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New York Post Shifts Tone on Trump as a Top Editor Plans His Own Exit

Last month The New York Post called President Trump “an invincible hero, who not only survived every dirty trick the Democrats threw at him, but the Chinese virus as well.” Then it published front-page articles trying to link the contents of a laptop said to belong to Hunter Biden to his father, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

On Thursday, in a sudden about-face, Rupert Murdoch’s scrappy tabloid published two articles with a wildly different tone. One accused the president of making an “unfounded claim that political foes were trying to steal the election.” The headline on the other described Donald Trump Jr. as the “panic-stricken” author of a “clueless tweet.”

What happened?

In short, the president appears to be going down — and The Post is not about to go with him.

With Mr. Trump headed toward a likely defeat, top editors at the tabloid told some staff members this week to be tougher in their coverage of him, said two Post employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.

In addition to the shift in tone, there will be a change in personnel: Col Allan, the Australian tabloid wizard who was once seen in the Post newsroom wearing a Make America Great Again cap, will call an end to his career of more than 40 years at Murdoch papers in New York and Sydney.

Mr. Allan, who was The Post’s editor in chief from 2001-16, rejoined the paper as an adviser in January 2019, just as the presidential campaign was underway. Since his return, he has had a strong hand in shaping coverage, several staff members said. He confirmed his planned retirement in an email interview.

“The Post is not perfect,” Mr. Allan said. “But it articulates a view that is not obedient to liberal orthodoxy. Therefore it is dangerous. I know where I would rather be.”

On Thursday, The Post published two articles in quick succession on its website. One was a skeptical dispatch from Washington on the president’s Thursday evening White House briefing: “Downcast Trump makes baseless election fraud claims in White House address,” went the headline.

The article did not shy away from critical reporting: “President Trump repeated his unfounded claim that political foes were trying to steal the election from him during a briefing on Thursday evening as he trailed his opponent and remaining swing states were leaning toward a Joe Biden presidency.” The full article was not included in The Post’s print edition on Friday, but the parts that called the president’s claims unsubstantiated were intact.

It went online shortly after The Post published an article on its website that took aim at Mr. Trump’s eldest son, who had called on the president “to go to total war over this election” in a tweet. “Panic-stricken Donald Trump Jr. calls for ‘total war’ in clueless tweet,” read the original headline. The story noted that the younger Mr. Trump “has a long history of using Twitter to fuel conspiracy theories.” (A later version of the headline removed “panic-stricken,” and the article did not make the Friday print edition.)

A spokeswoman for The Post declined to comment for this article.

The tenor of The Post’s recent Trump coverage matched the irreverent voice the paper typically applies to Hollywood celebrities and Democratic politicians. The two employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity described instances in the last two days when top editors encouraged staff members to use a rough-and-ready tabloid voice when writing about the president.

Two main sources were President Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and his former adviser Stephen K. Bannon. The article suggested that Joseph Biden had directed American policy in Ukraine while he was vice president to enrich his son, a former board member of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company. Other news organizations, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times, examined the laptop material and determined that Joseph Biden had not manipulated American foreign policy to benefit his son.

“The Post has largely supported Trump because the paper shares his vision for free markets and the opportunity they provide to raise up all people,” Mr. Allan said. “We have also been critical of the president, particularly his tweeting. My personal view is that history will be very kind to Donald Trump.”

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Chinese Reporters in the U.S. Left Uncertain by Political Spat

Yuhui Chai came to the United States from China more than a dozen years ago, drawn by the country’s vibrant democratic values. She eventually found work as a journalist, relishing the chance to pursue hard-hitting stories and ask questions in a manner often discouraged in China’s authoritarian society.

Now Ms. Chai is among more than 100 Chinese news media employees in the United States caught in a heated dispute between Beijing and Washington over the rights of foreign journalists. Unable to secure a long-term visa amid new American restrictions, she has decided to leave her job this week to return to China.

“There’s no way to plan for the future,” said Ms. Chai, a New York-based correspondent who covers technology for SunTV, a Hong Kong news outlet. “It’s very painful.”

As the United States and China fight a broader geopolitical struggle over trade, technology, military policy, the coronavirus and other issues, the news media from both countries are caught in the middle.

The American government has put new limits on the number of employees at Chinese state media organizations, effectively forcing some to leave, and shortened the length of visas for Chinese media workers. China has expelled 17 foreign journalists, including some from The New York Times, and frozen the credentials of several others.

China in particular has long harassed and surveilled foreign journalists on its soil, but the new round of tit-for-tat restrictions risks cutting off a critical source of insight into both Chinese and American societies. American journalists in China have traditionally provided an important window into the country’s opaque government.

Chinese journalists in the United States, especially those working for commercial outlets, can play a role, too. While the majority of Chinese journalists in the United States work for the Chinese government’s flagship news outlets, including Xinhua and China Central Television, others represent more commercially minded organizations that strive to produce in-depth journalism. Though they have to abide by China’s strict censorship rules, they can help balance out the Communist Party’s propaganda machine back home.

The Trump administration says a tough approach is necessary to force Beijing to ease pressure on foreign news outlets. Critics argue the new rules are undermining America’s reputation as a bastion of civil liberties and giving Beijing an excuse to crack down on foreign news outlets even more.

“It has done huge damage to the ideals of freedom of the press and free speech,” said Yik Chan Chin, a lecturer in media and communication studies at the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. “All these concepts have been significantly damaged during this war.”

