Opinion by Editorial Board
THE COLLAPSE of the local news industry offers manipulators a mother lode of opportunity: a populace full of questions and a gaping hole where they used to go for answers. A network of nearly 1,300 websites discovered by the New York Times is the latest example of bad actors exploiting the void.
The sites described in this week’s report, now in all 50 states, look like any old local news outlet, with names such as Maine Business Daily and Illinois Valley Times. Yet despite a note in most of their “about” pages promising “to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias,” they aren’t really offering reporting. They’re offering propaganda. A mishmash of conservative political operatives, public relations professionals and think tanks act as “clients” for the sites, paying freelancers to prop up Republican candidates and knock down Democratic competitors. The writers don’t adopt traditional best practices such as, say, calling Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Sara Gideon of Maine for comment when accusing her of being a hypocrite. Sometimes they’re even instructed on precisely what to say by an article’s subject.
The story elucidates an existing trend of hyperpartisan outfits masquerading as local news — cloaking themselves in journalistic credibility while really churning out smears. A Nieman Lab study found more than 400 such sites this summer, eight of them liberal; the Wall Street Journal on Monday further reported on this left-leaning effort backed largely by the nonprofit Acronym. The Times’s investigation is notable for revealing not only the startling size of the network it identifies but also its pernicious pay-to-play nature, wherein writers are commissioned to write specific stories to influence elections. The tactic is reminiscent of a strategy recently popular among Russian meddlers known as “narrative laundering”: hiring unwitting freelancers located in target countries to produce content that citizens are more likely to consume uncritically.
The phenomenon of disguised political sites is enabled by fuzzy campaign finance regulations that make it difficult even to find out where the money is coming from, and by the depletion of community newspapers, 2,100 of which have closed across the country since 2004 as advertising revenue has dried up. Proposals to restore what was once a pillar of American democracy vary from beefing up philanthropy to harnessing taxpayer dollars to extracting revenue from technology companies such as Google and Facebook. These solutions have their advantages and their drawbacks, including threats to editorial independence.
Yet something must be done. It has long been clear that the vacuum in local journalism means less knowledge, less accountability and probably more polarization. Now it is also clear that the vacuum won’t stay a vacuum: Someone else will fill it, and not with the real journalism that communities across the country so keenly need.