News websites with political ties spread across Michigan before 2020 election

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A growing number of media organizations with ties to partisan activists are spreading in Michigan in time for the 2020 presidential election.

News websites affiliated with Republican and Democratic groups have sprung up in battleground states in the last year. The websites are straightforward about their editorial agenda to varying degrees — some described themselves as watchdogs meant to replace trusted community newspapers while others clearly exhibit a partisan slant and use layouts designed to resemble conventional news organizations.

“There’s never been a more difficult time for information consumers than the time we’re in right now,” said Kathleen Bartzen, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. “There are people who are trying to sway public opinion through misinformation … and then there are people who are polluting the information environment with disinformation.”

MLive looked at five news organizations — The Michigan Star, Locality Labs, American Ledger, The Center Square and Michigan Advance — launched since the end of 2018. Each is connected to partisan donors or political action committees.

John Gable, a Michigan native who co-founded AllSides.com — a site that analyzes news for bias — said the internet has empowered partisans to create media organizations explicitly to promote particular ideas. Readers should be skeptical of what they read and pull their news from multiple publications to get the full picture, he said.

Bartzen said the best sources of information are free from government interference, fair to all sides and independent from political influence.

Even traditional media should face questions about whether advertisers influence coverage decisions, she said, but Bartzen is particularly concerned about news organizations that hide partisan connections while promising objectivity.

It’s a trend she’s seen in other battleground states as well as Michigan.

“If you are a person who wants to invest in swaying public opinion and your goal is to affect national-level policy, I think you’d be smart to be investing in battleground states,” Bartzen said.

The Michigan Star

Star News Digital Media, a self-described conservative news organization founded by Tea Party-connected activists, expanded its network of digital publications to Michigan earlier this year. The Michigan Star was founded by CEO Michael Patrick Leahy, a Breitbart News contributor and Republican activist, to publish state and local news “written from a conservative perspective.

Star News Digital Media operates five web publications — Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Tennessee and “Battleground State News” — filled by journalists who work around the country. Leahy said Michigan was chosen for the latest publication specifically because it will be a battleground state in 2020.

Leahy said The Michigan Star is transparent about its conservative leanings. Leahy’s political ties are outlined on the website’s “about us” section, though The Michigan Star does not make mention of any potential bias in its mission statement.

“We’ve been very upfront and transparent from the very beginning,” Leahy said. “We’re conservative, we have a conservative worldview, but we write fact-based reporting … Readers want to know what the facts are. I think the more voices, the more opportunities, the better off and more informed they will be as voters.”

Most of the site’s headlines are either attributed to “Michigan Star Staff” or reporters with experience at conservative publications. The website also recycles content from other right-leaning organizations like The Daily Caller and The Center for American Greatness, founded by conservative New York Times columnist Christopher Buskirk.

The Michigan Star also promotes a daily “War Room: Impeachment” podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, a former spokesman for Trump’s 2016 campaign and former editor-in-chief of Breitbart News London. Bannon is often given sympathetic coverage on the website.

The Michigan Star’s website features a photo of downtown Lansing but has no physical office. Leahy said two full-time reporters are based in Michigan, and he has plans to expand in the future.

Leahy said fact-based reporting differentiates The Michigan Star from other partisan organizations acting in bad faith.

Gable said original reporting still has the potential to mislead voters. The most persuasive political messages are factual but ignore facts which don’t support their point of view, he said.

“The sites that are upfront of their partisanship I have no problem with,” Bartzen said. “They’re using digital technologies and means of communication to try to win people over to their side. I don’t have a problem with that as long as you’re upfront about who you are and what it is that you’re trying to do. It’s those people who are trying to fool citizens that troubled me the most.”

Nothing to see here

A sprawling network of nearly 40 websites and their political connections was first reported by The Lansing State Journal. Websites with names like the Ann Arbor Times, Grand Rapids Reporter and Livingston Today feature identical conservative-leading reports while purporting “to provide objective, data-driven information without personal or political bias.”

The websites are operated by Locality Labs, which is owned by media entrepreneur and Republican activist Brian Timpone.

Timpone and conservative activist Dan Proft co-founded Local Government Information Services, a network of 11 print and 20 web publications that look identical to the Michigan websites. Locality Labs also publishes business websites in nearly every state.

While the Michigan websites promise objectivity, the Illinois websites state their funding comes from “advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government.”

Recent stories on the Michigan sites focus on a boost in Republican campaign fundraising due to the impeachment inquiry, proposed legislation that would allow taxpayers to declare their fetus as a dependent and a summary of a conservative think-tank’s report on voter fraud.

Another story focused on “U.S. House Rep. Rashida Harbi Tlaib” trying to convince a crowd to chant “impeach the motherf****r” at a rally outside the U.S. Capitol.

Articles are written by a handful of freelance reporters, but a majority of the content comes from press releases or the “Local Labs News Service.” Some of the sites’ stories are based on independent reports from the conservative-leaning Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

The network of websites claims to be a venture of Metric Media LLC and maintains a licensing agreement with the Metric Media Foundation, a Missouri non-profit news organization founded in 2019.

An online biography lists Bradley Cameron as CEO of Metric Media. It also states he is “presently retained by national conservative leaders to direct responses to government targeting of their operations and initiatives.”

