The ‘Dallas Express’: Your Go-To Source for Right-Wing, Astroturf News
The formerly Black-owned, progressive newspaper has re-emerged as a "pink slime" media site that launders conservative propaganda.
This piece is part of Special Correspondent Steven Monacellis’ reporting on extremist groups masquerading as grassroots, social justice organizations.
For over 80 years, the Dallas Express operated as a weekly, Black-owned, progressive newspaper that covered racist lynchings, fought against segregation, and focused on the issues that mattered to the Black community in Dallas. Founded in 1892 and shuttered in the mid-1970s, the newspaper focused on issues ignored by the predominantly White press in a segregated city “that had been effectively run by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.”
Half a century after the paper went defunct, the Dallas Express was brought back to life under new management. In January 2021, D Magazine reported that the paper was “run by a Chicago-based operation called Metric Media News that owns hundreds of such dubious news sites all across the country.” Metric Media News, founded by conservative Chicago businessman Brian Timpone, is part of a broader network of right-wing websites that masquerade as nonpartisan, local news. One of those companies, Pipeline Media, also boasts Texas billionaire and Republican megadonor Tim Dunn as a board member. Researchers have dubbed such astroturf outlets that hide their true partisan purpose as “pink slime journalism.” Metric Media has also been linked to a series of “pink slime” newspapers that recently attacked Democratic candidates in the run-up to the Illinois Spring elections, according to NPR.
One month after D Magazine linked the Dallas Express to Metric Media, I reported for the Dallas Weekly, a Black-owned weekly newspaper, that Trump-supporting billionaire hotel magnate Monty Bennett was named publisher of Dallas Express. Bennett is the founder and CEO of Ashford Inc., a publicly traded company that controls over 100 hotels.
Bennett has described the paper as “strictly objective” and nonpartisan, but their “core values” included clearly conservative talking points like “taxes are generally oppressive” and “regulations undermine individual and business productivity.” These stated values—which were subsequently removed after my reporting—and Bennett’s political activities led me, in the Dallas Weekly article, to describe the website as “right-wing propaganda.”
Since January 2021, the Dallas Express has run at least 112 articles and opinion pieces that mention one of four “zombie astroturf groups” in the area: Keep Dallas Safe, Dallas Justice Now, Save Texas Kids, and Protect Texas Kids. As I previously reported for the Texas Observer in a related article, these four groups push conservative policies and received an inordinate amount of coverage from the Dallas Express compared with other regional publications, which have primarily run critical articles about the group, including: the Dallas Morning News, Dallas Observer, D Magazine, Dallas Weekly, Spectrum News, PeopleNewspapers, and the Texas Tribune. National and international outlets like VICE, Jewish Insider, and the Independent have also documented the controversial activities of these groups. The Dallas Express, meanwhile, has not mentioned the groups’ ties to right-wing donors when publishing op-eds and quoting sources from the organizations.
In August 2021, the Dallas Weekly and I received a letter threatening a lawsuit for our coverage. The letter also demanded the removal of references to Dallas Express in a July 2021 article I wrote for the Dallas Observer revealing that a Republican PR firm had created a test website for DJN. Bennett filed a lawsuit in October 2021 in which he claimed the Dallas Express had “never been owned or run by Metric Media.” Bennett initially won in trial court, but lost in appellate court, in part because the characterization of the Express as a “right-wing propaganda site” in the Dallas Weekly was held to be constitutionally protected opinion. As of this writing, Bennett has appealed to the Supreme Court of Texas.
Despite claiming that the Dallas Express was “never owned or run by Metric Media,” digital forensics suggest otherwise: As late as April 2021, the newspaper’s website code pulled data from a domain associated with another Timpone-linked company, LocalLabs, according to data provided by the Tow Center. The Tow Center also looked at passive DNS data and found that Dallas Express shared an IP address with other sites in the extended Metric Media network from December 2020 to July 2021. Other websites on that same IP address include Houston Daily and the Austin Journal. The Dallas Express also featured articles written by at least a handful of authors who also appear in Metric Media websites as late as August 2021. In 2023, the Dallas Express continues to feature articles originally published by The Center Square, a project of the Franklin News Foundation, which the Tow Center has reported is affiliated with the Metric Media network.
Dallas Express also sought to create distance between the history of the former Dallas Express and the brand under Bennett’s management, stating in a trial court filing that “it operates under the same name as the formerly Black-owned publication, [but] it is not the same entity” and that associating the two amounts to “false information.” But the Express homepage includes a section called “This Week In DX History” that displays copies of the newspaper published during its Black-owned period, and the site published a recent article on Black History Month and an associated Twitter post that said “the roots of the modern Dallas Express can be traced back to 1892, and its motto, ‘Champion of Justice, Messenger of Hope’, [sic] remains a guiding light today.”
Within three months of filing the lawsuit, the Dallas Express ran an article quoting a member of Dallas Justice Now (DJN), an astroturf group I discuss in another article, calling me and the editor of D Magazine “racist, white vigilantes.”
After DJN didn’t respond to a request for comment via email, I managed to track down its leader, N’Dure Cain, at a protest outside the home of the Dallas school district board president. He denied ever calling me a racist, even after being shown the quotes attributed to him in the Dallas Express. The Dallas Express did not respond to a request for comment about Cain’s denial. The email address of the journalist who wrote the article, Edgar James, no longer works, and no other contact information can be found for James.
There may be a reason why James is so hard to find: Websites associated with the Metric Media network previously came under fire for publishing pseudonymous writers without any disclaimer. Two people who have worked at the Dallas Express and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation told me that the publication has occasionally used pseudonyms for writers without a disclaimer—a common practice among “pink slime” journalism sites. The sources also said that editors occasionally demanded changes to stories to better fit their preferred editorial slant and that some writers had demanded their names be removed from articles after editors made changes made before publication.
Another strange thing: Over a year after the original founder of DJN, Michelle Washington, effectively disappeared, an article about DJN briefly appeared in Dallas Express featuring quotes from a “Michelle Williams,” whom the piece cited as the founder of DJN. The article was removed without explanation.
Dallas Express’ traffic metrics also seem to be off. A recent Dallas Express article claimed the paper had more than 3 million views in January 2023. But data from Semrush, an analytics tool, indicates the website had fewer than 150,000 views in January 2023. The growth of its Facebook followers has also raised some questions. First created in January 2021, the Dallas Express’ Facebook page now has more than 886,000 followers. According to data from Crowdtangle, a Facebook analytics tool, its follower growth was highly consistent month-over-month, and its posts have very low user engagement.
“The growth appears inorganic, with at least some support from paid ads starting in March 2021,” said Mason Pelt, managing director of Dallas digital marketing firm Push ROI. “The pattern of growth does not seem not consistent with organic or ads-supported growth.”
In response to a request for comment for this article, the Dallas Express threatened a lawsuit via a letter from a lawyer. The letter claimed the request for comment included statements that were “false and defamatory” but did not address any of the allegations. When asked again, an editor for the Dallas Express responded that “Blogger Monacelli’s conspiracy theories too numerous to respond to.”