The publishing company behind USA Today and other reputable newspapers is also publishing a string of far-right and other disinformation-heavy political publications made up to look like news outlets.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), Gannett is printing material from “Local Government Information Services” (LGIS), a company responsible for releasing the deceptive mailers throughout Illinois for years, as well as a network of around 1,200 “news sites” around the U.S.:
Asked directly whether printing these papers ran counter to an online Gannett mission statement “to serve as a forum for better understanding and unity to help make the USA truly one nation,” the [Gannett] spokesperson said: “We do not discuss our clients and have no further comment.”
That statement can be read on USA Today’s “About” page: “Founded in 1982, USA TODAY’s mission is to serve as a forum for better understanding and unity to help make the USA truly one nation.” CJR also reported that Gannett’s printing clients also include the Epoch Times, a notorious source of extremely corrosive disinformation narratives that has already made inroads in the popular discourse by, among other things, being included alongside regular newspapers at some supermarkets.
The mailers continued to be spotted going into November 2022; independent site Bleeding Heartland reported that the fake newspapers were physically produced at the Des Moines’ Register newspaper’s printing plant; executive editor Carol Hunter confirmed that the mailers were “commercial print clients” but did not comment further, instead feeding Bleeding Heartland a copy of Gannett’s statement.
The Chicago Tribune reported that an LGIS publication, the Chicago City Wire, was one of several mailings sent to residents pushing disinformation regarding the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today law, a ballot initiative that would end the practice of cash bail — and using racial dogwhistle imagery to do so:
One of those mailings, the “Chicago City Wire,” included a two-page spread of photos of some three dozen defendants, predominantly people of color, who were labeled as suspects in serious crimes who could be released from Cook County Jail under the no-cash bail policy, again with no mention that a judge will be required to weigh whether a defendant should be released.
As Block City Chicago explained, that messaging was in line with other right-wing, debunked talking points taken up by the mailer:
The Chicago City Wire print publications include almost exclusively negative stories about Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, with a sprinkling of positive coverage on the campaign of Pritzker’s republican opponent, Darren Bailey. An August issue hammers COVID-19 school lockdowns, describing “failure” in the Chicago Public Schools system and “plummeting” test scores. A later edition, released in September, focuses on transgender issues.
“No more boys and girls?” one headline reads. “Pritzker family leads push to replace ‘myth’ of biology.”
That language of the far right stretches into the content of the Wire’s “About” page, which is common to LGIS publications. Under “Core Beliefs,” the page reads:
We believe in limited government, in the constructive role of the free market and in the rights of citizens to choose the size and scope of their government and the role it should play in their society.
Under “Funding,” no individual donors are named; instead the page reads:
Funding for this news site is provided, in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government.
Block City Chicago reported that the mailer’s parent company, LGIS, is “run by prominent conservative Brian Timpone and associated with conservative radio voice and Republican political strategist Dan Proft.”
In 2019, Timpone was identified as the CEO of a separate group, “Locality Labs,” that published a similar spate of misleading mailers around Illinois:
Each has the look of a local news organization, with information on gas prices and local businesses.
Some of the sites – in a slightly difficult to find “About” section – say they are a product of Local Government Information Services, and state that they are funded by advocacy groups who believe in “limited government”.
But others – the Prairie State Wire, for example – either do not, or they claim to be an “objective” product of a Locality Labs-linked company called Metric Media, despite retaining their rightwing tone.
What the sites all have in common is praising Republican politicians, and denigrating Democratic ones.
The Daily Beast reported in October 2022 that two print editions of another Metric Media mailer, the “Grand Canyon Times” in Arizona, describe its content as “paid for by the Saving Arizona PAC,” a group that has received around $13 million in donations from right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel.
“It’s not even clear the Grand Canyon Times has a newsroom in Arizona,” the Beast noted.
In January 2022, USA Today published an open letter signed by “executives of more than 28 U.S. news organizations” — including Gannett’s senior vice-president of audience and development Amalie Nash and USA Today’s editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll — pledging to “double down” on efforts to keep readers informed on the difference between opinion and analysis and news reporting and help them avoid spreading misinformation.
“In our role as the Fourth Estate, it is our mission to keep the public well-informed and to provide high-quality journalism that holds those in power accountable,” the letter read. “In addition, our audiences must be news literate – and empowered to make fact-based decisions about their lives.”
Gannett announced in November 2022 that president Maribel Perez Wadsworth would leave the company before the end of the year. We contacted Gannett to ask if it would continue to print the right-wing “newspapers” following her departure, but have yet to hear back.
Update 10/11/2022, 10:04 a.m. PST: Updated to note the apparent link between billionaire Peter Thiel and another network of right-wing mailers in Arizona. — ag
Update 11/14/2022, 2:37 p.m. PST: Updated to note the departure of USA Today publisher Maribel Perez Wadsworth. — ag