OPINION: Fake newspapers spreading lies to Illinois voters


Will Kleihege

Conservative-funded propaganda, disguised as local newspapers, circulate the Chicagoland area delivered to unsuspecting Illinois voter’s homes.

In the past six years, Donald Trump’s constant callouts of “fake news” made Americans more aware of poor reporting and stories with an agenda. While journalists are far from the “enemies of the people” that President Trump described, the news is something that can be weaponized. In an ironic, but fitting turn of events, Republican interest groups are now engaging in the actions their party leader was so adamantly against.  

In the past two months, you may have noticed a new newspaper in your mailbox, or more likely in your neighbor’s dumpsters. One of the papers is called “Chicago City Wire” and other papers go by different names with the content and headlines focused on criticizing the new SAFE-T Act. What people might not realize is that this is not a real newspaper. It is instead a right-wing attack-ad paid for by a political action committee (PAC), called the “People Who Play By the Rules.” 

“The Chicago City Wire” and its various sister publications circulating under different names in the suburbs are not news. These publications are designed to influence people who may not be as media literate as the average news junkie. The opinion rag sheet masquerades as real local newspaper stories, which is especially dangerous.

Alexandra Murphy, a journalism student at DePaul, along with her journalism peers, is flabbergasted by these publications. 

“I think it is toxic to real journalism and it is painting a poor picture of legitimate campaign publications,” Murphy said.

Biased reporting is nothing new. Primetime news networks each have audiences they cater to. For example, MSNBC serves liberal viewers while FOX broadcasts to conservatives. These papers, however, are far shadier than your average talking head. We all know what Tucker Carlson and his Fox colleagues are about, but these papers weaponize the trust of local media to say similar messages presented as real local news. 

Chicago City Wire, a fake publication circulating Illinois, features limited stories with bylines. (Chicago City Wire)

Amy Merrick is the advisor for DePaul’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and teaches a variety of journalism classes at DePaul. She is also concerned by these fake newspapers. 

“I see these newspapers as the newest evolution in misinformation,” Merrick said.

In the past six years, we have seen an increase in misinformation spread for political gains. A website might set itself up to appear as a local news site to gain followers and readers, then begin to report biased coverage as a way to get their audience to vote a certain way. 

“These papers are riding off the credibility of local news,” Merrick said. “They blur the lines in a way that makes it hard for anyone to trust what is and is not real reporting. Why should anyone trust local news if these flyers present themselves as local papers?”  

These papers are funded by the People Who Play by the Rules political action committee, which is bankrolled by Dan Proft, a right wing Chicago radio host who lives in Florida. Proft has a history of putting millions of dollars behind Republican candidates in hopes to dethrone the Democrats who have governed Illinois and Chicago for a long time. Proft is a supporter of Darren Bailey who seeks to become the governor of the state. Bailey has earned criticism by referring to Chicago as “a hellhole.”

The scariest thing about these flyers is that they appear real. They look nearly identical to a normal newspaper, which most people trust to provide them with unbiased information. By putting his propaganda in this format, people may not be aware that they are being manipulated. When I see an attack-ad on television or a billboard, I know I am looking at political advertising. The same cannot be said for these papers.

“I think these papers are manipulative and dangerous,” Riley Andrews said, a DePaul journalism student. “We talked about them in one of my classes and they are definitely a form of propaganda.”

The company who was printing these papers, The Daily Herald, has stopped printing “The Chicago City Wire ” and the other papers as of late September, due to pressure from Governor Pritzker. However, their website remains alive and they began printing again earlier this week.

The real question is what can we do about this dirty trick? The obvious solution is when you see one of these in the city, toss it in the dumpster, but that is only a temporary solution and will not solve the issue.

“People use friends and family as information sources a lot,” Merrick said. “Having this trust is good because when a family member starts saying something they read in one of these papers, you can have a reasonable discussion about why whatever they are saying is false. We can not stop this misinformation from being out there, but we can help our friends and family tell what is true and what is not.”

Murphy advocates for staying one step ahead of Proft. 

“I think individuals staying informed in the news and doing research on any source of information being sent out is important to be more aware of the biased information that is circulating,” Murphy said.

These papers are extremely dangerous and sneaky. The misinformation is knowingly presented as local news in order to influence voters without them realizing they are reading propaganda. This is scummy in every sense of the word. This kind of underhanded political advertising might earn Bailey a few points in the polls, but these papers only serve to make people distrust the news more.