According to Salon, fact-checking outlet Snopes has found that many new “local news websites” are in fact propaganda websites launched by Republican consultants. The consultants’ company is partly funded by the candidates the websites cover.
Last year it was discovered that a “Tennessee Star” website that claimed to be for local news was instead launched by three conservative activists: Michael Patrick Leahy, Steve Gill, and Christina Botteri. The website mainly posted content that was linked to Republican donors.
The same group of activists has launched two similar sites: The Minnesota Sun and the Ohio Star. All of the websites claim to be the “most reliable” local newspapers which provide “unbiased updates on Investigative Reports, Thoughtful Opinion, Sports, Lifestyle.”
The websites are anything but unbiased. Gill, who is listed as the political editor for the Tennessee Star, owns a media consulting firm that was given payment by at least one candidate and at least one political action committee prior to their receiving positive coverage on the website.
Snopes found that several of the website’s writers have worked or still work for PACs or political campaigns that they write about without disclosing their baised positions. One journalist for the site, Chris Butler, has worked for a PAC affiliated with Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. Two of the writers for the website have their own PAC dedicated to maintaining a Republican majority in the Tennessee state legislature.
Head of the Center of Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Kathleen Bartzen Culver, said that although political operatives can launch their own news platforms, it is an issue if they are trying to deceive readers by presenting themselves as a nonpartisan local news outlet.
“I have no problem with advocacy organizations creating content that reinforces the positions they take on public policy issues on the left, right or center. The issue comes in when they’re not transparent about that advocacy,” Culver said. “In this case, if you have a conservative take on a policy issue and you want to promote that take, go ahead. But just claim it for what it is.”
“Transparency is a critically important element in journalism,” Culver said. “When you are opaque about funding sources and their influence, when you don’t disclose to readers where the money is coming from and where the conflicts of interest may be, you are robbing those people of important information that they need to judge credibility.”
The group appears to be in the process of making new websites in states that will be electoral battlegrounds in the 2020 election. The states include Missouri, New England, the Dakotas, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virgina, and Wisconsin.
“The information sphere is so polluted right now that the average citizen has trouble telling what is real and what is not,” Culver told Snopes. “I find that very troubling within a democracy.”