In early November, the leadership and board of Consortium News, the independent news site, filed a major lawsuit against the federal government and NewsGuard Technologies, Inc. NewsGuard at first glance looks like a media watchdog organization, a group that seeks to keep misinformation and disinformation out of the mainstream. That notion is quickly dispelled, however, as soon as one takes a look under the hood. But first a little background:
Consortium News is one of the country’s most highly-respected independent news sources. It was founded in 1995 by journalist Robert Parry, who gained fame at the Associated Press, and later at Newsweek, for his role in uncovering the Iran-Contra affair and for breaking the story of CIA involvement in Contra cocaine trafficking. Parry was a winner of the prestigious George Polk Award for National Reporting and of the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence, bestowed by Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation.
Its board of directors includes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges; foreign policy author Diana Johnstone; Black Agenda Report editor Margaret Kimberley; political consultant Garland Nixon; Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe communications director Nat Parry; documentary filmmaker John Pilger; award-winning investigative journalist Gareth Porter; producer and Academy Award nominee Julie Bergman Sender and this author.
NewsGuard is a private company created and run by Steven Brill and L. Gordon Crovitz. Brill founded CourtTV, a digital broadcast network featuring court coverage, as well as a number of mainstream publications. He is also a former columnist at Newsweek and Reuters. Crovitz is a former editorial writer who later became publisher of The Wall Street Journal and the former vice president for planning at Dow Jones. These men have fine journalistic credentials. But that’s not where my complaint lies.
My complaint is that NewsGuard issues what it calls “trust ratings” for news. The company brags on its website that these ratings are “produced by humans, not AI” (artificial intelligence). It offers something called “Misinformation Fingerprints” to tell you when you are consuming what the company has determined to be disinformation.
They market this as a “journalistic solution to online misinformation,” and they claim to have “partnerships” with the Departments of State and Defense, Microsoft, Apple and other tech giants, although the nature of those partnerships is not clear.
We do know, however, that the Pentagon last year gave NewsGuard $750,000 for access to its “Disinformation Fingerprints” project, which it described in the contract as “a catalog of known hoaxes, lies, and disinformation stories spreading online.”
Their team of human beings rates alternative media sites all over the world and gives them a score of 0-100. These scores are based on the following set of criteria:
“Does not repeatedly publish false content (22 points); Gathers and presents information responsibly (18 points); Regularly corrects or clarifies errors (12.5 points); Handles the difference between news and opinion responsibly (12.5 points); Avoids deceptive headlines (10 points); Discloses ownership and financing (7.5 points); Clearly labels advertising (7.5 points); Reveals who’s in charge, including possible conflicts of interest (5 points); Provides names of content creators and their contact or biographical information (5 points).”
A score of 60 points or more initially gave a site a “green” label. But a score below 60 points gave the site a dreaded “red” label, which appeared on one’s device screen to alert the reader that this might be a dangerous site. These color ratings were changed a few months ago, replaced by a numerical score from 0 to 100, with zero being utterly unreliable and 100 practically coming from the mouth of God Himself.
So, who are these brilliant and unbiased human beings who get to decide if what we read is real news or disinformation?
One of them is Michael Hayden. (NewsGuard says its advisory board members don’t take an active role in rating news organizations.) The name should ring a bell. Hayden is a retired four-star general who was the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) on Sept. 11, 2001. He was the guy who immediately implemented a massive program of warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, all in the name of “national security.”
Hayden later became director of the CIA, where he oversaw the agency’s illegal, immoral and unethical torture, kidnapping and secret prison programs. He’s also a former principal deputy director of National Intelligence, as if he hadn’t already done enough damage to the country.
More recently, Hayden was a signatory on an open letter full of disinformation and outright lies that indicated that the Hunter Biden laptop was a “Russian intelligence operation.” That was laughable even before Hunter Biden stated publicly that the laptop was his.
Another one of NewsGuard’s “advisers” is former Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) Tom Ridge. It was Ridge who implemented the notorious Patriot Act in 2001 and the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which severely restricted Americans’ civil liberties. Those restrictions last to this day.
It was also Ridge who was the subject of a lawsuit in 2004 by Canadian national Maher Arar. Arar was a university professor in Toronto who had gone on vacation to Tunisia in 2002. On his way back to Toronto, while changing planes in New York, he was snatched by FBI agents at the request of the CIA, and with the cooperation of DHS agents, and sent to Syria, where he was tortured mercilessly for 10 months.
The U.S. maintained that he had “connections” to al-Qaida, allegations that were never proven. The Syrians finally informed the U.S. that, despite the fact that Arar had been forced to sign a confession, he had no information about al-Qaida. He was simply the wrong guy. Arar was released and finally returned to Toronto. Nothing ever came of his suit against Tom Ridge.
