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Partisan groups spend big to deliver ‘news’

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The May article had everything Arizona Republicans could want: breathless allegations that the grown son of a Democratic lawmaker had repeatedly committed voter fraud with a mail ballot, just as President Donald Trump and GOP elected officials throughout the country sought to sow doubt about the security of voting by mail.

It was no wonder, then, that Republican politicians and their supporters jumped on the story from a new political news site founded by a conservative think-tank, sharing it hundreds of times in just a few hours.

There was just one issue, easily discovered when a seasoned Arizona reporter got his hands on the complaint filed against Rep. Mitzi Epstein’s son a few days later. The allegation at the heart of the complaint — that Daniel Epstein cast ballots in both Arizona and California in 2010 — was easily disproved by a check of Maricopa County voting records.

Readers of the Center Square wouldn’t know that from an initial story, or from a follow-up a few days later that contained only a throwaway reference in the last sentence about a portion of the complaint not being accurate.

fake-news-ii-webOn the other side of the aisle, a news website funded by a liberal dark money group has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into digital political ads hammering Trump and Sen. Martha McSally, blurring a line between reporting and partisan advocacy.

Sites like The Center Square and Copper Courier don’t peddle hoaxes like the “fake news” websites that gained infamy in 2016. They describe themselves as filling gaps left when traditional newsrooms reduced government coverage, and articles are generally factual, if short on sources with different political stances than the funders.

Most news consumers aren’t going to hunt for information about a news organization’s funding or potential bias, said Kristy Roschke, director of the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Since launching in 2017, the News Co/Lab has tried to improve digital media literacy, helping news consumers identify credible news and differentiate it from misinformation.

“Most people, it would not be their inclination to click on a news story from a site that looks and sounds like a new site, and then be like, ‘I wonder who publishes this, I wonder what their funding source is,’” Roschke said. “This is absolutely not a thing that people typically do.”

Roschke tells students to start by looking for proof of original reporting, that the author of an article is in a community and talking to people instead of just aggregating work from elsewhere. Particularly if a site is unfamiliar, checking facts in an article against a known news source like a local newspaper can help establish credibility.

Partisan news outlets are hardly a new phenomenon. In the early days of the Republic, newspapers were widely run directly by political parties, and it took until the mid-19th century for the idea of objectivity in reporting and separating editorial opinions from fact-based news reporting to gain momentum.

Satellite radio, cable news and the rise of blogs, coupled with shrinking traditional newsrooms, cleared the way for more partisanship in the news. But while established political blogs built their audiences over years and don’t try to hide their political leanings, new players in the Arizona political media world have taken shortcuts.

Copper Courier is owned by ACRONYM — a liberal dark money group that made national headlines in February as the owner of Shadow, a phone app for reporting Iowa caucus results that malfunctioned in precincts throughout the state. The Courier network set up news sites in the swing states of Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, along with Arizona.

Tara McGowan

Tara McGowan

In a planning memo obtained by Vice, ACRONYM founder Tara McGowan describes goals for what became the Courier network: “enabl[ing] Democrats to compete with Republican echo chambers online,” “build[ing] nimble communications infrastructure for Dems in critical states” and “reach[ing] voters with strategic narratives + information year round.”

To that effect, the national Courier newsroom has spent more than $1.4 million this election cycle on Facebook ads promoting vulnerable House Democrats. In Arizona, Copper Courier has spent more than $450,000 on political Facebook ads targeting McSally, Trump and legislative Republicans.

One ad launched earlier this month lambastes McSally for a proposed bill to provide tax credits for vacations. “She won’t extend unemployment benefits. Instead, Sen. McSally introduced a bill to boost sales for tourism industries,” reads the ad, which Facebook estimates will reach up to 50,000 people.

Copper Courier also spent more than $1,000 to promote an article about state Rep. Jeff Weninger, a Chandler Republican and restaurant owner, closing his restaurant after an employee tested positive for COVID-19, and hundreds of dollars over the past week to promote articles attacking Rep. Shawnna Bolick for opposing mail voting and claiming Republicans are “losing the support of health care workers” — a headline backed up by the single example of the Arizona Nurses Association opting to endorse Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans and not former Rep. Brenda Barton in the Legislative District 6 House race.

