Pseudo news outlets push false claims around election

On Nov. 4, the day after the election, the Milwaukee City Wire inaccurately reported that more votes were cast in seven wards in the city than there were registered voters. Right-wing pundits and conspiracy theorists rushed to tweet the story, and retweet those tweets. Fox’s Sean Hannity weighed in. Some down-the-middle journalists also followed suit.

But USA Today found the claim was wrong.

The Milwaukee City Wire is one of more than 1,300 new sites run by noted Illinois conservatives Brian Timpone and Dan Proft. The news outlets, extending across the country, disguise right-wing political propaganda as local news.

Illinois Rep. Jeff Keicher, a Republican from Sycamore, has long since decided not to talk to a local news site that is part of the Timpone-Proft group.

Jeff Keicher and his daughter at the Illinois House in spring 2019. (Photo by Christopher Heimerman)

Even though he hasn’t talked to The DeKalb Times’ website in years, Keicher’s name appeared Nov. 13 in the headline of three of the five lead byline stories.

Since Keicher began declining to speak with the pseudo-local news outlet, he’s winced as he’s seen website quotes and social media posts appearing in Times’ stories, most of them out of context.

“I’d continually see that my words were used in an incomplete way to fill a narrative that wasn’t my own,” said Keicher, who cruised to a 17-point victory in the recent election to secure a second term in the statehouse. “They are a thorn in my side. It does nothing but undermine quality access to good information.”

This kind of misinformation is damaging, Keicher said. “When it spreads with speed and gets retweeted and quoted by others, wrong information in the wrong hands that confirms an ideology is very difficult to dislodge. It does us, as a culture, a disservice.”

The DeKalb Times is one of at least 1,300 nationwide outlets run by Proft, a controversial, conservative talk-show host on 560-AM in Chicago and a former Republican gubernatorial candidate, and Brian Timpone, a former TV reporter-turned-entrepreneur. Timpone went to the University of Missouri School of Journalism and later was a spokesperson for a Republican House Minority leader Lee Daniels.

The sites go by innocuous names as The DeKalb Times, the St. Louis Reporter and Milwaukee City Wire. They create and disseminate misinformation; regurgitate unedited news releases from right-wing lawmakers, candidates, interest groups and public relation firms; and pluck quotes from legislators’ sites to fit a conservative narrative.

The Times in Ottawa, Illinois, caught Timpone’s operation red-handed in 2016, after his Illinois Valley Times twice plagiarized the local paper’s election reporting by running direct quotes and claiming they were made to the Times.

Things seemingly haven’t changed. The DeKalb Times on Nov. 8 published a story on COVID-19 informing school districts’ return to in-person learning includes quotes from three local superintendents – all lifted directly from the Daily Chronicle, a legitimate Shaw Media newspaper that covers DeKalb County.

One of the superintendents, Griff Powell from DeKalb School District 428, confirmed he’d only spoken with the Chronicle, not the DeKalb Times.

Brian Timpone and Dan Proft

‘I hang up’

Keicher first heard from The DeKalb Times in fall of 2016, when he began his first campaign to work in the statehouse.

He didn’t recognize the area code. Reporters for “pink slime” pubs work from hundreds of miles away from the cities they “cover.” Some even live overseas. They make about $25 a story.

Whenever Keicher is asked for an interview, he vets the reporter and asks for credentials. When it’s someone from The DeKalb Times, he declines and tells them not to call him anymore. He’s not sure what their response would be.

“I don’t know, because I hang up,” he said.

Literal fake news has made interacting with the media an arduous task. Keicher subscribes to several publications, from the New York Times to the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb. He nearly reflexively turned down a recent interview with a reporter from the LaSalle Times, another legitimate Shaw publication, because the call came from an outside area code.

At least one of Keicher’s GOP colleagues in the statehouse, State Rep. Sue Rezin (R-Morris), has regularly given interviews to another outlet in the network, the Illinois Valley Times, which in turn has painted her in a favorable light.

