A Case Study: The relationship between a candidate and a ‘pink slime’ news network

The objective of the “newspapers” that landed on Illinois voters’ doormats ahead of the midterm elections were far from subtle. They wanted to see Gov. J. B. Pritzker replaced by Republican challenger Darren Bailey.

Carrying names such as ‘West Cook News’ and ‘Chicago City Wire’, the publications imitated the familiar appearance of local newspapers and promised “Real data, real news”. They were, in fact, a product of Local Government Information Services (LGIS), which is part of a wider network of pro-Republican sites that has been scrutinized for exploiting the local news crisis by “using partisan newspapers to launder advocacy.”

Incumbent Gov. Pritzker labeled the papers the work of “racist political consultant”, in reference to Dan Proft, a prominent conservative activist and one of LGIS’s founders. Pritzker’s spokesperson dismissed the papers as “Republican propaganda”, while the Democratic Party of Illinois sent mailers warning voters not to be fooled by the newspapers, describing them variously as “phony”, “fake” and “not real”.

Darren Bailey, by contrast, spoke glowingly of the “newspapers’” output. During an interview with Proft – who is also a conservative talk show host and chair of the People Who Play By The Rules PAC, which supported Bailey – he said, “These newspapers that are circulating the state are full of fact and truth — and Gov. Pritzker has the gall to call it a lie, to keep the people uninformed.”

This wasn’t the first time Bailey had shown his support for LGIS’s “journalism”.

In the following analysis we use Bailey as a case study to unpick the bidirectional relationship between candidate (Bailey) and ‘news network’ (LGIS) that has not only seen LGIS outlets lavish Bailey with favorable coverage, but also seen Bailey’s campaign pay to promote LGIS sites via Facebook ads. Through this analysis we present a holistic overview of the coverage enjoyed by LGIS’s favored candidates and explore some of the ways in which candidates such as Bailey leverage this coverage for self-promotion and/or to attack rivals at opportune political moments.

Sign up for CJR‘s daily email

LGIS coverage of Bailey: The When, Where and Why

The Tow Center has been maintaining a database of articles published on the homepages of partisan news websites linked to Metric Media since 2021. This case study focuses solely on the period January 1-October 31, 2022.

Per our database of articles published by outlets linked to the sprawling, interconnected network of partisan “news” sites that first gained notoriety in 2019, at least 228 Bailey-centric articles were published between January and October this year.

Breaking these articles down by month of publication, there was a notable surge in August, when 86 different articles were produced.

This spike in coverage came at a time when, having won the Republican nomination in June, Bailey was said to be struggling to unite his party and was trying to bat away a freshly-unsurfaced video from 2017 in which he reportedly said, “the Holocaust “doesn’t even compare” to abortion”.

These problematic stories did not register with the LGIS outlets. Instead, much of their coverage of Bailey in August showcased his attacks on specific, named political targets. These included:

  • J.B. Pritzker (Governor, IL.), who was targeted 20 times
    • e.g. “Bailey attacks SAFE-T Act: ‘Pritzker is letting criminals loose all over Illinois’”, (Will County Gazette)
  • Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which was targeted seven times
    • e.g. “Bailey: ‘What’s happening at DCFS is shameful’” (Will County Gazette)
  • Kim Foxx (State’s Attorney, Cook County, IL.), who was targeted four times
    • e.g. “Bailey: Kim Foxx ‘is violating her oath of office, and she is a national embarrassment’” (North Cook News)
  • Lori Lightfoot (Mayor, Chicago, IL.), who was targeted three times
    • “Bailey: ‘Lightfoot endorses Pritzker because she knows I am not going to sit on the sidelines’” (Chicago City Wire)
  • Marc Smith (Director, Illinois Department of Children and Family Services), who was targeted twice
    • e.g. “Bailey: ‘No compelling reason for Smith to have a job. How many more kids have to be hurt?’”, Kane County Reporter
  • Michael Madigan (Former Illinois House Speaker)
    • e.g. “Bailey protests Madigan’s pension: ‘Corruption in our state government runs so deep’” (Prairie State Wire)
  • President Joe Biden
    • e.g. “Bailey: ‘Joe Biden and J.B. Pritzker have overseen an economic disaster in America and Illinois’” (Prairie State Wire)
  • Sometimes more than one of these people were targeted concurrently
    • e.g. “Bailey: ‘JB Pritzker, Lori Lightfoot and Kim Foxx are the three musketeers of crime, chaos and tragedy in Chicago’” (Prairie State Wire), “Bailey: ‘Under J.B. Pritzker and Lori Lightfoot, the people of Illinois are in more danger’” (Chicago City Wire)
  • Bailey also took target the city of Chicago
    • e.g. “Bailey calls Chicago a ‘hellhole,’ promises to make ‘all of Illinois safe and affordable’” (SE Illinois News)

Stories about Bailey were found in 28 different titles in our database – 27 of which were from the LGIS network. (The other was from the Record network.)