Facebook occasionally flags promoted posts from traditional media outlets as political, but such occasions are rare. The Arizona Capitol Times, for instance, has spent less than $100 on two ads Facebook deemed to be about social issues, elections or politics, both of which promote events. Promoted posts from the Arizona Mirror with an article about nurses sharing their COVID-19 stories, the Arizona Daily Star about Trump’s border wall and AZFamily about a dog rescued from a landfill were also flagged as political ads.

When it launched, Copper Courier branded itself as “real Arizona news” — in a Twitter ad over a photo of Utah’s Monument Valley. And in multiple tweets, the outlet refers to residents of the 48th state as “Arizonians.”

Copper Courier managing editor Camaron Stevenson, a former Democratic Socialist candidate for Phoenix City Council, said the site doesn’t try to hide its progressive lens from readers, but it also doesn’t openly brand itself as a liberal publication.

“We don’t necessarily want to only attract progressive readers, as much as we also don’t want it to turn people off,” he said. “We’d rather people give our reporting the chance, and read what we’re writing and what we’re about, as opposed to, you know, giving them that notion that might cause them to either not read or ignore us.”

The publication’s “about” page makes one reference to being owned by a “progressive” organization. But to find any reference to ACRONYM, readers either have to follow a second link to the national newsroom’s “about” page and scroll past a list of employees across the nation or read to the bottom of the Copper Courier’s “ethics and standards” page. Neither describes what ACRONYM is.

Jason Stverak,

Jason Stverak,

The Center Square, meanwhile, is owned and operated by the nonprofit Franklin News Foundation, which formed in 2009 as the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. One of its founders, Jason Stverak, is the former executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party.

Prior to launching the Center Square, Franklin ran news websites under the banner “watchdog.org.” Like Watchdog, the Center Square covers news from a conservative perspective of “taxpayer sensibility,” homing in on budgetary stories about how state governments spend tax dollars.

“In our newsroom, the emphasis of our coverage is placed on keeping a check on the government by specifically focusing on how tax dollars are spent within a specific state government,” publisher Chris Krug said in an email.

Krug and executive editor Dan McCaleb defended publishing a Center Square article on Epstein’s son, writing that they accurately reported on a complaint filed with Attorney General Mark Brnovich.

“I can appreciate the interest in this particular story, given that the Arizona Mirror wrote something different that differed from the story we broke about the filing of the complaint,” Krug said. “But it would be lacking context in your reporting on this single story if you didn’t acknowledge that — as of this afternoon — The Center Square has published more than 700 other original straight-news stories from Arizona since we started covering the state in 2019.”

Both Krug and Stevenson compared their publications to the Arizona Mirror, a nonprofit news site from the States Newsroom which has rankled conservative politicians since it launched in 2018 with support from the Hopewell Fund, a progressive charity. The Hopewell Fund served as a fiscal sponsor for the fledgling States Newsroom, enabling the new nonprofit to raise money tax-free while it waited for the IRS to approve its own nonprofit application.

Like the Copper Courier, the Arizona Mirror does tend to cover issues important to liberals, such as immigration and criminal justice, through a progressive lens. Opinion columns published in the Mirror uniformly represent left-leaning perspectives.

But the Arizona Mirror’s reporters and editors are all longtime Arizona journalists, who left positions at The Arizona Republic and the Arizona Capitol Times to write for the new publication. Stevenson’s sole professional journalism experience involved running cameras at Phoenix-run television station KAZT, while his deputy, 2017 Cronkite graduate Jessica Swarner, previously wrote short posts for KTAR.

The journalistic pedigree of reporters and editors working at States Newsroom publications recently prompted Nieman Lab, a journalism foundation at Harvard, to remove the 16 States Newsroom outlets from a map purporting to show “hyperpartisan sites … masquerading as local news.” Arizona Mirror editor Jim Small said he believed States Newsroom would have supported the Mirror staff if it decided it wanted to do advocacy journalism, but there has been no pressure to frame stories or coverage.

“At the end of the day, the work of each one of the publications is going to stand on its own, and I personally think our work will shine above certainly the Copper Courier’s or anyone else’s,” Small said.

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