Will the New Rightwing Grift - “Pink Slime Journalism” - Con the Average Joe?
Into the void steps the “pink slime journalism” newspapers and websites, funded by multiple rightwing billionaires, peddling lies and hate to get rightwing Republicans elected to office…
It’s an election year, so get ready: here comes “pink slime journalism.”
Pink slime, of course, is the ground up gristle that’s colored red and sold as meat or a meat additive, but the term has come to mean anything that purports to be one thing but in fact is something quite different.
In this case, these are rightwing propaganda outlets that purport to be local newspapers. They’re taking advantage of the tragic reality that since Reagan stopped enforcing antitrust laws in 1983 and Clinton did away with ownership limits for news outlets in 1996, over 2,100 local newspapers in America have gone out of business.
Into that void have stepped the “pink slime journalism” newspapers and websites, funded by multiple rightwing billionaires, peddling lies and hate to get rightwing Republicans elected to office.
In the month before the 2022 election, for example, The Columbia Journalism Review tells the story of 22-year-old Michael Gnadt, who found a copy of the Kane County Reporter newspaper in his mailbox:
“The paper featured scare stories on crime, covid, and culture war topics. Teachers were instructing children to be trans, it said, and dangerous murderers would be released without bail under a Democratic plan to reform cash bail, in a double-page spread of mug shots of mostly Black men.
“’It was vile stuff,’ Gnadt said after researching more about the paper online. It particularly struck a chord because Gnadt felt it was questioning his very right to exist as part of the LGBTQ+ community. He was also disgusted by what he saw as racism. ‘It really tried to punch down on as many people as possible,’ he said.”
The Review went on to note that hundreds of thousands of copies of such newspapers, each tweaked to appear local with names like “Chicago City Wire, West Cook News, Dupage Policy Journal, Lake County Gazette, and Will County Gazette,” were distributed across Illinois in the weeks leading up to the election of 2022. They’re published by a rightwing activist and funded by an Illinois rightwing billionaire.
“These papers,” the Review noted, “which were attacked by [Illinois Governor JB] Pritzker as ‘racist,’ as the Chicago Tribune first reported, feature multiple misleading, decontextualized, and often nonfactual stories on hot-button issues in Illinois. While the papers claim to comprise honest local reporting — ‘Real data. Real news,’ the slogan reads — they are part of a wider trend of the blurring of journalism and campaigning.”
As National Public Radio reported when they looked into the phenomenon a bit over a year ago:
“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.”
In addition to the newspapers, there are thousands of websites that purport to carry local news but, instead, routinely serve up rightwing hate-filled propaganda that go into hyperdrive in the months leading up to elections.
While rightwing billionaires can buy the loyalty of Republican politicians to get their tax breaks and deregulation, they first must get them elected: these websites provide the raw material to drive social media campaigns, smear opponents, and twist the news in ways that can expand and get out the neofascist conservative vote.
In a separate investigative report, the Columbia Journalism Review published an article titled, “As election looms, a network of mysterious ‘pink slime’ local news outlets nearly triples in size.” The 450 sites the Review had been tracking had exploded to over 2,100 in just a few months prior to the 2020 election.
My old hometown newspaper, the Lansing State Journal, noticed the trend in that state in the months leading up to the 2020 election:
“Dozens of websites branded as local news outlets launched throughout Michigan this fall, with monikers like Lansing Sun, Ann Arbor Times, Thumb Reporter and UP Gazette, promising local news but also offering political messaging.
“The nearly 40 new sites present a challenge for readers navigating a digital media environment that has unlimited space for publishing stories that are hard to distinguish as journalism, advocacy, or political messaging.”
The websites go out of their way to appear to be actual, local news providers, complete with tabs for real estate, schools, business, sports, and recycled generic news stories. In most regards they seem like normal news sites, until they cover Democratic politicians (who they routinely trash) or Republican politicians (who they routinely lionize).
When covering politics or social issues, these sites lean heavily on the GOP talking points de jour, be they about trans kids and bathrooms, critical race theory, the national debt, or the “invasion” of “illegal” immigrants.
They also, as a report cited by NPR lays out, act “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.”
Apparently, there’s something about conservatives the world over that makes them believe the only way they can win elections or sway public opinion is by lying to people and deceiving them with publications that look legitimate but aren’t.
In the UK, phony newspapers and websites purporting to be news sites have also been tracked back to rightwing billionaires and the Conservative Party.
A UK publication that tracks the media in that country, Byline Times, published an article a few months ago documenting how British conservatives are emulating their US counterparts by creating a newspaper and website that appear to be the reincarnation of a local newspaper that had gone out of business years before.
The article, titled “Conservatives Caught Publishing Fake Newspapers Again, as Party Mimics Defunct Local Outlet,” notes:
“The Conservative Party’s campaign tactics have been branded ‘appalling’ by one of Britain’s most renowned photojournalists after imitating a shuttered local newspaper to garner votes.