Many of the Chinese journalists affected by the new restrictions came to the United States to escape severe controls on the news media in China, where journalists are routinely harassed, punished and imprisoned. Under Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, the government has all but eliminated investigative reporting and demanded media workers show unflinching loyalty to the party.

Now, faced with visa hassles and growing scrutiny of their work in the United States, some are considering changing jobs. Others are making plans to return home, saying in interviews they are tired of being seen as spies and propaganda workers.

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Credit…Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images

The Trump administration has sought to portray Chinese reporters in the United States as foreign agents, designating nine Chinese news organizations as operatives of the Chinese state. David R. Stilwell, a top State Department official, said in a speech last week that workers at state-run outlets “masquerade as legitimate news reporters when their real business is propaganda and espionage.”

Chinese reporters say that portrayal is too simple. The more commercially minded outlets have somewhat more freedom in what they write or broadcast than official government outlets like Xinhua.

“In this age of great divides, it’s more important than ever to hear from more people,” said Du Chen, a reporter for a Chinese technology news site who left the United States earlier this year and has been unable to obtain a visa to return.

Mr. Du said smaller Chinese outlets in the United States have played an important role in dispelling stereotypes. “It still is very crucial to keep these journalists on the ground in U.S.,” he said, “if the U.S. government prefers a meaningful exchange of ideas rather than propaganda wars.”

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Credit…Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times

In a move seemingly aimed at avoiding an escalation, American officials said this week they would allow Chinese journalists whose visas have expired to remain in the United States and apply to have their stays extended. Many are still awaiting word from the Department of Homeland Security on renewal applications they submitted months ago.

China remains angered by a decision from the Trump administration in May to limit visas for Chinese journalists to 90 days, a significant downgrade from the open-ended visas they used to receive. The Chinese Foreign Ministry this week accused the United States of subjecting Chinese journalists to “political persecution and suppression,” and vowed to take retaliatory measures.

China has already stopped renewing press credentials for several foreign reporters still in the mainland, raising the possibility of further expulsions. State-run news outlets have suggested Beijing could seek to impose limits on foreign journalists working in Hong Kong, a former British colony that has traditionally respected press freedoms, if the situation continues to escalate.

American officials, in response, say the Chinese government has ignored their requests to ease pressure on foreign news outlets. They have called on Chinese officials to reinstate reporters from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The Times who were expelled earlier this year. The expelled reporters have no ties to government institutions or the Trump administration.

“Beijing’s actions prove time and again that the C.C.P. is afraid of independent and investigative media reporting,” a spokesman for the American embassy in Beijing said in a statement this week, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

An agreement between the United States and China to ease tensions on the news media, while still elusive, could eventually lay the groundwork for more cooperation between the two countries, experts say.

A compromise could help reduce friction between the two countries at a tense moment, said Jerome A. Cohen, a New York University law professor and an expert on China.

“These steps will set the tone for the series of broader compromises that have to be attempted regarding more major issues,” Mr. Cohen said, pointing to climate change, trade, arms control and other challenges.

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Credit…Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

For Chinese journalists, the sharp deterioration in relations has been dispiriting.

Many say they have appreciated the chance to report in a relatively free environment on a variety of contentious issues, such as politics, religion and ethnic divisions — subjects that are typically restricted in China.

“I feel myself breathing again in an open society,” said Helen Zhang, a journalist from China who works in the United States. “Chinese journalism is not dead, but homeless.”

Ms. Chai, the reporter for SunTV, said she is considering leaving journalism once she returns to China, in part because of limits on free speech there. She said she worries the United States is isolating itself by making it harder for foreigners to report in the country.

“The United States should be giving positive messages to those who support democracy and freedom, instead of punishing everyone,” she said. “If your policies are driven by fear, driven by a kind of hostility, that creates very big problems.”

Albee Zhang contributed research.

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It’s the End of an Era for the Media, No Matter Who Wins the Election

There’s a media phenomenon the old-time blogger Mickey Kaus calls “overism”: articles in the week before the election whose premise is that even before the votes are counted, we know the winner — in this case, Joe Biden.

I plead guilty to writing a column with that tacit premise. I spent last week asking leading figures in media to indulge in the accursed practice of speculating about the consequences of an election that isn’t over yet. They all read the same polls as you do and think that President Trump will probably lose.

But many leaders in news and media have been holding their breaths for the election — and planning everything from retirements to significant shifts in strategy for the months to come, whoever wins. President Trump, after all, succeeded in making the old media great again, in part through his obsession with it. His riveting show allowed much of the television news business, in particular, to put off reckoning with the technological shifts — toward mobile devices and on-demand consumption —  that have changed all of our lives. But now, change is in the air across a news landscape that has revolved around the president.

And given the jittery pre-election timing, I’ll try to keep these items short so you can check Nate Silver’s Twitter feed in between reading them.

Before the 2016 election, Andrew Lack, then the head of NBC News, warned colleagues that MSNBC’s revenue would take a 30 percent hit if — when — Hillary Clinton was elected, two people familiar with the remark told me. (After the debacle in 2016, few in the media wanted to be quoted speculating about what happens after the election.)

Well, TV sure dodged that bullet! CNN’s chief, Jeff Zucker, later told his Los Angeles bureau that Mr. Trump had bought the declining business four more years, a person who was there recalled. (A spokesman for CNN said that Mr. Zucker would not have speculated on future ratings.) And it has been a profitable time for cable news, a record-breaking year for political books and, generally, a bonanza for the legacy media that live rent-free in the president’s head.

