Follow the money: Right-wing funding of ‘pink slime’ websites tracked in new study

Photo (cc) 2016 by Kurayba

Previously published at GBH News.

Here are a few stories you missed if you haven’t been perusing the North Boston News: a report that the libertarian Cato Institute has given Gov. Charlie Baker a “D” for fiscal management; a claim by the Tax Foundation that the marginal tax rate for Massachusetts residents could rise to 54.34% if President Joe Biden’s tax proposal becomes law; and an interview with a voter from Salem on why she casts her ballot on the basis of “values.”

All of these prominently featured stories, by the way, are from last fall. But lest you think I’ve merely stumbled upon a ghost website, there are also a number of nearly identical reports from just this past week on teachers from Peabody, Lynn, Andover and other communities who have pledged to teach critical race theory in their classrooms.

So what weird manner of website is this? And where is North Boston, anyway?

The answer to the first question is it’s part of Metric Media, a network of some 1,200 websites in all 50 states that purport to be sources of local news. In fact, they are right-wing propaganda projects funded by wealthy conservative interests with ties to the Tea Party movement and a Catholic group that spent nearly $10 million in an effort to defeat President Joe Biden last fall, to name just two of many examples. And there are 14 of these sites in Massachusetts alone.

As for the second question — well, I can’t help you. North of South Boston? South of the North End? East of the sun and west of the moon?

These sites are sometimes called “pink slime,” no doubt because the head of Metric Media, Brian Timpone, was involved in an earlier venture nearly a decade ago that was also referred to as “pink slime.” That project, Journatic, produced local content for newspapers using grossly underpaid, out-of-town reporters — including cheap Filipino workers who wrote articles under fake bylines.

Metric Media, by contrast, is a political play. Right-wing interests give money through a series of interlocking organizations in return for publishing indoctrination disguised as local news. And if the out-of-date content makes sites like the North Boston News seem harmless, well, just wait until 2022, when the mid-term election campaigns start heating up and the websites spring back to life.

Priyanjana Bengani, the author of a major new report on pink-slime sites published by the Tow Center at the Columbia Journalism School, puts it this way: “Increasingly, we are seeing political campaigning which uses news as a cloak for campaigning activities potentially further undermining trust in legitimate local news outlets. For such operations to be successful, the network does not have to be widely read or deliver broad impact, it simply has to gnaw away at the edges of the consciousness of the voting public.”

The phenomenon has been called out before, most notably in a New York Times story last year. And it is not exclusively the province of right-wingers; as the Times reported, there are some Democratic-leaning sites as well. But the overwhelming preponderance of pink slime is on the right, with Timpone the biggest player.

The study that Bengani oversaw, published in two parts by the Columbia Journalism Review, comprises a blizzard of details — related ventures, a multiplicity of business partners and a range of political players. Her team relied on specialized software, IRS filings, Facebook and Google ad libraries and an internal analytics tool to ultimately trace the spiderweb of connections between Metric Media and right-wing interests.

Consider one such relationship: Local Government Information Services, or LGIS, is a collaboration between Timpone and Illinois right-wing activist Dan Proft. One of Proft’s associates at LGIS is John Tillman, who, according to IRS filings, has been involved in multiple organizations that have paid Timpone’s various groups. Tillman’s financial backing, in turn, has come from wealthy Illinois interests as well as foundations affiliated with the Koch, Mercer and Uihlein families.

Of course, the Kochs are already well known. The Mercers came to prominence during the Trump era as backers of Breitbart.com and Steve Bannon. The Uihleins, though, are new to me and maybe to you as well. They shouldn’t be. According to a 2018 profile in The New York Times, Liz and Dick Uihlein are “the most powerful conservative couple you’ve never heard of,” spending tens of millions of dollars “to advance a combative, hard-right conservatism, from Washington to the smallest town.”

Another organization with ties to Timpone’s sites is the Convention of States, affiliated with Mark Meckler, who in turn appears to have what Bengani refers to as a “co-branding” relationship with Metric Media. Meckler is a founder of the Tea Party Patriots and became interim chief executive of Parler, the right-wing Twitter alternative, after the original chief executive was removed following the Jan. 6 insurrection. The Convention of States has called for a constitutional convention “to dramatically restrict the power of the federal government.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. What we are talking about, essentially, is a vast pay-to-play scheme, with right-wing organizations funneling money to Timpone in return for being allowed to publish on his multifarious networks. I don’t know how effective it is; the examples I’ve looked at are pretty thin gruel compared to the weaponized propaganda you find at Fox News or Newsmax.

