Patty Henek, a soon-to-be-former River Forest trustee who ran unsuccessfully for village president in the April 6 election, said while campaigning she learned a lesson in just how far and wide disinformation spreads.
“This article about me literally went as far as Texas,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “My mother-in-law has a very dear friend who lives in Las Vegas. That friend received an email from her niece who lives in Texas who got the article and recognized the name Henek.”
Two days later, a radio show host was referencing the article during a segment that aired April 5, the day before the election.
The article — “River Forest’s Henek proposes transforming village with subsidized, low-income housing” — was published by West Cook News, under the byline: LGIS News Service.
The radio host, Dan Proft, read the lede from the West Cook News article to his listeners on “Chicago’s Morning Answer with Dan Proft and Amy Jacobson.”
“Patty Henek is running for River Forest on a platform of bringing more low-income, Section 8 apartments to the village,” Proft said.
Henek said the article twisted her position on affordable housing and that she was never contacted to comment.
The local disdain for the outlet which has River Forest connections is bipartisan. Henek’s opponent, River Forest Village President Cathy Adduci, blasted the publication, as well.
“I have nothing to do with West Cook News,” Adduci said. “I don’t read it. I don’t like it.”
Adduci referenced a 2019 article the outlet published about a sitting River Forest trustee that focused solely on his Facebook opinions of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and other national conservative figures.
“Nothing so far on [the trustee’s] opinion of Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, who, unlike Kavanaugh, has a sexual assault claim hanging over him,” the author of the 2019 article writes.
Most recently, a West Cook News article published April 27 claims to have “caught” two District 200 board members and Roosevelt University professors “bragging about how they promote Marxist re-organization of American society to their college students.”
The article only focuses on the members’ offline comments before a Feb. 25 board meeting that was about four hours long and doesn’t mention attempting to contact them for comment.
Earlier this year, a series of West Cook News articles covered an alleged campaign of harassment and intimidation that a former District 90 school board candidate said was the reason why he exited the race. The outlet implicates one of the candidate’s opponents in the alleged intimidation, but did not report that the candidate had been under scrutiny by district officials for complaints lodged by parents that he allegedly misused a district email list.
On its website, West Cook News says the publication believes “that local government works best when voters have ready access to public data about the use of their tax dollars: how much money is being spent; where it is being spent; how it is being spent.
“We believe in limited government, in the constructive role of the free market and in the rights of citizens to choose the size and scope of their government and the role it should play in their society,” says a statement on the website
The outlet describes itself as “a product of Local Government Information Services,” the LGIS mentioned in the byline of the article on Henek. Proft, the radio show host, is listed as the company’s president, according to publicly available corporation filings with the Secretary of State.
Funding for West Cook News “is provided, in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government,” the site explains.
According to state election filings, Proft, a former Republican candidate for governor, chairs Liberty Principles, a political action committee that makes “independent expenditures in support of liberty oriented policies and candidates.”
According to a 2020 article published by the New York Times, LGIS is overseen by Brian Timpone, a River Forest resident and former TV reporter.
Like the Maine Business Daily that the New York Times highlights, the West Cook News is part of Proft’s and Timpone’s “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.”
Attempts to contact Timpone, Proft and at least one reporter whose byline appears on a West Cook News article were unsuccessful. And the outlet hasn’t yet responded to an email seeking comment.
“Today’s news consumer has to do a lot more detective work in order to ensure oneself that you’re being informed by legitimate news and information sources,” Philip Napoli, a Duke University media professor, told the Wall Street Journal.
The Wall Street Journal conducted its own deep dive into partisan conservative and liberal sites in October 2020.
Napoli told the paper that today’s “local partisan news efforts are akin to journalism a century ago, when party-driven newspapers with ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ in their names gave one-sided news, unabashedly.”
Questions to ask when evaluating local online news articles
- Does the article have a byline?
- When was the story published?
- Can I contact the reporters, editors and publishers?
- What are the article’s sources and does it appear the author spoke with, or attempted to speak with, the sources he/she/they cite?
- Does the site have a way for me to make a correction or complain about coverage? Any phone numbers, non-generic emails or office addresses listed on the website?
- Does the outlet make clear its ownership structure?
- How does the outlet define its readership? (Hint: if local readership is not defined geographically, but ideologically, that’s a warning sign).