1 month ago

Shadowy web of 20 ‘news’ sites operating in Alabama, tied to national network that invented quotes, bylines

A shadowy group of websites masquerading as local news agencies has been launched ahead of November’s high-stakes general election.

An investigation by Yellowhammer News uncovered the existence of “Yellowhammer Times,” which purports to be a statewide news organization intended “to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias.” The site’s “people” section, where one would expect its employees to be listed, is blank.

“We provide 100% original reporting, including to share as much data as possible from government and other publicly available sources,” the site claims. “We also provide a platform for all citizens whose views on issues are rarely heard. If you want a voice in your community, we want to hear from you.”

The website is admittedly owned and operated by Metric Media LLC and its parent Metric Media Foundation, a Missouri-based entity just granted 501(c)(3) nonprofit status last year. Publicly available data shows that Metric Media has not yet revealed having any assets, income or revenue through mandatory IRS filings. This means that at this point in time, the organization is effectively operating as a dark money group.

Metric Media has a glitzy website that asserts, “Metric Media is funded by donations and grants from contributors who care about restoring local news in their communities.”

The website does list a three-person board of directors, which is reportedly chaired by San Francisco-based Rakesh Donthineni. The other named directors are Victor Chen of Los Angeles and Brent Southwell of Houston. Chen formerly worked for then-Beijing TV China, an entity of Beijing Media Network — which is owned and operated by the Chinese government, otherwise known as the Chinese Communist Party.

Metric Media’s explicit presence in Alabama does not stop at the statewide Yellowhammer Times. The bottom of this website links to 18 more sites, all appearing to be local or regional news agencies across the state. These publications are identical in format to Yellowhammer Times and are as follows: Auburn Times, Baldwin Times, Decatur Times, East Central Alabama News, Gadsden Today, Huntsville Leader, Jefferson Reporter, Mobile Courant, NE Alabama News, NW Alabama News, North Birmingham Times, River Region Times, Shoals Today, South Alabama Times, South Birmingham Times, Tuscaloosa Leader, West Central Alabama News and Wiregrass Times.

Publicly available domain information shows that these sites were all registered in May of this year.

That same month, Yellowhammer Times published its first “original story,” which was about COVID-19 related liability issues. The author is listed as a “T.H. Lawrence.”

Almost every story posted since then has been a completely automated story, mainly using RSS feeds to populate the stories on the site. This includes republishing press releases from Governor Kay Ivey, Alabama State University and the University of Alabama. The automated stories also include a lot of identical templates that simply display federal government-released data.

In all, Yellowhammer Times as of Wednesday at noon hosted more than 2,300 stories on the site — with only two listing a human author. The automated stories name “Metric Media News Service” or other entities such as “Locality Labs News Service” as the author.

One short story about lost Alabama tax revenue related to the pandemic simply does not list an author.

The second story to actually list an author, Juliette Fairley, advocated in July to fully reopen the economy and return students to school in the fall. This story was based on exclusive quotes from Alabama-based John Chamberlain, board chairman for Citizen Health. Citizen Health advocates for subscription-based medical services and disrupting the healthcare industry.

Yellowhammer News dug into the two authors listed on the site. Fairley is a national freelance author specializing in finance, while T.H. Lawrence’s name popped up across several sites in Metric Media’s network of more than 1,000 sites nationwide.

Yellowhammer News’ investigation also uncovered that T.H. Lawrence is indeed Tom Lawrence, a career journalist from South Dakota who was once executive editor of the state’s Black Hills Pioneer. He is now a freelance writer and blogger, appearing in local publications (under his real name) such as the Dakota Free Press, American News and South Dakota Standard. He also has his own blog, the Prairie Perspective. It should be noted that American News is owned by national conglomerate Gannett.

Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) in December 2019 published an in-depth investigative report that revealed some disturbing findings about Metric Media and its related entities, including Locality Labs. The investigation concluded that the network can be traced back to Illinois-based businessman and conservative activist Brian Timpone.

CJR was able to find at least 450 sites, all linked, operating under the banners of Metric Media, Locality Labs, Franklin Archer, the Record Inc. and Local Government Information Services. The entities at times — while being aimed at different states — shared IP addresses, Google Analytics IDs and other technical identifiers. Since December, the network has more than doubled in size, according to Metric Media’s own website.

CJR further traced Locality Lab’s origin story. The entity was once known as Timpone’s company “Journatic.” Journatic had to rebrand in 2013 following a national scandal over “faking bylines and quotes, and for plagiarism,” per CJR.