That may be ending. MSNBC and other outlets that thrived on resistance to Mr. Trump may see their audiences fade, said Ken Lerer, a veteran investor and adviser to old media and new, who also predicted that The New York Times would “cool off” as you, dear reader, find other things to do.

And the people who continue to pay attention to the news will stay online.

“The pandemic has advanced digital by four or five years and it will not go back to what it was,” Mr. Lerer said.

In corporate media, that means what Cesar Conde, the new chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group, has been calling an “omnichannel” strategy, as brands like MSNBC no longer see themselves primarily as television. For new outlets, it’s an opportunity to press their advantage of being native to this new world.

“Many media organizations have spent the past four years generally failing to adapt to a campaign, a president, a White House and an administration that is extremely online,” said Stacy-Marie Ishmael, the editorial director of the nonprofit Texas Tribune. “We are only, four years in, getting to grips with how to contend with rhetorical techniques, messaging and communications steeped in misinformation and propaganda.”

Keep up with Election 2020

Others predicted a deeper cultural shift — from Stephen Colbert’s biting satire back to the sillier Jimmy Fallon, from politics back to entertainment, whenever the studios can get production running again. But some veterans of the business of politics doubt that news coverage can really calm down — or that consumers can look away.

“If Biden is elected, conservatives will be energized, not retreating,” said Eric Nelson, the editorial director of Broadside Books, HarperCollins’s conservative imprint. “Trump will keep tweeting, and new scandals from his presidency will keep unfolding for well into 2022. By the time that all chaos and nonsense runs out, Trump could be running again for 2024.”

You aren’t the only one just barely hanging on until Election Day. Most of the top leaders of many name-brand American news institutions will probably be gone soon, too. The executive editor of The Los Angeles Times, Norm Pearlstine, is looking to recruit a successor by the end of the year, he told me. Martin Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, just bought a house out of town and two Posties said they expected him to depart next year. He hasn’t given notice, The Post’s spokeswoman, Kristine Coratti Kelly, said. And the executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, is on track to retire by the time he turns 66 in 2022, two Times executives told me, dampening speculation that he might stay longer.

Over in big TV, Mr. Zucker, of CNN, has signaled that he’s frustrated with WarnerMedia, and broadcast television is overflowing with speculation about how long the network news chiefs will stay on, though no executives have suggested imminent departures. “Everyone is assuming there’s going to be turnover everywhere, and everyone is absolutely terrified about who is going to come in,” one television industry insider said.

This isn’t just the usual revolving door. Newsroom leaders face strong pulls in conflicting directions. Outlets all along the spectrum, from the staid BBC to the radical Intercept, have been moving to reassert final editorial control over their journalists. But newsroom employees — like a generation of workers across many industries — are arriving with heightened demands to be given more of a say in running their companies than in years past. New leaders may find opportunities to resolve some of the heated newsroom battles of the last year, or they may walk into firestorms.

Mr. Pearlstine, the only one talking openly of his departure, told me that the new “metrics for success might be different as well — issues such as inclusiveness, such as being anti-racist, such as really commanding some new platform, be it podcasts or video or newsletters, in addition to having journalistic credentials.”

And, he said, the old top-down newsroom management is a thing of the past. “Consent of the governed is something you have to take pretty seriously,” he said.

Wesley Lowery, a CBS News correspondent who has been a voice for more diverse and politically engaged journalism, said he had already seen signs of change.

“These big institutions very rarely come out and announce some big sweeping change — they say, ‘We’re not changing,’ and they change,” he said. “Even people who made a big deal about how the rebels were wrong are now conceding to the things we all wanted.”

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Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The right-wing cable channel has been riding high as the quasi-official White House network, though it has always been at its strongest when it’s attacking Democrats — who seem poised to take power.

But the approaching election has executives around Lachlan Murdoch, Fox’s chief executive, preparing to battle on several fronts: with left-wing critics, with what senior executives fear could be regulatory retribution from Democrats and perhaps most of all from James Murdoch, Lachlan’s more liberal brother and critic, according to a person familiar with the company’s plans.

And Lachlan Murdoch ends the election cycle as he began it: with no real control of the network’s high-profile talent and an unusually low profile for a figure of his nominal political power. One data point: a surprised patron of the Midtown power lunch spot Estiatorio Milos in late October reported overhearing Mr. Murdoch politely spelling his name to a hostess who didn’t recognize him.

The battles over speech and censorship, the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci tweeted recently, are becoming “attention wars.” As recently as last week, senators were dragging in tech executives to complain about individual tweets, but the arguments are about to turn more consequential. The platforms are increasingly being pushed to disclose how content travels and why — not just what they leave up and what they take down.

“We’re in this brave new world of content moderation that’s outside the take-down/leave-up false binary,” said Evelyn Douek, an expert on the subject and a lecturer at Harvard Law School.

Another way of looking at Substack is as a kind of Twitter Premium — a place you can pay for more content from your favorite journalists. And that synergy has caught the attention of some at Twitter itself, where the notion of acquiring the newsletter company has been discussed internally, a person familiar with the conversations said. (Executives at both companies declined to comment on the speculation.)

But it’s not clear whether Substack will continue to be the venue of choice for all of its stars. Mr. Greenwald wrote that he’d been exploring “the feasibility of securing financing for a new outlet” that would challenge what he sees as the “groupthink” of the left in the Trump era. And roiling anger in Silicon Valley with tough media coverage of companies and investments means there are deep pools of money for a new assault on big media.

