The “Fake News” Machine and Its Influence on Voters

By Laura Echevarria, NRL Director of Communications and Press Secretary

Editor’s note. This appeared on page 8 of the August digital edition of National Right to Life News. Would you please share this story—and if you like, the entire issue—with your pro-life family and friends?

According to the U.S. News Desert, a joint project of the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media and the Knight Foundation, over 70 daily newspapers have been lost since 2004 and over 2,000 weekly or non-daily newspapers have been lost. In fact, there are over 200 counties in the U.S. that no longer have a local newspaper. 

Some might think that the loss of these newspapers indicates that the readers may have cancelled because of news bias in the newsrooms. No doubt that is true in some cases, but the larger issue has more to do with the traditional business format of newspapers and the printing costs involved. The report notes:

The vast majority of the dailies that closed in recent years served impoverished communities that never regained their economic footing in the years after the 2008 recession. Many of these dailies lost not only their local advertisers, who went out of business in the wake of the recession, but also their readers, who could no longer afford to pay for a subscription. When they closed their doors, most of the shuttered dailies had less than 15,000 print subscribers, even though they served communities with tens of thousands of residents.

As the U.S. News Desert report also notes, as a result, about 1,800 communities that lost local papers now have no local news source. 

But now there is a new breed of online “news reporting” in town and the lines are blurring. As legacy media newspapers fold, PR firms and organizations are seeing an information gap that they can quickly fill.

Here’s one egregious example. Tara McGowan, a former CBS News staffer and founder of Acronym (a liberal get-out-the-vote organization), raised over $25 million to create a for-profit newsroom venture called Courier Newsroom to persuade voters to put Democrats in office. 

According to a November 2019 article in Bloomberg’s Businessweek:

While the articles she publishes are based on facts, nothing alerts readers that Courier publications aren’t actually traditional hometown newspapers but political instruments designed to get them to vote for Democrats. And although the articles are made to resemble ordinary news, their purpose isn’t primarily to build a readership for the website: It’s for the pieces to travel individually through social media, amplifying their influence with persuadable voters.

To make this happen, McGowan is doing something else small newspapers don’t: she’s using her sizable war chest and digital advertising savvy to pay to have her articles placed into the Facebook feeds of swing-state users she’s identified as most likely to respond to them, then using that feedback to find more people like them. In digital advertising, this is known as “building a custom audience.” Applied to politics, it’s more like finding and activating the 80,000 swing-state voters Clinton was missing [in 2016] , who could potentially put Democrats over the top in next year’s election. “This is the most interesting, and potentially important, thing happening on our side right now,” says one unaffiliated Democratic organizer. “If it works, it will change the whole ballgame of how we reach and motivate our people.”

These “news” sites are just a few examples of the trend we are seeing in the push for “news” to reach voters and influence their decision making—and to fill a growing gap in news and information left by the demise of many local newspapers.

The pro-life movement has always had a legitimate concern that mainstream news organizations often present the pro-abortion side without criticism while addressing pro-life concerns or issues with extreme bias. But this new breed of “news” outlets will be a particular challenge. 

The NRLC Communications Department response to unbalanced or blatantly inaccurate news stories is to contact the reporters and editors responsible and hold them accountable. However, for an outlet designed to influence readers to believe certain “facts,” the challenge will be even harder. 

As a Washington Examiner noted, the most disturbing part of Bloomberg’s interview with Tara McGowan was her admission about how she sees the Courier Newsroom as a “continuation” of her work with CBS News.

McGowan argues that a “firewall” between the staff at Acronym and the staff at the Courier News will prevent undue influence on the news reporting. While this is a laughably thin argument, her follow up statement to Bloomberg is as alarming as it is accurate: 

A lot of people I respect will see this media company as an affront to journalistic integrity because it won’t, in their eyes, be balanced,” she told Bloomberg. “What I say to them is, Balance does not exist anymore, unfortunately.”

Yes, very unfortunate if journalism is becoming just another form of political activism.