The CJR report followed a story published in October 2019 by a Michigan paper about Metric Media’s network that had popped up in that state. More local and national reporting followed, including by the New York Times and Guardian.

Yellowhammer Times republishes stories from other named entities in this Metric Media web, as well. For example, the publication ran a story from Empire State Today of New York.

This also includes another Alabama-focused site not directly linked at the bottom of Yellowhammer Times. Alabama Business Daily stories are republished on the site, and CJR previously reported there is an identical entity curated by Metric Media in each state. Yellowhammer News found that Alabama Business Daily’s domain was registered in February 2018.

With the 2020 election rapidly approaching, the existence of this network of sites in Alabama should raise alarm bells across the state.

Alabama was already besieged in the 2017 special election cycle by “Project Birmingham,” which utilized “Russian tactics” by Democratic operatives to aid the campaign of then-Democratic nominee Doug Jones.

Alabamians will hope that this type of disinformation campaign is not repeated this time around through Metric Media or its sister entities.

Secretary of State John H. Merrill has previously warned residents to arm themselves with the truth and to be wary of unknown sources spread on social media, especially.

“It is of paramount importance that the 4.8 million people who make up our state are informed with up-to-date, complete, and accurate information,” Merill has said in a statement. “All election-related information should come directly from our website or from your local election official. We are your trusted source for information related to the elections process.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

10 mins ago

Alabama Democrats fundraise off Republican COVID illnesses, lie about Ainsworth’s position on masks

A Friday morning email from Alabama Democratic Victory distorts Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth’s (R-AL) position on following health and safety protocols, while also fundraising off of Ainsworth’s current illness.

Ainsworth on Wednesday afternoon announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19, and as of Friday, he is still asymptomatic. However, Ainsworth’s wife, Kendall, has also tested positive and was exhibiting “mild symptoms” as of Friday.

Alabama Democratic Victory’s email was funded by its state-registered PAC, Alabama Democratic Victory Fund. Alabama Democratic Victory is the political arm of the Alabama House Democratic Caucus, which even shares the same public P.O. box disclosed at the bottom of Friday’s email.

With the subject line “GOP Lt. Gov. and COVID-19,” the email began by mentioning Ainsworth’s diagnosis, as well as saying a Republican state senator recently contracted coronavirus.

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“Indeed, we wish them a speedy and full recovery, but we must also point out the big ol’ elephant in the room, as they say,” the email’s first paragraph concluded (emphasis added in the email, not by Yellowhammer News).

The email then continued to mock Ainsworth’s opposition to a one-size-fits-all mask mandate while also completely fabricating his position on mask usage and social distancing.

“[H]e doesn’t believe in science and doesn’t understand that wearing a mask is about social responsibility and public safety,” the email incorrectly claimed.

Ainsworth has stressed that he personally wears a mask and social distances whenever possible; he has also encouraged others to voluntarily do so and modeled mask-wearing on his social media pages and in a PSA.

“I think everybody needs personal responsibility. … I think it is smart to wear a mask,” Ainsworth said on Thursday’s broadcast of FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show.”

This is not a new position for him, either. Ainsworth has been consistent for months on the issue.

“Wearing a face mask and maintaining social distancing are among the best ways to slow the spread of COVID-19, and I have tried to set a public example in those regards,” the lieutenant governor said in July. “Masks should be worn to combat further outbreaks…”

Unfortunately, Alabama Democratic Victory’s fundraising email subsequently spouted even more falsehoods.

“Just like Trump, when confronted with hard facts that don’t fit his partisan narrative, Ainsworth doubled down after his diagnosis and said he stood by his original position,” the email said, ignoring what Ainsworth’s “original position” actually is. “This, as scientists are warning of an impending massive spike in cases and deaths. So, you have to ask yourself- is that sound leadership? Is that responsible? What kind of example does that set?”

It added, “This is why it’s time to break up the Republican Supermajority in Alabama and elect Democrats who believe in facts, science, truth, and are committed to doing everything it takes to protect people during a crisis. Republicans continue to mismanage the pandemic and think that downplaying the reality of the virus will benefit them politically. It’s time to send them packing.”

It should be noted that the state’s mask mandate — which the Democratic email touted — was put in place by Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, along with State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris.

“Donate NOW to the Alabama Democratic Victory Fund and let’s elect leaders who will do the right thing and set an example for others to follow,” the email proclaimed. “The GOP will continue to suffer the consequences of it’s own hubris, but it should be abundantly clear to anyone paying attention that they are failing the people of Alabama.”

