Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Websites in Michigan are latest examples of partisans publishing biased content meant to look like local news

A conservative group has launched nearly 40 sites masquerading as local news in the battleground state of Michigan, and plans to launch thousands more nationwide, Carol Thompson reports for the Lansing State Journal.

Matt Grossmann, director of Michigan State University's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, told Thompson he noticed the sites through promoted posts on Facebook, and did some digging after he saw the partisan slant of the stories and the unfamiliar site names. He discovered a "vast network of related outlets" meant to look like local news sites. 

The publisher, Metric Media LLC, says on its "About" section that it aims to fill the "growing void in local and community news after years of steady disinvestment in local reporting by legacy media." It is run by conservative lobbyist Bradley Cameron, whose "biography also says he has worked for pharmaceutical manufacturers, technology companies, and is retained by national conservative leaders to respond to 'government targeting of their operations and initiatives'," Thompson reports.

Cameron's plans are big, but his approach isn't new. In recent years, partisan operatives have been increasingly capitalizing on the "vestigial credibility" readers give local news to publish sites that look like local news but publish highly biased content.

"As local news becomes less profitable as a commercial business (and re-spun as more of a public good) but still retains high levels of trust, some political players see its situation as an opportunity," Christine Schmidt reports for Harvard University's NiemanLab. "Among them has been a series of conservative news sites with opaque funding that focus almost entirely on portraying governments as wasteful and corrupt." The problem isn't so much with politicians promoting agendas as concealment of that, and their attempt to capitalize on the trust earned by newspapers, Schmidt writes.

Some liberal operatives are doing likewise, but lately it's been mostly conservatives. "The Free Telegraph' states nowhere on its homepage that it’s published by the Republican Governors Association," Schmidt notes. "The California Republican sprinkles heroic headlines about GOP Rep. Devin Nunes ('Devin Nunes Exposes Collusion, Left Gets Abusive') until you scroll down to see 'Paid for by the Devin Nunes Campaign Committee' in tiny type at the bottom," Schmidt reports. "Politico and Snopes uncovered a network of sites in key 2020 states (The Ohio StarThe Minnesota SunThe Tennessee Star) created by Republican consultants and mislabeling people paid to elect a GOP candidate as 'investigative journalists' who were now covering them."

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