However, while pro-Bailey articles were distributed across this vast range of sites, their distribution was far from even.

One site, the Prairie State Wire, was particularly prolific, publishing 59 of the 228 stories we found (26%).

The relatively light publication schedules of these sites can mean that stories pushing favored politicians’ talking points can quickly dominate their homepages.

On September 14, 2022, for example, seven of the thirteen stories in the top section of the Prairie State Wire homepage revolved around Darren Bailey.

Stories promoting Darren Bailey dominate the homepage of the Prairie State Wire on September 14, 2022.

The Prairie State Wire carries a number of red flags for readers wishing to verify its journalistic credentials.

Among the criticisms frequently leveled at sites from LGIS and related networks is that they are not transparent about their ownership and funding. 

Some LGIS sites, such as the Chicago City Wire, carry a vague statement saying, “Funding for this news site is provided, in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government.”

The Prairie State Wire‘s About Us makes no reference to its ownership or funding. Instead, it describes itself as “a real media watchdog” and boasts of an “experienced team of researchers and news journalists [who] stand ready to hold your local government accountable”:

Prairie State Wire provides candid and concise state government news.

Finally, the halls of power have a real media watchdog. Context. Consequence. Value. These are our core values at Prairie State Wire. We endeavor to provide it– helping our readers assess the consequences of public policy decisions on their quality of life.

Our aim: improve understanding of your community, state and the world around you. Profligate spending and borrowing.

Cronyism. Nepotism. Corruption. A property tax bill bigger than your mortgage. This is what our politicians give us when they know they aren’t being watched. At Prairie State Wire, we believe sunlight is the best disinfectant. Our experienced team of researchers and news journalists stand ready to hold your local government accountable.

The social media profiles of Bailey’s cheerleader also illustrate the atypical nature of the supposed news site.

Its Twitter account (@prairie_wire) has been suspended. (It is unknown when the account was suspended, but WayBack Machine’s latest capture of it working is dated April 19, 2018.)

On Facebook, the Prairie State Wire is able to self-identify as a “Media/news company”. However, CrowdTangle data suggests it is almost entirely ignored by its audience. Despite having just over 1,500 followers, 78% of its 1,488 posts from this year (up to October 31) have not received a single interaction (share, comment, reaction).

It is rare for Bailey to share links to news sites on social media. Our analysis found that fewer than 7% of his tweets from 2022 contained links to news articles. Yet, among the relatively short list of news outlets to which he has linked were four different LGIS outlets: Prairie State Wire (3 times), Chicago City Wire, South East Illinois News (2 times each) and the Illinois Valley Times (1 time).

Similarly, on Facebook his @BaileyforIllinois page has linked to favorable stories in LGIS outlets Chicago City Wire, Peoria Standard and Illinois Valley Times, despite not generally being in the habit of sharing news on the platform. (Per CrowdTangle, his campaign page has shared links to just 14 news sites in 2022.)

Notably, though, Darren Bailey’s engagement with favorable LGIS coverage has extended beyond simply sharing links on social media.

His campaign’s Facebook account, Darren Bailey for Governor (@BaileyforIllinois), has also paid to promote multiple LGIS articles.

Three of the seven favorable LGIS ‘news’ articles Darren Bailey’s @BaileyforIllinois page paid to promote on Facebook.

This is unusual for Bailey’s campaign account, which is not generally in the habit of paying to promote news articles. In fact, per the Facebook Ad Library, Bailey’s campaign page, Darren Bailey for Governor, has paid to promote just seven news articles in 2022, all of which came from LGIS outlets. These ads were launched concurrently on May 27, 2022, a month before the Illinois gubernatorial primary. They were the only ads of any nature for which Bailey’s Facebook page paid in May 2022, according to the Facebook Ad Library.

