Tim Dunn

WhoDunnIt?: West Texas Billionaire Funds “Pink Slime” Journalism

Notorious right wing mega-donor Tim Dunn is directly involved with an extensive network of sites that launder advocacy of groups he funds.

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West Texas oil billionaire Tim Dunn has poured millions into conservative politics, seeking to push the Texas GOP further to the right since at least 2007. His involvement in intraparty conflicts is well documented, as is his funding of the now-defunct Empower Texans PAC, a conservative advocacy group that closed in 2020, and its spin-off publication, Texas Scorecard. In recent years, Dunn’s involvement in right-wing media has gone from arms-length funding to hands-on involvement, according to a newly released report by researchers at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism (CDJ) at Columbia University.

Recently uncovered documents show that in 2020, Dunn was named a managing director of Pipeline Media, part of a network of companies that manage thousands of local news sites across the country. Most publicly associated with the company Metric Media and conservative businessman Brian Timpone, Pipeline has received funding from multiple right-wing dark-money groups and PACs whose policy positions and candidates it promotes. None of these connections are disclosed by these sites, which can easily be mistaken for independent local news sites. Timpone’s various media enterprises operate as a conglomerate of corporations that share several executives and whose websites share digital identifiers: Metric Media, Newsinator (alias Franklin Archer), Local Government Information Services (LGIS), Pipeline Media (alias LocalityLabs or LocalLabs). Each company claims ownership over different parts of the network. 

“While trust in news is declining and partisan antipathy is on the rise, both the left and the right are attempting to use any and all tactics to get their desired electoral outcomes,” writes Priyanjana Bengani, author of the CDJ report. 

Across the “pink slime” network, stories that promote special interests under the guise of local journalism are interspersed between algorithmically generated content, republished press releases, and other thinly sourced, low-quality articles. Researchers describe this filler content as “pink slime,” a reference to the byproduct filler used in processed meats. The tactic—meant to exploit our faith in local news—is increasingly used by both the left and the right, but not in equal measure. Since 2019, the Tow Center has identified more than 1,200 right-wing local news sites connected to Timpone. As of this writing, the center counts fewer than 70 left-leaning “pink slime” websites.

Examples of websites in this right-wing “pink slime” network include austinjournal.com, amarillogazette.com, dallascitywire.com, and houstondaily.com. There are at least 77 websites identified with this network in Texas alone that launder advocacy for conservative groups and talking points such as property tax relief, attacks on alternative energy sources, and fearmongering about the border.

Dunn typically isn’t shy about his involvement in right-wing politics in Texas. He is on the board of and helps fund numerous conservative organizations, which he proudly lists on his personal website. But his direct involvement in the “pink slime” network since 2020 had until now gone unreported. At least two of the organizations of which Dunn is a board member are connected to the extended network of “pink slime” sites: free-market think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and Citizens for Self-Governance (CSG). Dunn did not respond to the Texas Observer’s requests for comment. 

In the last two years, nearly 200 articles promoting the interests of TPPF and CSG were run on over two dozen Metric Media sites, according to research by the Tow Center. As I first reported in Gizmodo, the network has also run multiple stories attacking renewable energy—a recurrent line for the Texas Public Policy Foundation—that were then featured in Campaign Nucleus’s newsletters. Campaign Nucleus is the political consultancy set up by former President Donald Trump’s ex-campaign manager Brad Parscale. 

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Dunn has also been a major contributor to the Defend Texas Liberty PAC, donating over $5 million since January to challenge moderate GOP incumbents. The PAC spent $57,075 on “advertising expenses” with Pipeline Advisors, a private equity investment company registered in Texas that features several of the same executives as Pipeline Media. Lawyers representing one of the executives, Bradley Cameron, disputed ever receiving PAC funding. 

“Pipeline Advisors LLC has never received PAC funding. It is a private equity investment company with no relation to Pipeline Media,” they told the Tow Center. But filings for the Defend Texas Liberty PAC show it spent $57,075 on “advertising expenses” with Pipeline Advisors.

Not all the candidates supported by Defend Texas Liberty were featured on “pink slime” sites. But researchers at the Tow Center found that Donald Huffines, the Republican primary challenger to Texas Governor Greg Abbott, was featured in over 50 stories published in January and February across 16 of the Metric Media sites in Texas. 

Dunn isn’t the only executive in the network with links to think tanks and large-dollar donors. Dan Proft, a former executive of LGIS, one of the companies in the broader Metric Media network, now runs the People Who Play by the Rules, an Illinois-based PAC which is largely funded by Republican mega-donor and shipping magnate Richard Uihlein. Restoration PAC, also funded by Uihlein, has also paid Pipeline Advisors. 

By funding this “pink slime” network, Dunn and other mega-donors have gotten access to their own version of the fourth estate, which in turn has been used to promote the agenda of political groups they fund. In some states, these sites are now sending out printed physical newspapers. And while there’s a school of thought that argues openly partisan and ideological newspapers are more intellectually honest than outlets that force reporters to shelve their own points of view, that’s not what’s happening with the Metric Media network. By not disclosing their various conflicts of interest, these news sites abuse the inherent trust readers have for local news while “laundering advocacy.” And that’s not journalism. It’s propaganda.