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Reviews | Hyperpartisan local news sites are dangerous to democracy

(Washington Post staff illustration; The Wayne Herald/Local Report, Will County Gazette/Metric Media, The Michigan Star/Star News Network; iStock.)
(Washington Post staff illustration; The Wayne Herald/Local Report, Will County Gazette/Metric Media, The Michigan Star/Star News Network; iStock.)

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The Michigan Independent is not exactly independent. He is also not based in Michigan. The outlet is one of many publications that look like local news sites, with old and branded fonts with names like “standard”, “herald” and “current”, 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 the election, but in some ways it raises a similar concern. Our democracy is self-sabotaging.

Axios recently reported 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 present themselves as local news and provide some of it – in the form of aggregated content from other sources in addition to some original articles on, for example, pleasant hiking destinations or options for family fun in “scary season”. But they’re also full of “stories” that spur liberal candidates in the upcoming midterm elections or blast conservative candidates. Sometimes these missives are little more than press releases. “Shapiro is busy campaigning and opening offices throughout Pennsylvania,” one headline read.

The sites are disguised as community periodicals, but their “About Us” pages indicate that they are 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. Journalism and technology tool NewsGuard, which assesses the credibility of online sources, revealed a separate group of US independent sites last month. These include the Arizona Independent, Michigan Independent, Ohio Independent, Pennsylvania Independent, and Wisconsin Independent. The print versions, 3.2 million of which, according to reports by Michael Scherer of the Post, are also mailed monthly to select 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 open about its mission to “fight back” against the right-wing “information warfare” onslaught. But the result is the same: political operatives whitewash advocacy through these sites. They’re capitalizing on local news cachet to cultivate reader confidence even as reality fades across the country.

This media charade is not exactly news, nor exactly falsehood. The American Independent maintains that its articles are written by writers producing real stories under their real names, and that their work is checked and verified. This, advocates say, contrasts with right-wing efforts where stories are bot-generated and sometimes filled with made-up quotes — a trend known as “pink slime journalism.” The name is borrowed from a pasty meat by-product added to ground beef sold in supermarkets to unsuspecting consumers. A tally of these websites by Columbia Journalism Review researcher Priyanjana Bengani found hyperpartisan liberal “local news” sites were eclipsed by their conservative counterparts. The number is staggering: at least 1,100 sites across numerous networks run by at least five separate entities, in every state, all traceable through a confusing web of LLCs to businessman Brian Timpone .

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

As correct as the Democrats may be that the Republicans made pink slime first and worse, that doesn’t mean the correct answer is to go low with them. Apologists on both sides of the political spectrum claim that all today’s outlets are biased, even when they don’t admit it – so what’s the difference? But the distinction is obvious. People more or less know what they’re getting when they log on to Fox News or open a copy of Mother Jones. The primary purpose of these institutions is to make money by disseminating information, and they do not claim in their own name to be independent. Networks of pink slime take money to publish something that masquerades as news, and their existence depends on deception. They claim to be true local outlets precisely because people believe that portals rooted in their communities, more than those originating elsewhere, will tell them directly.

It is no coincidence that an equally viscous strategy has been favored by adversaries such as Russia, whose propagandists have mimicked local and national sites, sometimes to peddle lies and sometimes simply to seduce readers so that they consider them reliable sources. The methods adopted by the American Independent, Metric Media and their ilk are corrosive, regardless of the amount of genuine coverage interspersed with algorithmically generated listings, bestselling articles and regurgitations of press releases. This type of opaque pseudo-journalism filled with black money does not revitalize, as some of its proponents claim, local information, but rather does the opposite. By disguising themselves as community coverage to manipulate readers, these networks undermine faith in even the local newspapers they operate.

Democracy, in the end, becomes a double victim. Readers are sucked in without knowing who is paying – or even that anyone is paying at all. And confidence in the crackling engine of local news fades even further.

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