Gable said the Locality Labs websites represent the “chaotic” nature of the internet.

“It’s so easy for people to create and manipulate information today,” Gable said. “We have so much more knowledge today than we did even five years ago about how to emotionally manipulate people with the right kind of headlines. I think it’s going to get worse and particularly Michigan. Oh my gosh, y’all are headed for a firestorm.”

American Ledger

Democrats are also launching online publications before the 2020 election.

American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic political action committee, launched a series of blog posts on American-ledger.com to coincide with the Democratic National Committee debates in Detroit.

The opposition research PAC is focused on flipping Trump’s supporters in rural parts of Michigan. Its website, which hasn’t updated since the end of August, is part of a larger effort to target 12 Michigan counties that voted for Trump after supporting former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Jeb Fain, communications director for American Bridge’s Trump War Room, said articles on the website are “based on accurate and extensive research, and contain hyperlinked citations.” The stories will provide a “counterbalance of factual information” to conservative websites like Breitbart, he said.

The “about us” page touts American Bridge’s dominance in “progressive accountability research” and promises investigations into “the politicians and the special interests trying to manipulate the system to their own advantage.” The website clearly states it is funded by the PAC and links to the American Bridge website.

The Center Square

The Center Square is another relatively new player in Michigan supported by other partisan blogs.

It launched online publications in 18 states this year to “fulfill the need for high-quality statehouse and statewide news across the United States.” The blogs are a project of the Franklin News Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit connected to GOP mega-donors.

Franklin News Foundation was supported by Donors Trust Inc., a nonprofit that donates to conservative and libertarian causes. According to the most recent IRS documents available, Donors Trust gave $162,000 to the Franklin News Foundation for general operations and a Texas watchdog project in 2017.

The Michigan publication has been active since 2017, but was rebranded this year. The Center Square replaced Watchdog.org, a network of conservative-leaning news websites.

“No one in our current company was part of the organization before 2017,” Publisher Chris Kurg said in a statement. “Franklin News Foundation has different leadership, different personnel, and a different mission.”

The Center Square shares content with other news organizations across the country and is featured on The Michigan Star and several of Locality Labs’ Michigan news blogs. Kurg said publication is nonpartisan.

“We would be no more willing to allow our editorial work to be influenced by a donor than a legacy news outlet would allow its editorial work to be influenced by an advertiser,” Kurg said in a statement.

Michigan Advance

Michigan Advance is another relatively new media organization its founders said was created to fill in the cracks left by the decline of working journalists.

The free online publication started in late 2018 as part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit that funds left-of-center media organizations in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

States Newsroom Director and Publisher Chris Fitzsimon said Michigan Advance was started to enhance coverage of the state Legislature. Michigan’s status as a 2020 battleground had “nothing to do with it,” he said.

The States Newsroom network was a sponsored project of the Hopewell Fund, a left-leaning nonprofit focused on “social change” projects. Fitzsimon said the Hopewell fund provided back end support while the nonprofit kicked off, but never provided funding.

States Newsroom’s ethics policy states its publications are nonpartisan. Fitzsimon said the editorial board is “on the liberal side,” drawing a comparison with The New York Times.

“We’re clearly not aligned with any political party,” Fitzsimon said.

Editor-in-Chief Susan Demas, a veteran Michigan political reporter with past bylines in MLive and other state publications, said the website’s daily news stories are unbiased while its opinion content is progressive-leaning. Demas contributes daily stories but also writes progressive commentary for the website that often criticizes Republicans.

“We do very tough reporting on people of both parties,” Demas said. “We’ve run plenty of stories on investigations into Democrats into their campaign finances, etc. There’s nothing that is out of bounds.”

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes wrote two opinion columns criticizing Trump’s policies that were featured on the website this year. The posts were labeled “commentary,” but did not originally identify Barnes’ party affiliation.

Michigan Advance issued a correction after MLive raised the issue to Demas, who said it was an honest mistake.

Michigan Advance employs a team of reporters, headquartered in downtown Lansing, who cover daily stories about state politics and policy. The website has access to a D.C. bureau shared by all States Newsroom publications.

The organization’s mission statement expresses a commitment to cover news largely ignored by corporate media.

“I think we cover topics that other people don’t,” Demas said. “I think we dedicate ourselves a lot to covering humanitarian and social justice issues, which perhaps a right-wing website would not do … I don’t mind being called progressive because my friends at Crain’s Detroit are called liberal media. So that personally doesn’t bother me, but the idea of being lumped in with fake news or having some sort of an agenda that we’re pushing in our coverage, I think, is wildly inaccurate.”

Michigan Advance “about us” page states it retains editorial independence from donors. It’s original backer funds left-wing organizations.

In 2017, the most recent tax filing publicly available, Hopewell Fund contributed $53,000 to Engage Michigan and $40,000 to Progressnow Education, two progressive advocacy nonprofits. The Hopewell Fund also gave $4.98 million to the Democratic-aligned Priorities USA PAC in 2017.

Priorities USA launched its own Michigan communications program as part of an organizing effort in four battleground states, including Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. An in-state team is spreading stories across social media to convince voters the Trump economy isn’t working for them.