Tow Center

‘Pink slime’ network gets $1.6M election boost from PACs backed by oil-and-gas, shipping magnates

October 31, 2022

Nonprofits and political action committees (pacs) are using Metric Media’s extended network of local news sites to provide a range of campaign services to conservative candidates in the run-up to the November midterm elections, new research by the Tow Center shows.   

The tactic of using partisan newspapers to launder advocacy is being taken up increasingly by both the left and the right, and while it’s not necessarily “fake news,” it does fracture the information ecosystem. However, tracing the astroturf activities of the extended Metric Media news network over the past year demonstrates that it is being used not just to place favorable stories, but to provide additional services that might influence the voting public. 

Overall, we found that this network acts as a convergence of special interests for free-market advocates, multiple political action committees, the fossil fuel industry, a politically motivated Catholic group, and a group propagating notions of election fraud. The network has received at least $1.6 million from three pacs so far this election cycle. While $1.6 million is an extremely small sum in an election where costs are projected to exceed $9 billion, our research demonstrates the extent of the services provided by this network to numerous conservative pacs tied to big conservative funders and groups. 

While it’s difficult to trace the minutiae of the scope and scale of each of the services, and to match them to individual transactions seen in public records, our investigation found websites targeting certain politicians or policies paid for by a pac hosted on the network’s infrastructure, articles boosting candidates supported by the pacs published on the local news network, and an interactive Web application devoted to a single hot-button issue. Newspapers with mastheads belonging to this network have been mailed to citizens in at least three states. These newspapers promote the public positions of advocacy groups, pacs, and candidates associated with this network. 

The services provided include advertising (to the Defend Texas Liberty pac, largely funded by West Texas oil-and-gas billionaire Timothy Dunn); SMS messages, robocalls, and websites (to the Illinois-centric People Who Play by the Rules pac, largely funded by Republican mega-donor and shipping magnate Richard Uihlein and run by conservative activist Dan Proft); and consulting and “production costs” (to Restoration pac, also largely funded by Uihlein). Through public records, we also found that Dunn currently holds a managerial position in Pipeline Media, one of the corporate entities within this extended network. Dunn’s links to the extended Metric Media network have not previously been reported.

The news sites can easily be mistaken for independent local outlets and—as previous investigations by the Tow Center have shown—are part of a larger network that received funding from multiple dark-money groups and pacs. The funding is not disclosed; neither are the network’s collaborations with special-interest groups. The practice of publishing stories that boost the positions of special-interest groups interspersed between thousands of algorithmically generated stories and republished press releases across the network’s twelve hundred sites continues. This “filler” content is referred to as “pink-slime journalism,” a term that references the meat byproduct added to ground beef. 

Digital investigations conducted by the Tow Center also found that Restoration pac’s VoteRef—a Web application that allows users to browse voter rolls in each state, as well as the number of ballots cast, under the guise of ensuring election integrity—relies on custom software from LocalLabs (one of the corporate entities in this network) and shares an analytics identifier (NewRelic) with other sites in this network. We found multiple sites sharing these traits attacking the incumbent governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, hosted on a server used by other websites on this network and paid for by the People Who Play by the Rules pac. These sites have names like pritzkermustgo [dot] com and toomuchjb [dot] com

In this report, with the help of public records and threat intelligence tools (including RiskIQ, FarSight DNSDB, and BuiltWith), the Tow Center examines the key players, funding, and interests influencing this network in the run-up to the midterms. This is the latest report in a research project established in 2019 to trace the use and provenance of local news sites created and operated for the purpose of exercising influence, be it electorally or to promote the interests of corporate clients or advocacy groups. While publishing news sites or newspapers to exert influence is not new, the increasingly involved campaign tools and tactics deployed through these networks create a challenge for independent local journalism and demonstrate how modern political campaigning makes it harder for readers to distinguish between political advertising and journalism.

This extended network is operated by a conglomerate of corporate entities—Metric Media, Newsinator (alias Franklin Archer), Local Government Information Services (LGIS), Pipeline Media (alias LocalityLabs or LocalLabs)—each of which claims ownership of different subsets of the network. In the past year, the network added ten new domains under the Federal Newswire banner (DOJ Newswire, USDA Newswire, EPA Newswire, etc.) along with a handful of standalone sites. The Catholic Tribune network—a group of seven sites that had been inactive since December 6, 2020—resumed publishing in October 2021. 

