CHICAGO — A Chicagoland “pink slime” journalism group may have likely been exposed by a university journalism organization.
A recent study from Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism reveals that a West Central Illinois news source is a “pink slime” journalism source. This source is among 27 online and seven print publications in the state. However, it’s part of a much larger media machine.
An expose which was published over the weekend in the New York Times would reveal that this network of alleged news websites is run by conservative operatives. There are roughly 1,300 websites of this type across the country.
Pink slime journalism is a low-cost automated story generation news model. It could use an algorithm or AI programming to publish local press releases and public statistics to create their stories. However, most of the time, these articles do not come from actual journalists.
This is a clear contrast to yellow journalism, which is journalism based on sensationalism and crude exaggerations. For instance, publishing a news story equating murder and dismemberment with the consumption of pot is yellow journalism. With one exception: pink slime journalism is much worse.
Most of these groups responsible for the websites have links to conservative-leaning businessman and former journalist Brian Timpone. This is according to the Tow study. Timpone has links to Metric Media, Locality Labs, and Franklin Archer.
One group has links to Chicagoland conservative talk radio host Dan Proft: Legislative Government Information Services (LGIS).
News organizations playing under pay-to-play rules
The NYT report states that liberal donors have shelled out millions into smaller liberal news operations like Courier. Courier is an eight-website network that started covering local news in key swing states last year.
While traditional news organizations do not accept payment for articles, there are specific stipulations regarding advertising. The Federal Trade Commission has a mandate that requires that advertising in the form of articles are clearly labeled as ads.
Organizations owned by Timpone have accusations of using out-of-town reporters. In some cases, they use reporters from the Philippines, using fabricated quotes from local officials. Additionally, they will even write fake bylines.
Several major newspapers have links to using content from LGIS and other news organizations for their own content. Two key examples are the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing publication; and the State Journal-Register in Springfield, a former GateHouse Media operation that is now a Gannett Media publication.
One of these papers, the West Central Reporter, states on their “About Us” section that it is an LGIS product.
The Tow study suggests that websites much like the Reporter are conservative-oriented political promotion platforms in order to sway public opinion. This is the case, unfortunately, under the guise of acting as a local news outlet.
LGIS and its conservative “news” operations in more detail
The origin of LGIS was the mastermind of well-known conservative radio host Dan Proft. Its intention was to become an offshoot of Timpone’s organization. Proft is a radio personality at Chicago’s conservative talk station AM 560 The Answer.
Early on, the Federal Election Commission would receive a complaint on the operation. The allegation: taking over newspaper production and distribution, and designing these newspapers in a format looking like local community papers. This is an alleged violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. However, that lawsuit would not see its day in court and would earn a dismissal last July.
The Reporter and its sister outlets have been under fire recently, but the Reporter is under much scrutiny. Articles from July 21 and August 4, entitled “No white residents of Greene County had COVID-19 tests return positive” has been a more recent source of the publication’s reporting being questioned.
The Tow study states that this is a case of the algorithm generating articles and conservative talking points. LGIS and other Timpone media operations are responsible for more than 189 new websites over the past year.
News “stories” under the direction of conservative political groups and PR firms
The NYT article alleges that these so-called stories are under the direction of various political groups and corporate public relations firms. For the most part, they are to promote a Republican candidate. It could also be a conservative-owned business or for purposes to smear their rivals.
The Times article would allegedly uncover details about the operation via interviews with more than 30 current and former employees. Also receiving interviews were clients of these operations.
Additionally, NYT’s investigative team had to go through thousands of internal emails between reporters and editors spanning several years.
WLDS has attempted to reach out to the West Central Reporter for two months for comment and has not received a response. Heartland Newsfeed has been trying to reach out to the Reporter and other regional publications within the past year on various news items. There has been no response to date.
Tillman, Ives linked to pay-to-play with LGIS publications
The Times story also alleges that some paid stories come from community groups.
John Tillman is an activist who previously led the Illinois Opportunity Project and is the chairman of the libertarian-leaning Illinois Policy Institute. Tillman was among those named who have paid Timpone’s companies thousands of dollars. Allegedly, some of these payments were to underwrite Timpone’s news operations/
Illinois state and Federal political finance records reveal another damning name among this pay-to-play scheme. Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeanne Ives has a direct financial relationship with this operation. Her financial ties to the operation: roughly $55,000 over the past three years.
The LGIS network of websites would allegedly publish several stories on Ives, including running verbatim press releases from her campaign. This also includes her current race for U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Sean Casten. Ives is also facing a challenge from Libertarian candidate William Redpath.
She would deny her payments for positive coverage of her work, according to an interview with the Times. Ives states that those payments were for the creation of her campaign website. It would also include the monitoring of her Wikipedia page for negative entries.
Editor’s Note: In our immediate coverage area, LGIS operates the following publications: Chambana Sun, East Central Reporter, Macon Reporter, McLean County Times, Metro East Sun, Peoria Standard, Prairie State Wire, Quincy Reporter, Sangamon Sun, South Central Reporter, and West Central Reporter.
Jake Leonard, a broadcast media and journalism veteran, is the editor-in-chief of Heartland Newsfeed. Leonard is also GM and program director of Heartland Newsfeed Radio Network, wrestling editor and contributing writer for Ambush Sports, a contributing writer for My Sports Vote and Midwest Sports Network, and a former contributor to Bleacher Report and Overtime Heroics. He resides at home in Nokomis, Ill. with his dog Buster.