‘Biased and defamatory:’ Fake, inaccurate newspapers target Dem officials, Illinois voters

Patrick Keck
State Journal-Register
Sangamon Sun.

Political mailers have been commonplace in election years, telling voters who or who not to support and where they stand on the issues. However, in recent weeks, a similar albeit alternative form of dissemination has occurred throughout Sangamon County in the lead-up to Election Day.

Designed in the format of a print newspaper, The Sangamon Sun is part of a series of right-wing "zombie" publications making its way throughout Illinois that primarily focuses on attacking Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker and others within his party on the economy, crime and social issues.

The material is mostly the same regardless of location in the state but has more local titles such as The Dupage Policy Journal, Rockford Sun and Peoria Standard.

The stories are politically-slanted forms of disinformation and were not an enjoyable read for Fever River Research historian Chris Stratton when he and his wife received a copy earlier this week.

"I find it to be very biased and defamatory," he said. "The rhetoric in the country is amped up enough and these publications are just adding fuel to the fire."

University of Illinois Springfield Director of the Public Affairs Reporting program Jason Piscia, found a recent copy in his mailbox. It included a claim that the Pritzker family is leading a cause to "replace the concepts of male and female with transgenderism."

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The formatting being so similar to print products, Piscia said, he was concerned that the inaccurate stories would trick and misinform readers.

"Everything about the newspapers — the way it's packaged, the way it's presented, the way it looks, the way it feels — sort of aligns with what readers, especially older readers have been used to getting on their doorsteps for many years," he said.

The Sun and the other papers through Local Government Information Services, formed by conservative commentator Dan Proft in 2016, have stories ranging from local government, schools, and even sports much akin to traditional news outlets.

Also, it tells readers about its core beliefs on its website.

"We believe in limited government, in the constructive role of the free market and in the rights of citizens to choose the size and scope of their government and the role it should play in their society," the site reads.

The Columbia Journalism Review reports that Proft founded and funds LGIS to act as a counter-balance to what he believes is a left-leaning news media in the state. What it is not clear about is its entire source of funding, where it simply states that advocacy groups that also support in limited government are supporting them.

As reported by The Chicago Sun-Times, this is allowed in part because the Illinois Campaign Disclosure Act does not apply to newspapers. Instead, it pertains to candidates and political action committees who must place their names on any and all forms of advertisement such as television ads, texts, mailers, leaflets or print or digital ads.

The lack of transparency, coupled with many stories not indicating a specific person who wrote the article, are some of the tell-tale signs that indicate the stories are not based on truth, Piscia said.

"If you read through these stories in The Sangamon Sun, you'll see these stories are very one-sided, there's no attempt to contact the other side," he said.

The papers, commonly referred to as the Proft papers, have become talking points, especially in the gubernatorial race between Pritzker and Republican challenger Darren Bailey.

In a press conference in September, the governor called out Proft for racism in an article that listed primarily Black men accused in violent crimes as those who would be let out of jail once the Pretrial Fairness Act, which ends cash bail, goes into effect in January.

“It’s a scare tactic. It’s meant to have people (show) concern for their safety. And the truth of the matter is that what he’s purveying here is complete hogwash. I’m probably being polite when I say that. It’s disgusting. It’s a terrible thing to do,” said Pritzker during an Illinois Department of Transportation press conference in a Chicago suburb. “And frankly, he’s doing it on behalf of Darren Bailey. And that says as much as you need to know about Darren Bailey.”

Proft replied via Twitter to the governor's statement, saying he "infuses race into every, single policy debate." He also called on the governor to find anything in the papers that were false.

Bailey, during a radio interview on Proft's "Chicago's Morning Answer" show that same week, praised the papers for getting what he described as truth to Illinoisans.

The newspaper is printed by Gannett, which owns The State Journal-Register.

Piscia doubts the print products will appear much on Sangamon County front porches and mailboxes after Tuesday's election.

He, however, did not rule out them making a reappearance. Much of it depends on how the Republicans fair up and down the ballot on Election Day, he said.

"I think there is a long game here just to try to continue to dig into those Democratic sources of power in Illinois, to try to little-by-little chip away over the years as we go forward," he said. "We're going into another presidential election over the next two years... so there's going to be even more motivation to try chop away at the Democratic influence in Illinois and throughout the country."

Contact Patrick Keck: 312-549-9340, pkeck@gannett.com, twitter.com/@pkeckreporter