By Tim Johnson McClatchy Washington Bureau
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Watchdog groups for transparent elections say they are troubled by the trend among political campaigns to present campaign messaging as if it were credible unbiased news reporting.
Despite complaints from Congress about the Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign that included "fake news" sites designed to sway voters, at least three members of Congress seeking re-election have posted similar sites designed to help them win re-election.
Three sitting senators fighting tough re-election campaigns as well as at least one House member, have created sites that masquerade as internet news pages.
Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller's website, NevadaSenateUpdates.com, even has weather and calendar widgets on the top of its page, just like those of a conventional newspaper website.
The "paid for by Heller for Senate" is in dim gray type on a black bar at the bottom.
Rep. Devin Nunes earlier this year created a website called The California Republican that mimics a news site, even using the state flag as a logo.
Only at the bottom in easy-to-miss type does it say, "Paid for by Devin Nunes Campaign Committee." Nunes is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
If the disclaimer from the Nunes campaign is difficult to spot, the one on the faux internet news site of the Missouri Democratic Party, The Missouri Download, a vehicle to boost the re-election chances of Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, is almost impossible to read.
Watchdog groups for transparent elections say they are troubled by the trend among political campaigns to present campaign messaging as if it were credible unbiased news reporting, even as more legitimate news sites sprinkle their pages with "sponsored content," ads that look like news stories with a disclaimer in visible writing at the top.
"These websites are designed with one thing in mind: to trick the reader into thinking they're a legitimate news source. And anyone who says otherwise is being disingenuous. A label tucked at the bottom of a web page isn't enough," said Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact, a fact-checking website.
Another monitoring group said readers could easily be fooled by the faux news pages.
"You'd have to scroll all the way to the bottom and read the fine print to learn that these sites are actually generated by partisan political actors who are trying to win an election," said Brendan Fischer, of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group on campaign finance and democracy issues.
Fischer said the structure of the websites indicates that "there is a degree of trust in the news media, and that's why these candidates and parties are trying to emulate traditional news media sites."
Spokesmen for the politicians behind the websites generally dismiss any suggestion that they have manipulated campaign messaging to appear as news.
"It's not deceptive in any way," Steve Sandberg, spokesman for New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez said of the senator's HealthNewsNJ.com website, which went live last week.
"It's an objective look at Bob Hugin's record, largely reliant on objective news reporting and links to published reports that are out there," Sandberg said of Menendez's opponent.
The Menendez campaign issued a press release about the website July 12, saying the site would expose the "greedy" past of Hugin, the conservative executive chair of Celgene Corp., a biopharmaceutical company.
A Hugin campaign spokeswoman, Megan Piwowar, differed sharply in her assessment.
"Sen. Menendez should be ashamed of himself for thinking he can sell his lies through a website he is masquerading as a news source," Piwowar said.
One former member of Congress said he didn't see much new in the tactic of presenting campaign messaging as if it were legitimate unbiased news reporting.
"You can argue whether it crosses the line or not. But this is not the first time this has been done. I've seen this done for 30 years, before they had the internet," said Tom Davis, a Republican who represented Virginia for 14 years in Congress and now is director of federal government affairs for the consulting firm Deloitte.
In past decades, politicians would routinely send press releases to weekly shoppers.
"You have some of these ... once-a-week papers that are just looking for copy. They would often print a press release without vetting it," Davis said. "Once you get it printed, you reprint that print as if that's what the newspaper said."
The Nevada campaign team of Heller, who is considered the Senate's most endangered Republican in a state that went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, has launched a website that mimics the characteristics of a traditional news outlet.
It tells the current weather in Carson City, Nevada's capital, gives the date and has categories, such as Yucca Mountain, veterans and taxes, next to a button that says, "All News." On the right side in a column under "Morning Report" are headlines critical of Rep. Jacky Rosen, Heller's Democratic opponent.
"This website doesn't purport to be a news website," Heller campaign spokesman, Keith Schipper, said. "It shares important information for Nevada voters on Jacky Rosen that news media outlets" aren't covering.
He said the "website is sufficiently labeled and we do not shy away from the fact that we own and operate it." The Heller website was first reported earlier this month by the Nevada Independent, a nonprofit community-supported news and opinion website.
Rep. Rosen's campaign spokesperson, Molly Forgey, said, "Sen. Heller's struggling re-election campaign is deliberately trying to mislead voters, but we're confident Nevadans will see through these deceptive tactics."
Both Heller and Nunes have accused traditional media and campaign opponents of trafficking in "fake news."
The Nunes campaign financed and launched its webpage, The California Republican, in February, and a Facebook page for the site notes that it has 10,379 followers. News organizations like Politico have reported on the website and the Facebook page.
Facebook lists the sponsoring organization of the webpage as a "Media/News Company." No mention is made on Facebook that the site is financed by the Nunes re-election campaign. Facebook has been under pressure from Congress to be more open about the sources of its pages.