The New York Times pounced on that revelation and linked the operation to Proft. Also linked were two sitting Republican officeholders, including former gubernatorial candidate Jeanne Ives, who “paid Mr. Timpone’s companies $55,000 over the past three years, according to state and federal records.”

Rezin did not respond to Gateway’s email and phone requests for comment.

Keicher said there’s nothing wrong with publications that lean left or right – as long as they report accurately and are up-front about their bias.

“That level of honesty would go a long way,” he said. “It changes the conversation from being fake news to news viewed through a lens of different opinion.

“We’re decimating our ranks of quality journalists – nationally and in Illinois,” Keicher said. “We barely have any press reporters in the Springfield press pool.”

He lamented that publications more interested in slinging mud and advancing an agenda under the guise of objectivity are as old as time. He recently read Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life” and marveled at the history of slanted, disingenuous journalism.

“Unfortunately, I think it’s a hallmark of the human condition, to tear down people you don’t agree with,” he said.

But today, those attacks are instantaneous.

“While it’s an issue that spreads quickly today without a check, back in the day, it would be a published broadsheet and circulate from person to person in taverns and roadside inns,” Keicher said.

Election year surge

Metric Media’s website lists 966 of the sites linked to Timpone and Proft in 49 states, while LGIS runs the 34 websites in Illinois, according to its website.

Metric Media states on its home page that it boasts more than 1,300 sites, nearly three times the about 450 sites that Columbia Journalism Review identified one year ago.

In 2017, Gateway Journalism Review published an expose of LGIS, for Proft was a principal, published 11 newspapers and 20 websites around the state. LGIS was a sister organization of the Illinois News Network, which boasted 60 print, digital and broadcast news outlets statewide.

At that time, Profit’s Liberty Principles political PAC had received more than $10 million from Rauner and two wealthy friends, and used it to fund pro-Rauner candidates. Proft shut down the Liberty Principles PAC in January, along with another PAC.

Metric Media’s map stretched across the country. There are 57 sites in Texas, 51 in Ohio, 49 in Florida, and 48 in North Carolina, but just 23 in New York. California is home to 74 of them.

The closure of one in five newsrooms nationwide has created an ideal environment for these pseudo newsrooms to multiply.

“It’s the confluence of a huge election season and news season, the decline of local news that’s left an incredible vacuum, and of course, the rise of social media platforms,” said Kjerstin Thorson, an associate professor and director of graduate students at Michigan State University, who specializes in online misinformation consumption. “The other piece of that is that while people might see network news as biased, they are more likely to trust local news.”

That lends to the effectiveness of creating websites that, at a glance, look like perfectly reputable news sources.

Timpone’s companies have changed names and rebranded multiple times over the years. He founded Journatic in 2006 and, after admitting in June 2012 to NPR’s “This American Life” that Journatic used 300 freelancers writing under fake bylines, and after traditional media shops reported on plagiarism in Timpone’s products, he rebranded Journatic as Locality Labs in 2013. It’s now known as LocalLabs.

Neither Timpone nor Proft responded to Gateway’s multiple email, phone, and social media requests for comment.

Timpone told GJR three years ago, “You don’t understand what a free press is. You have no concept of the history of media in this country. How much of a departure the last thirty years has been.”

Asked why his reporters often don’t live in Illinois, he responded, “Do you think it is any different than the Chicago Tribune using reporters in Chicago to call local people downstate? All they do is use the telephone.”

Timpone said, “We are not beholden to anybody…. With other papers, the reporters listen to government agents. They are biased toward government. We give voice to people who have never been heard.”

WISN, an ABC affiliate in Milwaukee, was able to reach Timpone for the TV network’s investigation of Milwaukee City Wire’s false reporting. The City Wire had said the mistake had been caused because the city had not updated its voting records, but USA Today found that was not true. Timpone told WISN “The change in the records doesn’t change the story’s point materially at all.”

However, records show more registered voters in each of the seven wards than votes – the opposite of what the Wire had reported.

Fighting misinformation

The lead story of the Nov. 11 edition of the New York Times was on election officials in all 50 states finding no evidence of voter fraud.

