The story was posted by what Margaret Sullivan refers to as a “pink slime” site: a partisan propaganda platform well-disguised as a “local” news outlet, “named after a meat-processing byproduct used as filler — in other words, it looks like meat but is not. ”
The story was quickly debunked, with the school issuing a repudiation of its content. But not before conservative pundit and former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan (no relation to the author of The Post’s story), tweeted it to his 270,200 followers.
Sullivan ultimately deleted the debunked tweet, but here’s a screenshot.
The West Cook News story stated, in part:
“Oak Park and River Forest High School administrators will require teachers next school year to adjust their classroom grading scales to account for the skin color or ethnicity of its students.
In an effort to equalize test scores among racial groups, OPRF will order its teachers to exclude from their grading assessments variables it says disproportionally hurt the grades of black students. They can no longer be docked for missing class, misbehaving in school or failing to turn in their assignments, according to the plan. ”
As The Post‘s Sullivan explains, these (usually right-wing) sites have proliferated both online and in print as local newspapers have gradually gone extinct.
With names such as the Des Moines Sun and Illinois Valley Times, they leverage the trust that people have for local newspapers, built up over many decades, to boost their own dubious credibility. Their content is “rooted in deception, eschewing hallmarks of news reporting like fairness and transparency,” according to a New York Times. investigation that referred to them as “Pay-for-Play” outlets. Most of them, for example, do not disclose the funding they get from advocacy groups. Davey Alba, one of the reporters who co-wrote the Times investigation, noted that the “West Cook News” is part of a network of local sites run by Republican operatives.
Often funded through “dark money” provided by anonymous groups or individuals, these sites exist mainly to confirm existing conservative biases about race, liberals, and other bogeymen of the right, much in the same way Fox News caters to the racism and general hatred of liberals common among its (mostly) white male viewership.
The Post article deeply explores the spread of these sites and their distortions, and makes for worthwhile and valuable reading. It provides a clear explication of how “news” can be manipulated or, as in this circumstance, fashioned out of whole cloth to feed the pre-existing biases of its target audience.
But let’s focus a little bit more on Andrew Sullivan’s errant tweet — all three words of it. “But of course. ” Those three words speak elegant volumes, not only about Sullivan and his character (or lack thereof), but also about the smug certitude that informs conservatives in this country.
“But of course.” Mr. Sullivan’s intended meaning is inescapable: It’s just as we’ve always said and suspected! Of course Black people, and specifically Black children, are afforded “special treatment.” And but of course these liberal public schools are providing it. Because, but of course, Black children need special treatment to compete with white children. And implicitly, but of course, This policy creates a disadvantage for more deserving white children. Our public schools are awash in political correctness! But of course!
And but of coursethis is the liberal agenda writ large. But of course this is proof of reverse racism. But of course. What further proof could one possibly need?
Sullivan is simply patting himself on the back, triumphantly announcing to his followers: But of course we were right — about liberals, about Black people, about teachers — all along. Never mind the fact that Sullivan implicitly maligns Black children — not simply in the Oak Park and River Forest schools, but Black children everywhere — by spreading such propaganda.
When others pointed out the original article was… well, somewhat lacking in its sourcing, Sullivan trotted out a little bit of right-wing sophistry — exactly what these pink slime sites bank on:
But of course, in hindsight, Sullivan’s attempt at insouciant humor here is simply embarrassing. The source was wrong and the headline misleading, but Sullivan went right along with it, to please and inflame his crowd.
In a point-by-point debunking of the West Cook News story by Georgetown professor Don Moynihan (that’s also worth a read), it’s revealed that the original phony story was derived entirely from a single Powerpoint slide, presented in a school board meeting held. for planning purposes.
Nothing in the powerpoint slide or elsewhere in the article is there material that supports the claim laid out in the lede that a) policy change has taken place, and b) students “can no longer be docked for missing class, misbehaving in school or failing to turn in their assignments. ”
Thus the piece has failed the most basic journalistic standard: it has not provided evidence either for the sensationalistic headline or its core claims.
But that fact did not stop the story and its insidious, fake assertions from going viral, thanks to Andrew Sullivan and all the others who tweeted it.
Moynihan also points out that the West Cook News story featured no byline, beyond the totally real-sounding “LGIS News Service.”
Local Government Information Services is the publisher of lots of local news media in Illinois, with titles like “Southern Illinois News” and “SW Illinois news.” LGIS is part much larger network of local news in multiple states. As local news media has disappeared “pink slime” outlets like LGIS have taken their place, relying on low-cost or automated content repeated across sites, and eschewing basic journalistic practices.
Behind this empire of pink slime is Brian Timpone, a conservative businessman and former journalist with a record of plagiarism and fabrication. It is not just that his media has an ideological outlook, or that it frequently uses deceptive practices such as the story detailed here. They are also directly funded by conservative advocates, a fact that is rarely disclosed to readers. At least $ 1.7 million could be traced going from Republican campaigns to Timpone’s companies, but the actual number is unknown given the shadowy nature of the flow of political money and the obtuse structure of these networks.
As Margaret Sullivan states:
This single incident was bad enough; what’s worse is what it shows us about our poisoned news environment. While fact-based, accountable local newspapers are struggling to survive – many of them facing budget cuts or closure – what’s known as “pink slime” sites are sneakily trying to fill the void. They traffic in falsehood and exaggeration, paid for by political groups, especially on the right.
But of course.