Camouflaged “news” sites are corrupting the national political process – now they are spreading in Oregon

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?

Beaver State News

Central Oregon Times

East Oregon News

East PDX Today

Lane County News

Mid Coast Times

Mid Valley Reporter

North Coast Today

Portland Courant

South Coast Times

South Oregon News

West PDX Today

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.

Brace yourself.

Camouflaged “news” outlets: Is Oregon next?

Fake news. Biased news. Slanted news. Real news. What’s the difference? It’s getting harder to tell them apart.

Maine knows that. Now Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin are about to confront the same confusion.

Maine became a test site for camouflaged news in 2018 when a “news” website of anonymous origin, the Maine Examiner, popped up.

Leaked Email: Ben Chin Says Lewiston Voters “Bunch of Racists”According to a legitimate news outlet, The Bangor (ME) Daily News, the website gained attention in the run-up to a December 2018 mayoral runoff in Lewiston, ME. when it posted several negative articles about the progressive candidate, Ben Chin. One article contained real, leaked campaign emails in which Chin said he encountered “a bunch of racists” while campaigning. Chin lost the election, partly because of 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 described elderly black people as “antique farm equipment”  and another in which he appeared to compare a meeting with his fellow Republicans to a Ku Klux Klan gathering. And you thought only states like New York and Illinois had juicy political scandals)

A top Maine Republican Party official later admitted to state ethics watchdogs that he was behind the Maine Examiner.

Progressive Democrats in Maine lambasted the Examiner’s deceptions, but national progressives and Democrats are apparently preparing to emulate the Examiner’s approach.

Priorities USA, a Democratic Super PAC, is planning to put $100 million into a project to flood swing states — many of which have lost their local papers — with stories favorable to the Democratic agenda, Vice News reported on July 24, 2019.

Four “news” outlets staffed by Democratic operatives will publish state-specific information across social media in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin, Vice News said.

Priorities USA Communication Director Josh Schwerin tried to gloss over the sabotage effort with a disingenuous statement that Priorities’ “news” was a necessary response to the sharp decline in local news outlets.

“This should be covered by local news, but local news is dying,” Schwerin told VICE News. “Our hope is that we can help fill that hole a bit with paid media…”

What’s not clear is whether the true sponsor of Priorities’ “news” coverage will be completely or partially hidden, as is the case with a conservative-leaning national “news” site called The Free Telegraph.

Only if a viewer clicks on a barely discernable “About” at the bottom of the site is it revealed The Free Telegraph “is a conservative news and commentary platform made possible through the generous support of the Republican Governors Association.”

Then there’s Virginia, home of the Dogwood, “your source for Virginia news.”

Home - The Dogwood

If readers click on “About,” 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. We’ll bring you the story behind the story and explore how our readers’ lives are impacted by the news of the day. Our reporting is honest, to-the-point and in the service of our readers.”

If readers want to know who’s behind the news site, they can click on this: Owned by For What It’s Worth Media, Inc.. This will tell them something similar to Priorities USA’s stated rationale for its jump into the news business: “As the number of local news outlets declines 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, inspiring and motivating.”

What the Dogwood doesn’t say is it also wants to fill the gap with progressive-leaning “news” coverage. Nor does it say that progressive non-profit digital organization, Acronym, has pledged to invest $1 million in the Dogwood and says it plans to invest in other state-based news properties, which could include states such as Arizona, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

If you prefer your news with a more conservative bent, there’s The California Republican. Here you can read a story about how the Washington, D.C. chapter of Antifa sent a message to Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz by chasing him out of a restaurant, telling the Texas senator that he is “not safe” or an item headlined, “In-N-Out boycott fails miserably in Central Valley.” You can even read about signings by Fresno State’s football program.

But you won’t know the identity of the site’s publisher unless you see the barely visible text at the bottom of the home page, “Paid for by the Devin Nunes Campaign Committee – FEC ID #C00370056.” Nunes is a Republican representative of California’s 22nd District in Congress.

With a steadily shrinking cadre of legitimate news staff and outlets and the rise of political actors willing to play fast and loose with ethics, could Oregon be far behind in this race to the bottom in camouflaged “news reporting”?