“There’s going to be a surge of money after the election, especially from tech bros who think they can fix everything,” said one of the Substack writers who has drawn interest from tech investors.

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Credit…Mike Cohen for The New York Times

Nothing good will come of reading political news, much less Twitter, between now and the election. Election week is usually a good time to hide out at the movies, but with theaters closed, you’ll have to find escape elsewhere. Two favorites: The Times’s brilliant Election Distractor on the web; and for your Kindle, Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle, a bit of high-concept political sci-fi that will prepare you for many of the coming tech and political battles.

On election night, however, come to Twitter for the jokes and stay for what is really one of the highlights of American democracy, such as it is: the reassuringly sophisticated, nerdy and nonpartisan vote-counting conversation that you can listen in on among the likes of Mr. Silver, Nate Cohn, Ariel Edwards-Levy and Brandon Finnigan.

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Trump Had One Last Story to Sell. The Wall Street Journal Wouldn’t Buy It.

By early October, even people inside the White House believed President Trump’s re-election campaign needed a desperate rescue mission. So three men allied with the president gathered at a house in McLean, Va., to launch one.

The host was Arthur Schwartz, a New York public relations man close to President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr. The guests were a White House lawyer, Eric Herschmann, and a former deputy White House counsel, Stefan Passantino, according to two people familiar with the meeting.

Mr. Herschmann knew the subject matter they were there to discuss. He had represented Mr. Trump during the impeachment trial early this year, and he tried to deflect allegations against the president in part by pointing to Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine. More recently, he has been working on the White House payroll with a hazy portfolio, listed as “a senior adviser to the president,” and remains close to Jared Kushner.

The three had pinned their hopes for re-electing the president on a fourth guest, a straight-shooting Wall Street Journal White House reporter named Michael Bender. They delivered the goods to him there: a cache of emails detailing Hunter Biden’s business activities, and, on speaker phone, a former business partner of Hunter Biden’s named Tony Bobulinski. Mr. Bobulinski was willing to go on the record in The Journal with an explosive claim: that Joe Biden, the former vice president, had been aware of, and profited from, his son’s activities. The Trump team left believing that The Journal would blow the thing open and their excitement was conveyed to the president.

The Journal had seemed to be the perfect outlet for a story the Trump advisers believed could sink Mr. Biden’s candidacy. Its small-c conservatism in reporting means the work of its news pages carries credibility across the industry. And its readership leans further right than other big news outlets. Its Washington bureau chief, Paul Beckett, recently remarked at a virtual gathering of Journal reporters and editors that while he knows that the paper often delivers unwelcome news to the many Trump supporters who read it, The Journal should protect its unique position of being trusted across the political spectrum, two people familiar with the remarks said.

As the Trump team waited with excited anticipation for a Journal exposé, the newspaper did its due diligence: Mr. Bender and Mr. Beckett handed the story off to a well-regarded China correspondent, James Areddy, and a Capitol Hill reporter who had followed the Hunter Biden story, Andrew Duehren. Mr. Areddy interviewed Mr. Bobulinski. They began drafting an article.

Then things got messy. Without warning his notional allies, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and now a lawyer for President Trump, burst onto the scene with the tabloid version of the McLean crew’s carefully laid plot. Mr. Giuliani delivered a cache of documents of questionable provenance — but containing some of the same emails — to The New York Post, a sister publication to The Journal in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Mr. Giuliani had been working with the former Trump aide Steve Bannon, who also began leaking some of the emails to favored right-wing outlets. Mr. Giuliani’s complicated claim that the emails came from a laptop Hunter Biden had abandoned, and his refusal to let some reporters examine the laptop, cast a pall over the story — as did The Post’s reporting, which alleged but could not prove that Joe Biden had been involved in his son’s activities.

While the Trump team was clearly jumpy, editors in The Journal’s Washington bureau were wrestling with a central question: Could the documents, or Mr. Bobulinski, prove that Joe Biden was involved in his son’s lobbying? Or was this yet another story of the younger Mr. Biden trading on his family’s name — a perfectly good theme, but not a new one or one that needed urgently to be revealed before the election.

Mr. Trump and his allies expected the Journal story to appear Monday, Oct. 19, according to Mr. Bannon. That would be late in the campaign, but not too late — and could shape that week’s news cycle heading into the crucial final debate last Thursday. An “important piece” in The Journal would be coming soon, Mr. Trump told aides on a conference call that day.

His comment was not appreciated inside The Journal.

“The editors didn’t like Trump’s insinuation that we were being teed up to do this hit job,” a Journal reporter who wasn’t directly involved in the story told me. But the reporters continued to work on the draft as the Thursday debate approached, indifferent to the White House’s frantic timeline.

Keep up with Election 2020

Finally, Mr. Bobulinski got tired of waiting.

“He got spooked about whether they were going to do it or not,” Mr. Bannon said.

At 7:35 Wednesday evening, Mr. Bobulinski emailed an on-the-record, 684-word statement making his case to a range of news outlets. Breitbart News published it in full. He appeared the next day in Nashville to attend the debate as Mr. Trump’s surprise guest, and less than two hours before the debate was to begin, he read a six-minute statement to the press, detailing his allegations that the former vice president had involvement in his son’s business dealings.

