Pink Slime

I hadn’t heard the term “pink slime”applied to the media before reading the following report in Talking Points Memo.

This is the tale of a fake news story, widely shared by a lot of smart people who so badly wanted it to be true that they didn’t care that it wasn’t. It is also the tale of the decline of local news in America, the wave of pink slime that is replacing it, feeding destructive partisan narratives about public institutions.

The story–which was written to sound like one of those overzealous efforts to compensate for structural racism–was that administrators at two Chicago suburban high schools would be requiring teachers to “adjust”their  classroom grading scales in the upcoming year. The adjustments were supposedly going to “account for the skin color or ethnicity of the students”. The story (from a rightwing outlet masquerading as a local news source) explained that the directive was an effort “to equalize test scores among racial groups.” Teachers would be told

to exclude from their grading assessments variables it says disproportionally hurt the grades of black students. They can no longer be docked for missing class, misbehaving in school or failing to turn in their assignments, according to the plan.

To suggest that people were outraged would be a considerable understatement. Had the story been true, the outrage would have been appropriate, but of course, it wasn’t. Not even close. No new policies had been adopted. A committee on grading and assessment had submitted an initial report, but it contained no mention of race-based grading or plans to grade students using different standards according to race.

This is where “pink slime” comes in. “Pink slime” is the product of a partisan propaganda platform well-disguised as a “local” news outlet. It’s named after a meat-processing byproduct used as filler—in other words, it looks like meat but isn’t.

When Talking Points Memo reporters looked for the source of the story–which you couldn’t even characterize as distorted, since it was pretty much invented out of whole cloth–they traced it to something called Local Government Information Services.

Local Government Information Services (LGIS) is the publisher of lots of local news media in Illinois, with titles like “Southern Illinois News” and “SW Illinois news.” LGIS is part of a much larger network of local news in multiple states. As local news media has disappeared “pink slime” outlets like LGIS have taken their place, relying on low-cost or automated content repeated across sites, and eschewing basic journalistic practices.

Just how big and how connected these local news outlets are is difficult to discern. In 2020, the New York Times counted about 1,200 connected local news outlets that had arisen in just 10 years.

Behind this empire of pink slime is Brian Timpone, a conservative businessman and former journalist with a record of plagiarism and fabrication. It is not just that his media has an ideological outlook, or that it frequently uses deceptive practices such as the story detailed here. They are also directly funded by conservative advocates, a fact that is rarely disclosed to readers. At least $1.7 million could be traced going from Republican campaigns to Timpone’s companies, but the actual number is unknown given the shadowy nature of the flow of political money and the obtuse structure of these networks.

The rise of LGIS and similar “news sources” has been facilitated by the near-death of local journalism and the closing of hundreds of newspapers that adhered to the norms of ethical news gathering. The fact that so much false “news” goes viral tells us that the supply of propaganda continues to grow, with phony “news” sources extruding a steady stream of propaganda masquerading as news–pink slime, pretending to be meat.

Local journalists with a sense of responsibility to journalistic ethics, their personal reputation, and the community they live in have been replaced by anonymous for-hire freelancers paid crumbs to feed the motivated reasoning beast.

As the report notes, people want to believe that these stories aren’t just true, but typical.

“But of course,” they type, and retweet. Even after they have been corrected, they might think to themselves, “Well, maybe this specific piece was exaggerated, but it is representative of a broader trend.”

The episode is indeed representative and telling, but of something that has gone wrong in our media landscape. When you give the benefit of the doubt to partisan fake news rather than professional educators, it is hard to take the whole “I’m here to defend education” bit too seriously. Our looming crisis in education is not runaway wokeness, which local school boards can police, but the willingness of those who should know better to reflexively denigrate the teaching profession.

America’s problems almost all come back to partisan, deeply dishonest media.