The real ‘fake news’: Routt County residents receive unsolicited copies of controversial newspaper
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Earlier in the week, local radio personality Shannon Lukens found a surprising package in her mailbox.
It was an unsolicited copy of The Epoch Times, a conservative news outlet with ties to a cult-like Chinese spiritual group called Falun Gong, whose leader has claimed he can levitate and perform healing miracles. Since President Donald Trump took office in 2016, the New York-based nonprofit newspaper has seen immense growth in both readership and revenue, which it has pumped back into Trump’s reelection efforts.
At first glance, the newspaper appears legitimate. Its professional-grade design and high-quality photographs give it the look and feel of mainstream publications like The New York Times or The Washington Post. But a closer look into the articles and The Epoch Times itself reveals troubling misinformation and an obvious political bias.
Lukens was unsettled by the unsolicited copy of the weekly publication, so she researched it online.
“That’s when I started being skeptical,” she said.”
Its website peddles fear-mongering conspiracies such as anti-vaccination theories and secret plots to take down the Trump Administration. An entire Facebook page associated with the newspaper is dedicated to Trump-friendly coverage of his presidency.
“I don’t want to be associated with any journalism outlet that has a bias or agenda,” Lukens said, whose entire career has been as a journalist.
Multiple Routt County residents said they have received an unsolicited copy of The Epoch Times in the last week. It is not clear if the newspaper is sending them to a specific audience. The Epoch Times executives, including its publisher and editor-and-chief, did not respond to requests for comment.
Included with each paper that residents received is a subscription form and return envelope, encouraging people to “subscribe today to get the truth.” A three-month subscription costs $39, and a year-long subscription costs $139, which includes a weekly print paper and digital papers sent via email during the weekdays.
Ellen Campbell, director of development at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, has received three copies of the newspaper since July. A registered conservative, Campbell said she has not given it much thought. The second copy sat on her counter for several days before she perused some of the articles.
“This is definitely a political paper,” she said. “It seems like it’s targeted more for conservatives.”
North Routt resident Nancy Mucklow also received a copy, meaning distribution was not restricted to the city limits.
This comes as The Epoch Times has seen a spike in popularity, owing in large part to its embrace of social media and conservative U.S. politics. In April, the newspaper and its associated digital video platform, New Tang Dynasty, had a combined 3 billion views on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, according to data from Tubular, which tracks social media analytics. That is more than every other mainstream news outlet.
Trump has shared content from the newspaper multiple times this year, and members of his own campaign have contributed articles. The Epoch Times employees also have had access to the White House and interviewed high-profile members of the Trump Administration and those close to the president, including his daughter-in-law, Lara.
At the same time, The Epoch Times has funneled money into Trump’s reelection efforts.
In the last eight months, the newspaper has spent more than $1.5 million on about 11,000 Trump-friendly advertisements on Facebook, an NBC investigation found in August. That is more than any other organization has raised other than Trump’s own reelection campaign and more than most Democratic presidential candidates have spent on their own races.
Why give so much support for the president? The NBC investigation found a close affiliation between The Epoch Times and leaders of Falun Gong, an anti-communist group that has been banned in China for 20 years. According to the investigation, followers believe that the world is headed for a judgment day that will condemn people affiliated with communism to a type of hell.
“Trump is viewed as a key ally in the anti-communist fight,” NBC found.
A few days after NBC published its investigation, Facebook banned The Epoch Times from future advertisements, saying the newspaper attempted to obscure its connection to posts and videos that support Trump and spread conspiracy theories about his political rivals.
“Over the past year we removed accounts associated with The Epoch Times for violating our ad policies, including trying to get around our review systems,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Washington Post in August. “We acted on additional accounts today, and they are no longer able to advertise with us.”
Evaluating accuracy and fairness
One of the principal tenets of true journalism, as stated in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, is “accurate and fair” reporting.
The subscription form calls the newspaper’s coverage “fact-based and truthful” with no political slant. Yet the same form calls The Epoch Times “an antidote to communism and socialism,” which contradicts its ostensibly unbiased coverage.
All of the articles in the Oct. 17 edition that Routt County residents received frame issues in a way that are sympathetic or friendly to the Trump Administration. One article, titled “Farmers Welcome China Deal Expected to Boost US Farm Exports by Tens of Billions,” cherry-picks information on the trade war with China without acknowledging how it has hurt almost every other industry in the U.S., from manufacturers to Steamboat outdoor companies.
While the articles may affirm the beliefs of many conservative readers, failing to balance the information with more critical voices and data creates an echo chamber of opinions that can lead to greater misinformation and deeper biases.
Another front-page article touches on “Spygate,” The Epoch Times’ bread-and-butter topic. It refers to an unfounded theory that Obama-era officials secretly collected information on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign to help opponent Hillary Clinton and claims there are ongoing, dubious efforts to topple the administration. Neither Trump nor White House officials have provided evidence to support the claim.
Many of the country’s biggest publications, The New York Times, Associated Press, The Washington Post, Politico and Bloomberg, among others, outright refused to mention the term Spygate unless quoting a source. They claim the term is politically loaded and potentially inaccurate.
Catherine Carson, chair of Routt County Democratic Party, explained how biased news sources attempt to subvert the truth by playing upon people’s fears and emotions. She encourages people to recognize when they read a story or post that incites these sentiments, and to delve deeper to verify the information.
“If there is something that triggers an immediate negative response you should probably research it before you share it,” she said.
The adage “You can’t believe everything you read online” applies equally to the print world.
Staying informed in the future
The partisan divide and the media war surrounding it show no sign of improvement amid further political turmoil. Next week marks the official start of the impeachment hearings against Trump in the House Intelligence Committee, following allegations the president abused his office for political gain during a July phone call with Ukrainian’s president. The historian Jon Meacham has called the public hearings “a test for the country,” with Republicans and Democrats already inciting national discord.
But many have already made up their minds on the matter. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s allies, told reporters on Wednesday that the impeachment investigation is a “joke” and a “political vendetta.” Polls show that Americans’ views on the investigation starkly toe partisan lines. About 83% of Democrats favor impeaching the president as of Nov. 7, according to the website FiveThirtyEight.com, which tracks impeachment polling, while just 10% of Republicans support it.
Misinformation is likely to proliferate in the coming weeks to obscure the facts and sway people’s opinions on the impeachment hearings. Again, the goal of many such articles is to incite fear or anger toward the opposing political side as encouragement for people to repost the story and spread misinformation.
As Carson said, “We don’t make good decisions when we are angry or scared.”
One of the public’s best weapons against misinformation is verification. When someone sees a story or post that seems suspicious, it is likely that long-trusted, mainstream media sources can either support or refute that information. By verifying before reposting, people can stop the spread of false or deceptive material.
Lukens, Campbell and Mucklow all had the same reaction to receiving copies of The Epoch Times: they threw the newspapers away or burned them.
“It’s no different than any other junk mail that we get,” Mucklow said.
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