A headline in Monday’s New York Times Business section jumped off the page at us: “Local News Aids Spread of Virus Misinformation.” Reporters Sheera Frenkel and Tiffany Hsu wrote that “small publications” like The Freedom’s Phoenix, “a local news site in Phoenix,” and The Atlanta Business Journal, “a news site in Atlanta,” had published articles by Joseph Mercola, a notorious source of disinformation about the Covid vaccines.
The Times reported that articles by Dr. Mercola and other super-spreaders of anti-vaccine content “are regularly published by small-town newspapers or they are quoted as experts.”
The reporters explain that, because local papers have been hit hard by declining advertising revenue, they have “less oversight than in the past.” So, small newspapers “unknowingly run vaccine misinformation” or “rely on whatever can be freely repurposed from online material.”
This atrocious piece of sloppy reporting in the country’s best newspaper makes my heart ache.
Ten minutes of online research would have revealed that The Freedom’s Phoenix is not “a local news site.” It is a national propaganda machine launched in 2015 by Ernest Hancock, a longtime libertarian publisher and radio host who was associated with the paramilitary Viper Militia that conspired to blow up government buildings in Phoenix. The Times reported in 1996 that Hancock defended the militia leaders, saying, “Their crime is educating other people.”
Hancock’s Freedom’s Phoenix advertises itself as “reaching America’s small towns with an interactive newspaper.” It is clearly part of a disturbing online phenomenon I wrote about last October: well-financed websites that pretend to offer local news but are actually part of a network spreading crackpot conspiracy theories about public health, imagined election fraud, and other subjects.
It’s harder to find information about the Atlanta Business Journal, the other “news site” in Frenkel’s and Hsu’s opening sentence. Its website gives no information about who publishes, produces, or pays for it. Its Facebook page hasn’t been updated since 2016. It is described on LinkedIn as a privately held company that “has told the stories of minorities in business” for 30 years. But it does not appear to have any actual reporters or writers.
The Times story does note, near the end, that “vaccine misinformation has also been published on sites that purport to be local news, but which are pay-for-play content websites.” But this concession is too little and too late to counter the slimy import of the article.
In the Independent last week, Christine Legere reported on our encounter with a Covid lie super-spreader, this one a registered nurse. It is not that hard to detect this kind of serious disinformation, even in a small newsroom. What goes begging in the Times article is the real story of why so many newspapers have been gutted and so many responsible journalists have lost their jobs. That is, indeed, a crisis for our health and our democracy.
For the New York Times to blame “local news” for this crisis instead of the real culprits, private-equity ownership of newspaper chains and their apologists and protectors on Wall Street and in Washington, is nothing short of a tragedy.
Note: This article has been updated with new information since its publication in the Aug. 5 print edition.