The Center Square claims to be a news wire service that was founded to “fulfill the need for high-quality statehouse and statewide news” with a “taxpayer sensibility.” In reality, it’s just the latest iteration of an existing propaganda machine that dresses up a biased conservative spin as reliable news. And some local news outlets around the country are distributing its propaganda.
Conservative media outlet rebrands as wire service
In 2019, conservative news site Watchdog.org reinvented itself as a wire service, called The Center Square. The Center Square claims to “produce the highest quality of news coverage and investigative work” and provides its content for free to other media outlets. But in reality, The Center Square publishes misleading stories with a heavy right-wing bent. As Watchdog.org, the organization was known for propagating misinformation and lies that benefited Republican politicians.
The Center Square receives funding from right-wing sources through dark money groups. The organization is largely funded by the ultra-conservative billionaire Koch family through the dark-money group Donors Trust, which provides money to The Center Square’s publisher, the Franklin News Foundation (previously known as the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity).
Along with its affiliates, The Center Square helps promote right-wing legislative priorities. The Franklin News Foundation is listed as an associate of the conservative State Policy Network and its affiliates sometimes publish content promoting the agenda of the American Legislative Education Council (ALEC), which pushes right-wing legislation in state government. Some of the policies ALEC has promoted include legislation to end paid sick leave, laws that halt Medicaid expansion for low-income residents, and the infamous “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida that George Zimmerman used to justify killing unarmed minor Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Some local news outlets are disseminating Center Square propaganda
Targeting local news is a cunning strategy for The Center Square, as polls show Americans trust local news over national media. By offering its so-called wire stories at no cost, The Center Square is taking advantage of local media, at a time when many local news outlets are underfunded and struggling, to launder its far-right perspectives and present them as legitimate news stories. Some local media have fallen for the scheme, republishing Center Square content that often twists the truth, parrots right-wing talking points, and excludes left-leaning perspectives.
Here are some recent examples of how The Center Square’s conservative propaganda has worked its way into media outlets across the U.S.:
- The Bossier Press-Tribune of Bossier City, Louisiana, republished an April 27 Center Square story praising a so-called school choice initiative in the state. The story quotes only three GOP state legislators who supported the bill, and it does not provide any opposing perspectives. Studies show that school choice initiatives, which divert funding from public schools to private schools, increase inequality and school segregation.
- At least seven local media outlets republished an April 29 Center Square article that parroted anti-immigrant rhetoric from GOP politicians. The story covered conservative politicians’ opposition to the Biden administration’s decision to allow border officers instead of immigration judges to process asylum claims. While the policy change drew criticism from immigrants rights advocates, the story instead focused on the 14 state attorneys general who sued the Biden administration to oppose the policy on anti-immigrant grounds. The article described the policy change as “an administrative rule change that will dramatically transform the asylum and parole process, facilitating the release of more illegal immigrants into the country.” The story was republished by news organizations including the Bellevue Herald-Leader of Bellevue, Iowa; the Monroe County Advocate and Democrat of Monroe County, Tennessee; News on the Neck of Warsaw, Virginia; Antelope County News of Neligh, Nebraska; the Bossier Press-Tribune of Bossier City, Louisiana; The Heartlander of Kansas City, Missouri; and KULR-8 of Billings, Montana.
- On May 3, the Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction, Colorado, republished a Center Square story that gave GOP politicians an open platform to “speak out” on the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade. The story included just one short citation from the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, while offering extensive quotes from right-wing voices, including Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, who was quoted spouting false information, claiming that America’s current abortion laws are “uniquely radical in the West” and that they “look more like China and North Korea.” This is false. Most so-called western countries — along with many others including China and North Korea — allow abortion in most situations or with gestational limits, similar to the U.S. standard under Roe. Reeves was also quoted saying that “countless lives can be saved” by the Supreme Court striking down Roe, a statement that discounts the pregnant people who will likely die from lack of appropriate care if Roe is overturned. The story provided no pushback to any of Reeves’ claims.
- On May 17, after the 2022 Pennsylvania primary election, The Progress-News of Clearfield, Pennsylvania, and WFMZ of Allentown, Pennsylvania, posted a Center Square story on the election results that sanitized the record of an extreme-right candidate. The article described the Republican nominee for governor, state Rep. Doug Mastriano — an anti-choice extremist, Christian nationalist, and QAnon supporter who was a “key figure” in the January 6 insurrection — as simply “a leading state Republican in questioning the integrity of the 2020 presidential election.”