Unlike Fox or Newsmax, though, Metric Media flies under the radar, publishing its partners’ messages on sites that purport to be a solution to the local news crisis. In that respect it’s like Sinclair Broadcasting, whose 185 television stations in 86 U.S. markets sprinkle right-wing political content into local newscasts.

The alternative to pink slime is more nutritious fare — real local news that informs us and grounds us in our communities. The problem is that there is a lot less of that than there used to be.

And if that doesn’t change, we may all find ourselves living in North Boston.

Subsidizing local news: The hopes and fears of a Harvard Law professor

Previously published at GBH News.

The challenge in providing government assistance to ease the local news crisis is to find ways of helping those who really need it while keeping the bad actors out. Which is why Martha Minow said this week that she’s “hopeful” but “fearful” about a federal bill that would create tax credits to subsidize subscribers, advertisers and news organizations.

“What I’m troubled about is: What’s local news, who defines it and how do we prevent the manipulation of this by multinational corporations?” she said. “That’s a problem, and I don’t know anyone who’s come up with an answer for that.”

Minow, a Harvard Law School professor, is the author of the recently published “Saving the News: Why the Constitution Calls for Government Action to Preserve Freedom of Speech.” The book lays out a series of ideas for reviving journalism, from requiring social media platforms to pay for content to providing subsidies for nonprofit news. She spoke Monday at a local book group that met virtually.

The legislation Minow was referencing, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, has attracted an unusual amount of bipartisan support and seems to stand a decent chance of becoming law. Those who wrote the proposal included limits on the size of news organizations that would be eligible, but the large corporate chains that own many of them would not be blocked from applying. That’s problematic given that chains and hedge funds are squeezing the life out of local news.

Minow, though, was referring to a different phenomenon — “sham” local news organizations that “shill for who knows what.” Although Minow did not use the term, such sites are purveyors of what is known as “pink slime” journalism, which look like community sites but are in reality vehicles for political propaganda. Those who operate such projects have taken advantage of the opening created by the precipitous decline of legitimate local news organizations in recent years by launching hundreds of such sites — most of them on the political right, but some on the left as well. One suggestion Minow offered was to limit government assistance to news organizations whose journalists live in the communities they cover.

Much of “Saving the News” is devoted to the proposition that government has always been involved in subsidizing journalism, from low postal rates to the development of the telegraph, from regulating radio and television to investing in the internet. Given that activist history, she writes, it would be derelict for the government not to step in. She quotes Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who in 1945 wrote that “it would be strange indeed … if the grave concern for freedom of the press which prompted adoption of the First Amendment should be read as a command that the government was without power to protect that freedom.”

Her proposals fall under three broad categories:

• Regulating Facebook and other social media platforms “subject to duties and expectations commensurate with their functions and their powers.” That would include not just requiring them to pay news organizations for the content they use but also regulating them as public utilities and subjecting them to antitrust enforcement;

• Fighting misinformation and disinformation through “public and private protections against deception, fraud, and manipulation and bolstering the capacities of individuals and communities to monitor and correct abuses and demand better media and internet practices”;

• Using the power of government to “support, amplify, and sustain a variety of public interest news sources and resources at the local, regional, and national levels.”

“With the entire project of democracy in danger, federal, state, and local governments can and indeed should be obliged to act — while remaining as neutral as possible toward content and viewpoint in private speech,” Minow writes. “If judicial readings of the First Amendment prevent such actions, the courts would be turning the Constitution into a suicide pact.”

In a time of intense polarization, Minow said this week that she hopes reviving local news can help bring communities together. Noting that studies have shown corruption rises and voting rates drop in the absence of reliable local journalism, she said, “There’s less polarization in local communities for obvious reasons. People have to get along, they have to get the snow plowed.”

Minow comes by her interest in reliable news and information naturally: Her father, Newton Minow, is a former chair of the FCC best known for calling television “a vast wasteland.” His daughter’s book is a useful compendium of why we need to take steps to save local news — and what some of those steps might look like.

In Georgia, a partisan news site replaces local journalism with false election claims

Here’s what happens when you don’t have a reliable source of local news in your community: partisan websites that look like local news pop up in order to push a political point of view. Most of them are right-wing, although there are also a few that lean left.

Last week NPR’s Stephen Fowler had a terrific piece about The Georgia Star News, a Trump-oriented project that is aligned with Steve Bannon, although it doesn’t sound like Bannon has an official role. “It’s very populist, it’s very nationalist, it’s very MAGA, it’s very American First,” Bannon reportedly said.

