Hyperpartisan “Local News” Sites Are Dangerous to Democracy

From a Washington Post editorial:

The Michigan Independent isn’t exactly independent. It isn’t based in Michigan, either. The outlet is one of many in a bevy of publications that look like local news sites, complete with old-timey fonts and christened with names including “standard,” “herald” and “courant” but filled mostly with political advocacy funded by super PACs and other partisan interests. This is a different threat from the foreign interference campaigns that have become the bogeyman of elections, but in some ways, it raises a similar concern. Our democracy is engaging in self-sabotage.

The Michigan Independent isn’t exactly independent. It isn’t based in Michigan, either. The outlet is one of many in a bevy of publications that look like local news sites, complete with old-timey fonts and christened with names including “standard,” “herald” and “courant” but filled mostly with political advocacy funded by super PACs and other partisan interests. This is a different threat from the foreign interference campaigns that have become the bogeyman of elections, but in some ways, it raises a similar concern. Our democracy is engaging in self-sabotage.

Axios reported recently on a group of at least 51 sites in key swing states with recent or upcoming elections. They include Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. The sites market themselves as local news and do provide some of that — in the form of aggregated content from other sources in addition to a few original write-ups about, say, enjoyable hiking destinations or options for “spooky season” family fun. But they’re also chock full of “stories” that boost liberal candidates in the upcoming midterms or blast conservative ones. Sometimes, these missives are little more than press releases. “Shapiro Busy Campaigning and Opening Offices Throughout Pennsylvania,” reads one headline.

The sites are disguised as community periodicals, but their “About Us” pages indicate they’re run by a company called Local Report Inc.; which is, in turn, engaged in an opaque “co-publishing agreement” with the American Independent; which is, in turn, funded by American Bridge — a Democratic super PAC devoted to opposition research. The journalism and technology tool NewsGuard, which rates the credibility of online sources, revealed a separate group of American Independent sites last month. These include the Arizona Independent, the Michigan Independent, the Ohio Independent, the Pennsylvania Independent and the Wisconsin Independent. Print versions, 3.2 million of which The Post’s Michael Scherer reports also get mailed monthly to selected households with ideologically moderate and progressive female voters, are directly controlled by the American Independent.

Another local news salvo by Democrats, called CourierNewsroom.com, is more or less up front about its mission to “fight back” against the right wing’s “information war” onslaught. But the outcome is the same: Political operatives launder advocacy through these sites. They capitalize on the cachet of local news to cultivate readers’ trust even as the real thing withers away around the country.

This media masquerade is not exactly news, nor is it exactly fake. The American Independent argues that its articles are by writers producing real stories under their real names and that their work is fact-checked and verified. This, defenders claim, is in contrast to efforts on the right where stories are generated by robots and sometimes stuffed full of made-up quotes — a trend known as “pink-slime journalism.” The name is borrowed from a pasty meat byproduct added to ground beef sold in supermarkets to unsuspecting consumers. A tally of these websites by Columbia Journalism Review researcher Priyanjana Bengani found that hyperpartisan liberal “local news” sites were dwarfed by their conservative counterparts. The number is staggering: at least 1,100 sites through numerous networks run by at least five distinct corporate entities, in every state, all of them traceable through a confusing web of limited-liability companies to businessman Brian Timpone.

These sites, similar to many of the progressive variety, have tended to claim their mission is to “inform citizens about news in their local communities,” or bring “coverage to underreported areas of American life.” But they were created before the 2020 elections to bolster Republican campaigns, and the money behind them comes from tea party movers and shakers in addition to other right-wing donors. Mostly under the umbrella of Metric Media, the conservative networks spilled a lot of words in 2020 extolling anti-quarantine sentiment; the Popular Information Substack pinpointed 4,657 articles in Virginia about the dangers of critical race theory ahead of the 2021 gubernatorial election, won by Republican Glenn Youngkin.

Correct as Democrats might be that Republicans did pink slime first and do it worst, that doesn’t mean the right answer is to go low with them. Apologists on both sides of the political spectrum argue that all outlets these days are biased, even when they don’t admit it — so what’s the difference? But the distinction is obvious. People know more or less what they’re getting when they tune in to Fox News or open up a copy of Mother Jones. These institutions’ primary purpose is to make money by putting out news, and they don’t profess in their very name to be independent. Pink-slime networks take money to put out something masking as news, and their existence depends on deception. They pretend to be bona fide local outlets precisely because people believe that portals rooted in their communities, more than those originated elsewhere, will tell it to them straight.

It’s no coincidence that a similarly slimy strategy has been a favorite of adversaries such as Russia, whose propagandists have mimicked both local and national sites, sometimes to peddle falsehoods and sometimes merely to seduce readers into seeing them as reliable sources. The methods adopted by the American Independent, Metric Media and their ilk are corrosive, no matter how much genuine coverage is interspersed with algorithmically generated listicles, hit pieces and news-release regurgitations. This type of untransparent pseudo-journalism pumped full of dark money does not, as some of its backers argue, revitalize local news but instead does the opposite. By dressing themselves up as community-based coverage to manipulate readers, these networks sap the very faith in hometown papers that they’re exploiting.

Democracy, in the end, becomes a casualty twice over. Readers are sucked in without knowing who’s paying — or even that someone is paying at all. And trust in the sputtering engine of local news fades even further.

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