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Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018 12:17 am

The DPI has its work cut out for it

 Last month, Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) was interviewed by Chicago Public Radio about his new role as interim executive director of the Democratic Party of Illinois.

Mitchell was asked at one point about what the state party planned to do to counter Dan Proft’s newspaper empire. Proft, a conservative activist and radio talk show host, operates about 40 news websites, from the Lake County Gazette, to Rock Island Today to the Carbondale Reporter. They all run stories with a decided tilt toward Proft’s favored Republican candidates, who are pro-life, anti-union and pro-gun. Proft receives millions of dollars from ultra-wealthy businessman Dick Uihlein (Proft’s Liberty Principles PAC reported receiving another $3.5 million just last week from Uihlein).

Rep. Mitchell called Proft’s papers “fake news,” and clarified that he didn’t mean to use the term the way President Donald Trump employs it to describe The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN and other established national news outlets. Mitchell said his party intends to counter Proft’s pro-GOP, anti-Democratic Party messages with its own messaging.

I use Google to automatically track news stories published about every contested legislative race in the state, and for weeks now, maybe 90 percent of the coverage of all those candidates is coming from just a single information source: Dan Proft.

“Democrat Statehouse hopeful betting taxpayer-funded abortion, property tax hikes popular with DuPage voters,” was the headline on a July 23rd story in Proft’s DuPage Policy Journal about Terra Costa Howard, the Democratic challenger to Rep. Peter Breen (R-Lombard). After noting how many doors she’s been knocking on, the article went on to claim that Howard is “unabashedly touting far-left policies historically unpopular, if not anathema, to the upper-middle-class voters of her district.”

“Madigan spends $67K in July to boost West Chicago Democrat State House hopeful Villa,” another DuPage Policy Journal headline declared last week about in-kind contributions from the Democratic Party of Illinois, which is chaired by House Speaker Michael Madigan. Karina Villa is the Democrat running against Tonia Khouri in retiring GOP Rep. Mike Fortner’s district.

Appointed Democratic state Rep. Natalie Phelps Finnie’s Republican opponent received some favorable coverage the other day from Proft’s SE Illinois News publication. “Republican state House candidate Patrick Windhorst was impressed by Oliver North’s speeches during a recent tour of the area,” the story began, then went on to quote a Windhorst Facebook post. The story claimed that Windhorst is running on “a platform of greater fiscal responsibility and tax reform.”

Another story in the same publication is entitled “Windhorst vows to work for every resident of 118th House District,” and quotes directly from another Windhorst Facebook post. “As your state representative, I will work hard to ensure that every corner of the 118th is given the time and effort demanded by the position.”

They’re not exactly Pulitzer Prize contending articles, but they aren’t designed to do anything like that. The idea appears to be simply publishing flattering stories about the candidates Proft’s political organization supports.

Some stories are more interesting than others, though. One recent piece in the Metro East Sun chronicled Democratic state Senate candidate Brian Stout’s use of an anti-gay slur during a Facebook spat three years ago. Stout is running against the heavily favored Republican nominee Jason Plummer.

But many if not most stories are like this one from the Illinois Valley Times: “Illinois House Speaker and Democrat Party Chairman Michael J. Madigan (D-Chicago) has reported $43,433 in July contributions to Lance Yednock, a Democrat running for the Illinois State House of Representatives against incumbent Rep. Jerry Long (R-Streator).”

And there’s this recent lede in the Chicago City Wire: “Ammie Kessem argues that Rep. Robert Martwick’s actions are proof that he views voters in the 19th House District as second-class citizens.”

Yes, it’s only August. But almost all established local news outlets have slashed their budgets over the years, so their reporting on these races will undoubtedly continue to be sparse throughout the fall campaign.

And if a voter happens to use Google to find out what’s going on in his or her local legislative contests, that voter will be far more likely to be directed to one of Proft’s outlets than anywhere else. Rep. Mitchell and the Democrats have their work cut out for them on this particular front.

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