A full list of the domains we associate with this network is published here, and a repository of the physical papers that we have found so far has been uploaded here. We intend to update these data sets regularly as and when new domains are identified or new editions of the newspapers flagged. If you have received any of these papers, have examples of similar papers operating in your area, or want access to more granular data, please get in touch here.


Who Is Behind the Network?

The two primary officers behind these entities are Brian Timpone (an Illinois-based conservative businessman with a history in low-cost automated and outsourced journalism) and Bradley Cameron (the founder and chief executive of a Texas-based management consultancy whose clients—including Acellus and Ashford Inc.—have received favorable coverage across the local news network). Cameron and Timpone are also executives of Pipeline Advisors, a private equity investment company registered in Texas. 

Other officers of these corporate entities, past and present, have held executive roles in conservative pacs or conservative think tanks funded by Charles Koch and his network of allied donors. Over the past five decades, Koch has been instrumental in setting up and backing numerous think tanks that promote his vision of free-market economics, often at the cost of cutting public welfare spending. One of the groups backed by Koch and his donor allies to steer funds into conservative causes, Donors Trust, gave the Metric Media Foundation $1.27 million in 2020, which was just under half the annual revenue the Metric Media Foundation reported that year.

Figure 1: The four corporate entities that make up the network have Brian Timpone, Bradley Cameron, or both as executives, according to public records. Of these four, LGIS and Pipeline Media have additional executives affiliated with political action committees, think tanks, and advocacy groups whose interests are often promoted within the news network.

Currently, Timothy Dunn is listed as a manager for Pipeline Media, according to Illinois state records. Dunn, the chief executive officer of CrownQuest, an oil-and-gas exploration and production venture in West Texas, has been involved in Texas politics since at least 2007, when he bankrolled the Tea Party–aligned group Empower Texans, which pushed for limited government and lower taxes. This election cycle, Dunn has been a major contributor to the Defend Texas Liberty pac, which has spent over $5 million since January to challenge GOP incumbents deemed “insufficiently Republican.” The pac spent $57,075 on “advertising expenses” with Pipeline Advisors.

Figure 2: West Texas oil-and-gas magnate Timothy Dunn is an executive at Pipeline Media along with Bradley Cameron and Brian Timpone; the extended media network that includes Pipeline has published stories promoting candidates backed by the Defend Texas Liberty PAC, to which Dunn has given over $5 million.

Dunn is also on the board of numerous conservative organizations, at least two of which are connected to this extended network of local news sites: the largely Koch-funded free-market think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation and Citizens for Self-Governance (which he helped launch). 

As the Tow Center reported last year, Metric Media and Citizens for Self-Governance have collaborated directly: the two organizations launched the “news crowdsourcing” tool Community Newsmaker, and the Metric Media local news network ran over a hundred stories promoting the interests of Citizens for Self-Governance, a national organization whose overriding mission is to combat federal overreach. Our analysis also found that the network has run just under a hundred stories this year across twenty-eight sites (twenty-five of which are Texas-centric) that directly or indirectly advocate the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s policies, including property tax relief in the state. These stories include headlines like “TPPF’s Ginn: ‘Local property taxes are out of control’ in Texas,” “TPPF director on property taxes: ‘It’s not a stretch to say that property taxes are out of control in the Lone Star State,’” “Texas Public Policy Foundation’s James Quintero: Texas’ property taxes ‘out of control,’ taxpayers should ‘defend their wallets,’” and “Chief economist of TPPF: Laredo, all Texas residents face ‘affordability crisis that can be helped with property tax relief.’” As first reported by Gizmodo, the network has also run multiple stories attacking renewable energy—a recurrent line for the Texas Public Policy Foundation—which were then featured in Campaign Nucleus’s newsletters. Campaign Nucleus is the political consultancy set up by former President Donald Trump’s ex–campaign manager Brad Parscale. 

