Fake news. Biased news. Slanted news. Real news. What’s the difference? It’s getting harder to tell them apart.
Ever read any of these online Oregon news sites?
Take the Portland Courant. It looks like a legitimate news site, but it is far from one.
If you slide down to the bottom of the home page and click on “About,” you’ll discover Portland Courant is put out by Metric Media LLC under a licensing agreement with the Metric Media Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit.
“When citizens are deprived of basic government information, communities and civic discourse suffer,” the site says. “Our approach is to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias.”
Portland Courant is, however, far from objective and free of political bias. It is, instead, “part of a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country,” a New York Times investigation published on Oct. 18, 2020 found. “The network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals,”
The network of amateurish and duplicative “news” websites is largely overseen by Brian Timpone, an internet entrepreneur, according to The Times. It is one of multiple partisan local-news sites funded by political groups associated with both the Republican and Democratic parties.
The network even goes so far as to plead for donations to The Metric Media Foundation. Its news sites say “Metric Media Foundation, LLC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit news content provider” and that donations are tax deductible. The Foundation is classified by the IRS as one of many Alliance/Advocacy Organizations within the Public, Society Benefit – Multipurpose and Other category.
While Timpone’s network is conservative, liberals are financing operations like Courier, a network of eight sites started by Acronym, a liberal political group that began covering local news in several states in 2019. Those sites, and others focused on North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, are part of the Courier Newsroom network started by Acronym, a liberal political group.
Virginia is the home of a Courier outlet, the Dogwood.
If readers click on “About” on the Dogwood site, they get this: “As the number of local news outlets declines in Virginia and across the country and the amount of digital information surges, it’s hard to know where to turn. We want to fill the gap – and your social feeds – with content that is thoughtful, engaging, inspiring and motivating.”
But, like the other Courier sites, the Dogwood is pure liberal messaging.
Maine, where a costly battle is underway between incumbent Republican Senator Susan Collins and Democrat Sara Gideon, became a test site for the new approach in 2018 when a “news” website of anonymous origin, the Maine Examiner, popped up.
According to The Bangor (ME) Daily News, a respected local newspaper, the Maine Examiner website gained attention in the run-up to a December 2018 mayoral runoff in Lewiston, ME. when it posted several negative articles about a progressive candidate, Ben Chin.
One article contained real, leaked campaign emails in which Chin said he encountered “a bunch of racists” while campaigning. Chin’s loss in the election was attributed, in part, to the Examiner’s reporting.
It later turned out that the emails were leaked to Chin’s Republican opponent, Shane Bouchard, by a woman working as a mole in Chin’s campaign who was having an affair with Bouchard. Bouchard resigned as mayor in March 2019 after the woman leaked some of his text messages. They included one in which he appeared to compare a meeting with his fellow Republicans to a Ku Klux Klan gathering
A top Maine Republican Party official later admitted to state ethics watchdogs that he was behind the Maine Examiner.
With a steadily shrinking cadre of legitimate news outlets and staff, and the rise of political actors willing to play fast-and-loose with journalistic ethics, this race to the bottom in political news is likely to accelerate.