Fake Newspapers Are Everywhere and on Both Sides of the Political Divide

From a Jim Warren commentary on chicagotribune.com headlined “Fake newspapers are everywhere and on both sides of the political divide”:

Chicago City Wire looks like many newspaper websites, with stories about the state’s new criminal justice reform law, a local nonprofit shafted by the bankruptcy of the cryptocurrency firm FTX and three headshots of the same smiling columnist.

But it doesn’t smell like a real newspaper. It just smells.

Upon closer inspection, there are four solicitous stories about a suburban Republican legislator, Rep. Brad Stephens of Rosemont. And four pieces about John Kass, a predictably right-wing former Tribune columnist bashing Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her claims of declining crime.

It’s a vaguely adroit if cynical fabrication of Local Government Information Systems (LGIS), with funding “provided, in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in local government.” There’s no admission of ideology, or how those groups are all corralled by Dan Proft, a conservative activist, head of a Conservative Political Action Committee, and radio host, whose own involvement is unmentioned.

Chicago City Wire and the 34 other LGIS sites, have run bogus stories on COVID-19, while boosting GOP politicians and deriding Democrats like Gov. J.B. Pritzker without coming clean about benefactors. Pritzker is a favorite prey, with him and his family bashed, and stories including “Some Illinois residents believe Pritzker’s COVID-19 response is bad public policy,” a less-than-dazzling journalistic discovery in a state of nearly 13 million.

Such Republican-adoring sites don’t monopolize subterfuge, though they are the largest culprits. There are shadowy liberal ones, too. Indeed, NewsGuard, where I serve as executive editor, does nonideological assessments of website and TV news credibility. It cites five large partisan liberal and conservative networks masquerading as legitimate news sites: LGIS, Courier Newsroom, The Main Street Sentinel, The American Independent and Metric Media.

They all flunk for not heeding basic journalistic standards, with Chicago-run Metric Media the king of a fetid hill. But, again, liberals also propagate deception, and both sides spend heavily to promote articles on Facebook and Instagram, the digital handmaidens of misinformation peddlers, as NewsGuard analyst Jack Brewster has found.

The new partisan sites employ few journalists, if any, and often hide the identity of managers, while relying heavily in generating stories on algorithms. Algorithms don’t call a politician’s spokesman, or a defense lawyer, for comment. The sites symbolize the democratization of information, but betray the slightest sense of civic duty.

As of November, NewsGuard has identified 1,202 of these so-called “pink slime” outlets across the country, slightly less than the 1,230 daily newspapers left operating in the U.S. The right- and left-leaning sites blossom as traditional newspapers disappear at a rate of two per week, according to Northwestern’s Local News Initiative. The newbies could outnumber the oldsters by March 2023.

When I headed to college in 1970, there were 1,748 daily papers in a world of no internet, laptops, cable news, or cellphones. Instagram influencers like Whindersson Nunes, a Brazilian comedian with more than 52 million followers, would not be born for 25 years.

“The accelerating loss of legacy local news outlets combined with the growth of faux local news operations is creating a perfect storm of misinformation and disinformation in many communities,” says Tim Franklin, senior associate dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

“The explosion of these ‘pink slime’ sites, which cynically pose as legitimate newspapers and sites, starkly illustrates why our democracy needs a healthy local news ecosystem and more news literacy efforts to help educate an unsuspecting public,” said Franklin, who was the top editor at major newspapers in Indianapolis, Orlando and Baltimore.

Partisan outlets have been around since the advent of the republic. A difference here is that they now may make no disclosure about who’s behind them. Many intermingle pedestrian local, even bizarre, computer-generated information with propaganda. Said Franklin: “These outlets are being operated by partisan organizations on both the right and the left, and there are now corporations getting in on the act, too. This trend is fueling what is now a tsunami of disinformation that is undermining our democracy.”

“Today, everybody has a friend who cites weird theories or outrageous behavior by public figures that never actually happened,” says Tom Kearney, senior editor at VTDigger, a nonprofit that publishes news and analysis of Vermont government and policy, “For our system of democracy to work, the public needs the truth, and it’s unfortunate that slime sites are undermining the fine work of reliable news sources.”

Kearney has been the top editor of seven newspapers in New Hampshire and Vermont, including the Keene Sentinel. “It’s more important than ever for Americans to make sure they’re getting their information from a trusted news site, one with a long track record of fairness and accuracy.”

Your kids or grandkids, whose schools likely don’t teach media literacy, may not differentiate between a well-edited newspaper and garbage videos on TikTok. Thus, don’t expect them to reflexively distinguish between the deceptive Galesburg Reporter and the estimably bona fide Galesburg Register-Mail.

The new combine of misinformation, with its digital and two-legged handmaidens, is far more potent than the Chicago Democratic machine railed against ad nauseam by Proft and Kass, and reminds us that it’s easier than ever to be a publisher, but way harder to take time to care about the truth.

Jim Warren, a former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, is executive editor of NewsGuard.

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