CHICAGO — A new Illinois news platform that launches Monday says its mission is to battle all forms of “fake news” and sites designed to stoke the angry American political divide.
One Illinois is a response to Breitbart News and the libertarian-oriented Illinois Policy Institute said Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar, a onetime progressive Illinois gubernatorial candidate who serves as president and executive director.
“Our fundamental belief is people are good. The way you counter the IPI and Breitbart is you don’t fight fire with fire, you fight fire with water,” Pawar said. “Getting people angry is easy. But making people angry maintains the status quo.”
One Illinois says its mission is driven by one theme: tell stories that bring people together through long-form journalism, videos and one-on-one interviews.
But the very creation of a site intended to serve as a counterforce to the agenda-driving Illinois Policy Institute is a telling admission of the powerful role the right-leaning group has played in the most populous Midwestern state. The IPI has shown an ability to drive the debate and influence action in the Illinois legislature, including whipping up opposition to key votes.
For its part, the IPI welcomed Pawar’s group into the arena and invited One Illinois to review its own storytelling series, Forgotten Illinois.
“For years, the Illinois Policy Institute has produced award-winning storytelling that elevates the voices of Illinoisans across the state and reflects Illinois’ incredible diversity,” the group’s spokeswoman Melanie Krakauer said in a statement. “Since our founding in 2002, we’ve become the only voice in the state for taxpayers, who for too long have been taken advantage of by Illinois’ political class.”
Democrats in the state frequently go to battle with the institute, but usually on a case by case basis, with no unified message.
While Pawar insists the One Illinois site is not partisan and is run by journalists, he said some of his own campaign donors were among the first to donate to the not-for-profit effort. He says he also intends to appeal to organized labor for funding.
One Illinois’ debut story is about a small Mississippi River city near the Iowa border, Savanna, Ill., which in 2016 overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump. The story describes newcomer Chris Lain, who moved into Savanna with his husband, not knowing whether they’d be accepted. Lain ran for mayor on the platform of downtown redevelopment and infrastructure investment, and was elected.
“This is a town that did go for Trump and then in April elected a gay liberal from Chicago,” Lain says in a video that posts on the site today.
Pawar said the story is emblematic of the site’s mission, to build a coalition by connecting people through their stories.
“One way to do that is to acknowledge that President Trump is a bad person but that doesn’t mean the people who voted for him are bad people,” Pawar said.
Other stories include efforts to restore bison to the prairie and rescue injured wildlife.
The site plans to take on additional issues including the struggles of working families and child care, the opioid epidemic and the need for a statewide infrastructure plan.
Pawar said as of now there is no advocacy arm to One Illinois. Whether that will be enough to serve as a counterbalance to IPI remains to be seen. IPI, founded in 2002, has a formidable social media presence, both on Facebook and Twitter, and it drives conversation – and action – through its anti-tax, small government messaging. It benefits from a steady stream of funding including from conservative donors Dick Uihlein and the Koch Brothers network.
The IPI is part of the State Policy Network, a consortium of free-market think tanks across the country that have had varying success in driving local policy decisions. Despite its blue state location, the group‘s efforts have largely gone unanswered -- at least not at the same level of effectiveness.
In Illinois, major court actions targeting unions have stemmed from the Illinois Policy Institute or its advocacy arm. That includes Janus vs. AFSCME, a case currently before the Supreme Court, that seeks to stop unions from compelling workers to pay member dues regardless of their union membership.
IPI’s army of writers, researchers and offshoot organizations has made it into a powerful political force.
“They make people aware there is an alternative to high-tax policies. They burn that message in,” says conservative state lawmaker David McSweeney. “They have been light years ahead of the Democrats on social media.”
“What’s made them successful is their ability to attack on multiple fronts,” says state Rep. Christian Mitchell, a Chicago Democrat. “What they’ve also done, however, is a more invidious thing.”
Mitchell has accused the institute of bending facts, of financing anti-union and anti-voter efforts and for publishing controversial cartoons that Mitchell says reduces minorities to “racist caricatures.”
The IPI has stepped into heated controversies, not the least of which involving its on-again/off-again relationship with GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner. Before he was governor, Rauner was among the group’s donors. After he was elected his policy agenda was in line with IPI, which advocated for issues on social media, through TV appearances and in print op-eds. Now the group and Rauner are on the outs and the IPI’s taken a more negative tone against the governor.
Pawar insists Illinois can be above all of the divisive drama. Pawar dropped out of the recent primary race for governor, citing the hardships of raising enough money to compete with what was a record-spending campaign.
“The loudest voices on either side of the aisle wasn’t representative of what I was hearing from people,” Pawar said of his touring through Illinois. “I think it’s important to continue the conversation as the campaign – use journalism to start a conversation about how we come together. Democrats, Republicans, farmers, factory workers, most everyone wants the same thing: a good school, a good job, a shot at the American Dream.”