Advertisement

PSAC leaderboard

Non-profit news is also infected by corporate ‘pink slime’ in US

Questionable media outlets are blurring the line between news and public relations

Media USA Politics

“Pink slime’” journalism is a murky world of partisan websites and print outlets that deceptively pose as local news to push political candidates and parties. Photo by lane Becker/Flickr.

The explosion of non-profit news in the US seen over the past decade, which a small but growing movement in Canada is slowly catching up to, is made up to an alarming extent of phony “pink slime” operations pushing political candidates or parties, as my last column showed. That’s just part of the problem, however, as corporations have also set up local faux news operations to exert political influence and “greenwash” their environmental records. The number of pink slime sites, so-called after the meat byproduct sometimes found in fast food hamburgers, almost tripled in the US from about 450 in 2019, studies have found, to more than 1,200 in advance of elections there the following year.

In addition to political pink slime operations, corporate websites have popped up such as the Alabama News Center, which was founded in 2015 by the charitable foundation of state electrical utility Alabama Power. Its non-profit Foundation for Progress in Journalism also bought the Birmingham Times weekly newspaper, which had been a leader in the civil rights movement. The chair of the Foundation for Progress in Journalism was a vice-president at Alabama Power, which claimed it launched the Alabama News Center to promote “the good news of this state.” According to an investigation published earlier this year, its real motive was “to bypass news organizations altogether.” The investigation by climate journalism non-profit Floodlight showed that the Times and the Alabama News Center covered Alabama Power’s operations mostly by reprinting its press releases, if at all.

The Alabama News Center, which served as a state news wire whose stories were picked up by Apple and Google News, published “overwhelmingly positive stories about the power company,” according to the investigation. When Alabama Power was granted three rate increases in 2022, raising the average annual cost of electricity there by $274, neither the Times nor the Alabama News Center covered the story. As a result of the hikes, noted the investigation published in the Guardian, “residents of this seventh poorest state have the most expensive monthly electric bills in the US … The company also operates the nation’s dirtiest power plant.”

A 2022 NPR report showed that Alabama Power had long funneled money to a half dozen other online news outlets, including the Alabama Political Reporter, which gave the company positive coverage while fiercely attacking its critics. The apparently unconnected publications were linked to a consulting firm whose clients included Alabama Power, a joint investigation by NPR and Floodlight found. The sites had a collective audience of 1.3 million unique monthly visitors, it noted, who had been “unknowingly immersing themselves in an echo chamber of questionable coverage for years.” The consulting firm had paid $8,000 a month to the Alabama Political Reporter as far back as 2013, the investigation found.

Another corporate pink slime news website has been operated for more than a decade by the California oil and gas giant Chevron, which began publishing the Richmond Standard news website in the northern Bay Area town after a 2012 fire at its refinery there forced 150,000 residents to seek medical attention. A Vice investigation noted that the Standard was “decidedly positive about anything the company does” and concluded that its real purpose was to obscure the refinery’s sorry safety record, which had seen it fined numerous times for chemical leaks that “oozed chlorine and sulfur trioxide into Richmond’s atmosphere.”

The San Francisco Chronicle traced the Standard to a “public relations guru known for managing crises and mending damaged reputations” who had hired one journalist to produce all of the content for the website. “Since he’s the site’s only full-time writer and photographer, serious investigative work isn’t really an option.” The Chronicle added that the Standard “rarely covers Chevron directly, focusing instead on local residents, politicians and businesses.” It noted that Richmond city officials had “repeatedly sparred with Chevron over taxes, accusing the global oil giant of trying to stiff the city,” and that residents there “complain of air pollution that sometimes forces them to seek shelter indoors.”

The Los Angeles Times noted that the Standard carried “nasty stories about Chevron’s critics on the City Council” and pointed to the company’s massive lobbying budget for the coming civic election. “So far this year, Chevron has poured an astounding $2.9 million into three campaign committees in Richmond,” it noted. “The figures suggest that Chevron is preparing to spend at least $33 for every voting-age resident of the city.” The figures were unearthed by the website Richmond Confidential, which was started up by journalism students from the nearby University of California, Berkeley. “Richmond Confidential may be one of the most important news-gathering enterprises in the country right now,” wrote Times columnist Michael Hiltzik. “The site runs on a relative shoestring—a Ford Foundation grant that funded its launch ran out some years ago—but it demonstrates how important it is to balance corporate PR in what is, essentially, a company town.” While Richmond Confidential performed a crucial service by competing with an “openly bogus community news website” in the poorly-covered city, noted Hiltzik, it was at a definite disadvantage. “The students are unpaid, and the site shuts down during the summer, when school is out.”

The UK business daily Financial Times called the Standard “one of the more polished sites to emerge in the age of hyper-local digital news brands” that were blurring the lines between news and public relations. “At a time when Chevron is planning a billion-dollar upgrade that environmentalists oppose, pitching itself as a friendly voice in the community must look like an appealing way to manage such issues.” Ironically, the Standard won gold for best newsroom in San Francisco’s annual Bulldog PR Awards in 2018 for having “established itself as a credible, important new source for local residents in Richmond and Contra Costa County.”

In 2022, the tech website Gizmodo reported that Chevron had expanded its pink slime operation to news-starved Texas with a website called Permian Proud, which it concluded was clearly set up to help in “greenwashing” the company. “One article … seemingly directly lifted from a corporate press release, touts a solar project that will lower the ‘carbon intensity’ of Chevron’s operations in the Permian [Basin].” Other stories focused on an award Chevron received for “environmental and social performance” and on how its drilling operations had increased their use of recycled water. “These posts blend seamlessly in the site’s sidebar with the local news and sports articles.” The Guardian found that interspersed with news of livestock sales and parades on Permian Proud was “a series of stories lauding Chevron’s achievements,” some of which had been pasted unchanged from its press releases. “It is unclear … how many people reading the site will be able to tell the difference between local information and Chevron’s PR fluff.”

Pink slime doesn’t seem to have infected Canada’s news media so far, but examples occasionally surface here which show that it might be possible. Our news media may be on a fast track to oblivion, but no news at all might be preferable to a dystopian info-hellscape of pink slime posing as news.

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

Advertisement

URP leaderboard Apr 2024

Browse the Archive