Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Oct. 24, 25 or 26
As if newspapers don’t face enough challenges, political pamphlets mimicking newspapers are rising across Illinois like a series of septic-tank leaks.
Something stinks. (To ruin Shakespeare: “A cow pie by any other name would smell as foul.”)
Real newspapers are coping with online competition that’s contributed to falling circulation, fewer advertisers and less revenue. Less money meant cuts in budget, resources and staff. Fewer reporters resulted in less coverage, and it’s a cycle that’s tough to stop – all while working to be complete, fair and accurate.
Then there are those who’ve been weaned on talk radio, Fox News and extremist web sites, or politicians who “play the ref” by attacking news professionals. They don’t want fair or factual; they want confirmation of existing opinions. So newspapers are criticized for fact-checking that proves what’s true and false, for actually doing good journalism.
Now, 14 publications printed to look like newspapers have seeped up through Illinois since the primaries, but they’re run by conservative radio host Dan Proft, according to the Illinois Press Association (IPA), which urged readers to “question the legitimacy, integrity and intent of both the source and the message.”
“This is not a real news organization,” said Jason Keller, legislative director of the Illinois AFL-CIO, “and they are spreading messages that will only serve to hurt working families."
Liberty Principles was named in complaints to the Illinois State Board of Elections about some of these publications, accusing them of improperly coordinating messages with candidates and of not revealing their funding source. Associated Press newsman John O’Connor reported that that Board found merit to the “coordinated communications” complaint and ordered Liberty Principles to include a “paid for by” disclaimer.
“Everyone who receives these publications [should] seriously question their integrity,” said State Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant (D-Plainfield). “This is not about the First Amendment; this is about a Super PAC going to extreme lengths to mislead people in order to push a political agenda.”
“The IPA cautions readers to become as news literate as possible,” the organization commented, “to try to determine the source behind the news and information they receive.”
Profit’s “partners” – the Chambana Sun, DuPage Policy Journal, East Central Reporter, Kankakee Times, Lake County Gazette, McHenry Times, Metro East Sun, North Cook News, Peoria Standard, Rock Island Today, Sangamon Sun, SW Illinois News, West Central Reporter, West Cook News – are neither IPA members nor eligible for membership, IPA said.
Proft has called most newspapers leftist and said the FEC complaint was incorrect because the papers are owned by Local Government Information Services, incorporated in August, according to reports.
Disguising political activism is a trend described by ex-Reuters White House correspondent Gene Gibbons as “an effort to blur the distinction between … reporting and political advocacy[, such as] the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.” Writing for Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, Gibbons said such groups are “an army of Internet start-ups, some practicing traditional journalism in a new medium, [but] others delivering political propaganda dressed up as journalism.”
Material in a recent Peoria Standard, for instance, stressed the hour-long “Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics” (funded by Illinois Policy Action, an arm of the right-wing Illinois Policy Institute, part of the Franklin Center where Proft is a Senior Fellow) and pieces critical of journalists, unionized teachers and state employees, reports based on public data on educators’ pay, and summaries of a few public bodies’ meeting agendas.
“In any content, there are a couple of different kinds of bias to look for: angles taken by a reporter, the tone of writing,” said Amy Mitchell with the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. “But there is also a bias that can exist in terms of choices of stories to cover.”
Or the bias of what to call a print product.
As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”