One of the biggest stories in the news this weekend was a Washington Post report that the Russian government was behind a lot of “fake news” in the run up to U.S. national elections this year. The story was based in large part on unnamed sources from a website called propornot.com, which bills itself as “Your Friendly Neighborhood Propaganda Identification Service, Since 2016!”
Propornot.com list dozens of upon dozens of websites , including a few well-known and of long-standing, that it claims are implicated in spreading Russian propaganda. Propornot.com, which keeps secret its creators, warns Americans to “be aware that Russia is trying to supplant actual journalism (that has editors and fact checkers who impose accountability for mistakes) with fake -‘media’ online propaganda that Russia influences or controls.”
On “The List,” as propornot.com calls its catalog of Russian propaganda tools, propornot.com fingers websites both right, “The Drudge Report,” and left, “Naked Capitalism.” Naked Capitalism is largely an aggregator pulling together stories that tend to challenge global free trade and question the huge profits of U.S. financial entities. The Drudge Report is a conservative news website which dates back to 1996 when Boris Yeltsin was the president of the fledgling Russian Federation which arose after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Drudge Report quickly picked up on the Post story and headlined “Drudge Turns Red?” in red type on its home page. The headline linked to a story wherein Drudge reporter Alex Pfieffer summarized the Post allegations and added a little more reporting.
“Max Blumenthal, a prominent liberal and son of Hillary Clinton ally Sidney Blumenthal, Tweeted Thursday that there are ‘major progressive outlets’ on the list. These outlets are TruthOut and Black Agenda Report,” Pfieffer wrote, after duly noting The Drudge Report was on “The List.”
Pfieffer did not note the obvious connection between Drudge and the other websites on “The List.” All are outside of what has come to be called the “mainstream media.”
(Full disclosure: Craigmedred.news was not The List; neither is the website part of the mainstream media even though it reflects old, mainstream journalism views on reporting.)
On its website, propornot.com admits to being a mainstream-media advocate. It suggests U.S. news consumers should “obtain news from actual reporters, who report to an editor and are professionally accountable for mistakes. We suggest NPR, the BBC, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Buzzfeed, VICE, etc., and especially our local papers and local TV news channels. Support them by subscribing, if you can!”
Let he who is without sin
Unfortunately, nearly all of the organizations promoted by propornot.com have also been caught using fake news from time to time.
When President Obama visited Alaska last year, for instance, the New York Times reported the president “ate a salmon prechewed by a bear” and “went trekking in the Alaska wild.”
Both of those claims were fake. As the Washington Post accurately reported at the time, “though some publications said Obama trekked through wilderness with Bear (Grylss), the two strolled a short distance — about a 10 or 15 minute walk from the parking lot.”
But the Post went for the same fake salmon story as the Times, reporting that the President and reality-TV start Grylls “cooked and nibbled on salmon that had been gnawed on by a bear.”
Propornot.com suggests news readers should trust mainstream media because they employ people who “report to an editor and are professionally accountable for mistakes.” Editors are not always a protection from fake news.
Two different Alaska reporters say they learned of the actual origins of Obama’s salmon – it was obtained from Icicle Seafoods in Seward – and the action of their editors was to kill the story, not hold anyone accountable for failing to report it factually.
Large parts of Obama’s Alaska tour would, in point of fact, qualify as “fake news.” Events were created for show. The media covered them as if they were real.
The tour, as Alaska Public Media reported it, “was told visually. Each day of the visit there were poignant press photos of the President standing before a shrinking glacier, holding a glistening salmon, or inspecting fish racks.
“‘(But) no one would be drying their fish on Kanakanak Beach, in the rain, in September,’ (Hannah) Colton said.”
A reporter for KDLG public radio in the remote community of Dillingham on Bristol Bay, Colton was one of the few reporters to note the staged and phonied-up nature of some of Obama’s Alaska global warming tour.
Some things were not true. They were fake. The mainstream media played along. No reporters were held “professionally accountable.” In fact, that almost never happens these days.
Fake, fake, fake
In Anchorage, the Alaska Dispatch News, a mainstream outlet, in May headlined “Moose gives birth in the parking lot of an Anchorage hardware store.” The story was fake. There was no evidence – none – that a moose gave birth in the parking lot.
Despite that, the story went viral and global.
The newspaper and its associated website blamed the mistake “on posts seen on social media.” Social media information is known to be every bit as accurate as bar talk. The newspaper made no effort to explain why those posts weren’t checked for accuracy.
No one was held accountable. Most mainstream websites that picked the story up from ADN.come or other mainstream media that ran with it never even bothered to check or later correct the facts.
The Washington Post has a working relationship with ADN.com. They share online platforms. The Post never corrected the phony report of a moose born in an Anchorage parking lot.
The Post still headlines“Moose gives birth in an Alaska store parking lot” on its website and promises video of this spectacle. The video doesn’t deliver. The video is such “fake news” that anyone who watches it can see there is no moose giving birth to anything.
The “fact checkers,” propornot.com claim exist at mainstream publications appear not to exist.
Chasing internet clicks
Checking the accuracy of simple, random claims like that of a moose being born in a parking lot or the always protective Secret Service letting a president eat a salmon “gnawed by a bear” is what journalists are supposed to do.
There is no real indication the journalists working in the mainstream media today do this any better than the Drudge Report or many of the websites outside the mainstream. The evidence in Alaska would indicate that when it comes to working online, the mainstream media may actually make more mistakes than any other media.
When a Seward man was mauled by a grizzly bear alongside the little used airplane runway in the small town on Resurrection Bay this fall, ADN.com reported he was running with dogs inside a fully fenced airport where he might have trespassed. He was not running with his dogs. The airport is not fenced. And he was not trespassing.