Trump’s seven words: Who you gonna believe?

Ghostbusters-2-01-4

It’s not easy being right.

The Washington Post reported on Dec. 6 that, “The Trump administration has informed multiple divisions within the Department of Health and Human Services that they should avoid using certain words or phrases in official documents being drafted for next year’s budget.”

According to the Post, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were told seven words or phrases were prohibited in budget documents: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

I’ve no doubt the two reporters who wrote the Post’s story, Lena H. Sun and Juliet Eipperin, were roundly celebrated for the scoop by their colleagues in the newsroom. It’s also likely that the Post was pleased to see its story picked up by multiple other major and minor newspaper, television and social media outlets.

I thought it was fascinating, too, partly because it tied in with all the current discussion about the misuse of words and the 1984 parallels.

“We’re becoming Venezuela, where doctors are warned not to diagnose a patient as suffering from ‘malnutrition’, likely because it would highlight the widespread hunger in the country where, according to a horrific story in the New York Times, starving children are regularly brought to hospital emergency rooms,” I wrote in a post on my blog.

But was the Washington Post’s story true?

On Dec. 18, National Review, a conservative publication said emphatically, “No”.

In a story titled, “No, HHS Did Not ‘Ban Words’,” Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, a quarterly journal of essays on domestic policy and politics, forcefully challenged the Post’s version of events.

Levin, after talking with some HHS officials, argued that the budget office at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sent divisions of the department a style guide to use in their budget-proposal language and “congressional justification” documents for the coming year. That style guide set out some words to be avoided, Levin said, because they are frequently misused or regularly overused in departmental documents. “The style guide does not prohibit the use of these terms, but it says they should be used only when alternatives (which it proposes in some cases) cannot be,” Levin wrote.

Why avoid certain terms? “The common practice of substituting the term “vulnerable” for “poor”, for example, has a long history of annoying some Republicans on Capitol Hill, and presumably that accounts for the instruction to avoid it in congressional-justification documents,” Levin said. In other words, he said, it wasn’t that retrograde Republicans in the Trump administration ordered career CDC officials not to use these terms but that career CDC officials assumed retrograde Republicans would be triggered by such words and, in an effort to avoid having such Republicans cut their budgets, reasoned they might be best avoided.”

“If all of that is correct… it does make for an interesting story,” Levin said. “But it’s not nearly as interesting as the Washington Post made it seem, and it doesn’t point to quite the same lessons either. In fact, it probably tells us more about the attitudes and assumptions of the career officials in various HHS offices than about the political appointees of the administration they are now supposed to be working for.”

So, slightly modifying the Ghostbusters line, “Who you gonna believe?”

With all the attention being given to so-called “fake news,” it’s becoming harder to know what’s true and what’s not. Sure, there are carefully planted tweets and Facebook posts that are clearly false, items posted not to inform but to sway public opinion. But what about all the stories by so-called legitimate media sources that, when closely examined, seem to some to be more an effort to advance an ideological agenda

The Post and the New York Times, for example, have come under fire from critics arguing that they are increasingly functioning as public relations arms of the Democratic National Committee. Equally, Fox News is routinely accused of just the opposite.

“Since its 1996 launch, Fox has become a central hub of the conservative movement’s well-oiled media machine,” says FAIR, a group that criticizes media bias from a progressive viewpoint. “Together with the GOP organization and its satellite think tanks and advocacy groups, this network of fiercely partisan outlets—such as the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and conservative talk-radio shows like Rush Limbaugh’s—forms a highly effective right-wing echo chamber.”

Perhaps we are just returning to the beginning.

The first newspaper produced in North America was Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, published on September 25, 1690, by Boston printer Benjamin Harris. The colonial government objected to Harris’s negative tone regarding British rule and the newspaper was banned after one issue.

Subsequent newspapers printed during the colonial period were highly opinionated, generally arguing one political point of view or aggressively pushing the ideas of whatever party subsidized the paper.

Mitchell Stephens, a New York University journalism professor and the author of History of News, said the purpose of newspapers “changed to the political and polemical after 1765—around the time of the Stamp Act-as tensions snowballed.”

