Before last month, most Texans had likely not heard of a little-known media outlet called the Southeast Texas Record.
Since then, the obscure online legal publication has gained notoriety for an exclusive interview with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who broke his silence about accusations from his top aides of bribery and abuse of office. In 2019, the site had alleged Martin Phipps, one of the attorneys representing Bexar County in its billion-dollar opioid lawsuit against major pharmaceutical companies, had made possible illegal campaign donations through an associate. Similarly, it alleged former Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood had bolstered his campaign with contributions from lawyers he had hired to fight a different opioid lawsuit. None of these claims were substantiated by reputable news outlets in San Antonio.
The online Southeast Texas Record was identified by the Texas Tribune last month as part of a national network of some 1,300 websites posing as legitimate media outlets that publish one-sided coverage for Republican political campaigns and public relations firms, often in exchange for payment. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported those websites, whose names sound like ordinary local news outlets, have received at least $1.7 million from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups over the past couple of years to publish content favorable to certain candidates and causes.
Four such online publications use San Antonio in their names, and 75 bear names containing “Texas” or other cities in the state – yet with out-of-state reporters and editors. None of these publications appear to be based in San Antonio or in Texas.
Most of these outlets are a part of Metric Media, a network of Republican-supporting websites masquerading as local news sites, the Times reported. Metric Media describes its sites as being “established to fill the void in community news after years of decline in local reporting by legacy media. [Each] site is one of hundreds nationwide to inform citizens about news in their local communities.”
However, with hardly any local news, one-sided publicity articles, and authors who don’t live in nor ever have lived in the community, these websites are not legitimate news sources, said Kym Fox, associate professor of practice and the journalism sequence coordinator at Texas State University.
“It should not be so complex to figure out if you can trust a media outlet, but it’s gotten that way in a hyper-partisan environment,” Fox said. “There’s not a simple way to tell if a source is legitimate – there’s not a button you can push.”
But there are a few basic practices that legitimize a news source, she said.
Good reporters hyperlink to any information they receive, especially hard data such as demographics or polls, Fox said. They also try to include opinions or sources from multiple sides, looking at facts from different angles and analysis, Fox said. A one-sided article is a red flag, she added.
“An important point is transparency and accountability,” Fox said. “Good journalists follow a code of ethics and don’t just tell one side of the story.”
On the North San Antonio News website, under the tab “local government” are dozens of national articles unrelated to San Antonio.
On Thursday, both the homepages for the North San Antonio News and the South San Antonio News displayed almost identical stories, but none directly related to San Antonio. Two articles on the North San Antonio News relating to events in Seguin and Boerne had been published months earlier.
According to the New York Times, the Metric Media network is largely overseen by Brian Timpone, a TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur. He has built the network with the help of several others, including a Texas brand-management consultant named Bradley Cameron.
An examination of the four websites with San Antonio in their name shows dozens of articles appear on multiple sites. Some are published under an author’s byline while others are credited to “Metric Media News Service.” Further searches show most, if not all, of the articles’ authors live nowhere near San Antonio, or even in Texas.
Benjamin Kibbey, who has written articles for the San Antonio Standard about local economic effects of COVID-19 and business developments in San Antonio, acknowledged he’s never lived in Texas. “Currently, I am sitting in a camping trailer in Aurora, Colorado,” he told the San Antonio Report over Facebook Messenger. He said he previously was an editor at a newspaper chain in Montana.
Journalists need to live in the community they’re reporting on to be reliable sources of news, Fox said.
“Anytime you’re publishing something and trying to dupe your readers into thinking you’re in the community and know the community when you do not, that’s a problem,” Fox said. “Anytime you’re trying to dupe a reader at all is a problem.”
In this new age of misinformation, Texas has become a battleground state in U.S. elections and thus a prime target for sites like Metric Media’s, said Coda Rayo-Garza, a traveling lecturer in political science and Truman National Security partner.
Such publications have jumped in to fill the void being left behind by disappearing small-town journalism publications, said University of Texas at San Antonio Digital Communications professor Seok Kang. Kang added that teaching young news readers how to spot misinformation is more important now than ever before.
“We really have to step up as readers and as audiences,” Kang said. “We have to be better educated with news literacy, to know how to read news and to better view it critically.”
With politicians, including President Donald Trump, decrying many traditional news outlets as “fake news,” partisan news has gained popularity over the past decade due to the “echo chamber effect” of social media, meaning people tend to view news outlets or read articles supporting their existing viewpoints, Kang said.
When elected officials, like Paxton, engage with partisan outlets like the Southeast Texas Record over reputable news organizations, they are further dividing the deepening partisan lines in the country, said Rayo-Garza.
“It’s hurting the foundational components that we operate on, that we need for our democracy to work,” she said. “The press is the unofficial fourth branch of the government, it’s the watchdog.”
Paxton’s office did not return multiple requests for comment.
The reason Texas has been heavily targeted by this partisan media group is likely because it was viewed a battleground state in the presidential election, Rayo-Garza said.
“Battleground states are likely to be inundated with election misinformation,” Rayo-Garza said.
On Tuesday, Trump won Texas’ 38 electoral votes with a nearly 6-point margin, preserving the state’s decades-long GOP dominance in presidential elections.
Both Kang and Rayo-Garza said education is key to preventing biased news outlets such as the Metric Media websites from gaining ground and further dividing the nation.
“Recognizing misinformation is essential,” Rayo-Garza said. “Looking at the author, look at who authored the article, and what is their credibility – that kind of thing is vital.”