A California water agency has dragged Google News into a scandal over a serious case of astroturfing.
The Central Basin Municipal Water District, in Los Angeles County, has been called out for writing fake news stories promoting itself, disguised in a website called the Hawks News Review. Google News had approved the faux-news site as a legitimate source.
The Los Angeles Times covered this story, asserting that the Water District paid more than $200,00o to a public relations firm for planting the positive coverage.
It’s one thing when WalMart, the nation’s biggest private company, does this kind of astroturfing. It can use its money how it wants. But it is a much more serious breach of ethics when a public agency uses taxpayer money to fund practices that deceive the people who paid for the deception. (Not to mention a breach of PR ethics.)
Which is part of the reason the District hired the PR firm, Coghlan Consulting Group. It had been loosely linked to the massive public-money scandal in Bell, CA, for which former Bell councilman George Cole and seven others have been charged with public corruption.
The Central Basin District GM Art Aguilar demanded a retraction this week from the Los Angeles Times, saying its figures were wrong, the District never paid the News Hawk Review, and the reporter on the story was not thorough.
“Using the Internet to raise awareness about an issue is a pretty standard outreach practice, the last time I checked,” Aguilar was quoted in a press release from the District.