The truth about the 'Arizona Catholic Tribune'? It's a fake newspaper
'Paper' in your mailbox touting Trumpist talking points isn't from Catholic Church
A newspaper delivered to Linda Houck's Green Valley home last week claims to be giving its readers "real data," "real value" and "real news" – but after sitting down to read the "Arizona Catholic Tribune," all Houck got was really put off.
"I'm just very offended by this paper. I'm offended that they could send it to me…with my name on it, like they know who I am, and also send it out with nothing stopping them," Houck said.
Holding up a copy from a mid-October 2022 issue, Houck gestured to several glaring headlines – one positions Sen. Mark Kelly next to the words "Most Unjust and Extreme…Ever Seen," while another full-page spread seems to connect Arizona's public school teachers with "child sexualization."
"They're demeaning to people, they're demeaning to schools and teachers…and all it really is is a political advertisement," Houck said.
"All I know is that people are going to believe what they're reading, and it's very sad when people start believing stuff like this and don't even question it – they might just think if the Catholic Church believes it, then it must be true."
But despite the name, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix confirmed Tuesday that the Catholic Church is in no way affiliated with or supportive of the "Arizona Catholic Tribune."
"In light of the upcoming election on Nov. 8, the Bishops of the Arizona Catholic Conference are aware of different organizations and publications calling themselves 'catholic,' but that do not represent the Catholic Church," a statement from the Bishops of Arizona Catholic Conference to the Green Valley News read.
"These organizations cover various ends of the political spectrum and often engage in partisan political endeavors," the statement continued, adding that "[t]he Catholic organization and ministries in the Diocese of Phoenix do not engage in partisan politics and do not endorse candidates or parties during any election."
But if the Catholic Church isn't stuffing your mailbox this election season, you might ask who's responsible for sending out all those papers. The answer is complicated.
Who's behind it?
Publications like the Arizona Catholic Tribune often contain heavily partisan coverage masqueraded as local news that can easily blur the line between fact and political propaganda – especially when the partisan tilt is not formally disclosed.
Beyond the headlines that are largely peppered with attacks on Democratic candidates' policies and personas, it's difficult to attribute the content in the "Arizona Catholic Tribune" to anyone in particular.
In an October 2022 issue of the paper examined by the Green Valley News, several full-page spreads contain no author attribution. Articles that do have a byline – like those attributed to Laurie A. Luebbert – often return multiple search results online for similar work associated with other publications, including the Grand Canyon Times, the Lansing Sun, the Tucson Standard and two other "Catholic Tribunes" out of Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
A 2019 investigation by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School found at least 450 websites, similar to the "Arizona Catholic Tribune," that span a network of local and business news organizations, each distributing thousands of algorithmically generated articles and a relatively small number of reported stories.
And of the 450 sites discovered in the investigation, at least 189 were set up as local news networks across 10 states – months before the 2020 election season got underway – by an organization called Metric Media.
Metric Media and its affiliated conservative websites – including the Grand Canyon Times, which is cited in the "Arizona Catholic Tribune" – trace their origin to Brian Timpone, a former news anchor-turned-political spokesman.
Several years of exposés from NPR, The New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review have accused Timpone's companies of plagiarism, publishing fake quotes, using algorithms to write articles and outsourcing local news to freelancers in the Philippines who write under fake names.
In 2020, the New York Times reported that publications in Timpone's network accepted money from clients, often political operations, to write articles on topics of their choosing.
"The clients pay us to produce a certain amount of copy each day for their websites," read one Metric Media "tool kit" reviewed by the Times. "In some cases, the clients will provide their own copy."
"Only a few dozen" sites in Timpone's sprawling media network disclosed funding from political groups, the Times reported.
While much of the Metric Media network has been limited to a digital presence over the past few years, the 2022 election season has seen many of these publications now venturing into mailboxes as print editions.
Beyond the publications
In a report released Monday by the Tow Center in the Columbia Journalism Review, Priyanjana Bengani, a senior researcher who has been studying the proliferation of these news sites since 2019, concluded that the sites are providing services even beyond their publications.
"This network acts as a convergence of special interests for free market advocates, multiple political action committees, the fossil fuel industry, a politically motivated Catholic group, and a group propagating the notions of election fraud," Bengani writes.
According to an NPR report, Bengani documented instances in which the sites and the larger network provided "advertising, SMS messages, robocalls and websites as well as consulting and production costs."
Bengani also writes that the political action committees and media operators of the sites often share information, adding that some contributors to pro-Trump causes who share their emails or mobile numbers found themselves automatically sent the outlets' content.
Both sides do it, but Right does more
But in an interview with NPR, Bengani was quick to add that those who say this kind of covert news advocacy happens on both sides have a point.
"If we are to be completely blunt about it, we are seeing folks on the Left adopt this tactic as well," Bengani told NPR.
One site, Courier Newsroom, was created by a former Obama administration official, and another, American Independent, is championed by David Brock, the liberal activist and founder of the left-of-center watchdog Media Matters, according to NPR.
But Bengani also points out the difference in scale – she's tallied 64 such pro-Democratic newspapers and news sites, which is equivalent to about 5 percent of the right-wing publications she has been monitoring.
"You end up with this surround-sound effect," Bengani told NPR. "If people are hearing the same thing in multiple places, are they then more likely to believe it?"
What can I trust?
Though some consumers, like Houck, are quick to be skeptical about what shows up in their mailbox, Houck said her main concern is about those who could be misled, especially in the heat of election season.
"Half of the news you hear nowadays, you have to be a critical thinker or you have to have access to good information in order to make a decision," Houck said.
"People are just believing what they see…and here I am, I can't even believe what I'm looking at."
With an information ecosystem that's constantly changing and expanding – and media now coming from a variety of sources – it can be difficult to know what to trust.
If you're ever unsure about something you're reading, Tom Rosenstiel, a former executive director of the American Press Institute, suggests that asking yourself a few questions about the content, where it's coming from and what's missing can help unlock whether something is trustworthy or not.
"When you decide what to click on, what to read and when you lose interest and stop reading, you are making critical decisions about what matters, what you trust or what you don't understand," Rosenstiel writes.
"These questions are the same ones editors and producers in the media world use to edit stories and make up web pages. In the age when we are all both editors and consumers, we all need to know them."
This report was first published by the Green Valley News.