By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
The Crain’s Chicago Business editorial headline said it all: “When is a newspaper not a newspaper?”
Publications with the look and feel of newspapers containing politically charged articles were cropping up in mailboxes all across Illinois before the Nov. 8 gubernatorial election, appearing to favor state senator Darren Bailey, a downstate farmer and Republican rival to the incumbent governor, Democrat and billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker. Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot and other democrats appeared to be targets for criticism too.
The eight-page ersatz newspapers focus on Illinois property taxes, calling them higher than in other states, Chicago crime and violent offenders getting “out of jail free” cards to prowl city neighborhoods and illegal immigrants arriving to stay indefinitely in Elk Grove Village.
The would-be newspapers tout themselves as “real data, real news,” but contain no contact information. A note “from the publisher” says, “the data presented in this issue was generated from public records and has been reviewed for accuracy. If we inadvertently presented any data in error, please alert us via email or phone.” But no email address or phone number is given. The publisher is not identified.
Shaw Local News Network was the first to shed light on that mystery, identifying the publisher as Local Government Information Services. Its website contends the organization “covers nearly every corner of Illinois” with 20 digital newspapers and 11 print editions offering “candid and concise local government news” and “a real media watchdog.” The print version is mailed unsolicited to large numbers of registered voters.
Further investigation revealed a force behind LGIS is far-right activist Dan Proft, co-host of a morning radio show, though his exact affiliation is not clear. Crain’s says LGIS is owned by Proft. The Proft newspapers printed unflattering and false stories about Governor Pritzker and his high school-aged daughter.
Publishing political content in the guise of traditional newspapers was the first red flag in the ensuing controversy. Crain’s Chicago Business called the LGIS publications propaganda “mimicking the look and feel of actual newspapers.”
“We live in a time when independent, nonpartisan journalism is increasingly rare — and more necessary than at any other moment in living history,” said Crain’s.
Then the situation got messier, from a journalism ethics viewpoint.
“It eventually came to light that these imitation newspapers were being printed by Paddock Publications’ commercial printing arm and distributed with a postage permit registered to Paddock,” reported Crain’s.
Based in Schaumburg, Paddock Publications is the parent company of the Daily Herald, third-largest newspaper in Illinois with a circulation of around 150,000 and dating to 1872.
Producing and apparently providing postage for LGIS publications, contends Crain’s, “is pretty much the definition of promoting this message.”
Upon learning of Paddock’s connection with Proft and LGIS, Governor Pritzker backed out of a Zoom gubernatorial forum with Daily Herald editors.
In a letter to Paddock Publisher Douglas K. Ray, Pritzker’s campaign manager, Mike Ollen, expressed “our extreme disappointment and utter shock regarding Paddock Publications Inc., the employee-owned parent company of the Daily Herald, allegedly lending its bulk mail permit to Local Government Information Services.” Allen describes LGIS as “the right-wing organization headed by Republican political strategist Dan Proft that is responsible for the onslaught of fake and misleading newspaper-style mailers that have been arriving in mailboxes across Illinois.
“These mailers are specifically designed to mislead readers into thinking they are legitimate journalism when in reality they are unlabeled ads attacking political candidates.”
The fake newspapers, said Ollen, “represent an existential threat to quality, independent journalism — making it all the more unfathomable Paddock would cast its journalistic responsibility aside in the name of profit” and is “actively undermining the good work that the legitimate reporters at the Daily Herald do every day to combat the rising wave of misinformation and fake news.”
Within hours of getting Ollen’s message, Paddock Publications announced it dropped its printing and mailing contract with LGIS.
“The perception for some has become that the Daily Herald favors one party over another and by printing for LGIS, it’s somehow promoting its message. That is not true,” said a message to Daily Herald readers by Senior Management of Paddock Publications. “Still, we understand that perception matters. And we want to move forward and extract ourselves from this politically charged environment.
“As a result, Paddock Publications has made the decision to cancel commercial printing jobs with LGIS. As an independent newspaper publisher, we want no part of the flame-throwing accusations taking place between Gov. J.B. Pritzker and LGIS. Many critics cannot or refuse to differentiate between a commercial printing operation, for which the parent company Paddock Publications has many customers, and the Daily Herald’s editorial mission to be unbiased and fair.”
The scolding tone of management’s statement seemed to blame others for failing to recognize “it was a business decision to take on the job,” although management’s statement opened by saying: “Perception is everything. Especially in politics.” It appears a public outcry was needed to recognize that, belatedly.
After the contract cancellation, Pritzker agreed to appear in the governor forum.
North Cook News, one of the LGIS publications, reported Paddock’s move “will not disrupt the distribution of LGIS newspapers.” The publication reported that LGIS was founded in 2014 with the DuPage Policy Journal, and lashed back at Paddock.
“Paddock Publications, the employee-owned company which owns the Daily Herald, took million (sic) of dollars in payments from LGIS over a seven year period to publish and distribute the chain’s newspapers from its 24-acre complex in Schaumburg. That ended abruptly after the Pritzker complaint.”
Chicago, Cook County and Illinois have histories of political hanky-panky, and political operatives often are proud of it. Especially if the shenanigans go undetected for a long time. In the Paddock case, LGIS reveals that its printing partnership with Paddock lasted seven years. None of the media reports explained how the LGIS operation is funded.
An LGIS directory listed 33,500 entries, including business groups, law firms, American Legion Posts, government groups and committees, restaurants, high school football teams, election officials, churches, synagogues, judicial districts, school districts and many others. Their role in supporting LGIS is not clear, but there are a lot of them.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
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