Dunn isn’t the only executive with ties to think tanks that have wealthy conservative benefactors. John Tillman, an influential conservative activist based out of Illinois, holds executive positions in at least nine organizations that, through a dizzying series of transactions, move millions of dollars around interconnected non- and for-profit organizations. As we reported last year, Tillman is also currently listed as the secretary for LGIS, the Illinois-centric subset of the network comprising thirty-four “local news” websites and eleven physical newspapers, which was subject to an FEC lawsuit for disguising campaign materials as local community newspapers (the suit was dismissed in 2019). Timpone is listed as the president of LGIS, a position previously held by Proft. In the run-up to the midterms this November, newspapers from the LGIS outlets have started appearing on doorsteps in Illinois attacking Pritzker for his policies on crime, covid, and LGBTQ rights. 

Proft’s pac is financially backing Republican candidate Darren Bailey against Pritzker in the November election. Proft ran for office in 2010, currently hosts a show on the Salem Radio Network (which syndicates Christian political talk, conservative programming, and music), and his now-defunct pac Liberty Principles paid Newsinator (one of the organizations in the extended network) over $300,000 for advertising. This year he started a new pac, People Who Play by the Rules, which—at the time of writing—has received over $28 million from Uihlein, the shipping magnate and Republican mega-donor. The pac has paid Pipeline Media just over $225,000 for services that include websites, SMS messages, and robocalls.

Figure 3: Dan Proft’s People Who Play by the Rules PAC paid Pipeline Media over $225,000 for “website,” “SMS text messages,” and “robo calls.”

Neither Dunn nor Proft responded to our request for comment over email. 


Newspapers in the Mail

While we were unable to trace the funding, residents of key electoral counties in Arizona, Kansas, and Illinois found copies of physical newspapers appearing at their doors that originated from this network. The publications, with titles that include the Grand Canyon Times, the Kansas Catholic Tribune, and Chicago City Wire, started appearing during primary season and have continued to appear ahead of the midterms, promoting candidates like Blake Masters and J.D. Vance, espousing conspiracies around election security, and hitting divisive topics like abortion, LGBT rights, immigration, and crime.

Sample pages from newspapers that appeared on doorsteps in multiple states. We’ve collected more papers here

Stories in the Grand Canyon Times, part of Metric Media’s Arizona network, promoted Masters alongside claims of duplicate voter registrations while attacking Biden’s policies around student loan relief and immigration. The two editions of the newspaper (dated July 18 and September 19) seen by the Tow Center ran pages paid for by the Saving Arizona pac (largely funded by Peter Thiel). Not all stories within the printed papers are available in the corresponding online editions; multiple stories have bylines from the Center Square (a conservative publication that’s part of the Franklin News Foundation, whose chairman is John Tillman); the Franklin News Foundation is an associate of the State Policy Network of conservative think tanks largely backed by Koch and his allied donors). One of the stories, headlined “One Million Migrants: Biden’s Asylum Abuse,” is from Steve Cortes’s Substack. Cortes was a campaign adviser to Donald Trump and a host on Newsmax.

The stories on the Kansas Catholic Tribune, a part of Franklin Archer’s American Catholic Tribune network, on the other hand, focused almost exclusively on anti-abortion rhetoric in the run-up to the August vote on a state constitutional amendment that would have barred access to abortion services. The return address on these papers was CatholicVote’s. CatholicVote launched a $9.7 million campaign “to expose Joe Biden’s anti-Catholic record and policies” in September 2020, and has previously collaborated with the Metric Media network, as we reported last year. Based on the lack of articles on the Kansas Catholic Tribune website, it appears that it was produced simply to campaign ahead of the referendum. Like with the Grand Canyon Times, not all stories that appear in the physical copies are in the digital edition, though most of them appear on its sister site American Catholic Tribune. The story titled “Summer of Rage: Tracking Attacks on Pregnancy Centers & Pro-Life Groups” bears the byline of CatholicVote News Feed. 

We were unable to locate any transactions between the Metric Media entities and either CatholicVote or the Saving Arizona pac in federal or state records, but this may be attributed to the FEC requiring reporting for a very narrow category of ads.


The PACs that pay Pipeline Media and Pipeline Advisors

Even though we weren’t able to find transactions related to the physical mailers, we found other pacs that paid Pipeline Media and Pipeline Advisors for a host of different services: advertising, robocalls, SMS messages, and consulting. Brian Timpone, an officer at both Pipeline Media and Pipeline Advisors, did not respond to multiple requests for comment over email. Bradley Cameron, also an executive at both companies, responded through his lawyers who, in an email, said, “Pipeline Advisors LLC has never received pac funding. It is a private equity investment company with no relation to Pipeline Media.” Filings for both the Defend Texas Liberty pac and Restoration pac show that they have paid Pipeline Advisors LLC. Restoration pac has also paid Pipeline Media. We asked their lawyers to clarify these discrepancies, but did not receive a response. 


