Two weeks ago, Signal received a tip about a purported news website operating in Austin that had published a series of misleading stories largely attacking progressive candidates in non-partisan Austin City Council races. Stories linked in the initial piece Signal reviewed attacked candidates in at least three other races, the messaging generally skewing to pro-development talking points.
Perhaps more interesting than the underlying content on the site was what we found at the end of the page: a list of links to other sites in their network, all purporting to be local outlets, many of which were operating in markets where daily newspapers had either closed down entirely or scaled back operations significantly.
Within a week The New York Times unveiled bombshell reporting that revealed this network of more than 50 Texas centric sites belonged to a larger umbrella of over 1,000 outlets across the country that engage in 50’s era payola schemes, allowing conservative campaigns and causes to pay for favorable coverage of their candidates and clients.
Outlets like these, owned by the Metric Media Network, are at the heart of homegrown misinformation, and also the root of why we launched Texas Signal in 2019.
At a time when local newsrooms in Texas are often forced to shutter, and even the largest newsrooms face serious budget cuts that threaten vital coverage to Texans, the proliferation of these pay-for-play outlets have posed serious challenges to voters seeking verified, fact-based reporting. The websites are designed to look like the same local media outlets voters know and trust, and their coverage of hyper local issues like board and commission hearings can give the oeuvre of legitimacy.
Conservative operatives and elected officials are taking notice. Embattled Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office turned to one such outlet, the little known Southeast Texas Record, to push Paxton’s side of the dispute roiling his office. The Record was given extensive access to Paxton at a time when his office was declining comment to outlets like The Texas Tribune, Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News, raising serious questions about the depth of their reporting and why the AG’s office would shop their story to such a small site.
We launched Signal because we knew the truth needed a counterpunch in this changing media landscape. For the last year and a half we’ve provided fact-based reporting on the biggest issues facing Texans, and remain committed to fighting rightwing lies with facts.
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This work doesn’t end on election day. With a crucial legislative session on that horizon that will decide everything from pandemic response to redistricting, there has never been a more important time to do this work.
Together, we can change the world.