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Jun 2, 2024, 5:08pm EDT
mediapolitics

The new pink slime media

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Excerpt

Steven Brill is the co-founder of NewsGuard. His new book, ”The Death of Truth,” comes out June 4 from Penguin Random House.

From 2003 to 2020, U.S. newspaper advertising and circulation revenue fell from $57.4 billion to $20.6 billion. As a result, approximately twenty-two hundred newspapers and their websites went out of business between 2005 and 2021. And between 2008 and 2021, forty thousand newsroom jobs were lost at those papers and at the survivors that still had to continue cutting back staff.

A new, insidious brand of misinformation has now moved in to fill the breach, resulting in the prospect that another troubling milestone in misinformation and disinformation may soon be crossed. As of the end of 2023, the number of real news websites in the United States operated by real local daily newspapers has declined, while the number of so-called pink-slime news sites has increased to the point that there were about the same number (about 1,200) of each.

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Pink-slime sites are those that present themselves as legitimate news publishers but have a different, undisclosed mission. They are secretly financed by partisan funders and created to boost their favorite political candidates and tear down their opponents while piously masquerading as independent, nonprofit start-ups launched by civic-minded donors to fill the gap created by the decline of local newspapers. They try to look like long-established independent local newspapers, such as The Copper Courier of Arizona, whose name sounds as if it dates from the copper rush of the 19th century, not its actual founding in 2019 by a left-wing political operation.

For those who believe that the independent press — the Fourth Estate — is fundamental to democracy, this hijacking of the credibility of once-trusted local news sources should be beyond the pale. The hijackers, Democrats and Republicans alike, have acted as if the idea that self-government depends on people being able to count on independent providers of information is a quaint relic and that the new media channels present new opportunities that creative political operatives must seize. In other words, even this core instrument of the democratic process, independent journalism, can and must now be cast aside.

An October 2022 NewsGuard report described this hijacking of traditional local newspapers, citing an article that appeared “on millions of Facebook and Instagram feeds in Michigan, reporting that the state’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, Tudor Dixon, said that a 14-year-old girl raped by her uncle was a ‘perfect example’ of a case in which abortion should not be allowed under the law.” The article, designed to mobilize Democratic voters, was posted on Facebook and Instagram by a seemingly local news outlet called The Main Street Sentinel. The NewsGuard report noted, “Although the article devoted more space and a positive spin to the pro-choice views of Dixon’s opponent, it did accurately quote and summarize Dixon’s position. However, astute Facebook and Instagram users might have noticed that the article was actually an ad that carried a ‘sponsored’ label in small print above the text, followed by a disclosure that the post touting the article was ‘Paid for by The Main Street Sentinel.’ That did not mean that the ad was paid for by a benign local news outlet seeking to call attention to its reporting.”

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The ad was instead the work of an influence operation linked to a Democratic strategist and designed to boost the reelection campaign of Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, who was running against Dixon. The purpose of the article was not to appeal to readers of the obscure Main Street Sentinel, of which there were few. Rather, it was set up so that, for $80,000 in advertising on Facebook, it could be displayed on approximately 7.42 million Facebook and Instagram feeds in Michigan and look like a post from a legitimate news publisher touting its work. Nowhere was the article’s real pedigree as a Democratic campaign message disclosed. Just the opposite was conveyed. A seemingly real news operation had promoted something negative about Whitmer’s opponent to those targeted on Facebook and Instagram.

The secret, politically motivated financing of these faux news sites is bipartisan. One pink-slime network called Metric Media, which was found running more than a thousand such sites, is funded by Republicans and does the same kind of targeting for its candidates running in state and local elections. On the Democrats’ side, the most prominent and sophisticated of the pink-slimers is something called Courier Newsroom, which is owned by Good Information Inc. The Courier sites, including The Copper Courier, all have “About” sections that declare they are independent start-ups meant to fill the void created by the decline of local newspapers.

Good Information, launched in February 2021, succeeded Acronym, a dark money Democratic group that provided Courier with its initial funding. Good Information described itself in a press release announcing its October 2021 launch as “committed to increasing the flow of good information online to counter disinformation where it spreads, restore social trust and strengthen democracy.” According to the press release, it planned “to invest in, incubate and scale new business models and smart distribution strategies that are capable of breaking through echo chambers and information silos to reach consumers with trusted information.”

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The billionaire LinkedIn co-founder and Democratic donor Reid Hoffman led a multimillion-dollar seed investment for Good Information, according to the company’s launch announcement. He was joined in his efforts by his fellow billionaire and Democratic mega-donor George Soros. In June 2022, Hoffman gathered a dozen billionaires over Zoom with the goal of raising tens of millions of dollars for groups described as being able to increase Democratic turnout and “dissuade” Republicans from going to the polls, The Washington Post reported.

Courier uses unabashed, aggressive fundraising tactics, The Washington Post report found. In an August 2022 “case study” presented on its website to explain how effective its spending is, Courier touted its ad-targeting campaign on a page titled “Local Newsroom Proves Ability to Turn Out Voters in Rural Iowa.” The group described how its Iowa publication had spent $49,000 on Facebook ads targeting twelve Iowa counties ahead of the state’s June 2022 primary election. According to Courier, the campaign resulted in thirty-three hundred more votes, presumably for Democrats.

The Washington Post report found that during the 2022 election cycle these pink-slime operations “spent approximately $3.94 million on ad campaigns running simultaneously on Facebook and Instagram. ... With these ads able to reach highly targeted audiences for a fraction of the cost of other media, they have been featured on Facebook and Instagram feeds more than 115 million times.”

The operating head of Courier Newsroom is Tara McGowan, a longtime Democratic political organizer and communications staffer. When I interviewed her in 2022, she took umbrage at questions related to her organization’s funding, its clearly strategic launch of news sites only in swing states or swing districts, and its apparent tilting of coverage. “We are only trying to serve underserved communities,” she maintained. She declined to answer when asked about whether the Courier network of sites would ever publish similarly positive coverage of Republicans or critical coverage of Democrats.

Asked why Courier does not more fully disclose its political motivations to readers, McGowan said, “Courier does not need to give them the full picture. ... Our job is not to cover every single story that merits coverage.” She added, “We didn’t say that we’re not a progressive organization. ... We never claimed to be fair and balanced. We never claimed to elevate both sides. We have been transparent.”

McGowan then added this rationale: “We are up against a right-wing propaganda disinformation machine that has been building for forty years.”

In other words, because the other side does it, we can do it.

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