New York Times Uncovers Alleged Conservative Pink Slime Journalism Operation with Link to Illinois, Other States

By Benjamin Cox on October 19, 2020 at 9:21am

A recent Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School study may have recently exposed a West Central Illinois news source as a “pink slime” journalism source. The New York Times published an expose over the weekend of the network of alleged news websites, that they say are being run by conservative operatives. Roughly 1,300 websites of this type exist around the country.

Pink slime journalism is characterized as a low-cost automated story generation news model (either through algorithm or AI programming) that uses local press releases and public statistical information to create their stories – most often time not by an actual journalist. Most of the groups responsible for creating the sites can be traced back to conservative-leaning businessman and former journalist Brian Timpone, according to the Tow Center study. Timpone is affiliated with Metric Media, Locality Labs, Franklin Archer, the Record, Incorporated, and Local Government Information Services. According to the New York Times, liberal donors have poured millions of dollars into operations like Courier, a network of eight sites that began covering local news in swing states last year. Traditional news organizations do not accept payment for articles; the Federal Trade Commission requires that advertising that looks like articles be clearly labeled as ads.

Timpone’s organizations have been accused of using out-of-town reporters in some cases in the Philippines, using fake quotes from local officials, and writing fake bylines. Several major newspapers have been connected to using Timpone’s organization for content, including the Chicago Tribune and GateHouse Media, who owns the Springfield State Journal Register.

The West Central Illinois Reporter says on its “About Us” section that it is a product of Local Government Information Services. The Tow Center study suggests that websites like Reporter are used as conservative-aimed political promotion tools to sway public opinion under the guise of being a local news outlet. LGIS was an offshoot of Timpone’s organization created by Dan Proft, a well-known radio talk show host on Chicago’s AM560 The Answer, a right leaning station. A Federal Election Commission complaint was filed over Proft’s creation of the group for taking over production and distribution of newspapers and designing it in the format of looking like local, community papers – an alleged violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed in July last year.

The Reporter has recently come under fire for releasing headlines saying “No White Residents of Greene County had COVID-19 tests return positive” on July 21st and again on August 4th. According to the Tow Study, it’s a case of the algorithm generating articles and conservative talking points. The group behind the sites has set up more than 189 new websites within the last year.

The New York Times article alleges that the stories are directed by political groups and corporate P.R. firms to promote a Republican candidate or a company, or to smear their rivals. The Times has allegedly uncovered details about the operation through interviews with more than 30 current and former employees and clients, as well as thousands of internal emails between reporters and editors spanning several years. Employees of the network shared emails and the editing history in the site’s publishing software that revealed who requested dozens of articles and how. WLDS has sent emails to the West Central Reporter for comment within the last two months and has not received any answer.

The Times also alleges that some of the stories are being paid for by community groups. John Tillman, an activist who once led the Illinois Opportunity Project and whose other groups have paid Timpone’s companies hundreds of thousands of dollars, said in an email to the Times that some of the payments to Timpone were to underwrite his news operation. According to state and federal political finance records, former Republican gubernatorial candidate and current U.S. House candidate Jeanne Ives has had a direct financial relationship with the operation. Ives has paid approximately $55,000 to Timpone’s companies over the last 3 years. The sites have allegedly published several stories on Ives, including running press releases from her campaigns verbatim. Ives, in an interview with the New York Times, says she has never paid for positive coverage of her work and that the payments were made to create her website and monitor her Wikipedia page for negative entries.

Currently, the West Central Reporter is running multiple stories on the effect the Graduated Income Tax Amendment would have on retiree households in counties across the listening area.