When Mr. Trump stepped on stage, the president acted as though the details of the emails and the allegations were common knowledge. “You’re the big man, I think. I don’t know, maybe you’re not,” he told Mr. Biden at some point, a reference to an ambiguous sentence from the documents.

As the debate ended, The Wall Street Journal published a brief item, just the stub of Mr. Areddy and Mr. Duehren’s reporting. The core of it was that Mr. Bobulinski had failed to prove the central claim. “Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden,” The Journal reported.

Asked about The Journal’s handling of the story, the editor in chief, Matt Murray, said the paper did not discuss its newsgathering. “Our rigorous and trusted journalism speaks for itself,” Mr. Murray said in an emailed statement.

And if you’d been watching the debate, but hadn’t been obsessively watching Fox News or reading Breitbart, you would have had no idea what Mr. Trump was talking about. The story the Trump team hoped would upend the campaign was fading fast.

The McLean group’s failed attempt to sway the election is partly just another story revealing the chaotic, threadbare quality of the Trump operation — a far cry from the coordinated “disinformation” machinery feared by liberals.

But it’s also about a larger shift in the American media, one in which the gatekeepers appear to have returned after a long absence.

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Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Perhaps the most influential media document of the last four years is a chart by a co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, Yochai Benkler. The study showed that a dense new right-wing media sphere had emerged — and that the mainstream news “revolved around the agenda that the right-wing media sphere set.”

Mr. Bannon had known this, too. He described his strategy as “anchor left, pivot right,” and even as he ran Breitbart News, he worked to place attacks on Hillary Clinton in mainstream outlets. The validating power of those outlets was clear when The New York Times and Washington Post were given early access in the spring of 2015 to the book “Clinton Cash,” an investigation of the Clinton family’s blurring of business, philanthropic and political interests by the writer Peter Schweizer.

Mr. Schweizer is still around this cycle. But you won’t find his work in mainstream outlets. He’s over on Breitbart, with a couple of Hunter Biden stories this month.

And the fact that Mr. Bobulinski emerged not in the pages of the widely respected Journal but in a statement to Breitbart was essentially Mr. Bannon’s nightmare, and Mr. Benkler’s fondest wish. And a broad array of mainstream outlets, unpersuaded that Hunter Biden’s doings tie directly to the former vice president, have largely kept the story off their front pages, and confined to skeptical explanations of what Mr. Trump and his allies are claiming about his opponent.

“SO USA TODAY DIDN’T WANT TO RUN MY HUNTER BIDEN COLUMN THIS WEEK,” the conservative writer Glenn Reynolds complained Oct. 20, posting the article instead to his blog. President Trump himself hit a wall when he tried to push the Hunter Biden narrative onto CBS News.

“This is ‘60 Minutes,’ and we can’t put on things we can’t verify,” Lesley Stahl told him. Mr. Trump then did more or less the same thing as Mr. Reynolds, posting a video of his side of the interview to his own blog, Facebook.

The media’s control over information, of course, is not as total as it used to be. The people who own printing presses and broadcast towers can’t actually stop you from reading leaked emails or unproven theories about Joe Biden’s knowledge of his son’s business. But what Mr. Benkler’s research showed was that the elite outlets’ ability to set the agenda endured in spite of social media.

We should have known it, of course. Many of our readers, screaming about headlines on Twitter, did. And Mr. Trump knew it all along — one way to read his endless attacks on the establishment media is as an expression of obsession, a form of love. This week, you can hear howls of betrayal from people who have for years said the legacy media was both utterly biased and totally irrelevant.

“For years, we’ve respected and even revered the sanctified position of the free press,” wrote Dana Loesch, a right-wing commentator not particularly known for her reverence of legacy media, expressing frustration that the Biden story was not getting attention. “Now that free press points its digital pen at your throat when you question their preferences.”

There’s something amusing — even a bit flattering — in such earnest protestations from a right-wing movement rooted in efforts to discredit the independent media. And this reassertion of control over information is what you’ve seen many journalists call for in recent years. At its best, it can also close the political landscape to a trendy new form of dirty tricks, as in France in 2017, where the media largely ignored a last-minute dump of hacked emails from President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign just before a legally mandated blackout period.

But I admit that I feel deep ambivalence about this revenge of the gatekeepers. I spent my career, before arriving at The Times in March, on the other side of the gate, lobbing information past it to a very online audience who I presumed had already seen the leak or the rumor, and seeing my job as helping to guide that audience through the thicket, not to close their eyes to it. “The media’s new and unfamiliar job is to provide a framework for understanding the wild, unvetted, and incredibly intoxicating information that its audience will inevitably see — not to ignore it,” my colleague John Herrman (also now at The Times) and I wrote in 2013. In 2017, I made the decision to publish the unverified “Steele dossier,” in part on the grounds that gatekeepers were looking at it and influenced by it, but keeping it from their audience.

This fall, top media and tech executives were bracing to refight the last war — a foreign-backed hack-and-leak operation like WikiLeaks seeking to influence the election’s outcome. It was that hyper-vigilance that led Twitter to block links to The New York Post’s article about Hunter Biden — a frighteningly disproportionate response to a story that other news organizations were handling with care. The schemes of Mr. Herschmann, Mr. Passantino and Mr. Schwartz weren’t exactly WikiLeaks. But the special nervousness that many outlets, including this one, feel about the provenance of the Hunter Biden emails is, in many ways, the legacy of the WikiLeaks experience.

