an accompanying statement in the complaint, Eschliman wrote that the “comments on my blog were personal in nature and reflective of my sincerely held religious beliefs,” and that “I felt compelled by my sincerely held religious beliefs to share my Biblical view with the few folks who read my blog.” (The Informer was unable to reach Eschliman for comment on this story.)
Also attached to the complaint were innocuous examples of the non-work-related online activities of other Shaw Media employees: Facebook photos of a high school rugby match, personal blogs about broadcasting and a recent Iowa State University internship, and Twitter “micro blog[ging]” consisting of little more than links to various news articles. Eschliman argued these were no different from his blog post that, ironically, criticized LGBT activists with a reference to the Nazi secret police who sent thousands of gay men to concentration camps. (The analogy, Whitaker later wrote, was purposefully exaggerated to draw a comparison to “others who employed and rewrote religion to ends with which we are all now familiar.”)
The complaint filed on Eschliman’s behalf, as well as two responses in early 2015 to documents Shaw Media filed, were made publicly available by the Liberty Institute. Shaw Media did not follow suit. A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Informer for the company’s responses was denied by the EEOC “because disclosure … is prohibited to members of the public,” and Goetz did not respond to our requests for comment.
However, we were able to get in touch with Matt Nosco, who used to work as weeklies editor in Colfax for Shaw Media’s Jasper County Tribune, occasionally visited the Daily News office for meetings, and fits the description of an unnamed person described by Whitaker as a “disgruntled former employee who complained to anyone who would listen” about Eschliman, who was his supervisor. Nosco’s recollection of events leading up to Eschliman’s termination, unsurprisingly, tells a different tale than Whitaker’s.
The former employee’s alleged misconduct ranged from the serious — “insubordination,” “the authoring of a false story in the Media Company’s paper,” being “argumentative with customers,” growing “enraged after learning he would take on new duties” — to the frivolous — being “often seen with his feet propped up on the desk by delivery people who dropped off the papers.” And, perhaps most tellingly, the personal: drawing attention to Eschliman’s blog post. “Of course, only a handful of close friends and Bob’s family would have read this blog post that was hosted on an obscure corner of the internet had a disgruntled former employee not deliberately excerpted the post out of context and harassed others with it, deceiving them in order to create controversy and harm Bob,” Whitaker wrote. This, he argued, ultimately led to a “self-promoting website” — Jim Romenesko’s media blog — that “inflamed the concocted situation” after a tip from the former employee.
Whitaker wrote that the former employee had been on the verge of termination for his behavior before he left the company but also that Goetz decided against disciplining him after hearing about it. According to Nosco, however, the “false story” was little more than a headline about property tax increases that officials at the Colfax City Hall were concerned would be misinterpreted by readers. “Bob and Dan Goetz made the decision to work with City Hall, which I supported them in, and Bob published a more favorable piece in the next edition,” Nosco explained.
“Frankly, the assertion that I’d faced disciplinary action over that story or anything else came as a bit of a surprise to me,” Nosco added. “While Bob and I had a relationship that involved a high level of pushback on different issues, he’d always supported my work and my position. In fact, it was Bob that gave me a raise and a promotion to news editor of the Jasper County Tribune as well as the same position and increased responsibilities at our newly acquired Prairie City News.”
Nosco wasn’t the only one who butted heads with Eschliman. Shortly before the Daily News fired the editor, Nosco and three former employees at the paper — news reporter Dave Hon, sports reporter Dustin Turner, and niche publications editor Nicole Wiegand (who I worked with for a few months at the Ames Tribune) — penned an open letter demanding an apology. “Our former editor made a decision to write about his politics outside of the work place,” it read. “He made a decision to share that work through social media. Now the public has been made aware of his deep-seeded [sic], zealously hateful views toward a societal group.” The letter also accused Eschliman of being guilty of “hate speech” and having a “venomous” nature, adding, “As editor, he would often complain about readers bothering him, personally attack employees behind their backs and make the newsroom, a place that is supposed to be an open environment, fearful.”
Whatever the nature of the disagreements, Eschliman apparently prevailed in his complaint because religious views are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As Whitaker argued in March 2015: “Bob was an at-will employee who could have been terminated at any time, for any lawful reason. The Media Company could have simply chosen to part ways with Bob quietly and privately. Instead, they felt compelled to make an example out of Bob. For that they had to offer a reason to support his termination.”
Last July, a confidential settlement agreement was reached, avoiding a lawsuit. “My family and I are pleased that we have been able to resolve this matter with Shaw Media in a way that is beneficial to all parties involved,” Eschliman said then in a statement. “We are thankful for the very positive resolution to this situation.”