The lead story right now: “Merrick Garland’s Case Against Georgia Is a Loser, According to Legal Scholars and Journalists,” aggregated from The Federalist and opinion pieces in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

What the Star News and sites like it do is work the media food chain. The website’s publisher, John Fredericks, has a radio talk show whose guests have included Bannon and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Fredericks’ talk show and website haved pushed false information about absentee ballots. (According to Fredericks’ website, his show was recently booted off YouTube. Gee, I wonder why?)

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who stood up for the integrity of Georgia’s elections when it really mattered, nevertheless called for an investigation based on the Star News’ story. From there the story was injected into the mainstream, since legitimate media outlets are in the habit of quoting Raffensperger. And, before you know it, Trump himself was praising the Star News for “the incredible reporting you have done.”

Fredericks claims his operation is profitable thanks to an injection of ads from Republican politicians.

As these “pink slime” operations go, Fredericks’ is rather modest — eight sites, compared to the 1,300 documented last fall by The New York Times. And Fredericks’ sites are statewide — they’re not promising the sort of hyperlocal news that, say, a right-wing site like the Macon (Georgia) Times does.

Still, the Star News points to the dangers of what can happen when we lose reliable local and regional news.

The Washington Post blows the whistle on a dubious investigative website

The Washington Post published a story of paramount importance last Friday. According to reporter Elahe Izadi, a website called the Checks and Balances Project is offering the sort of deep investigative reporting that most local news outlets no longer have the resources to carry out.

But there is a huge catch. There have been some prominent instances of pay-to-play, with organzations making donations that are followed by stories that will either make them look good or their enemies or competitors look bad. Izadi writes:

When it investigated the hotel industry, it was after it had received a grant from Airbnb. A high-profile investigation into Arizona utility regulators came after Checks and Balances received money from a solar power company, the company disclosed in 2015.

Now Checks and Balances is investigating a massive hospital system in Virginia named Sentara, publishing regular stories and asking patients and employees to send tips that might reveal how the nonprofit hospital “piled up $6 billion in liquid assets,” among other issues.

These stories started appearing the same month that a medical school in a complex dispute with Sentara hired a public relations firm that happens to share a founder and financial ties with Checks and Balances.

Communities are vulnerable to a site like Checks and Balances, of course, because of the demise of local news over the past generation. If your local newspaper shut down or has been so decimated that it can’t offer more than cursory news coverage, then you’re going to be vulnerable to arrangements like this.

The Checks and Balances website touts itself as an “Investigative Watchdog Blog
Holding Government Officials, Lobbyists and Corporate Management Accountable to the Public.” Izadi is careful to point out that the project has done good work over the years, some of which has been picked up by larger media outlets. Its editor was formerly employed by USA Today. Scott Peterson, the executive director, told the Post that funders do not influence the site’s journalism — but Izadi writes that those sources are not always disclosed to readers, either. Moreover, most of its funding comes from an organization called Renew American Prosperity, which does not reveal its donors. From the organization’s website:

We encourage you to be public about your identity as a donor. We’re proud to have the support of such notable funders as philanthropist Lucy Rockefeller Waletzky, legendary entrepreneur Brad Mattson of Siva Power, Silicon Valley attorney Mike Danaher, and communicator extraordinaire Matthew Lewis.

Should you want to keep your support for Renew American Prosperity private, as do others, we also welcome your donations. Private donor support will remain strictly private, out of respect for 501(c)4 tax law that allows donors who wish to be private to remain so. We will never sell or make available to other organizations our supporter lists.

Peterson pushed back on the notion that Checks and Balances isn’t transparent, arguing that what he’s doing is no different from what mainstream outlets do when they accept advertising or, in the case of nonprofits, grants and donations. And of course these things have to be seen on a continuum. When news executives decline to report an important story because they don’t want to offend an advertiser, that’s a scandal — if the public ever learns about it. Ethical nonprofit news outlets are scrupulous about disclosing the sources of their funding, and in making it clear to funders that they will have no influence over coverage. Checks and Balances, at least as described by the Post, appears to go beyond that.

The Post’s story comes at a time when we’re also dealing with the scourge of “pink slime” journalism — community websites set up in areas that are unserved or underserved by local news outlets and that are actually controlled by partisan political interests. As I wrote last fall, most of these sites are Republican, but some are Democratic as well. What they’re not is independent, which is a key part of ethical journalism.

Coming up with funding for investigative projects, especially at the local and regional level, is incredibly difficult, and the Checks and Balances folks may have believed they could cut ethical corners without it harming the integrity of their work. But it looks like dangerous business to me, and I hope it’s not the start of a trend.

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