The bottom of the email concluded ironically by saying, “Facts and Science Matter,” and “#WeAreInThisTogether.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

1 hour ago

Hometown heroes: Bama, UAB, Troy, Jax State and more

Before anyone has even seen a single snap of Big Ten football, national sports media this week returned to its pandemic panic room and pronounced the conference’s season a failure.

Sports media argued tirelessly during the summer months that it was not cheering for football to get canceled. However, following Nick Saban’s false positive coronavirus test, it did exactly that here, here and here.

At Yellowhammer, we are cheering for college football. More specifically, this week, we are mainly cheering for underdogs.

Let’s get to some picks.

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THE BASICS

Alabama (-22) at Tennessee: The largest margin of victory in this series was a 51-0 win by Alabama in 1906. Alabama’s current win streak over the Vols began a mere three years later (or at least that is what it feels like). Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt allegedly fired an assistant coach mid-game on Saturday. That is a bad start to what is, for some people, a favorite week of the year. Those people will not be disappointed.

The pick: Alabama 34, Tennessee 17

NC State at North Carolina (-14.5): North Carolina went into Tallahassee a double-digit favorite and lost. That may have had more to do with Florida State getting its first quality coaching since Jimbo Fisher’s national championship season. Mack Brown has a good team. Now it is a matter of them playing like it.

The pick: North Carolina 40, NC State 20

Texas State at BYU (-28.5): The Cougars have been a fun story this season amidst their mini-revival. They are physical along the lines of scrimmage, and quarterback Zach Wilson has worked his way up to No. 4 on ESPN’s Heisman Watch List. If this team remains undefeated in late November, we can all hope they handle the playoff talk a bit more graciously than UCF has in recent years.

The pick: BYU 30, Texas State 13

HOMETOWN HEROES

Louisiana (-2.5) at UAB: This is a game between two of the nation’s more underrated coaches, UAB’s Bill Clark and Louisiana’s Billy Napier. Do not be surprised to see both coaching in the SEC sooner rather than later. This will be an emotionally-charged game for Louisiana, as it will pay tribute to former assistant coach D.J. Looney, who passed away suddenly in August. The Ragin’ Cajuns plan to wear his name on the back of their jerseys. This could be as good a game as has been played at Legion Field in a while.

The pick: UAB 24, Louisiana 20

Georgia State at Troy (-2.5): The Trojans bring a two-game win streak into this Sun Belt matchup. Both teams have scored points freely so far this year. Georgia State is ninth in the country in rushing offense and 73rd in scoring defense.  Troy is a respectable 33rd in scoring defense and 31st in total offense. All signs point to a shootout.

The pick: Georgia State 42, Troy 35

Jacksonville State at Florida International (-10): This game was originally scheduled for September 2. Since its postponement, the Gamecocks have gone to Tallahassee where they gave Florida State a scare and won a couple of tight ball games against Mercer and North Alabama. It was good to see this one get back on the calendar because no one ever turns down a trip to Miami.

The pick: Florida International 38, Jacksonville State 30

BUYER BEWARE

Tulsa (-11.5) at South Florida: There was a time when the Thursday and Friday night college games meant something, and visiting favorites were constantly on upset alert. That has not been the case in a while. In late October, Tulsa has still only played two games, a close loss to No. 6 Oklahoma State and a win against Central Florida. South Florida is in rebuild mode under first-year head coach Jeff Scott, whose team has started to show just a glimmer of improvement the last few weeks. Anyone tuning in to watch this game should not expect to see a work of art.

The pick: South Florida 20, Tulsa 16

Last week: 4-1 straight up; 3-2 ATS
Season: 13-2 straight up; 9-6 ATS

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

1 hour ago

$37M in rural broadband funding coming to Alabama — ‘When rural America thrives, all of America thrives’

PRATTVILLE — Two Trump administration officials and U.S. Representative Gary Palmer (R-Hoover) gathered on Friday to announce a $37 million investment by the federal government in rural Alabama’s internet access.

The investment comes in the form of grants and loans to internet providers that make expanding high-speed service to more rural customers economically feasible.

According to the USDA, the investment announced Friday will provide high-speed internet to more than 28,000 people across over 11,100 households, including 432 farms.

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The two Trump administration officials present for the announcement on Friday were United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Under Secretary of Rural Development Bette Brand and USDA Rural Development State Director Chris Beeker.

“When rural America thrives, all of America thrives,” said Brand at the announcement, which was hosted by Central Alabama Electric Cooperative and emceed with efficiency by Beeker.

Six companies will split the $37 million, which will be distributed via both grants and loans. The customers receiving the upgraded internet service are in a 14-county stretch of central Alabama to the north and west of Montgomery.

