Editorial: Not real data. Not real news.

No more boys and girls? Pritzker family leads push to replace ‘myth’ of biology

Teachers are required to “affirm” students’ non-traditional “identities,” including “furries” or children who dress up like animals at school like cats or dogs.

Naperville third-grade teacher instructs 8-year-old boys on how to act like girls

Headlines like these recently began arriving on Oak Park doorsteps in a publication calling itself West Cook News, which masquerades as a legitimate newspaper. Its tag line, “Real data, real news,” sounds reassuring at first. West Cook News attempts to paint itself as an organization dedicated to delivering factual information to the residents of West Cook County. However, the publication contains sensationalist headlines and stories that are either highly misleading or entirely false.

The problem with West Cook News is that it mimics legitimate newspapers, which undermines real journalism. West Cook News uses newspaper fonts and is laid out in a very similar manner to many newspapers. The publication also reports some factual information, although it is often placed next to misleading information as an attempt to make it seem more legitimate. For example, a story about the return of local festival “Oaktoberfest” was placed near an article that claims teachers are required to affirm students who dress up in animal costumes during class.

Another controversial tactic is the delivery of papers to people who don’t want them. Some Oak Parkers have expressed frustration with the forcibly delivered papers. “How do I get the fake newspaper West Cook News to stop delivering to my house?!” said a Sept. 20 post on the Oak Park Working Moms Facebook page. At press time, 36 commenters had posted similar frustrations.

West Cook News is an insidious operation. Significant portions of the information are intended to be deceptive and push a conservative agenda, which does not align with core news values of publishing without bias. West Cook News is filling the void of local news stations and papers, which are having a difficult time succeeding nowadays. We, at the Trapeze, do not want to discourage reading local news. However, it is important to verify that the local news you are reading is reputable.

According to the New York Times, West Cook News is a part of a news network largely overseen by Brian Timpone, a former news reporter who has stepped into business and politics. Timpone’s network is vast, and has over twice as many websites as the nation’s largest newspaper chain.

The New York Times claims that Republican advocacy groups and political campaigns have given Timpone’s network $1.7 million dollars, according to publicly available tax records and campaign-finance reports.

It’s important to note where Timpone’s network receives the money; the large donations from the Republican party are a likely explanation for the ridiculous headlines that often paint Democrats and liberals as extreme radicals trying to overturn the social order. West Cook, and other sites like it, are pushing a very specific conservative agenda that is misrepresenting facts and evidence.

OPRF itself has been the victim of West Cook News’ agenda. On May 30, West Cook News published an erroneous article alleging that OPRF would implement “race based grading” during the 2022-2023 school year. The article received local and national attention, and OPRF quickly responded to the claims.

An email sent out by the school one day after the article’s publication responded to the claims, saying, “It has come to the district’s attention that a recent article in the online West Cook News inaccurately states that at the Board of Education’s May 26 meeting, Oak Park and River Forest High School announced that it will implement a race-based grading system in the 2022-2023 school year. This is not true. OPRFHS does not, nor has it ever had a plan to, grade any students differently based on race.”

The article used quotes from Assistant Superintendent of Student Learning Laurie Fiorenza. Fiorenza was not contacted by West Cook, or asked any clarifying questions to confirm their allegations of race based grading. “I was disappointed that the West Cook News reported inaccurate information and misquotes, as these negatively impacted colleagues, students, and families in our community, causing confusion and misunderstandings,” she said. “As the West Cook News article circulated, it caused alarm and frustration for people not in our community and unaware of the incredible work OPRFHS is doing to ensure grading practices accurately and fairly reflect skill acquisition and learning. The overall impact of the false article was the loss of time that should have focused on student learning.”

OPRF itself was also not contacted before the article was published, says Executive Director of Communication Karin Sullivan. Sullivan believes West Cook News, and other sites like it are dangerous. “A free press is essential to democracy, while disinformation is a tool of autocracy. Fake news is poisoning this country, and it needs to stop,” said Sullivan. As of now, the article still remains on West Cook News’ website despite significant backlash and confusion.

West Cook News is just a small symptom of a bigger problem. Right now America is incredibly polarized, and this polarization is acting as a petri dish for fake news. While ridiculous headlines are fun to laugh at, this problem is far more serious than it seems on the surface. When the basic facts of reality are questioned, democracy itself begins to crumble.