PHOENIX (AP) — Nicole Leonardi initially thought a new newspaper had arrived in her mailbox this week. But a closer look at the “Arizona Catholic Tribune” revealed a different story.
While it had all the attributes of a traditional print newspaper, including a tagline that read “Real data. Real value. Real news,” the pledge did not match the content.
Leonardi, a Democrat living in Tempe, Arizona, who is not Catholic, quickly realized the paper was fake, a partisan conservative publication with content critical of local Democratic candidates. The paper is also not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, which has disavowed it.
“I thought it was a real paper so I pulled it out,” Leonardi said. “It’s only when you dig in a bit when you realize that it’s fully pushing right-wing talking points.”
The Phoenix area was not the only region where papers with the “real news” tagline recently showed up. Similar publications reportedly arrived in mailboxes in cities in Iowa and Illinois.
The Arizona Catholic Tribune's Facebook page identifies its owner as Franklin Archer, which is part of a multi-state network of partisan online and print publications posing as local media outlets, according to Priyanjana Bengani, a senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
“We’ve been here before. They did this in Wisconsin before the 2020 election. They did this in Kansas before the referendum in August about abortion,” Bengani said. “I think the number of physical papers we’ve seen this election cycle is more than what we saw in the 2020 cycle.”
Bengani has traced the networks back to Brian Timpone, who describes himself as a “media executive” on a LinkedIn profile, and Bradley Cameron, a strategy consultant. Cameron, Timpone, the Arizona Catholic Tribune, and several companies that are part of the extended network of publications did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
As part of her research for the Tow Center, Bengani has identified more than 1,200 news sites that are part of the network.
In a series of research reports, Bengani has asserted the websites emerged ahead of the 2020 election and that the outlets use the appearance of journalistic neutrality to amplify partisan messaging.
“It’s a really complicated network. There are lots of different entities that are registered in different states,” Bengani said. She noted that print editions of another publication that is part of the network, the Grand Canyon Times, have been “showing up in Arizona for a couple of months now.”
The Arizona Catholic Tribune that landed in mailboxes this week features a front page story asserting that Democrat Arizona Representatives Tom O’Halleran and Greg Stanton voted to “keep school ‘gender services’ secret from parents,” as well as a teaser claiming that Arizona public school teachers are being encouraged to promote a “child sexualization” reading genre. Such content aligns with Republicans’ efforts to use anti-transgender rhetoric as a wedge issue. Other parts of the paper focus on abortion and one section gave Arizona elected officials grades with their photos, awarding the Republicans As and the Democrats Fs.
A different page features a story devoted to Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake’s false claim that her Democratic opponent Katie Hobbs voted to ban the Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem from schools.
A spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix said in an email that the church is “in no way affiliated or supportive of the ‘Arizona Catholic Tribune’ publication.”
“The Catholic organization and ministries in the Diocese of Phoenix do not engage in partisan politics and do not endorse candidates or parties during any election,” said Brett Meister, the diocese spokesperson.
But experts say the paper is clearly designed to suggest otherwise.
“It seems to be pretty brazen,” said Matthew Jensen, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma who focuses on online misinformation. “The format of the media, the implied endorsement, all of these things, it seems like they are meant to signal an authoritative source.”
Paul Bentz, a Republican pollster who lives in Goodyear, a suburb of Phoenix, said he found a copy of the Arizona Catholic Tribune in his mail Monday. Bentz, who is not Catholic, said political mailers formatted like tabloids are not new in Arizona, though this fake paper is “rhetorically over the top” and does not feature any disclaimer. The publication was likely meant to energize Republican voters and keep moderates from voting for Democrats, he said.
“This one probably went over the line and was a little too blatant in their appeal to conservative voters and it’s drawn the ire of the Catholic Church,” he said. “The tone and tenor of this does not appear to be about increasing turnout but solidifying the base and negating anyone who may be tempted to vote for their opponents.”
Associated Press writer Sophia Tulp in New York contributed to this report.