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March 5, 2019, 10:51 a.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Christine Schmidt   |   March 5, 2019

Remember the Denver Guardian, that fake news site di tutti fake news sites? Now you have more examples to think of when talking about fraudulent local news sites that want to mess with swing state politics. Meet The Tennessee Star, The Ohio Star, and The Minnesota Sun, all part of a new network from Tea Party-connected conservative activists, a Snopes investigation found.

The Denver Guardian was a fake local news site that, days before the 2016 election, had its “FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE” headline blasted across Facebook, with over half a million shares. (Debunk by the Denver Post, actual local news site, here.) The site was spearheaded by a suburban dad who allegedly wanted to point out how easily right-wing readers can be hooked — and targeting local news, the most trusted news source, helped, he told NPR:

The idea was to make the sites look as legit as possible, so the home page is going to be local news and local forecast, local sports, some obituaries and things of that nature, and then the actual fake news stories were going to be buried off the home page.

We’ve tried lots of things in the past. The .com/.co domains were something I toyed in for a while. Those I quickly got away from because you don’t get away long with borrowing someone’s copyright or trademark. That was something that worked very well from a fake news perspective. People were fooled into the domain name, but that wasn’t so much what we were after. So again, the next step was to go after more city-type sites. And the “Denver Guardian” was one of those sites.

He wasn’t alone in seeing local news as a way to generate trust you can then abuse. NYU research found that, in the 2016 election, Russia relied heavily on local news to spread confusion. (“We suspect that the IRA relied so heavily on local news sources because they believed that Americans trust their local media outlets more than other sources,” one researcher said.) Russian misinformation also relied on fake local-seeming Twitter accounts like @Atlanta_Online or @KansasDailyNews to spread their work.

Well, sites like the Denver Guardian are just part of an ugly — but unsurprising — trend. Local news has been pummeled by the shift to digital and still can’t quite catch up, though the presence of robust local journalism is proven to strengthen communities and build democracy. That’s why foundations have been plowing money into reviving local journalism; we highlighted more than a dozen initiatives geared toward local news sustainability last year. But it seems like now the race is on to infuse local news with transparent, healthy journalism instead of politically-driven clickbait.

The Tennessee Star, Ohio Star, and Minnesota Sun come from a group of American political operatives who say the sites are focused “on local, fact-based, news that provides readers information from a center-right perspective as an alternative to the mainstream media outlets that are increasingly moving further to the Left.” At Snopes, Alex Kasprak and Bethania Palma detail the ties between those sites and conservative funders:

Now, a Snopes investigation reveals in detail how these activists used the appearance of local newspapers to promote messages paid for or supported by outside or undisclosed interests. [Steve] Gill, for example, is the political editor of the Tennessee Star, but he also owns a media consulting company that at least one candidate and one Political Action Committee (PAC) paid before receiving positive coverage in the Tennessee Star. Several Star writers have in the past or currently work for PACs or political campaigns that they write about, without disclosing that fact. Though its owners claim that the Tennessee Star is funded by advertising revenue, it appears to be supported by wealthy benefactors. Whatever the Tennessee Star is, it is not a local newspaper producing transparent journalism.

But this story is about more than just the Tennessee Star. [Michael Patrick] Leahy, [Christina] Botteri, and Gill have been expanding their version of journalism to other battleground states in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. They are, they say, co-founders of a new, Delaware-registered company, Star News Digital Media, Inc., whose explicit strategy is to target battleground states with conservative news. So far, Leahy, Gill, and Botteri have added The Ohio Star and The Minnesota Sun to their network of purportedly local newspapers. These papers are effective carbon copies of the Tennessee Star.

Leahy is Michael Patrick Leahy, the Tennessee Star’s CEO and editor-in-chief, a Breitbart contributor, and self-described “early Tea Party activist” in his Twitter bio. Steve Gill has received money from Republican candidates as a consultant. (Politico did some earlier reporting on these sites.)

Here’s how the sites appear today:

And they’re even (somewhat) getting involved with the community, as you see with the Polk Foundation-supported spelling bees on each site. (A homeschooler reportedly beat 15 other kids in the inaugural bee in 2017.) The foundation’s current project, according to its website, is The Tennessee Star Constitution Project, which Leahy is listed as a leader on:

The Tennessee Star Constitution Project is a process to do more than simply teach the basic tenets of the United State Constitution.

We will empower our students with the understanding of the Constitution in its entirety and the fundamental ideas that are its underpinning.

Students will learn how our founding documents came to be, and how its application effects their every day lives from the judicial system to the very classroom they’re sitting in, right now.

Our comprehensive course study of the Constitution provides vital knowledge that is the cornerstone of the unique nature of America’s culture of freedom.

The Snopes investigation goes into the ethical qualms and political motivations of the local network, finding that a big chunk of their content is republished from The Daily Caller News Foundation and other conservative sources. In response to a question about how best to characterize the network, Leahy told Snopes:

Our reporting on GOP gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd’s contributions of $250,000 to a Nashville non-profit organization operated by the former national Chairman of La Raza — Renata Soto — and our giving him the nickname “LaRaza Randy” created a political perception of him among Republican voters, which he was never able to overcome. He spent $20 million and finished second to Bill Lee in the August 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary in Tennessee.

Local news desperately needs to be rebuilt — but probably not by these guys.

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