The funding comes from the second round of the federal government’s ReConnect program, which was recently infused with an extra $100 billion under the CARES Act.

ReConnect is run by the USDA and is tasked with evaluating and selecting applications by rural broadband providers that want public funds to help allay the cost of providing high-speed service to more people.

Alabama received the fourth-most funding of any state in round one of the program, a big portion of which was announced in Hamilton in late 2019.

The USDA detailed each new investment it is making as follows:

  • Central Alabama Electric Cooperative will use a $8.6 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 13,853 people, 149 farms, 77 businesses and one fire station to high-speed broadband internet in Bibb, Chilton, Perry, Autauga, Talladega, Elmore and Coosa counties in Alabama.
  • Millry Telephone Company Inc. will use a $8.3 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 4,444 people, 84 farms, 46 businesses, four fire stations and a post office to high-speed broadband internet in Choctaw and Washington counties in Alabama.
  • Pine Belt Telephone Company Inc. will use a $6.5 million ReConnect grant and a $6.5 million ReConnect loan to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 5,799 people, 143 farms, 83 businesses, five fire stations, five educational facilities and four post offices to high-speed broadband internet in Perry, Hale and Marengo counties in Alabama.
  • Mon-Cre Telephone Cooperative Inc. will use a $5.8 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 2,546 people, 36 farms, 19 businesses and three fire stations to high-speed broadband internet in Crenshaw, Lowndes and Montgomery counties in Alabama.
  • Hayneville Telephone Company Inc. will use a $1.5 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 1,481 people, 19 farms, nine businesses, and four educational facilities to high-speed broadband internet in Lowndes County, Alabama.
  • Moundville Telephone Co. Inc. will use a $166,000 ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 111 people and a farm to high-speed broadband internet in Hale County, Alabama.

Palmer, who has constituents that will be provided better internet because of the announced grants, spoke at the event on Friday.

“Having grown up in rural Alabama, I know how important this is,” he remarked.

Palmer was raised in Hackleburg, current population of 1,466, a small town in Marion County.

“We have a chance to revitalize rural economies, especially around small towns,” he added about the impact of investing in rural broadband.

Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Rick Pate echoed that sentiment after the event, telling reporters that quality internet gives communities such as his home of Lowndes County a shot at cutting down on the population loss that affects so many rural areas.

“Connectivity is critically important for families, businesses, farms, and public safety and community services – particularly during a time when remote access is paramount,” said U.S. Senator Shelby (R-AL) in a statement on Friday.

He added, “These USDA grants will help provide high-speed internet access to thousands of Alabamians in rural areas. I am proud that the Administration has awarded this $37 million investment to our state and look forward to the benefits it will bring to 14 counties in central Alabama.”

Beeker, in his remarks, praised the “great partnerships and incredible teamwork” that was necessary to pull off such a large project.

“A lot of work has gone into all of this; these are good programs. What Bette says, it really means a lot when you stop and think about it. When rural America thrives, all of America thrives,” Beeker concluded.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

2 hours ago

Following the money on Alabama New South Coalition’s $6-per-early-vote operation

Yellowhammer News earlier this week broke the story about a group supporting the respective campaigns of U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden offering Black Belt pastors $6 “per person” they get to vote early ahead of November 3’s general election.

Now, newly filed federal campaign finance reports shed light on where the funding for this group, the Alabama New South Coalition (ANSC), is coming from.

Yellowhammer News examined FEC reports filed this week after the original story broke.

Senator Jones’ campaign reported transferring $1,100,000 to the federal account of the State Democratic Executive Committee of Alabama — the Alabama Democratic Party — on October 2.

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The Party’s FEC filings reported that they received the same sum from Jones’ principal campaign committee that day. A separate FEC filing by the Party this week shows that they also received $87,300 from the Jones Victory Fund on September 29. The Jones Victory Fund is the official joint fundraising committee for Jones’ campaign.

Five days after the October 2 transfer, the Party reported sending $75,000 to “New South Alliance, LLC” for “GOTV” — which is short for “get out the vote.” The Alabama New South Alliance is the ANSC’s political arm and has endorsed Jones’ and Biden’s respective campaigns this cycle.

The same day, on October 7, the Party also sent $10,000 to the local Jefferson County chapter of the Alliance. This expense was simply listed as a “contribution” rather than being for GOTV. That local chapter’s Facebook page shows that it is distributing sample ballots simply advising people to vote the straight Democratic ticket.

Seven days later, ANSC on October 14 ran an advertisement in a local Choctaw County newspaper advertising its $6-per-ballot operation. At the bottom of the advertisement, ANSC disclosed that it had indeed paid for the ad, listing an address in Montgomery in the disclosure. That exact same address was listed in the Party’s FEC filing for the Alliance expenditure.

