Americans who pay attention to political news can probably think of plenty of conservative outlets that seem like extensions of the Republican Party. But what if there were a far-right news source that was literally an extension of the Republican Party?
The Associated Press today introduced the public to The Free Telegraph, which isn't a news outlet, but does its very best to pretend to be.
Republican governors are getting into the "news" business.
The Republican Governors Association has quietly launched an online publication that looks like a media outlet and is branded as such on social media. The Free Telegraph blares headlines about the virtues of GOP governors, while framing Democrats negatively. It asks readers to sign up for breaking news alerts. It launched in the summer bearing no acknowledgement that it was a product of an official party committee whose sole purpose is to get more Republicans elected.
If you swing by The Free Telegraph's site right now, there is a disclosure notice at the very bottom that notes the outlet is "paid for by [the] Republican Governors Association." But before anyone finds that impressive, it's worth remembering that (a) the disclosure is in a small, gray font, against a gray background; and (b) that disclosure was only added to the site after the Associated Press started asking about it.
The Free Telegraph -- not to be confused with the Daily Telegraph, which is an actual newspaper published in the U.K. -- has a Twitter feed that tells readers it's "bringing you the political news that matters outside of Washington," without mentioning its Republican ownership. The same is true of its Facebook account, which labels The Free Telegraph a "Media/News Company."
Except, of course, it's not. It's only pretending to be, and it's important to understand why that's a problem.
When the Republican Governors Association presents an argument to the public -- in a press release, a tweet, a video, etc. -- the public has an opportunity to take the information's partisan affiliation into consideration. The point of an endeavor like The Free Telegraph is to deceive people: by creating a literal propaganda outlet that looks like news, the party is counting on the public being too ignorant to know the difference.
From the AP's article:
Democrats say Republicans are laying the groundwork with headlines that will appear in future digital and television ads, while also providing individual voters with fodder to distribute across social media.
"They're just seeding the ground," said Angelo Carusone, who runs Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group. "They are repackaging their opposition research so it's there as 'news,' and at any moment that publication could become the defining moment of the narrative" in some state's campaign for governor.
Political communications expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied political advertising for four decades, said The Free Telegraph commits a form of "identity theft" by "appropriating the integrity of news" because "the form of news carries credibility" that blatantly partisan sites do not.
Jamieson was particularly critical of RGA's initial failure to disclosure its involvement. "What we know about audiences is they factor in the source of information when judging that information," she said. "If you are denying the reader, the listener or the viewer information you know the reader uses, the question is why do you feel the need to do this?"
It's something to keep in mind when RGA press releases start showing up on your Facebook timeline in the form of "news" articles.