 

“As the century began, the fledgling colonial press tested its wings,” James Breig, a newspaper editor, wrote in the Colonial Williamsburg Journal. “A bolder journalism opened on the eve of the Revolution. And, as the century closed with the birth of the United States, a rancorously partisan and rambunctious press emerged.”

It looks like it’s back.

Media Malpractice: Reporting on Post-Election Hate

stopthehate

There’s not just fake news out there. There’s also a lot of reporting that’s just plain unreliable and biased, but is accepted uncritically by people because it fits their preconceived expectations and those of their like-minded circle.

Tales of hate incidents, threats and intimidation of minorities abound, with many commentators suggesting there’s a linkage between the incidents and Donald Trump’s election.

Much of the recent debate has relied on data gathered by the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

On Nov. 29, the SPLC released reports “documenting (emphasis mine) how President-elect Donald Trump’s own words have sparked hate incidents across the country and had a profoundly negative effect on the nation’s schools”. The reports said that in the ten days after the election the SPLC counted 867 incidents of harassment and intimidation.

Most of the incidents cited by the SPLC involved anti-immigrant incidents (136), followed by anti-black (89) and anti-LGBT (43). A “Trump” category (41) referred to incidents where there was no clear defined target, like the vandalism of a “unity” sign in Connecticut, which the SPLC categorized as “pro-Trump vandalism”.

The New York Times jumped on the report, observing that, “Hate Crimes have surged across the country,” linking that assertion to the SPLC ‘s “hate crimes” reports and denouncing Trump for not being more aggressive in “condemning the hate talk and violence being done in his name.”

The New Yorker, citing the SPLC reports, said, “Since Donald Trump won the Presidential election, there has been a dramatic uptick in incidents of racist and xenophobic harassment across the country.”

“Hate, harassment incidents spike since Trump election”, CBS News reported, basing its report largely on SPLC’s data.

Willamette Week picked up the SPLC’s report, running a story headlined, “Report on Post-Election Hate Incidents Shows Oregon at Top of List; New Southern Poverty Law Center info paints alarming picture of Pacific Northwest.”

NPR’s All Things Considered also had a segment on the topic.

“Since Tuesday (Nov. 8), the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has counted some 250 incidents…. ,” said NPR’s Eyder Peralta. “While they have not verified all of them, they include anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-Muslim messages and, in the case of a Michigan middle school, a lunchroom anti-immigrant taunt – build the wall.”

“I think that the emotions that were unleashed by the Trump campaign’s use of bigotry as a tool to get elected has reached every part of our society, “ said Heidi Beirich, an employee of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) described as an expert on various forms of extremism. “I think that the emotions that were unleashed by the Trump campaign’s use of bigotry as a tool to get elected has reached every part of our society.”

Because the SPLC is widely recognized as a reputable source, or because many media outlets have taken the easy way out and simply parroted the SPLC’s reports, the media have been awash in reports citing the SPLC data.

There’s one big problem. Media don’t note that the SPLC has not verified the incidents it cites so breathlessly as evidence of a spike in hate crimes..

On its website, the SPLC admits the hate incidents it cites came from news reports, social media, and direct submissions via SPLC’s #ReportHate page. “These incidents, aside from news reports, are largely anecdotal” and “…it was not possible to confirm the veracity of all reports” the SPLC says.

And there’s no way for the public to even read the details of all the reported incidents because the SPLC’s website doesn’t provide access to them.

There may, indeed, have been a recent rise in hate incidents, and the SPLC’s reports make for bone-chilling reading. But the reports don’t “document” hate incidents if the word is taken to mean providing hard evidence.

Hanna Goldfield addressed the critical need for writing to be accurate, even if an alternative version is more “beautiful” or makes a story stronger, in a piece she wrote for the New Yorker. “The conceit that one must choose facts or beauty—even if it’s beauty in the name of “Truth” or a true “idea”—is preposterous,” she said. “A good writer—with the help of a fact-checker and an editor, perhaps—should be able to marry the two, and a writer who refuses to even try is, simply, a hack.”

Reporters should also recognize that data sources are rarely neutral observers. the SPLC, for example, has a position to plead, a message to deliver in order to generate contributions, a desire to be quoted so its influence will be enhanced.