Much of the “fake news” that appears in mainstream publications is obviously unintentional. This has long been a problem for journalism. Journalism is a difficult business. Reporters are sometimes tasked with making dozens of judgement calls every day in the interest of accuracy.
The mistakes of bad judgement (Full Disclosure: This reporter has made many) are decidedly different from the intentional fictions of some today’s fake news websites. But there is a lot of fake news – a whole lot of fake news – that links back to a media this is led by around by handlers or press releases, or an editor’s decision to run unsubstantiated social media posts that contain information that might cause someone to click on an online “news report.”
Fox News, the New York Post and other mainstream websites last week got faked by a social media claim that CNN.com accidentally aired 30 minutes of porn in place of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”
Played like fish
The story of these sites being tricked into publishing a bogus story was headlined as being about “fake news,” but what it was really about was journalistic incompetence and the mainstream media getting hoaxed. Propornot.com suggests the mainstream is above this, but there is no reason to believe that.
Propornot.com provides no indication of who is behind the website or who provided the funding for the site. There is no advertising on the site to provide even a clue as to where from propornot.com gets its money.
It is not impossible (which is not to say this is the case) that the site is supported by mainstream media interests or even mainstream reporters immersed in a battle for their financial lives as the media market comes apart at the seams. There are some indications the Post is at this moment losing up to $150 million per year.
And the Post is not alone in that position. The Anchorage newspaper is also known to be bleeding money. ADN.com publisher Alice Rogoff cited Post owner Jeff Bezos in trying to explain those losses by writing “we’re in ‘investment mode’*
“*Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos used these words recently when addressing staff of The Post. He was distinguishing between operating at a financial loss, versus making a planned choice to invest in future growth.”
The Post and many other mainstream websites have financial motives to try to push web traffic away from competing news sites and promote their own sites as the only ones that should be believed. That motive remains even if the Post’s only involvement with propsornot.com was to provide the website free publicity.
No mention of this potential conflict of interest appears in the Post story headlined “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.” The experts cited are the unidentified people behind propornot.com, and an employee of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Foreign Policy dates back to the Cold War and the Soviet Union and now worries about the rise of Russian power on many fronts.
A new “Red Scare?”
The Post story has come under fire from a wide range of internet news outlets.
“The Intercept” – a website which self identifies as dedicated to “fearless, adversarial journalism” and which has gone after some fake news publishers as “Donald Trump cronies” – blasted the Post story as propaganda of the worst sort.
“Washington Post Disgracefully Promotes a McCarthyite Blacklist From a New, Hidden, and Very Shady Group,” it headlined.
“This Post report was one of the most widely circulated political news articles on social media over the last 48 hours, with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of U.S. journalists and pundits with large platforms hailing it as an earth-shattering exposé,” Ben North and Glenn Greenwald reported beneath that headline. “It was the most-read piece on the entire Post website on Friday after it was published.
“Yet the article is rife with obviously reckless and unproven allegations, and fundamentally shaped by shoddy, slothful journalistic tactics. It was not surprising to learn that, as BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel noted, ‘a lot of reporters passed on this story.’ Its huge flaws are self-evident. But the Post gleefully ran with it and then promoted it aggressively….”
There are a lot of good and well-meaning journalists today concerned about not only “fake news” but the deteriorating quality of news reporting in the U.S. There are also huge financial and competitive pressures facing the media.
Newspapers were once money-printing machines that presumed annual profits over 25 percent per year. Those days are over. Newspaper circulation is steadily falling, and all signs are that it will continue to fall. News on print is dying, and newspapers are trying to transition to news online.
The same is true for television news. The whole show is moving online.
Traditional, mainstream media outlets find themselves in a scrum with a lot of folks who can operate much more cheaply because they are not saddled with the high overhead inherent in a printing press and paper, or news video production.
News today is a ruthless business. There’s no telling what mainstream or other websites might try to do to cut down on the competition to make enough money to stay alive, or what stories they might put online to try to attract eyeballs.
In this environment, who can a reader trust?
Almost no one.
All anyone can do is read thoughtfully and carefully and investigate the ownership. By and large, media of any sort reflect the views of the owner or owners. In the media world, there is more and more mainstream media owned by millionaires or billionaires.
Some of these people might be noble. Some might not be so noble. The internet that can confuse can also enlighten. The Post today is Bezos. So who is Bezos? Naked Capitalism says the Harvard Business Review ranks him as the country’s “most predatory CEO.”
Who has Bezos put in charge of running the Post? Marty Baron. You can read about him here. The Boston Globe did some good work when he was leading it. Is he the same Marty Baron he was then? Here’s another view from a Bernie Sanders-backing columnist who sees Baron mainly dedicated to preserving the status quo.
There is information out there. You can get some feel for people who run the organizations that deliver your news. And on that, you can start to make a judgment as to how much to trust those organizations or people.
Maybe a little. Maybe more than a little.
But even if you trust them, one word of caution: look out for the things that are too good or too simple to be true, or that aim too directly at reflecting your personal prejudices. And we all have prejudices no matter how much we might try to deny them.
They are a danger because they can blind us when we look at the world.
As Intercept.com notes of the Post story suggesting the Russians are somehow responsible for the boom in fake political news, “its huge-flaws are self-evident.”
These flaws might be self-evident to Intercept reporters, but that doesn’t mean they are self-evident to everyone. There are likely people who read that Post story and believed every word as gospel.
They overlooked the fact the news today is a lot like shopping for a used car. Be very careful about anything a salesman promises. And yes, that includes everything you read here.
Craigmedred.news tries to be fair, provide a reader with enough information to form contrary opinions and ,above all, be honest. But what is “fair”is in and of itself often open to debate.