Stop masquerading propaganda as news
Campaign sleight of hand comes in many forms. Illinoisans are learning more about a particularly deceitful stratagem called Local Government Information Services — an innocuous name for what amounts to an affront to the institution of a free press and, more broadly, American democracy.
During last year’s midterm election season, Illinois residents began seeing in their mailboxes mailings made to look like newspapers, with mastheads such as the “West Cook News,” “Chicago City Wire” and the “DuPage Policy Journal.”
The mailings and their corresponding websites try to hoodwink readers with bylined “stories” and the kinds of sections newspapers typically feature, from “politics” and “community” to “real estate” and even a “sports” section.
They’re anything but newspapers. Rather, the mailings and websites are nothing more than political propaganda put out by Local Government Information Services (LGIS), which is run by businessman Brian Timpone, a former television reporter who once served as spokesman for one-time GOP House Minority Leader Lee Daniels. Timpone is also an ally and business partner of conservative radio personality Dan Proft, who formed LGIS in 2016.
Last week, The Washington Post revealed a new twist about LGIS. Timpone’s service uses a private online portal that Illinois GOP campaigns can access to pitch stories and mold the service’s coverage, the Post reported. Users could also use the password-protected portal, known as Lumen, to offer up interview subjects as well as the questions for those subjects and to submit op-eds that would then be published word for word.
It’s an enterprise that makes Fox News look like the “PBS NewsHour.”
Free speech is a broad umbrella that includes campaign content of every stripe. What is deeply unsettling about LGIS and Lumen is the blurring of the demarcation between campaigning and legitimate reportage. The revelation about Lumen is especially disturbing, because it suggests that GOP campaigns are shaping content made to look like real news, and prospective voters may not be able to see through the ruse.
Also worrying is the growing reach of LGIS’ network. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University reported that LGIS is linked to an even more expansive network of as many as 1,200 similar sites across the country. And, as the Post reports, allies of former President Donald Trump are interested in looking into a potential expansion of the LGIS operation.
Conservatives aren’t the only perpetrators of attempts to dupe the electorate. Liberal-leaning websites masquerading as real media are also out there. It’s up to voters to see through these cosmetic ploys. It would be different if LGIS publications were transparent about their obvious political motives — and clearly labeled themselves not as media but as campaign content. But by calling their mission journalism when clearly it’s not, they become impediments to democracy rather than its defenders.
The 2024 election season looms, and the potential for misinformation and disinformation to infect the flow of news is larger than ever. We urge voters across the country to be discerning about news consumption — especially when content is crafted not by reporters and editors, but by campaign minions.