I’d prefer to put my faith in Mr. Murray and careful, professional journalists like him than in the social platforms’ product managers and executives. And I hope Americans relieved that the gatekeepers are reasserting themselves will also pay attention to who gets that power, and how centralized it is, and root for new voices to correct and challenge them.

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As Local News Dies, a Pay-for-Play Network Rises in Its Place

The instructions were clear: Write an article calling out Sara Gideon, a Democrat running for a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat in Maine, as a hypocrite.

Angela Underwood, a freelance reporter in upstate New York, took the $22 assignment over email. She contacted the spokesman for Senator Susan Collins, the Republican opponent, and wrote an article on his accusations that Ms. Gideon was two-faced for criticizing shadowy political groups and then accepting their help.

The short article was published on Maine Business Daily, a seemingly run-of-the-mill news website, under the headline “Sen. Collins camp says House Speaker Gideon’s actions are hypocritical.” It extensively quoted Ms. Collins’s spokesman but had no comment from Ms. Gideon’s campaign.

Then Ms. Underwood received another email: The “client” who had ordered up the article, her editor said, wanted it to add more detail.

The client, according to emails and the editing history reviewed by The New York Times, was a Republican operative.

Maine Business Daily is part of a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country. Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found.

The sites appear as ordinary local-news outlets, with names like Des Moines Sun, Ann Arbor Times and Empire State Today. They employ simple layouts and articles about local politics, community happenings and sometimes national issues, much like any local newspaper.

But behind the scenes, many of the stories are directed by political groups and corporate P.R. firms to promote a Republican candidate or a company, or to smear their rivals.



One of the websites in the network is Illinois Valley Times.

Nearly every story at the top of the homepage in early September was about Sue Rezin, a Republican state senator. Ms. Rezin said in an interview that she didn’t know why the outlet focused on her so much, but that she didn’t mind all the positive coverage.

As of Oct. 14, one reporter had written 34 of his last 40 stories on the site about Ms. Rezin. When contacted, he said the company would not let him speak to reporters.


The network is largely overseen by Brian Timpone, a TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur who has sought to capitalize on the decline of local news organizations for nearly two decades. He has built the network with the help of several others, including a Texas brand-management consultant and a conservative Chicago radio personality.

The Times uncovered details about the operation through interviews with more than 30 current and former employees and clients, as well as thousands of internal emails between reporters and editors spanning several years. Employees of the network shared emails and the editing history in the site’s publishing software that revealed who requested dozens of articles and how.

Mr. Timpone did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him by email and phone, or through a note left at his home in the Chicago suburbs. Many of his executives did not respond to or declined requests for comment.

The network is one of a proliferation of partisan local-news sites funded by political groups associated with both parties. Liberal donors have poured millions of dollars into operations like Courier, a network of eight sites that began covering local news in swing states last year. Conservative activists are running similar sites, like the Star News group in Tennessee, Virginia and Minnesota.

But those operations run just several sites each, while Mr. Timpone’s network has more than twice as many sites as the nation’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett. And while political groups have helped finance networks like Courier, investors in news operations typically don’t weigh in on specific articles.

While Mr. Timpone’s sites generally do not post information that is outright false, the operation is rooted in deception, eschewing hallmarks of news reporting like fairness and transparency. Only a few dozen of the sites disclose funding from advocacy groups. Traditional news organizations do not accept payment for articles; the Federal Trade Commission requires that advertising that looks like articles be clearly labeled as ads.

Most of the sites declare in their “About” pages that they to aim “to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias.” But in April, an editor for the network reminded freelancers that “clients want a politically conservative focus on their stories, so avoid writing stories that only focus on a Democrat lawmaker, bill, etc.,” according to an email viewed by The Times.

Other news organizations have raised concerns about the political bent of some of the sites. But the extent of the deceit has been concealed for years with confidentiality contracts for writers and a confusing web of companies that run the papers. Those companies have received at least $1.7 million from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups, according to tax records and campaign-finance reports, the only payments that could be traced in public records.

Editors for Mr. Timpone’s network assign work to freelancers dotted around the United States and abroad, often paying $3 to $36 per job. The assignments typically come with precise instructions on whom to interview and what to write, according to the internal correspondence. In some cases, those instructions are written by the network’s clients, who are sometimes the subjects of the articles.

The emails showed a salesman for Mr. Timpone’s sites offering a potential client a $2,000 package that included running five articles and unlimited news releases. The salesman stressed that reporters would call the shots on some articles, while the client would have a say on others.

Ian Prior, a Republican operative, was behind the articles about Ms. Gideon, the Senate candidate in Maine, as well as articles promoting Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Roy Blunt of Missouri, according to the internal records. Mr. Prior previously worked for the Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee that has spent $9.7 million against Ms. Gideon.

Juan David Leal, who has worked in the Mexico office of the Berkeley Research Group, a consulting firm, ordered up articles criticizing the Mexican government’s response to the coronavirus.

And employees at the Illinois Opportunity Project, a conservative advocacy group, requested dozens of articles about specific Republican politicians in Illinois. The group has paid $441,000 to Mr. Timpone’s companies, according to the nonprofit’s tax records.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Collins, the Maine senator, said the campaign answers questions “from media outlets of all stripes and persuasions,” including the Maine Beacon, a local-news outlet funded by a liberal group.

