Good for Oak Park and River Forest High School for calling out as “lies” the story published last week by the West Cook News.
A right-wing propaganda site masquerading as a local news source, West Cook News unfortunately has River Forest roots and devotes a keen attention to undermining truth and reality in these villages. The Journal has reported multiple times when the site has focused, with pernicious attention, on stories involving public schools, municipal elections and public health. The site is part of a group of 30 sites operating in Illinois under the auspices of “Local Government Information Services.” Its funding comes from political sources looking to spread misinformation.
Or, as Tom Cofsky, president of the OPRF school board, would succinctly say, “lies.”
The school, in a statement issued immediately following the viral West Cook News story, and in interviews with the Journal by administrators and the board, has been rightly direct in its assessment of the news site’s methods and motivations. The story was allegedly based on a public school board meeting on May 26 and on a very brief presentation by an administrator updating the board on the continuing work of a faculty/administration committee looking at professional development for teachers.
A topic of that committee is how to adapt grading methods in ways that more accurately reflect what students have learned. That very short report was twisted into all sorts of race-baiting nonsense, claiming the school was implementing a new grading policy this fall that would specifically favor Black and Brown students.
Straight-up lies — for political gain in OPRF’s immediate community and to stoke the fear-based strategy to gin up a white base across the country.
In a Sunday column in the Washington Post, media critic Margaret Sullivan cited the West Cook News story about OPRF and the power of such a story being launched into welcoming minds as confirmation of readers’ already stoked biases. And she noted that, according to a 2020 report by Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, West Cook News is one of at least 1,200 such fake news sites across the country. There is a vivid term for these sites, “pink slime,” which comes from the meat processing industry.
OPRF, like any institution, is imperfect, but it gets great credit these days for facing up to complex issues such as grading and its relation to equity. Wednesday Journal is also imperfect, but we put real reporters and editors to work each day, actively in the community, accountable to readers under their real names.
News consumers also have a responsibility to discern what sources are doing authentic reporting and which are just trying to make your blood boil. If your source is West Cook News, you are about to be manipulated.
The dangers to our democracy are not all at Fox News or in Donald Trump’s lies. They can be much closer to home and we need to be aware and on guard in protecting our small-town democracy.