Paul Sperry, a former Washington bureau chief for Investor’s Business Daily, also points out that although the SPLC claims to be a nonpartisan civil rights law firm, it receives funding from leftist groups, including ones controlled by billionaire George Soros. And a review of Federal Election Commission records reveals that its board members contributed more than $13,400 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns.

In summary, there’s a lesson here for current and aspiring reporters. Reporters shouldn’t just accept and promote information that affirms their biases or makes for a story that attracts a lot of clicks.  That’s sloppy reporting that undermines trust in the media, and rightfully so.

 

 

 

 

Media Transparency: Who said that?

mediatransparency

Untrustworthy information isn’t just about fake news, the media’s topic du jour. There’s another equally insidious trend in today’s media.

It was highlighted in a recent New York Times  opinion piece contending that Facebook shouldn’t be expected to fact-check news posts.

“What those demanding that Facebook accept “responsibility” for becoming the dominant news aggregator of our time seem to be overlooking is that there’s a big difference between the editorial power that individual news organizations wield and that which Facebook could,” wrote a woman named Jessica Lessin, identified as the founder and chief executive of The Information, a technology news site. “Such editorial power in Facebook’s hands would be unprecedented and dangerous.”

Lessin noted in her piece that her husband worked at Facebook “for a brief period.” That’s it.

But the New York Times’ Public Editor, Liz Spayd, disclosed on Nov. 30 that, in fact, Lessin and her husband, Sam, have pretty damn close ties to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive officer.

Not only have Sam Lessin and Zuckerberg been friends since they both attended Harvard, Spayd reported, but Sam introduced Zuckerberg to investors when he was starting Facebook. In addition, in 2010, Facebook acquired a file-sharing site, Drop.io, that Sam had founded and made Sam a Facebook vice president overseeing product. Zuckerberg was even a guest at the Lessing’s wedding.

Spayd ripped the Times for not disclosing to readers the Lessins’ ties to Facebook, particularly because Jessica Lessin had vigorously defended the company.

The problem is this is not the only case of the media’s failure to disclose relevant information on somebody expressing an opinion.

On Oct. 28, 2016, CBS News Tonight featured a comment by a Matthew Miller condemning FBI Director James Comey for reopening the Clinton email investigation. CBS noted only that Miller had been a spokesman for the Department of Justice.

That same day, Politico reported that Miller had gone on a 14-post spree on Twitter blasting Comey and said Comey’s letter to Congress announcing the review of more evidence in the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server constituted “…an inappropriate disclosure.”

Politico also identified Miller only as “a former director of the Justice Department’s office of public affairs.”

Salon jumped on the bandwagon, too, citing a Miller tweet, “FBI is undoubtedly investigating links between the Russian hack, Manafort, & the Trump campaign”. Salon also identified Miller as “Former Department of Justice spokesman…”.

The next day, the Washington Post ran a lengthy opinion piece by Miller titled “James Comey fails to follow Justice Department rules yet again.” Miller blasted Comey, saying his action “…was yet another troubling violation of long-standing Justice Department rules or precedent, conduct that raises serious questions about his judgment and ability to serve as the nation’s chief investigative official.”

In this case, the opinion piece identified Miller only as director of the Justice Department’s public affairs office from 2009 to 2011.

In both cases, there was a glaring omission. For full transparency, CBS and the Washington Post should have pointed out that Miller was hardly an unbiased observer.

Not only has Miller served as communications director for the House Democratic Caucus, but he held the same position at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee under Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who was elected Senate minority leader on Nov. 16, 2016, making him the highest ranking Democrat in the U.S.

Before working for Schumer, Miller was communications director for the successful 2006 Senate campaign of Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

Don’t you think it would be instructive to know all this before reading Matthew Miller’s opinions?

In other words, untrustworthy news isn’t just about fake news, the media’s topic du jour.

Readers shouldn’t have to research a writer’s background on their own, as I had to do to evaluate Matthew’s credibility, because of the media’s lack of candor. But too often, media cast aside their responsibility to be forthcoming, sometimes I think deliberately, to obscure their biases.

In the end, this is all about the critical importance of the media telling what radio broadcaster Paul Harvey called ‘the rest of the story’ ”.