Mr. Prior leads a P.R. firm that markets its ability to get coverage in local-news outlets. He said in an email that he pitches stories to a variety of outlets, including Mr. Timpone’s network because it “actually covers local issues.” He did not respond to questions about whether he had paid for the coverage.

The Illinois Opportunity Project did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Leal did not comment for this article.

Image
Credit…Matthew Gilson

Some of the most popular articles on Mr. Timpone’s sites get tens of thousands of shares on social media. That is a modest reach in the national conversation. But with the focus on small towns, less readership is needed to make an impact. In some of those towns, Mr. Timpone’s outlets also publish newspapers and deliver them, unsolicited, to doorsteps.

Ben Ashkar, the chief operating officer of Locality Labs, one of the companies connected to the sites, was the sole executive at the network who spoke on the record for this article. He said he didn’t think people could pay for coverage.

“I hope not,” he said. “How would I know? Honestly I don’t think people are paying.”

Mr. Timpone, who turns 48 this month, got his start in politics by covering it. In the 1990s, he was a news anchor and reporter at Illinois TV stations. Eventually he became the spokesman for the State House’s Republican minority leader.

A personable guy and persuasive salesman, according to people who know him, Mr. Timpone then became focused on replacing the old print guard as a digital-news mogul.

“Big metro papers are like the fly in your house that gets slow and you just catch it with your hand,” he said in a 2015 interview with Dan Proft, a conservative radio talk show host in Chicago.

About a decade ago, Mr. Timpone started Journatic, a service that aimed to automate and outsource reporters’ jobs, selling it to two of the nation’s largest chains, Hearst and Tribune Publishing. He used rudimentary software to turn public data into snippets of news. That content still fills most of his sites. And for the articles written by humans, he simply paid reporters less, even using workers in the Philippines who wrote under fake bylines.

When the radio show “This American Life” revealed his strategy in 2012, Mr. Timpone defended his approach as a way to save local news. “No one covers all these small towns,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re the solution, but we’re certainly on the road to the solution.”

Around 2015, he teamed up with Mr. Proft and started a chain of websites and free newspapers focused on suburban and rural areas of Illinois.

The publications looked like typical news outlets that covered their communities. But a political action committee controlled by Mr. Proft paid Mr. Timpone’s companies at least $646,000 from 2016 to 2018, according to state campaign finance records, money that largely came from Dick Uihlein, a conservative megadonor and the head of the shipping-supply giant Uline.

After complaints, the Illinois Board of Elections ordered the newspapers to say Mr. Proft’s committee funded them. A small disclaimer in their “About” pages now says the sites are funded, “in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government.” The Illinois sites are virtually the only ones in Mr. Timpone’s network with such a disclosure.

The regulators’ questions didn’t slow Mr. Timpone down. He doubled the size of the Illinois network to 34 sites, and by 2017 was expanding to other states. He also added dozens of sites with focuses beyond politics, including 11 that look like traditional legal-news publications but are funded by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group.

Then, from June through October last year, the network ballooned further, from roughly 300 sites to nearly 1,300, according to a Times analysis of data collected by the Global Disinformation Index, an internet research group. (The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University tallied a similar number of sites in the network.)

Timpone network websites

Watch the number of sites in the network grow over time.

2020

By Ella Koeze·Websites that look like local news are placed on the map by county. Websites that look like state and intra-state regional news are placed by state. Dots are sized by the number of sites related to each county or state.·Data via Global Disinformation Index and Ben Decker. Sites were discovered using reverse lookups of Google Analytics and Google Adsense.

“It’s astounding to see how quickly the sites have popped up across the country in an attempt to fill the news void,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina journalism professor who has calculated that about 2,100 newspapers have folded across the country since 2004, a 25 percent decline.

Some of the new sites have only the automated content, but they have quickly sprung to life when local news has arisen. That happened in August when protests erupted in Kenosha, Wis., after the police shot an unarmed Black man. One of the sites, Kenosha Reporter, published multiple articles about the criminal backgrounds of the man and protesters. One of those articles was shared 22,000 times on Facebook, reaching 2.6 million people, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data tool.

Mr. Timpone’s role in the network is supported by public and internal documents. In emails viewed by The Times, he assigned stories, and editors called him the network’s top executive.

He has also said publicly, and in a filing with the Federal Election Commission, that he runs some of the sites.

But the web of companies behind the network make it more difficult to track the money behind the sites, and even Mr. Timpone’s oversight of them. It is unclear whether that is intentional. Those companies include Metric Media, Locality Labs, Newsinator, Franklin Archer and Interactive Content Services. The exact ownership of the companies is also unclear.

Most of the network’s new sites say they are part of Metric Media. A Texas P.R. consultant named Bradley Cameron says in his online résumé that he is the general manager of Metric Media and is “currently retained by private investors to develop a national media enterprise.” Internal records show that the same editors run Metric Media’s news operations and Mr. Timpone’s other sites.

In August, two local newspapers, a combined 142 years old, in Mount Vernon, Ohio, and Lake Isabella, Calif, announced to their readers that they had been purchased by Metric Media LLC.

Tanner Salyers, a city councilman in Mount Vernon, population 17,000, said that when he emailed Metric Media to ask what its plans were for the town’s only newspaper, Mr. Timpone called back to say that he now owned the Mount Vernon News and that he would rebuild it. Yet since the change in ownership, Mr. Salyers said, the newspaper has cut much of its staff and reduced print circulation to two days a week from six.