Another of NewsGuard’s eminent advisers is Anders Rasmussen, the former prime minister of Denmark and former secretary general of NATO. It was Rasmussen who sent Danish troops into Iraq to look for weapons of mass destruction that never existed. And as the leader of NATO, it was Rasmussen who oversaw NATO’s wars in Afghanistan and Libya. In 2014, this champion of transparency and opponent of disinformation told the Chatham House think tank, “I have met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organizations — environmental organizations working against shale gas — to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas.” Yes, he actually said this, with no evidence or proof whatsoever, that environmentalists oppose fracking only because the Russians have tricked them into it.
Of course, as NewsGuard maintains, it’s (apparently) not these board members who oversee the ratings of alternative news sites. It’s what NewsGuard calls “journalism analysts.” The journalism analyst who oversaw the Consortium News review was Zach Fishman. Fishman’s only previous employment in journalism was as a “physical and life sciences reporter at The Academic Times,” a now-defunct website, and later as a finance reporter at something called Fastinform. Fishman did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
Fishman, of course, is not the only journalism analyst at NewsGuard. ScheerPost, founded by the eminent former Los Angeles Times journalist Robert Scheer, an 11-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, winner of numerous national journalism awards, author of 13 books and now a professor of communication at the University of Southern California, whose website is also currently being scrutinized by NewsGuard. ScheerPost is edited by Narda Zacchino, a 31-year veteran and former associate editor and vice president of the Los Angeles Times, deputy editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, senior editor at the Center for InvestigativeReporting, and four-time Pulitzer Prize judge. Scheer received a series of emails from NewsGuard “senior analyst” Valerie Pavilonis, 22, in which she asked the same kinds of loaded questions, mostly about Ukraine and Syria, that NewsGuard analysts had asked of Consortium News, The Grayzone, antiwar.com, Mint Press and other now red-listed outlets.
The extent of Pavilonis’s journalistic experience, as noted in her NewsGuard bio, was as a reporter and editor for her school newspaper, the Yale Daily News; contributor for America Magazine, a Jesuit publication (two stories); the New Haven Independent (three stories), and “most recently as an intern for USA Today’s fact-check desk.” Like Fishman, Pavilonis, a 2022 Yale graduate, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Poor analysis aside, NewsGuard may have gotten itself in over its head legally in 2021 in an arrogant move that has formed the basis of the Consortium News lawsuit.
In May 2021, Crovitz pitched the idea of an information watchdog to executives at Twitter. Reporting by Matt Taibbi and others on the so-called “Twitter Files” tells us that Crovitz’s written proposal included something heretofore unknown — besides the extension on the Microsoft Edge browser that allows for the “red” or “green” rating, Crovitz offered a “separate product for internal use by content moderation teams.” He promised a new tool that would use artificial intelligence powered by NewsGuard algorithms to quickly screen language the company associated with “dangerous content.”
The real question was how the company (or its algorithm) would determine what news was true and what was false. For starters, NewsGuard would send readers to official U.S. government sources. More cynically, Crovitz’s pitch noted that “Other content-moderation allies include intelligence and national security officials, reputation management providers, and government agencies” that contract with the firm to identify misinformation trends. Crovitz said that instead of only fact-checking individual pieces of information, NewsGuard could rate the “overall reliability” of a website and “prebunk” information there.
In the end, Twitter wasn’t interested in the service. But Crovitz and his partners forged ahead. Most important, it was NewsGuard’s admission in that pitch that led to the Consortium News lawsuit.
Consortium News argues in its court filing:
“In direct violation of the First Amendment, the United States of America and NewsGuard Technologies, Inc. are engaged in a pattern and practice of labeling, stigmatizing, and defaming American media organizations that oppose or dissent from American foreign and defense policy, particularly as to Russia and Ukraine.
This is accomplished by a contract between NewsGuard’s “Misinformation Fingerprints” program and the Department of Defense Cyber Command, an element of the Intelligence Community. Under this agreement, media organizations that challenge or dispute U.S. foreign and defense policy as to Russia and Ukraine are reported to the government by NewsGuard and labeled as “anti-US,” purveyors of Russian “misinformation” and propaganda, publishing “false content” and failing to meet journalistic standards. NewsGuard’s contract with the government requires it “to find trustworthy sources,” a provision in violation of the First Amendment that does not permit the government to vet or clear news sources for their reliability, “trustworthiness” or orthodoxy.
Consortium News and other news organizations have been stigmatized and defamed under the Cyber Command contract. NewsGuard’s warning labels issued under the “Misinformation Fingerprints” program amount to a government-funded advisory as to official disfavored information, telling readers to “proceed with caution” when reading or viewing targeted news organization websites, including Consortium News.”