- Several local outlets published a May 31 Center Square story that cites Republicans falsely blaming Biden’s environmental policies for rising gas prices without pushback: “Republicans have blasted President Joe Biden for the prices, saying his policies limiting oil drilling and pipeline development are to blame.” GMToday of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; the Kiowa County Press of Eads, Colorado; Big Country News Connection of Clarkston, Washington; The Mountaineer of Waynesville, North Carolina; and the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel were among the outlets that republished this piece.
- Multiple local outlets republished a May 31 Center Square story that left out critical context about the links between gun laws and mass shootings. The story covered a Rasmussen poll showing that “Americans blame mental health issues for mass shootings more than access to firearms.” The article did not mention the mounting evidence that permissive gun laws enable mass shootings and other forms of gun violence. It also failed to note that the vast majority of Americans support stronger gun safety laws. The Lincoln News Now of Troy, Missouri; the Highland County Press of Hillsboro, Ohio; and GMToday were among the outlets that republished this story.
- After mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, rocked the nation, a slew of local outlets republished a June 2 story from The Center Square that presented arming school teachers as a reasonable anti-gun violence strategy. Citing a study by the Trafalgar Group, a controversial polling organization that does not disclose its survey methods, the story claimed that “younger Americans were most supportive [of arming teachers], with 61.8% of 18-24 year-olds saying that prohibiting properly trained teachers from carrying guns would make schools less safe.” A 2019 study by researchers at University of Missouri-St. Louis found students overwhelmingly oppose arming teachers. This Center Square story was republished by a wide range of local outlets, including the Daily Journal of Tupelo, Mississippi; the Daily Iberian of New Iberia, Louisiana; the Longview News-Journal of Longview, Texas; Main Street Nashville of Nashville, Tennessee; the Bradford Era of Bradford, Pennsylvania; the Sea Coast Echo of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi; the Polk County Itemizer-Observer of Dallas, Oregon; the Port La Vaca Wave of Port La Vaca, Texas; The Observer of La Grande, Oregon; the Clay Center Dispatch of Clay Center, Kansas; the Port Charlotte Sun of Venice, Florida; and KXLG of Watertown, South Dakota.
- A June 1 Center Square story on inflation blamed Biden for the phenomenon, offering no opposing viewpoints. The story states that “prices on a range of goods and services have soared since President Joe Biden took office,” adding that Biden has blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The story concludes that according to a BMO/Ipsos survey, “many voters do blame Putin, but more hold Biden responsible.” GMToday, the Kiowa County Press, and the Southern Maryland Chronicle republished this story.
- On June 3, the Effingham Daily News of Effingham, Illinois, republished a Center Square story bashing a ballot initiative in Illinois that would establish a constitutional right to collective bargaining. The story provided no pushback against opponents’ claims that the ballot initiative would “unconstitutionally enshrine union powers in the Illinois Constitution, making it impossible for lawmakers to curb union powers and giving union contracts more weight than state law.”
- On June 9, The Center Square posted a story that quoted ALEC without describing its right-wing perspective or providing pushback. The story, which painted state pensions as wasteful and dangerous for state economies, did not mention that ALEC is a conservative organization that creates model legislation for lawmakers to introduce in state legislatures. Instead, it quoted directly from a recent ALEC press release without fact-checking ALEC’s claims. Vandalia Radio of Vandalia, Illinois, republished this story.
- A June 9 story from Center Square on the Food and Drug Administration’s proposal to ban flavored cigars extensively quoted cigar industry representatives. The story says that “critics of the proposed ban say individuals should have the freedom to decide what they can and cannot buy, not the government,” before quoting the president of the Cigar Association of America multiple times. The Southern Maryland Chronicle; the News-Herald of Lenoir City, Tennessee; the Longview News-Journal; and the Courier-Tribune of Liberty, Missouri, all republished this story.
- A June 13 Center Square story provided no pushback against the passage of a new Ohio law that allows people to carry handguns without a permit. The story also did not mention anything about the more than 250 mass shootings the U.S. has suffered since the beginning of this year, including the tragic attacks in Buffalo and Uvalde. The Highland County Press carried this story.