Defend Texas Liberty PAC

In this election cycle, West Texas oil-and-gas magnate and Pipeline Media officer Timothy Dunn donated over $5 million to the Defend Texas Liberty pac, an organization that attacked GOP incumbents during the Texas primaries, with minimal success. The pac’s website says it believes “life starts at conception, there are only two genders, children should not be indoctrinated in public schools, the Second Amendment should never be infringed, property taxes must go down, the Texas Border must be secured, and we must stop giving illegal aliens taxpayer benefits.” The pac paid Pipeline Advisors just over $57,000 in March 2022, a transaction that was labeled “advertising expense.” 

Not all the candidates the pac supported featured on the Metric Media sites, but Donald Huffines, the Republican primary challenger to Texas governor Greg Abbott, did. We found that over fifty stories featuring Huffines were published in January and February across sixteen of the Texas Metric Media sites. Broadly, the themes of these stories can be broken down into:

  • Border security (“‘The Texas border is out of control’: Huffines condemns Abbott’s handling of Texas National Guard,” “Huffines: ‘The drugs pouring across our border are a threat to our very way of life,’” “Huffines: ‘I will never ask permission from the federal government to secure the Texas Border’”)
  • covid policies including mask and vaccine mandates (“Abbott’s weakness is taking a toll on Texans’ well-being’: Huffines criticizes Abbott for Texan school districts reinstating mask mandates,” “Huffines: ‘Mask mandates are an attack on Texans’ God-given liberties,’” “Huffines: ‘Dr. Fauci is a fraud and a liar who should be in jail’”)
  • Election fraud (“‘It’s time to fire Abbott’: Texas gubernatorial candidate pledges to boost election security,” “Huffines reacts to Texas law limiting mail-in ballot applications: ‘We know there’s fraud in our elections,’” “Our elections are not secure’—Huffines demands action, prosecution in response to audit”)
  • Abortions, prior to the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade (“Gubernatorial candidate Huffines: ‘As governor, I will abolish abortion in Texas,’” “Huffines praises efforts by pro-life activists to ‘cultivate a culture of life,’” “Huffines: ‘It is right for Texas to seek to take back public funds from abortionists’”)
  • A host of other “culture war” topics including China, critical race theory, and LGBTQ rights (“Huffines calls for prohibiting Chinese students at Texas universities,” “Huffines: ‘Critical race theory is a disgusting Marxist ideology that is dedicated to pitting Texans against each other,’” “Our children are in danger’: Huffines denounces the availability of LGBTQ+ books in Texas schools”)

Huffines lost the primary, coming in third with 12 percent of the vote. Abbott, the incumbent, received over 66 percent to win the race.


People Who Play by the Rules PAC

Only a small fraction of the $28 million that Proft’s People Who Play by the Rules PAC received from Uihlein—$226,668—was spent on Pipeline Media to cover services like website, SMS messages, and robocalls. Most of that money—$216,668—was spent opposing GOP primary candidate Richard Irvin for governor through text messages and robocalls. 

Overall, of the $19.7 million the pac had spent at the time of writing, $7 million was spent on the primary race opposing Irvin, who came in third in the race that Bailey (the candidate the pac is backing) won. After the Illinois primaries, the pac started targeting Pritzker, the incumbent governor. Since July 13, it has spent over $12 million opposing Pritzker, of which $10,000 was disbursed to Pipeline Media for “website.”

A handful of domains were registered in July 2022 with names like howmuchworse [dot] com, truthaboutjb [dot] com, toomuchjb [dot] com, and thetruthaboutjb [dot] com, all of which redirect to the same site with the disclaimer “© People Who Play By The Rules PAC.” The site states “Too Much JB Pritzker Leaves No Room for You.”

Figure 4: A screencap from one of the anti-Pritzker domains

Other anti-Pritzker domains registered in mid-September include pritzkermustgo [dot] com (which features a new ad campaign by the pac) and pritzkerbook [dot] com (which presents users with a book about “what every Illinoisan should know” about the incumbent). The book, too, is paid for by the People Who Play by the Rules pac

All these domains share digital identifiers like IP addresses and analytics infrastructure with other sites in the extended local news network, including the Will County Gazette, Kane County Reporter, Chicago City Wire, and DuPage Policy Journal. (You can read more about our methodology for DNS investigations here.)