But the damage was already done, Eschliman effectively exiled from Iowa’s mainstream media.
“What’s it like trying to get a job now that this has happened?” Deace had asked Eschliman on air the previous December. “What do people — when they look at your resume, do they first ask you about what happened here, or the 70 awards you won?”
“In most cases it seems like what they do is they look at my name, look at Google, and then go, ‘Oh, okay,’ and then send me the Dear John letter,” Eschliman replied.
“It doesn’t even matter that you won 70 awards. You could win 70,000 awards, they wouldn’t even care.”
“You’ve essentially been blacklisted.”
The Iowa Statesman provided Eschliman with one final opportunity to remain in Iowa journalism, at an outlet where his views would not be censored but encouraged.
Eschliman, Craig Bergman, and Judd Saul had high ambitions for the news site. Saul launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, seeking a staggering $100,000 for the project. In a short video cut for the campaign, Eschliman explained that the money would be used to “fund capital expenses and infrastructure needs, as well as day-to-day operational cash, during the first few months of operation.” The idea was to provide Eschliman with a full-time gig, so that he could continue to provide for his wife and two young children while still doing what he loved.
“I really think there’s a market in Iowa for a conservative newspaper to compete with the Red Star, as people like to call it, or the old Locust Street Liar.”
In the video, Eschliman touted his 16 years of experience covering government and politics around the state. His crowning achievement was the Harrison “Skip” Weber award from the Iowa Newspaper Association for investigative journalism that he won in 2011 at the Clarinda Herald-Journal with reporter Kevin Slater, which he described as the INA’s “equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize for in-depth reporting” — an impressive honor, if a major exaggeration, given that their award was in the weekly newspaper category and the Herald-Journal’s circulation is only about 2,500 copies (the Des Moines Register’s Lee Rood won the award that year among the entrants from daily papers).
Bergman put plans in motion to re-establish the Statesman in print. Perks for contributing to the Indiegogo campaign included subscriptions to the future print edition, which was estimated to launch in June 2015. In March, the site’s Facebook page began advertising the print edition, providing no details yet about how often it would be published but asking for $25 from supporters of the project to subscribe.
“I really think there’s a market in Iowa for a conservative, right-leaning newspaper to compete with the Red Star, as people like to call it, or the old Locust Street Liar, as people like to call it,” Bergman said, knocking the Des Moines Register as he explained his counterintuitive business plan in this age of digital media. “And I don’t think print is dead. I think print, like AM talk radio, if it has the right message, I think there’s a paying audience for that.
“Iowa has one of the oldest populations per capita of anybody outside Florida, and those people like to read newspapers,” Bergman continued. “All their little towns have weekly newspapers, or they have a county one that they read, and they don’t rely on their smart tablets, they don’t do that. If you want to reach the voting population in Iowa to affect the majority turnout, you need a vehicle for that message, and in Iowa that vehicle is the old-fashioned one.”
The Statesman started out fairly strong. Eschliman wrote regularly for the site with help from a handful of freelancers, including Joel Kurtinitis, who served as a regional director for Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign and is a contributing writer to Steve Deace’s website and The Blaze, the conservative news site founded by Glenn Beck. “We had a pretty decent viewership,” Saul said. “Stuff was starting to spread a little.”
Before long, however, cracks began to emerge. By the time the Indiegogo campaign ended on Feb. 1, it had raised just $4,656 — money the Statesman was able to keep under the campaign’s flexible funding designation but less than 5 percent of its target funding, much like Saul’s other longshot crowdfunding efforts. As the months went on, resources dried up and with them original content. Increasingly, new posts were just republished press releases from Iowa politicians and presidential candidates.
There hasn’t been an article published on the Statesman website since Nov. 2 of last year, yet an annual subscription page on the site remains active, indicating neither that the site is no longer active nor that the payment would be for a weekly print edition that still doesn’t exist — not until after the transaction is processed, at which point a message appears stating that the print edition is expected to launch in May or June of an unspecified year, after 500 subscribers have signed up, which has yet to happen. “We believe that the kind of people who want to read what we have to say have an IQ significant enough to handle the fact that, well, we’re not there anymore, we’ll be back,” Bergman said, when asked if he thought the misleading subscription page was problematic.
To be fair, Bergman hasn’t abandoned the Statesman for good. Asked if he planned to eventually revive it, he replied: “Oh yeah. As soon as I win the Senate race or as soon as I have any funding for any of my other projects and need a media outlet again. It doesn’t take much to bring it back.” With a laugh, he added, “But I wasn’t able to write a check for a couple thousand dollars every month to keep Bob’s kids fed, so he had to go do something else.”