The Party’s most recent FEC filing also showed a bevy of other related spending for GOTV efforts, as well as “contributions” to civic organizations in the Black Belt and Birmingham. In total, this spending amounted to $1,104,531.36. Combined with the two ANSC expenditures, that total rises to $1,189,531.36 — almost a perfect match for the recent influx of Jones campaign money into the Party’s account.

This included sending $40,000 as a “contribution” to the Alabama State Missionary Baptist Convention, which is comprised of historically and predominantly Black churches across the state.

Another “GOTV’ expense by the Party that stuck out was $3,000 to “Gray Family Limited Partnership” in Tuskegee.

As reported by Yellowhammer News this week, under the leadership of Chairman Fred Gray, Jr., the Macon County Democratic Party has paid for and is distributing signs that proclaim, “Racism is on the ballot.” This text is displayed over a Confederate flag and Trump campaign flag.

“Vote the straight Democratic ticket on Nov 3 and make a difference,” the signs add.

These FEC filings come after Yellowhammer News reported how little Jones’ reelection campaign had spent directly with Black-owned businesses and other organizations through the second quarter of this year.

Jones’ campaign has still not responded to separate requests for comment on the three Yellowhammer News stories from earlier this week referenced in this article.

Background

Looking back at the ANSC’s financial ties to Democratic campaigns and political entities, it should be noted that the respective campaigns of Jones and Biden have directly given the group and its political arm at least $296,200 combined, starting with Jones’ 2017 special election victory.

Each campaign reported giving the Alliance $25,000 this spring for “printing & distributing sample ballots.”

In 2017, Jones paid the Alliance $49,000 for serving as a “consultant.” His campaign that cycle also paid the Alliance $192,000 for “canvassing.”

On the state level, the group has received funds from the Jefferson County Democratic Executive Committee and the Alabama AFL-CIO. Democratic gubernatorial Walt Maddox’s campaign paid the Alliance a total of $102,400 in the 2018 cycle. While $50,000 of that total was purportedly for “GOTV” (get out the vote), $35,000 was labeled for “consultants/polling” and $15,000 was designated as being for “advertising.”

A difference between the ANSC and Alliance between that 2017 Jones cycle and the current one comes down to transparency. During the 2017 and 2018 cycles, Alabama New South Alliance was registered as a federal “Super PAC,” technically known as an independent expenditure-only committee. It thus had to report federally related expenditures. The group terminated its FEC registration in summer 2019, so it is unclear exactly how all of its money — or how much — is being spent this time around.

The ANSC website says the organization has local chapters in 40 Alabama counties.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

5 hours ago

Sec. of Interior Bernhardt adds handicap accessible path in Cheaha State Park to National Trails System

U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt has added the Bald Rock Boardwalk in Alabama’s Cheaha State Park to the National Trail System.

The Department of the Interior made the announcement Thursday in a press release. The Bald Rock Boardwalk, also known as the Doug Ghee accessible trail, is one of several dozen additions to the National Trails System made public this week.

“I encourage Americans to get outside, enjoy our incredible public lands and visit a nearby national recreation trail. Spanning more than 83,000 miles, larger than the interstate highway system, the National Trails System provides easy access to a wide variety of outdoor experiences,” Bernhardt said in a release.

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The Trump administration has now added 49 trails to the national system, totaling 1,645 miles of space for Americans to enjoy the outdoors.

The National Trails System was created by Congress in 1968. It aims to establish “trails in both urban and rural settings for people of all ages, interests, skills, and physical abilities,” according to its website.

“American Hiking Society welcomes the designation of 30 new National Recreation Trails that will create enhanced recreational opportunities for hikers and all types of trail users,” remarked American Hiking Society executive director Kate Van Waes in a statement.

“Each trail selected to receive this honor must support a diversity of users, reflect its region, and be among America’s best trails, all qualities that benefit the hiking community,” she added.

The Department of the Interior described the newly designated Alabama trail as:

Located in Cheaha State Park, the Doug Ghee Accessible Trail (Bald Rock Boardwalk) is a 0.3-mile boardwalk trail that allows users of all abilities to journey through the enchanted hardwood forested foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Interpretive signs along the accessible boardwalk unfold the history, culture, and natural history of Cheaha Mountain. This unique boardwalk invites and enables all guest to embrace the natural wonder and beauty of the Bald Rock Overlook located at the end of the boardwalk.

The official state website for Cheaha state park and its offerings for hikers can be accessed here.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.