Not only are these four sites part of LGIS, the Illinois-specific subset of the network, but as the Tow Center has reported, physical copies of these papers have shown up on the doorsteps of Illinois residents attacking Pritzker on various topics including criminal reform. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Pritzker has called out Proft for adopting “scare tactics” and using “racist” rhetoric due to a two-page spread on the physical papers featuring photographs of Black suspects who could be released on bail when the state’s no-cash bail policy comes into effect. Unlike the Arizonian Grand Canyon Times paper and Kansas Catholic Tribune, these Illinois papers don’t have a disclaimer—instead, they contain a note from the publisher, LGIS, saying, “Our goal is two-fold: 1) to provide news about state and local policy matters and politics to help you assess whether the policy decisions made by your elected officials are aligned with your values and to explain how those decisions impact your quality of life; and (2) to offer quality local content to help you stay abreast of what’s happening in the community you call home.” 


Restoration PAC

People Who Play by the Rules isn’t the only pac that’s received millions from Uihlein this election cycle. Restoration pac, whose raison d’être is to “provide support to truly conservative candidates” and to “oppose Leftists and the woke agenda,” received at least $13.7 million from the founder of Uline, the privately held shipping-supply company. Of this, $1.37 million went to Pipeline Advisors LLC ($1,336,109) and Pipeline Media ($30,463) for various types of consulting and “production costs.” 

As originally reported by ProPublica and Open Secrets, one of the big initiatives by the affiliated Restoration Action pac is the Voter Reference Foundation or VoteRef, which is an effort to put voter registration rolls from all fifty states online, thereby allowing people to search for discrepancies in an effort to find “election fraud”—election officials have said the methodology is flawed and the organization’s actions may be illegal. VoteRef has dismissed these concerns. The voter rolls that are being made public as part of this initiative include the registration address, birthdate, party affiliation, registration date, and registration status of individuals, along with whether they voted in the past five elections. 

The network’s role in this endeavor appears to be twofold: publishing stories about the initiative and broadcasting as and when voter rolls become available, and providing technical support for the public-facing Web application.

Figure 5: A handful of stories about VoteRef from the Metric Media local news network

Analysis by the Tow Center found that over fifty stories were published across the Metric Media news network about VoteRef’s activities, with headlines like “Transparency site and pending Georgia bill make ballots ‘open to public inspection,’” “Truax: ‘Not going to be deterred’ in First Amendment voter rolls lawsuit against New Mexico officials,” and “Voter Reference Foundation executive director: ‘Publishing voter registration data increases transparency which will help to restore public confidence.’” A handful of these were verbatim press releases issued by the Voter Reference Foundation. 

The Web application shares an analytics ID and analytics code with other publications in the extended Metric Media network, and explicitly states that it is a subsidiary of Restoration Action. According to a document obtained by ProPublica, Local Labs (an entity in this network) is also building functionality for the application. At the time of writing, the Web application allows users to browse voter rolls in thirty-two states, as well as explore the number of ballots cast in the 2020 election (versus how many registered voters cast ballots) on a state-by-state level. This then allows the database to flag “net ballot discrepancies” and “total incorrect records.” ProPublica, as part of its investigation, contacted election officials—a mix of Democrats and Republicans—in twelve of the states where VoteRef has voter rolls, and “in every case the officials said that the methodology used to identify the discrepancies was flawed, the data incomplete or the math wrong.”

Our analysis thus far has relied on disclosed disbursements filed in accordance with federal and state campaign finance requirements. Even so, it’s unlikely that our analysis is complete. Not only is FEC reporting only required for a narrow category of ads, but there is no way to tell if there are intermediary groups that help facilitate transactions between different parties. While trust in news is declining and partisan antipathy is on the rise, both the left and the right are attempting to use any and all tactics to get their desired electoral outcomes. Inevitably, this leads to the information ecosystem becoming more fragmented, facts being dismissed as false, and independent local news left with the challenging task of navigating the new reality of political campaigning.

Priyanjana Bengani is a Tow Computational Fellow at Columbia Journalism School's Tow Center for Digital Journalism.