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Editorial: Now, for your local fake news …

Former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs
Michael Tubbs attributed his failure to win reelection as Stockton’s mayor to lies spread by a right-wing site called the 209 Times.
(Associated Press)

Politically funded websites that advance a partisan agenda under the guise of publishing local news are sprouting up across California. The majority of them are operated by a shadowy entity called Metric Media, which operates 74 distinct websites across the state that masquerade as legitimate local newspapers.

These disturbing findings are contained in the “California News Integrity Report,” a document released recently by NewsGuard, an entity that rates news sites with the goal of separating reliable sources of journalism from purveyors of false or misleading information.

NewsGuard rated 202 local news sites across California along nine criteria. To assess credibility, NewsGuard reviewers assessed whether the sites refrained from repeatedly publishing false content, gathered and presented information responsibly, regularly corrected errors, differentiated responsibly between opinion pieces and news stories, and avoided deceptive headlines. To measure transparency, the reviewers assessed whether the sites disclosed their ownership and financing; clearly labeled advertising; revealed who’s in charge, including any possible conflicts of interest; and provided names of content creators, including contact or biographical information.

Of the 202 sites, 62% were rated credible and trustworthy and 38% failed the test — the vast majority of them right-wing sites that purport to be credible news sources.

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Take, for example, the “Fresno Leader.” At first glance it appears to be a bare-bones local news site, with sections devoted to schools, business, local politics and real estate. But look more closely. Nearly every article is devoted to attacking Democratic politicians or reporting campaign contributors to Republicans. One article reports on the Fresno County Republican Party’s condemnation of the local congressman, Rep. David Valadao of Hanford, who was one of 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach President Trump. Nowhere in the article was there a response from Valadao, or even a mention of any attempt to reach him. That’s a violation of a basic tenet of journalism: The subject of a critical news article deserves a chance to respond.

An even more nefarious example can be found in Stockton, where a publication called the “209 Times” promised to “be the voice of the community” and “tell the stories of the community that often go overlooked.” However, the site’s owner, Motecuzoma Sanchez, had an agenda that was not disclosed to readers: He was running for mayor.

NewsGuard’s review found that the 209 Times failed on seven of the nine journalistic standards assessed, earning it a trust score of 17.5%. In the run-up to the 2020 mayoral election, the site published numerous misleading claims about one of Sanchez’s opponents, Mayor Michael Tubbs, who is best known for championing an experiment with guaranteed income in the city. For example, the site reported that Tubbs planned to turn the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds into a giant homeless encampment.

Sanchez ran in the March 2020 primary but did not advance to the final round, in which Tubbs lost to a different candidate. Tubbs blamed his defeat in part on a smear campaign fueled by 209 Times. He said the barrage of distortions and lies overwhelmed the community. “People saw 209 Times and thought, ‘Well, it’s a news site. Why would anyone purposely and deliberately go out and deceive people?’” Tubbs told the Columbia Journalism Review. “It was literally everything — just lie after lie after lie. At some point, I think it just beat down the defense mechanisms for some people. And they’re like, ‘All this can’t be false.’ Like, ‘There’s something about this that has to be true.’”

Closer to home, another site, the “Santa Monica Observer,” owned by onetime City Council candidate David Ganezer, is notorious for publishing false news. In 2016, for example, it claimed that Hillary Clinton had died and that a body double had been sent to debate Donald Trump. Months later it reported, incorrectly, that Trump had appointed Kanye West to a high-level position in the Interior Department. Last year, it reported falsely that sunlight could be a remedy for COVID-19 sufferers and that Bill Gates, a major funder of vaccine research, had been responsible for a polio epidemic.

Such claims are so outlandish that they might seem obviously fraudulent, akin to supermarket tabloids reporting on the discovery of extraterrestrials in the desert. But the damage is cumulative: By pretending to be legitimate news, these websites cast doubt on the veracity and trustworthiness of all sources of information, leading to greater mistrust and apathy.

What can be done? American journalism is ultimately self-regulating; it’s not for the government to say what is or isn’t a legitimate source of news. But discerning readers should always ask basic questions of any news publication: Are contrary points of view included so readers can make judgments for themselves? Are corrections published, acknowledging errors? Does the site allow readers the chance to offer unfiltered feedback?

Publications that reject these standards do not deserve readers’ trust.

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The internet has inundated users with a tsunami of information, some of it false and pernicious. Schools should teach basic news literacy, helping students assess the credibility of news sources, using criteria like the ones outlined by NewsGuard.

Fake news is cropping up in part because real news is expensive to gather and produce. Most traditional newspapers have been weakened by sweeping changes in technology; many are owned by hedge funds and private equity companies that have little stake in the communities the newspapers serve.

Ultimately, it’s up to consumers to decide whether they value real news over fake news. The best response to bogus outlets is to support the real ones.


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