Partisan news outlets: propaganda or real news?

While it is being advertised as a run-of-the mill political news site, The Free Telegraph, operated by Republican governors, has received widespread criticism for aiding the spread of fake news. Defenders say it is just an outlet to share positive news about Republican efforts.

Scott Bauer/AP/File
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the head of the Republican Governors Association, spoke at a press conference in March. The Free Telegraph is an online news outlet run by the association even though to readers, the link may not be clear.

Republican governors are getting into the "news" business.

The Republican Governors Association (RGA) has quietly launched an online publication that looks like a media outlet and is branded as such on social media. The Free Telegraph blares headlines about the virtues of GOP governors, while framing Democrats negatively. It asks readers to sign up for breaking news alerts. It launched in the summer bearing no acknowledgement that it was a product of an official party committee whose sole purpose is to get more Republicans elected.

Only after The Associated Press inquired about the site last week was a disclosure added to The Free Telegraph's pages identifying the publication's partisan source.

The governors association describes the website as routine political communication. Critics, including some Republicans, say it pushes the limits of honest campaign tactics in an era of increasingly partisan media and a proliferation of "fake news" sites, including those whose material became part of an apparent Russian propaganda effort during the 2016 presidential campaign.

"It's propaganda for sure, even if they have objective standards and all the reporting is 100 percent accurate," said Republican communications veteran Rick Tyler, whose resume includes Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign.

The website was registered July 7 through Domains By Proxy, a company that allows the originators of a website to shield their identities. An AP search did not find any corporate, Federal Election Commission or IRS filings establishing The Free Telegraph as an independent entity.

As of early Monday afternoon, The Free Telegraph's Twitter account and Facebook page still had no obvious identifiers tying the site to RGA. The site described itself on Twitter as "bringing you the political news that matters outside of Washington." The Facebook account labeled The Free Telegraph a "Media/News Company." That's a contrast to the RGA's Facebook page, which is clearly disclosed as belonging to a "Political Organization," as is the account of its counterpart, the Democratic Governors Association.

RGA chairman Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, deferred questions through a spokesman to the group's national staff. At RGA, spokesman Jon Thompson said the site is "just another outlet to share those positive results" of the GOP's 34 Republican governors.

It's not unprecedented for politicians to try their hand at news distribution. President Trump's daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, hosted "real news" video segments in the summer, posted to the president's Facebook page. In one typical segment she told viewers she wanted to highlight "all the accomplishments the president had this week because there's so much fake news out there."

Vice President Mike Pence, when he was Indiana governor, pitched the idea of a news agency run by state government, but he ditched the idea in 2015 after criticism. In both cases, however, Lara Trump and Mr. Pence were not aiming to hide the source of the content.

But the RGA site has Democrats, media analysts and even some Republicans crying foul.

Democrats say Republicans are laying the groundwork with headlines that will appear in future digital and television ads, while also providing individual voters with fodder to distribute across social media.

"They're just seeding the ground," said Angelo Carusone, who runs Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group. "They are repackaging their opposition research so it's there as 'news,' and at any moment that publication could become the defining moment of the narrative" in some state's campaign for governor.

Political communications expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied political advertising for four decades, said The Free Telegraph commits a form of "identity theft" by "appropriating the integrity of news" because "the form of news carries credibility" that blatantly partisan sites do not.

Ms. Jamieson was particularly critical of RGA's initial failure to disclosure its involvement. "What we know about audiences is they factor in the source of information when judging that information," she said. "If you are denying the reader, the listener or the viewer information you know the reader uses, the question is why do you feel the need to do this?"

A recent RGA fundraising email said the site was "fact-checking the liberal media" and is a counter to "decades of demonizing Republicans." Playing off President Donald Trump's dismissal of "fake news," the email said media "can say whatever they like about us – whether it's true or not."

Some of The Free Telegraph's content plays off of material from traditional media organizations and from right-leaning outlets such as The Daily Caller. RGA press releases are linked. Some headlines and photos are exact duplicates of RGA press releases.

In the days after hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas and Louisiana, the site included headlines praising Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, for his response. There were no such headlines for Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.

The content is far tamer than from some sites from that popped up during the 2016 presidential campaign to propagate sensational but baseless stories. But it does create a cache of headlines that could turn up in campaigns.

The first test is in this fall's Virginia governor's race pitting Democratic nominee Ralph Northam against Republican Ed Gillespie. Virginians already have seen another site, The Republican Standard, that is run by Virginia Republican operatives with ties to Gillespie, a former state and national party chairman, and to a firm that has been paid by the RGA. The Free Telegraph and its social media accounts frequently link The Republican Standard.

Northam campaign spokesman David Turner accused Gillespie and Republicans of "creating their own Pravda," a nod to the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The Gillespie campaign declined comment, referring questions back to the RGA.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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