Numerous characteristics recurred across the LGIS ‘news’ articles for which Bailey’s campaign bought ads:

  • In all but one instance, the articles’ bylines were attributed to the publications, i.e. (“By Prairie State Wire”, “By Rockford Sun”, etc.). 
  • The headlines state Bailey’s position on a hot topic, typically via a direct quote:
    • “Bailey: ‘As governor I will bar state funding to libraries hosting ‘drag queen’ anything and pushing political propaganda to children’” (Lake County Gazette)
    • “Bailey: ‘There is nothing wrong with the state encouraging helmet use, but it is an overreach to make it a requirement’” (Prairie State Wire)
    • “Bailey: ‘We need more school leaders and school boards like the one in Machesney Park to take a stand for children’” (Rockford Sun)
    • “Bailey: ‘There is no need for this legislation and like the dispenser at Lyons Township High School, let’s flush this nonsense law’” (West Cook News)
  • In three instances, they talk up endorsements relevant to the promoted story, raising questions about whether the articles are used as vehicles to target demographics with specific interests:
    • “He has been endorsed by A.B.A.T.E., a motorcycle rights and safety organization” (Prairie State Wire)
    • “Bailey has been endorsed by Illinois Family Action, Illinois Right to Life, Illinois Federation for Right to Life and Lake County Right to Life” (Rockford Sun).
    • “Illinois Family Action, Illinois Right to Life, Illinois Federation for Right to Life and Lake County Right to Life have all endorsed Bailey” (West Cook News).
  • Six articles dedicate space to promoting Bailey’s farming background, family life and/or conservative credentials, themes that are central to many of his fundraising ads (e.g. “Darren Bailey is a farmer, conservative, and a proud Illinoisan through and through. If you think J.B. Pritzker’s time is up, CLICK BELOW.”):
    • “A noted conservative Republican, Bailey is a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment candidate who has noted his commitment to prioritizing Illinois families.” (Rockford Sun)
    • “A well-known Republican conservative, Bailey is pro-life and pro-gun rights, and he has stated that Illinois families are his first priority.” (West Cook News)
    • “Bailey lives on Bailey Family Farm near Louisville with his wife of 35 years, Cindy. They are the parents of four married children and grandparents of 11.” (Prairie State Wire)
    • “Bailey is a third-generation farmer who was born and reared in Louisville. Bailey grew up on Bailey Family Farm, which is now owned and operated by he and his sons, where they grow corn, wheat and soybeans.” (South Cook News)
  • Three promote policy commitments he promised to enact if he successfully unseated Pritzker:
    • “Bailey said if he is elected governor, he will bar state funding to libraries that host ‘drag queen’ anything and push ‘political propaganda to children.’” (Lake County Gazette)
    • “If elected, Bailey has noted his insistence to fight for parental rights, lower taxes and real spending reform.” (Rockford Sun)
    • “Bailey has stated that if elected, he will fight for parental rights, lower taxes and true fiscal reform.” (West Cook News)
    • “If elected, Bailey has promised to fight for parental rights, lower taxes and serious budgetary reform.” (Lake County Gazette)

Ultimately, any benefit Bailey gained from his frequent coverage across LGIS newspapers didn’t translate into election success in November. Pritzker cruised to a double-digit comfortable victory, albeit by a smaller margin than in 2018.

Regardless, reporting indicates that despite few obvious, direct benefits, partisan pseduo-news networks continue to hold great – seemingly growing – appeal as a piece in the campaigning jigsaw. Money – often of the dark variety – continues to pour into their creation and maintenance, and, as Bailey shows, politicians are happy to legitimize those that serve up helpful coverage via social media shares, endorsements, paid promotions, despite their questionable journalistic credentials.

As Pritzker enters his second terms, Prairie State Wire can continue its mission to be “a real media watchdog”, free of cronyism and nepotism.

On November 16, 2022, one week on from the election, seven of the fourteen stories at the top of the Prairie State Wire’s homepage began with the same word: “Bailey”.

Stories about Bailey dominating the frontpage of the Prairie State Wire a week after his election defeat.

Thank you to Tow Computational Fellow Priyanjana Bengani for contributing to this article.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Pete Brown is the Research Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and runs the Content Analysis Hub for the Publishers and Platforms project.

Related posts