“Their lead story on A1 was about something that didn’t happen,” said Matt Hall, editorial and opinion director at the San Diego Union Tribune, as well as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “News by definition is on something that did happen. That speaks to the climate we’re living in.”

He said decisions on whether to report on misinformation are complex, and that newsrooms should weigh the information, where it’s from, and how widely it’s been spread.

“There’s a certain calculus that needs to take place,” Hall said. “Context and counting paragraphs matters.”

Misinformation, when not put into context, thrives in the light.

“There’s a real risk that in just reporting on misinformation, there are some who are going to read it not for the reporting, but for the bad information,” Hall said. “One of the struggles for journalists at any time, and especially now, is when to amplify false information and in what context, and how to debunk it.”

“In general, you don’t want to repeat it,” Thorson said. “If you have to repeat it, put it inside a truth sandwich.”

Hall said some large newsrooms have actually hired and assigned reporters to the misinformation beat. In absence of that luxury, he said newsrooms should approach fact-checking holistically, and instill the importance of reporters watching for misinformation in their respective beats.

“Less important than any one particular episode of fact-checking is the entirety of your newsroom’s effort and your information effort,” he said.

Thorson said it’s on journalists to “debundle” content from a source, then address it within the context of the facts.

“We have to give people credit. It’s really hard to find out what’s credible information,” Thorson said. “I would not blame an 18-year-old for being confused about what’s good and bad information.”

So it’s the journalist’s burden to report the truth and debunk lies. She admits that’s a challenge, with newsrooms being cut to the bone by financial hardships. “The time to do that debundling is no longer available to us,” she said

Laurel White, a reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio, has been plenty busy on the Wisconsin election misinformation beat. On Nov. 12, she wrote a piece that added six more false claims to her running list, from felt tip markers disqualifying ballots to the Associated Press’ accidental report of inaccurate results proving the presence of election fraud.

Wisconsin Elections Commission head Meagan Wolfe, who did not respond to Gateway’s request for an interview, conceded that the AP made an honest mistake, which was quickly corrected. Wolfe has had to refute countless false claims since Election Night.

What was conspicuously missing from White’s report was Milwaukee City Wire’s fraudulent report.

“I hadn’t even seen [the Milwaukee City Wire] story,” said her fellow WPR reporter Corri Hess, who in September began her term as president of the Milwaukee Press Club.

She said just Nov. 12, the club was discussing the fake news epidemic, the way mainstream media is discredited, and the way journalists are vilified whenever they write something the reader doesn’t agree with.

“The way these past 4 years have gone, with the president saying ‘fake news,’ it’s gotten to the point I don’t even think people know what they’re saying when they say ‘fake news,’” she said. “When they don’t like something in the news, they call it fake news.”

Hess said the press club is discussing hosting forums on that very topic in 2021.

“It is really hard, because I’ve seen things on Twitter that are wrong,” she said. “It’s hard as a reporter. I want to respond and say, ‘Actually the fact is this.’ But you don’t want to appear partisan. It’s really hard these days because you don’t want to be labeled.”

Downplaying concern

For the past 10 years, Thorson and her team at MSU have been studying young adults’ social media timelines.

“The biggest thing we see is no news,” she said of the 18- to 35-year-olds’ feeds. “There’s this misconception that everybody sees a lot of politics in their feed, but we’ve found people’s news feeds are not awash with this content.”

She conceded that most people see more than you can glean from a 90-minute review of their timeline, that many follow any number of groups. But she added that if they’re local groups, they usually ban political posts.

While it obviously has great reason to make such a claim, Facebook recently said in a statement that political posts make up just 6 percent of its users’ feeds.

She said she takes comfort, ironically, in the limited impact of counterfeit media.

“Most of the existing studies show it’s not having a huge effect on people,” she said. “In some ways, I wish it were the case that the media had huge effects.”                        

Christopher Heimerman is a former editor of the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, Illinois, and freelance journalist covering media practices in the Midwest. He wrote the memoir “40,000 Steps” which details his war with alcoholism and the marathon he ran after rehab. He lives in DeKalb. Follow him on Twitter @RunTopherRun.

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