Sight Magazine – Ahead of US midterm elections, partisan mailer impersonates Catholic newspaper in Arizona

Phoenix, Arizona, United States

Nicole Leonardi first thought a new journal had arrived in her mailbox this week. But a closer look at the Arizona Catholic Tribune revealed another story.

Although it had all the trappings of a traditional print newspaper, including a tagline that read “Real Data. Actual value. Real news,” the promise did not match the content.

Nicole Leonardi, holds a copy of the ‘Arizona Catholic Tribune’ at her home in Tempe, Ariz., Thursday, Nov. 2, 2022. The newspaper is part of a multistate network of partisan conservative online and print publications that give the appearance of traditional local media. PHOTO: AP Photo/Josh Kelety.

Leonardi, a Democrat living in Tempe, Arizona, who is not Catholic, quickly realized the newspaper was fake, a partisan conservative publication with content critical of local Democratic candidates. The newspaper is also not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, which has disowned it.

“I thought it was real paper so I pulled it out,” Leonardi said. “It’s only when you dig a little deeper that you realize this pushes the right-wing talking points fully.”

The Phoenix area wasn’t the only area where newspapers with the slogan “real news” have appeared recently. Similar publications reportedly arrived in mailboxes in cities in Iowa and Illinois.

The Arizona Catholic TribuneThe Facebook page identifies its owner as Franklin Archer, who is part of a multi-state network of partisan online and print publications posing as local media outlets, according to Priyanjana Bengani, senior fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. at Columbia. University.

“We have been here before. They did it in Wisconsin before the 2020 election. They did it in Kansas before the August abortion referendum,” Bengani said. “I think the number of physical documents we’ve seen in this election cycle is greater than what we’ve seen in the 2020 cycle.”

Bengani traced the networks to Brian Timpone, who describes himself as a “media executive” on a LinkedIn profile, and Bradley Cameron, a strategy consultant. Cameron, Timpone, the Arizona catholic tribuneand several companies in the extensive network of publications did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

As part of his research for the Tow Center, Bengani identified more than 1,200 news sites that are part of the network.

In a series of research reports, Bengani claimed that the websites emerged ahead of the 2020 elections and the media are using the appearance of journalistic neutrality to amplify partisan messages.

“It’s a really complicated network. There are many different entities that are registered in different states,” Bengani said. She noted that the print editions of another publication that is part of the network, the Grand Canyon Times, “have been appearing in Arizona for a few months now.”

The Arizona Catholic Tribune which landed in mailboxes this week features a front-page story claiming Arizona Democratic Reps. Tom O’Halleran and Greg Stanton voted to “keep the school’s ‘gender departments’ a secret from parents. as well as a teaser claiming that Arizona public school teachers are being encouraged to promote a genre of “child sexualization” reading. Such content aligns with Republican efforts to use anti-transgender rhetoric as a corner issue. Other parts of the document focus on abortion, and one section gave Arizona elected officials ratings with their photos, awarding Republicans A and Democrats F.

Another page features a story dedicated to Republican Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake’s false claim that her Democratic opponent Katie Hobbs voted to ban the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem from schools.

A spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix said in an email that the church is “in no way affiliated with or supportive of the ‘Arizona Catholic Tribune’ publication.”

“The Catholic organization and ministries of the Diocese of Phoenix do not engage in partisan politics or support any candidate or party in an election,” said Brett Meister, spokesman for the diocese.

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But experts say the document is clearly designed to suggest otherwise.

“It seems to be pretty cheeky,” said Matthew Jensen, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma who focuses on online misinformation. “The media format, the implied endorsement, all those things, it seems like they’re meant to point to an authoritative source.”

Paul Bentz, a Republican pollster who lives in Goodyear, a Phoenix suburb, said he found a copy of the Arizona Catholic Tribune in his letter on Monday. Bentz, who is not Catholic, said political mail formatted as tabloids is nothing new in Arizona, although this fake newspaper is “rhetorically over the top” and has no disclaimer. The post was likely intended to energize Republican voters and prevent moderates from voting for Democrats, he said.

“This one probably overstepped the mark and was a bit too blatant in its appeal to conservative voters and it drew the ire of the Catholic Church,” he said. “The tone and tenor of this doesn’t seem to be to increase voter turnout but to solidify the base and deny anyone who might be tempted to vote for their opponents.”