As if that’s not controversial — and wrong — enough, NewsGuard takes it upon itself to warn readers away from every article on a news website if they have a problem with a single article on the website. Consortium News notes in its lawsuit that NewsGuard has red listed the site after disagreeing with the conclusions of six articles out of tens of thousands published by Consortium News. And more cynically, although NewsGuard has existed since 2018, it did not contact, target, or label Consortium News until March 2022, after its contract with the US Cyber Command came into effect. And NewsGuard has targeted only articles dealing with the 2014 coup in Ukraine, the influence of neo-Nazis in Ukraine and “overtly genocidal” policies of the Ukrainian government, the same three topics that are the subject of NewsGuard’s “Misinformation Fingerprints” project under contract with the Cyber Command.
I will admit that when this story initially broke over a year ago, with NewsGuard challenging the reporting and independence of Consortium News, The Grayzone, and others, it felt like a David and Goliath scenario. Was it even possible to stand up against an organization with the backing of the federal government and mainstream news outlets? The answer is: It doesn’t matter. Sometimes the truth finds itself under attack. And when that happens, the truth fights back with what it has — the facts.
Consortium News made a decision early on to play NewsGuard’s game. Editor-in-chief Joe Lauria dutifully and honestly answered NewsGuard’s questions, only to be red listed anyway. The Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal took a different tack. He told podcast host Jimmy Dore that he and Grayzone would wear their NewsGuard red listing as a “badge of honor.” Blumenthal also wrote to NewsGuard:
Your board of advisors includes Anders Fogg Rasmussen, the former NATO Secretary General who presided over the regime change war that transformed Libya from a prosperous, stable nation into the hellish site of literal slave auctions and ISIS havens, describing the murderous mission as a “great success;” former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, who oversaw the growth of secret torture and mass surveillance programs in partnership with Dick Cheney; Richard Stengel, the self-proclaimed “chief propagandist” of the State Department; Arne Duncan, the privatization-hungry former Secretary of Education who proclaimed that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” because it literally wiped out public schools; Tom Ridge, who as DHS secretary deployed cartoonish color-coded terror alerts (like NewsGuard’s media “nutritional labels”) to frighten the U.S. public into line with Bush’s catastrophic “war on terror;” and John Battelle, co-founder of the Wired magazine, which exists as a clearinghouse for the military-intelligence apparatus and was launched with seed money from Jeffrey Epstein beneficiary Nicholas Negroponte, the younger brother of former Director of National Intelligence and documented Central American death squad overseer John Negroponte.
NewsGuard’s listed partners represent some of the most notorious purveyors of state violence and imperialist propaganda on the planet. They include the U.S. Department of Defense, which has racked up a body county of tens of millions of civilians in the past century, carrying out or assisting genocidal wars of extermination from Korea to Yemen to Vietnam to Iraq, while systematically lying to the American public about its criminal fiasco in Afghanistan. You are also partnered with the Department of State, the main artery for launching regime change wars that have destabilized large swathes of the Middle East while imposing sadistic sanctions that have starved millions across the Global South. Newsguard’s partnerships are supplemented by imperialist cutouts like the German Marshall Fund, the U.S. government-sponsored lobby spreading disinformation to push censorship of anti-war media outlets like ours through its Alliance for Securing Democracy. Then there is the World Health Organization, a NewsGuard partner whose second largest funder is Bill Gates, the oligarchic Microsoft founder who is one of the four richest men in the world. Gates’ former tech company, Microsoft, is also a NewsGuard partner, marketing your ranking app to public schools across the country, even as Gates plows millions into destroying public education.
Antiwar.com’s editors have elected to simply ignore NewsGuard. Robert Scheer has done the same. After a lengthy and well-documented defense of the news that has appeared on ScheerPost, much of which was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times Middle East Bureau Chief Chris Hedges, Scheer elected to ignore the company.
I know many of these people. Washington is a small town. Having spent 15 years at the CIA and another two-and-a-half on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, I’ve gotten to know a lot of the players in government.
I can tell you that they are as cynical and as dangerous as they seem. They are also the hypocrites they appear to be. Their thirst for power, and, once they have that, money, is exactly what you would expect of sociopaths who have climbed to the top of their fields on the backs of those around them.
Keep in mind that these “arbiters of truth” are the same men who have led us into false wars, who have gleefully violated even the most basic human rights and civil liberties, and who have made untold riches doing it. We must not trust them.
After all, they think so little of us that they won’t respect the constitutional rights and freedoms that are not even theirs to take away. I, for one, will not take my orders from the likes of Deep State veterans, militarists and credibly accused liars Mike Hayden, Tom Ridge, Anders Rasmussen or the former corporate journalists who employ them.
In the meantime, we must all support Consortium News’s David versus the Pentagon’s and NewsGuard’s Goliath. It’s hard to trust in the system that we’ve given ourselves. But that’s what we have to do here. And in the meantime, I will remain a loyal and regular reader of ScheerPost, Consortium News, antiwar.com, The Grayzone and others who have the guts to give me the truthful and independent news I need. You should, too.