It appears that Santa Clara City Hall has finally gotten its wish for a bogus news channel to spoon feed people their version of the news — Cupertino Today.
In addition to writing and pitching Santa Clara City Hall’s narrative, it looks like the City’s $400,000 communications consultant Sam Singer is personally controlling what you read in the media via a purported news website, Cupertino Today, raising questions about whether Santa Clara taxpayer money is being used for political purposes.
Shortly before developer Sand Hill revived its extremely controversial Vallco Town Center project in 2017, Cupertino Today strolled into the news business. Sand Hill is a Singer client.
Cupertino Today has no advertising, no sponsors, no employees and no writer bylines on any of their articles. Very few articles contain original coverage and it appears that the anonymous writer doesn’t conduct interviews; most stories are based on press releases or other news outlets’ reporting.
The site has over 5,000 followers that receive Cupertino Today posts daily on Facebook and 706 Twitter followers. Among those followers is the unregistered political group Stand Up For Santa Clara, which shares Cupertino Today’s posts. Surprisingly, Cupertino Today does not follow the City of Santa Clara on all social media platforms.
The Weekly called Cupertino Today’s publisher, Phil Siegel, but only got a general delivery voice mailbox and the message wasn’t returned.
In 2019, former Cupertino resident Ed Brown filed a complaint with the FPPC alleging that Cupertino Today was not a legitimate news outlet, but instead a Sand Hill captive news site aimed at influencing public sentiment in favor of Sand Hill’s Vallco Town Center.
The FPPC declined to investigate the charge at the time, but questions have only grown.
Cupertino Today’s website source code in 2019 showed the same Google tracking account, SingerSF, as Chevron’s captive news site, the Richmond Standard, openly operated by Singer. [richmond standard landing page source, Cupertino Today Chamber 9_13_2018 source code SingerSF]. Singer’s ID was removed from the source code soon after the complaint was filed and made public.
“Looking at these snapshots, it’s evident that ‘SingerSF’ is using Google Analytics to monitor users’ interaction with the websites of Cupertino Today and Richmond Standard. This control can be managed only by the website owners,” said a Silicon Valley web marketing strategist who requested anonymity to protect their clients.
Invoices and emails acquired from the City show that Singer helps draft Santa Clara city press releases. He invoiced the City in August for reviewing “possible media contacts;” building and “editing” a media list; researching “communication opportunities re: stadium budget;” and directing, writing and reviewing Stadium Authority press releases.
A Closer Look at Cupertino Today’s ‘Santa Clara Bureau’
Cupertino Today began covering Santa Clara in 2019 — about a year after the City signed its first $200,000 in contracts with Singer, and its rehash of City press releases regularly follow within hours.
For example, last week’s press release about HR software — surely the first press release in City history about an HR software purchase — appeared at 1 p.m. and by 3 p.m. Cupertino Today had boiled down the press release to a more political theme than software, “Santa Clara hits 49ers over workers’ wage issue.”
Cupertino Today’s non-Cupertino stories generally avoid controversy — except when the controversy is about the 49ers. There’s no coverage of Santa Clara City Hall’s continuing appeal of court-ordered single member election districts, or Sunnyvale’s ballot measure earlier this year about directly electing the mayor. Cupertino Today’s “staff” write on the 49ers’ independent election expenditures but nothing about the Santa Clara police PACs’ developer-funded expenditures.
Their coverage of Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor is a publicist’s dream. In eight months Cupertino Today has published more than 10 stories involving Santa Clara’s mayor. The site published three involving Sunnyvale’s mayor and two involving Mountain View’s Mayor during the same period.
A story about Gillmor’s recently inaugurated city-produced Friday videos was posted following a Santa Clara press release about it. But Cupertino Today had no similar story about Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein, who’s been doing a Facebook Live chat with residents from his home every Friday for more than six months.
Likewise, Cupertino Today posted a story about Gillmor’s pledge on police reform following a Santa Clara press release, but, peculiarly for a purported Cupertino publication, failed to note that Cupertino Mayor Steven Scharf had participated in a Mayors Roundtable on the same subject the previous week.
Completing the deceptive news cycle, a political attack website in Santa Clara formed by the Santa Clara Police Association PAC, and financed by the developer with an exclusive contract to develop the Santa Clara golf course, Related Companies, links directly to Cupertino Today articles.
Cupertino Today’s Elusive Publisher, Phil Siegel
Siegel is the principal of PR agency MediaWorks. In 2010 he described himself as aiding “publicity efforts for clients at some of San Francisco’s leading Public Relations agencies … including Singer Associates. [Mercury News/Pacifica Tribune Feb 9, 2010].”
On a business networking site, Siegel names Singer Associates as a client. MediaWorks is hard to track down. Its URL is expired and its phone is disconnected.
A cartoon Siegel uses in presentations captures his philosophy of media relations: Siegel’s pictured as the mastermind behind his clients, and his clients in turn literally pulling the strings on the media. [phil-siegel-media-works-cartoon]
Siegel presents himself as a self-professed “news junkie,” “keenly interested in the Bay Area media landscape,” who started Cupertino Today due to “the lack of local, community coverage in Cupertino.” As far as can be discerned, Siegel lives in San Francisco.
Santa Clara City Hall’s Quest For a Captive News Channel
Back in 2016 Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Councilmember Teresa O’Neill were actively looking for a captive news channel and proposed the project to fired Weekly employee Robert Haugh, according to texts in The Weekly’s possession. [Texts]
“Teresa and Lisa are going to take me to lunch sometime next week to discuss news in Santa Clara and ideas how there could be another news medium digital based,” Haugh texted in September 2016.
While Haugh has shown his willingness to slander and libel the Mayor’s opponents, an August 2020 email from Singer to Assistant City Manager Nadine Nader indicates City Hall may be looking for a more professional approach.
The subject line tells the story: “Our work for Chevron in the City of Richmond, a real news site with community news.” The email contains a link to Richmond Standard. singer email richmond standard real news site].
*Website source code can be viewed in a web browser.