For the time being, Bergman said, the Statesman is “on hiatus until I can find 20, 50, 100 thousand dollars and make it real again. Pretty simple.” Should that happen, he seemed confident that Eschliman may come back. “Oh, I’m sure [he’d be interested],” Bergman said. “I’d love to have a spare free moment where I’m not getting random calls from strangers or doing real work and pick up the phone to Bob and say, ‘Hey, Bob, we’ve got 25 grand, let’s start filling some ads and printing some copies and going out there.’”
Previously, the plan had been to accomplish that through readers’ interest in the caucuses, but that didn’t pan out. “It seems to be that everybody wants to put all their money into Ted Cruz or Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee or Donald Trump,” Bergman told the Informer before caucus day. “Anything but a newspaper, so I’m guessing that once this presidential thing clears out, maybe by summer, I’ll start looking back at investors on it and take a little slower route to building it back up.”
Saul, who recently hired attorney Michael Young, a former member of the Waterloo Community School District Board of Education and city planning commission, to file paperwork for his latest venture, Prepper Direct LLC, a business that sells survivalist products, also sounded interested in seeing the Statesman come back someday, although it’s unclear whether he would still be directly involved. “I’m no longer working with Craig,” he said, referring generally to projects with Indiegogo campaigns that he and Bergman both had their names attached to, without elaborating. “Doing my own deal.” (Citing nondisclosure agreements, Bergman wouldn’t say much about the status of incomplete projects the two had been working on.)
But Saul said the Statesman’s lackluster Indiegogo campaign was instructive — and it wasn’t his first underwhelming result on the Kickstarter-alternative crowdfunding site. A campaign for Blue Dawn, a yet-to-be-completed anti-police state documentary originally slated for release last fall with libertarian activist Adam Kokesh as a co-producer, raised only $2,050 of its $750,000 goal. An abandoned project for a film called Girls Just Wanna Have Guns starring Regis Giles, a big-game “huntress” in her early 20s who runs a blog of the same name, raised less than 4 percent of its $500,000 fundraising target with no one pitching in for the perk of going on an African safari with Giles and her father, Doug, in exchange for $50,000. Another effort, to distribute copies of the anti-IRS documentary Unfair to 100,000 churches at five bucks a pop, fell 99,967 churches short of its goal.
(The lack of funding hasn’t doomed all of the projects: In four separate campaigns — two headed by Saul, the other two by conservative activist Regina Thomson — Exposing the Enemies Within, the forthcoming Trevor Louden-connected film, each time fell far short of its five- and six-figure fundraising targets.)
“What we’ve learned is, if you don’t pay a bunch of people to go promote it, like if you don’t pay for radio advertising, you don’t pay for conservative DJs to promote it, no one’s going to hear about it,” Saul said. “If you start an Indiegogo, you better have 50 grand in the bank to advertise your Indiegogo, if you’re looking for a large sum of money. Next time around, we’ll definitely change our approach. Basically, we’re going to have to raise money to then pay to raise money is how the game works. This is after talking to other people who raised, I’m talking millions of dollars on Indiegogo.”
Specifically, Saul’s inspiration, and the reason for why he’d set his sights so high, was because of the popularity of an Indiegogo campaign for an upcoming documentary about abortion doctor and “America’s biggest serial killer” Kermit Gosnell, who’s serving life on seven counts of first-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter for a series of gruesome and illegal late-term abortion procedures. The campaign raised over $2.3 million and is one of the most successful crowdfunding efforts the site has ever seen. “The Gosnell movie is the gold standard as far as conservative fundraising,” Saul said.
On Oct. 31 last year, just two days before the publication of the website’s latest article, Eschliman posted an update on his Facebook page that read, “Left job at The Iowa Statesman.” Although he still lives in Iowa, the departure finally separated him from from Iowa media.
Since then, however, Eschliman has continued to cover the Iowa caucuses and presidential politics after the candidates departed Iowa, the Statesman’s favorite Ted Cruz the victor over front-runner Donald Trump. On Nov. 10, with a particular focus on Cruz, Eschliman began writing for Charisma News, the website of Charisma magazine, a publication for evangelical Christians based in the Lake Mary suburb of Orlando, Florida. His first article was aptly titled “Religious Liberty Takes Center Stage in Iowa as Presidential Race Heats Up” and focused on Cruz, who has made the issue a central theme of his revivalist stump speeches.
“I’m glad he’s got a job doing what he loves to do, writing for Charisma,” Saul said. “I’m glad he finally got something working in a place where he’s happy.
“He said it was hard for him to even find other jobs where he lived because of that controversy.”
Correction: This story originally misspelled former Newton Daily News sports reporter Dustin Turner’s first name Justin.