Right-wing political propaganda posing as local news circulating across country

Yesterday I got a very thin newspaper in the mail that I'd never seen before. It's called the "Arizona Catholic Tribune," and has the tagline: "Real data. Real value. Real news." The main article, by "Laurie A. Luebbert," is titled, "Kelly Co-Sponsored Bill Bishops Call 'Most Unjust and Extreme . . . Ever Seen.'" Here are some of the other featured articles:

"Arizona Democrats Stanton, O'Halleran vote to keep school 'gender services' secret from parents."

"What Are Your Kids Reading? Arizona public school teachers are being encouraged to promote a new, emerging genre: Child sexualization."

"Lake: Hobbs voted ban Pledge of Allegiance, National Anthem from schools."

"Abortion on Demand, until birth."

"When does life begin?"

Basically, it's a bunch of articles featuring all the hot MAGA boogeymen, with an extra special focus on abortion.

Coincidentally, this morning I got an email from a friend, asking "have you seen this?" It was a link to an article from NPR about right-wing 'zombie' newspapers. And I realized that, while the article focused on such papers circulating throughout Illinois, the paper I just received was, in fact, exactly what this article was talking about. David Folkenflick of NPR explains:

That erosion of local news has created an opening for these newer publications, which lie dormant and then spring up at election time. They look a lot like hometown newspapers — nothing flashy, just long, printed broadsheet pages with color photos and graphics — but without any real interest in local news.

Folkenflick further details that the man who has created these papers is a former reporter and political operative named Brian Timpone:

Back in 2012, Timpone created a service called Journatic, used briefly by mainstream newspapers, that relied upon a core of reporters and an army of freelancers to try to report on real estate sales, school lunches, city council meetings, high school sports and other events. Timpone also promised state-of-the art artificial intelligence. The service's credibility was dinged when This American Life revealed not just its use of bots but content mill workers far from the regions the newspapers served. They were often based in Asia, writing under fake bylines. 

Green Valley News reports that:

Several years of exposés from NPRThe New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review have accused Timpone's companies of plagiarism, publishing fake quotes, using algorithms to write articles and outsourcing local news to freelancers in the Philippines who write under fake names.

Folkenflick confirms that he couldn't find any information on any of the people "writing" these stories. He says:

For what it's worth, I also haven't been able to reach a single person identified as writing directly for the Illinois papers . . . 

Not the writer whose byline is the same as a former social media manager and writer who works for an outsourcing company in Manila. Not the one who shares the same name as a byline on stories for UrbanReform.org — a conservative Texas-based site that has been part of the same larger network. 

Nor The Kane County Reporter's Laurie A. Luebbert. Fifteen years ago, a reporter wrote at The Virginian-Pilot under the same byline. Luebbert has no account on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook — unusual for a reporter in this day and age . . . 

And here's where it gets byzantine. Luebbert's byline doesn't just surface in other Illinois sister papers under Dan Proft. Her work also appears in Old North News in North Carolina, the New Mexico SunThe Louisiana Record.  The Lansing (Mich.) Sun, and Keystone Today in Pennsylvania, published by Metric Media or affiliated companies. The list goes on and on.

And her name appeared in the paper I received, too!

And, just to be clear, the Catholic Church has nothing to do with the "Arizona Catholic Tribune" that I received. Again, Green Valley News:

"In light of the upcoming election on Nov. 8, the Bishops of the Arizona Catholic Conference are aware of different organizations and publications calling themselves 'catholic,' but that do not represent the Catholic Church," a statement from the Bishops of Arizona Catholic Conference to the Green Valley News read.

"These organizations cover various ends of the political spectrum and often engage in partisan political endeavors," the statement continued, adding that "[t]he Catholic organization and ministries in the Diocese of Phoenix do not engage in partisan politics and do not endorse candidates or parties during any election."

NPR interviewed Pri Bengani, a senior researcher at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. In her research, she's documented more than 1,200 conservative news outlets that operate within Timpone's network. Folkenflick explains:

She considers them AstroTurf sites "laundering advocacy," driven by the interests of their funders, not an interest in news or in making money from the conventional news business. And she says the Illinois papers served as a model for what's mushroomed nationally. She first issued a study on the proliferation of the sites in 2019.

In a new report, released Monday by the Tow Center in the Columbia Journalism Review, Bengani concluded that the sites are providing services even beyond the publications.

"This network acts as a convergence of special interests for free market advocates, multiple political action committees, the fossil fuel industry, a politically motivated Catholic group, and a group propagating the notions of election fraud," Bengani writes.

Read the rest of the NPR article here.