Democratic operatives running ‘pink slime’ network of fake local news sites, investigation claims

Ahead of the 2022 midterms, a group of Democratic operatives based in Washington, DC, and Florida have quietly set up a nationwide network of sites designed to mimic local news outlets, according to an investigation from Axios.

Writers from the Washington-based progressive news site The American Independent are beaming out content to at least 51 different news sites with local-sounding names, like the Milwaukee Metro Times and Mecklenburg Herald, all of which say they’re run by a Florida-based company called Local Report Inc.

The outlets, based in midterm swing states like Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin, feature a mix of aggregated news stories, sports results, and content with a partisan slant, the investigation found.

The precise nature of the ownership of these sites remains opaque, but suggests a larger Democratic mission.

The American Independent was launched by the powerful Democratic operative and fundraiser David Brock, who also created left-leaning media watchdog Media Matters for America. The group is funded in part by nonprofit arm of American Bridge, an opposition research focused Democratic super PAC.

The Independent has contacted The American Independent for comment.

"It’s been widely reported that where local news outlets shut down, dis- and misinformation grows," American Independent executive editor Jessica McCreight told Axios. "To combat this challenge, The American Independent has expanded to bring readers local, fact-based news and information on topics and issues that impact their communities."

Much of the content on the nationwide network of sites described in the investigation appears to come from six American Independent writers, Axios found.

Typical stories appear similar to a mainstream local news site, such as a May piece in the Wisconsin Lake Times touting Democratic governor Tony Evers’ investment in internet broadband access.

Other articles, like a September write-up in the Valley Gazette, go out of their way to jab Republicans.

The piece describes GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake “leaving poor and working class residents to fend for themselves” and proposing tax policies that will mean “public infrastructure will decay further making life even more difficult in the Grand Canyon state,” as the author writes.

Contrary to mainstream journalistic standards, the piece does not indicate Ms Lake’s comment was sought for the article.

The articles appear to be having an effect on mainstream Democratic messaging, with the Stacey Abrams campaign, the Democratic parties of Georgia and Michigan, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee all broadcasting articles from the network on their communications channels.

In September, NewsGuard, a group which monitors journalistic standards, argued The American Independent is responsible for supporting another network of so-called “pink slime” journalism sites, a reference to meat filler used in fast food restaurants.

Partisan media is a strategy that’s been used by both parties in the US, and was arguably pioneered on the right, from the conservative halls of Fox News, to companies like Metric Media, which set up 1,200 local news-style sites that back the GOP ahead of the 2020 elections.

Among the most influential of such conservative networks is Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns numerous local TV news stations. Sinclair outlets broadcast the company’s right-leaning National Desk news programme, and have been previously shown to feature reporters reading from the same politically charged scripts at channels across the country.