“I’m the first person to admit that the Mount Vernon News was not Pulitzer material,” Mr. Salyers said. “But nevertheless, it was local and independent. You could go to the grocery store and bump into the writers.” Now, a reporter based in Atlanta has covered local happenings, he said, and not well. When a water line broke last week, forcing the town’s residents to boil their water, the Mount Vernon News didn’t mention it.

The Times spoke with 16 reporters who have worked for Mr. Timpone. Many said they overlooked their doubts about the job because the pay was steady and journalism gigs were scarce.

Pat Morris said she had begun writing for the network after being laid off from The Florham Park Eagle in northern New Jersey.

“I wanted to make a living,” she said. “I was tired of banging on doors.” She thought the sites were a “content mill” to sell ads, but she eventually figured out the mission. She quit in July.

Ms. Underwood, who wrote the Maine Business Daily article, said she, too, had felt duped once the political agenda had become clear.

“You say you’re never going to dance with the devil like that; you just judge people for doing it,” Ms. Underwood said. “And then you’re just in the exact same position.”

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Credit…Shane Lavalette for The New York Times

In the publishing tool used by reporters and editors at Mr. Timpone’s websites is a list of names with a peculiar title: “Story watchers.” These are Mr. Timpone’s clients.

The Times reviewed the history behind dozens of articles in the publishing tool, revealing more than 80 story watchers. Many have pitched stories with instructions on what reporters should write, whom they should talk to and what they should ask. Over 17 days in July, these clients ordered up around 200 articles, company records show.

Internal documents show how much influence the clients have. “The clients pay us to produce a certain amount of copy each day for their websites,” said one “tool kit” for new writers. “In some cases, the clients will provide their own copy.”

John Tillman, an activist who once led the Illinois Opportunity Project and whose other groups have paid Mr. Timpone’s companies hundreds of thousands of dollars, said in an email that some of the payments to Mr. Timpone were to underwrite his news operation. Mr. Timpone, he said, allows “community leaders and influencers” to “pitch (not ‘order’) story ideas.”

Mr. Ashkar, the Locality Labs executive, said the sites wrote more about Republicans because they, unlike Democrats, talked to the reporters. “It’s like covering a beat, right? You’re a journalist,” he said. “They make relationships with people, and then they’re trusted and then they write stories about them.”

He said he didn’t find the sites’ focus on certain politicians unusual.

“Go look at The New York Times. It’s all about Trump,” Mr. Ashkar said. “How’s that any different?”

Jeanne Ives, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House in Illinois, has had a direct financial relationship with the operation.

Ms. Ives has paid Mr. Timpone’s companies $55,000 over the past three years, according to state and federal records. During that time, the Illinois sites have published overwhelmingly positive coverage of her, including running some of her news releases verbatim.

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Credit…Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times, via Associated Press

In an interview, she said her payments were to create her website and monitor her Wikipedia page. One $14,342 payment included the note “Advertising-newspaper.” Ms. Ives initially could not explain why. She later called back to say Mr. Timpone had bought Facebook ads for her.

Asked if she was paying for positive coverage, she replied: “Oh, no, there’s none of that going on. I assure you. Oh, my gosh, no. Oh, no, not at all.”

Ms. Ives is listed as a “story watcher.” She said she did not know why.

In March, Monty Bennett, the hotel magnate, faced a crisis. The coronavirus had halted travel, and his company, Ashford, which oversees more than 100 hotels, was facing big losses. So he ordered up a news article.

“I want to push our government to go after China. Why should this murderous regime be let off the hook while we suffer,” said a story pitch attributed to Mr. Bennett on the publishing tool behind Mr. Timpone’s sites.

The pitch resulted in an article that repeated his claims on DC Business Daily, which appears to be a straightforward business and politics news outlet in Washington.

“A national hotel chain executive said he is fed up with the way the United States is dealing with China in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic,” the article began. There was no disclosure that Mr. Bennett had ordered it.

Mr. Bennett, a major donor to President Trump, also used the sites to lobby for a stimulus bill to help his company, according to documents. Mr. Bennett posted a link to one of the articles on Twitter.

Ashford received around $70 million in federal loans intended for small businesses, making the publicly traded company the single largest recipient of such loans — and Mr. Bennett the subject of national anger.

In response, P.R. professionals began ordering positive articles about him on Mr. Timpone’s sites, according to records in the publishing system. Eventually, Mr. Bennett returned the federal money.

But he was not done using Mr. Timpone’s sites. Now Mr. Bennett owed money to creditors. One pitch attributed to him in the publishing system instructed a reporter to call one of his creditors and ask, “Why did you say you were going to help, but then don’t help?”

Image

Credit…Milken Institute, via Youtube

A site called New York Business Daily ran the article, saying the creditor was squeezing the finances of a struggling Manhattan hotel.

What the article didn’t mention: Mr. Bennett owned the hotel and dictated the article.

His spokeswoman said in a statement that Mr. Bennett “has no relationship with the websites.” She added that he had spoken to numerous news outlets “to obtain economic aid for the hotel industry.”

After The Times presented evidence that he directly ordered articles, lawyers representing Mr. Timpone sent The Times a cease and desist letter, demanding that it not publish the information.

Ben Decker, Jacob Meschke and Jacob Silver contributed reporting. Data analysis was contributed by Kellen Browning, Mariel Wamsley, Emile Robert, Elaine Chen, Ellie Zhu and Lindsey Cook. Susan Beachy, Kitty Bennett and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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