“Lincoln Conservative MP Karl McCartney has issued a leaflet to residents branded as the ‘Lincoln Chronicle’ — the same name as a weekly newspaper in the seat that was closed 15 years ago, and which many residents remember.
“Lincoln resident Sasha Drennan told Byline Times the party was ‘at it again’ after this site revealed the Conservative Party’s widespread use of fake newspapers to promote their candidates. It seems to be becoming a strategy.”
The report went on to document similar efforts using local-sounding “news” sites and newspapers to promote the Conservative Party and trash the liberal Labour Party.
Rightwingers aren’t just using phony newspapers and news sites to try to spin the news and promote their bizarre worldview: they’re also into phony advertising.
Earlier this year, ProPublica busted an entire network of sites that were hustling phony advertisements using the names of celebrities like Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey.
Like the scam that Steve Bannon was arrested and convicted of (and pardoned by Trump for) — raising money for a wall on the southern border, then putting much of the cash into his own pocket — these outfits claim to be doing good works or offering legitimate products but are in reality flimflam operations.
As ProPublica reported last summer:
“The ad featuring the Winfrey image and quote ran on the conservative website DC Swamp Tales. It directed readers to a webpage that resembled a news article. The text spun a narrative about a television interviewer who unfairly berated Winfrey for promoting a revolutionary product that could ‘reverse Dementia instantly & for good.’
“But there was no such dispute. Winfrey’s quote was fake, and her name and likeness were used without permission. The product, a low-dose, cannabis-derived gummy supplement, does not treat dementia, let alone reverse it.”
Conservative voters, conditioned to believe insane conspiracy theories from ivermectin to pedophile rings in pizza shops to climate change denial, appear to be easy marks for hustlers like Bannon, Trump, and anybody else on the right who wants to exploit them.
Last May, The New York Times documented a group that raised $89 million from small donors with robocalls to conservatives by pretending to be police officers or veterans raising money for their injured comrades. As the Times reported:
“But instead of using the money to promote issues and candidates, an analysis by The New York Times shows, nearly all the money went to pay the firms making the calls and the operatives themselves…”
Sometimes it’s real groups that are just really good at monetizing their grifts. ProPublica reported last year that True The Vote, the billionaire-funded rightwing group that just won a court case in Georgia leading to the purge of over 300,000 mostly Democratic voters from that state’s voter rolls, was engaging in self-dealing in violation of federal nonprofit law. (The group denies the allegation.)
“The conspiracy-peddling nonprofit made loans to founder Catherine Engelbrecht and issued contracts to longtime director Gregg Phillips,” ProPublica reported, “that may have violated state and federal law, a watchdog complaint filed with the IRS alleges.”
And conservatives know what’s going on. The late William F. Buckley Jr.’s storied National Review ran an article in 2019 titled The Right’s Grifter Problem that documented how:
“Back in 2013, Conservative StrikeForce PAC raised $2.2 million in funds vowing to support Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign for governor in Virginia. Court filings and FEC records showed that the PAC only contributed $10,000 to Cuccinelli’s effort. …
“Back in 2015, RightWingNews reviewed the financial filings of 21 prominent conservative PACs and found the ten groups at the bottom of their list spent $54.3 million [but] only paid out $3.6 million to help get Republicans elected. …
“In 2016, Roger Stone founded the Committee to Restore America’s Greatness. It raised $587,000 and spent $16,000 on independent expenditures supporting Trump.
“In 2016, Great America PAC raised $28.6 million from donors. They donated $30,125 to federal candidates. In 2018, Great America PAC raised $8.3 million from donors. They donated $31,840 to federal candidates.”
But the real sweet spot for rightwing billionaires, playing off that conservative gullibility, seems to be in the fake news business.
Just like pushing phony stories about election fraud has been a staple on rightwing hate radio ever since the Motor Voter Act went into effect in the 1990s, the 21st century craze among conservative billionaires is publishing phony news outlets.
Interestingly, there is no equivalent on the left.
Progressive news and opinion outlets like The Nation, The New Republic, The Guardian, CommonDreams, Raw Story, Alternet, Salon, Slate and even this newsletter I publish are generally pretty rigorous about fact-checking, source-linking, and standing behind their content.
Grift, however, seems built into the conservative mindset: it takes a scam, after all, to convince average working class people that their interests are best aligned with billionaires’ tax cuts, destroying unions, and supporting polluters’ deregulation. As a result, the rightwing billionaires funding their phony news sites aren’t even embarrassed when they get called out.
It’s hard to imagine George Soros, Mike Bloomberg, or Tom Steyer being similarly sanguine about funding lies and propaganda, no matter how much they believe in their cause.
This apparently has to do with worldview as much as anything else: while the right more-or-less singularly focuses on making money and acquiring power, the left is generally more concerned with the public good and playing by the rules.
So, get ready. It’s January and the election is in November, so we’ll see these “pink slime” sites, ads, and phony newspapers begin to spin up later this summer, if past years are any indication.
Forewarned is forearmed.