On 18 March 2022, I received a letter in my e-mail box from a certain Edward O’Reilly, an analyst for NewsGuard, a sort of international Decodex (which awards green or red stickers to news sites, i.e. justifies the censorship of such and such a site), linked to the CIA, NATO and the White House, concerning their analysis of the Donbass Insider site.
After having sent them packing when they saw the obvious bias of this site, they insisted and sent me a week later a series of questions, which contradict each other, and written in such a way that one has the impression that the author is writing to a 10 year old girl.
Since they are so keen to have me answer them, while giving themselves the right to publish only part of my answers in their analysis (as they indicate in their e-mail), I will do so publicly, so that all my readers can have the whole of the information, and not just the part that would suit NewsGuard.
NewsGuard, a site linked to the CIA, NATO, and the White House
Let’s start by analyzing who is behind NewsGuard, a site that claims to analyze and rate news sites according to nine criteria to determine whether or not they are reliable.
As with the French Decodex, there is a good old system of green or red dots, plus an orange one for satirical sites and a grey one for simple platforms that let anyone publish on them. One might think that such ratings are harmless, but this is not the case. As we discover on their website, the aim of NewsGuard is to “give platforms and moderation teams the data and information to protect their users from online risks, and to control the spread of misinformation”.
NewsGuard, est une société lié à la CIA, à l’OTAN et à la Maison Blanche https://t.co/OV6FaSj7P1
— Crash-de-bug.fr (@crashdebug_fr) March 29, 2022
Clearly, NewsGuard provides companies like Google, Facebook, or Twitter with data to justify their censorship of bad media that misinform (or in fact that do not follow the Washington narrative, as we will see right away).
Indeed, when we look at the profile of the NewsGuard team, and especially of its advisory board, we immediately understand that there is a problem, a big problem even, in terms of impartiality and neutrality. Indeed, the NewsGuard advisory board includes :
– Don Baer, former White House communications director during the Clinton administration;
– Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education under the Obama administration;
– Retired General Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, and former director of the National Security Agency (NSA);
– Elise Jordan, the former pen of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice;
– Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former Secretary-General of NATO;
– Tom Ridge, former first Secretary of State for Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration;
– Gianni Riotta, editorial writer for La Stampa (you know the Italian newspaper that used a photo of the massacre of civilians in Donetsk by the Ukrainian army to illustrate an article on the situation in Kiev);
– Richard Stengel, former Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs in the Obama administration;
– Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, whose presence on this strongly biased committee (to put it mildly) indicates that the famous encyclopedia is not neutral.
Add to this the fact that the “analyst” writing to me, Edward O’Reilly, is a former member of the US Marine Corps, and that Newsguard regularly cites Bellingcat (whose links to the British Foreign Office’s secret programs have been proven) as a reliable source, and it soon becomes clear that this site is just another showcase for the US intelligence services, led by the CIA, the White House, and NATO, to impose the US narrative.
Why does this site decide to attack Donbass Insider only now (we have been in existence since 2018 I remind you)? Well, simply because of the brutal heating up of the conflict in Donbass, then the launch of the Russian special military operation in Ukraine, and the violent censorship of international Russian media such as Sputnik or RT, our little website has seen its audience multiplied extremely significantly. Enough to attract the attention of NewsGuard. Clearly, Donbass Insider has reached a large enough audience to begin to panic in Washington, and the site must be quickly discredited or even censored, to prevent its information from totally destroying the narrative about the situation in Ukraine.
When NewsGuard contradicts itself from one question to the next
So let’s move on to the questions Edward O’Reilly sent me, and the answers I have to give. I am publishing them here in the order in which they were sent to me, as you can see from the full screenshot of his e-mail, available here.
1. Your site does not indicate who owns it, which does not meet our criterion of providing information about the owner of the site. Can you explain this choice? Also, are you the owner of Donbass-Insider.com? If so, why not say so on the site?
Because if your criteria are justifiable for a news site working in a democratic country where there is peace, when you are working in a civil war zone (because that’s what the Donbass war is which has been going on since 2014), where one of the parties (Ukraine) spends its time imposing sanctions against any person or media giving information other than the official narrative, and where children and journalists can have their personal data published on a site of Ukrainian neo-Nazis (you know the ones that are not that dangerous according to NewsGuard) like Mirotvorets so that they become a target, your criteria become a source of risk.
We are not going to put our team members in danger just to please you and tick the right box in your list of bogus criteria. I remind you that in Ukraine journalists like Oles Bouzina and Anatoli Chary have received death threats and that Bouzina was murdered outside his home shortly after his personal data was published on Mirotvorets. People have been murdered or abducted in the DPR and LPR (Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics) by Ukrainian secret services (the same services you cite as a source later on). Do you really believe that the lives of our team members are worth less than your rating criteria? If you come to tell me that you don’t know about the existence of Mirotvorets, then how can you judge the veracity of information about Ukraine and the ongoing conflict if you don’t even know this simple fact?
I know very well what is behind your question about domain name ownership. You’re looking for someone to put on the sanctions list so you can do what you did with other news sites that had their .com domain names taken away. Save yourself the trouble, we’ve already anticipated this, censoring Donbass Insider won’t get you anything. Even when hackers working for the West (and therefore for your bosses) attacked our site, taking it down, our content continued to be available.
2. Your site also does not indicate who is responsible for the content (such as an editor-in-chief or a director of publication, for example), which does not meet our criterion in this respect. Do you have a comment on this? Are you responsible for the content of Donbass-Insider.com?
Because there is no editor-in-chief on our site, nor a director of publication. Each contributor is free to write his or her own articles without review or censorship.
3. We could not find any corrections published on your site. Have you corrected any articles, and if so, could you send me a recent example of a correction on the site? If not, can you explain why no corrections have been published recently?
Why are there no corrections on our site? Well, because unlike other media, we check the information as much as possible before publishing it, instead of quickly coming up with racy headlines or unsubstantiated rumors to create a buzz. Our articles are factual, sourced, and substantiated, which avoids the humiliating exercise of retraction or correction.
4. After analysis, we believe that your site does not meet our criterion of clearly distinguishing between news and opinion. Indeed, we have noticed that many news articles contain opinions. This is the case for the articles below.
a. The noose is tightening around the Ukrainian neo-Nazis entrenched in Mariupol, and the Western media is wallowing in abjection
b. Despite Russophobia in Ukraine, Russia continues to welcome Ukrainians with open arms
c. Ukraine goes into hysterics after Russia signs a gas supply contract with Hungary
After analysis, you think… Well, we’re well on our way with that. No details as to why these articles are opinions. Because in fact, if you look at the articles concerned, everything is sourced and based on facts. There is only one where I give my opinion at the very end, and that is my right. A journalist has the right to give his opinion, comment on a piece of information, or analyze a situation. A journalist is not just a copyist barely able to adapt Reuters or AFP dispatches.
Moreover, your demand to make a clear distinction between information and opinion is something that you brandish only when it suits you, and you sit on it at other times (we’ll come back to that later). Our readers know the difference between information and opinion. It’s nice that you care about them, but they are not mentally retarded or five-year-olds. They are adults and capable of reading and understanding what they read. They don’t need you to explain it to them. This mania for infantilizing people by putting colored stickers on sites like the school teacher in class is frankly revolting.
No, what bothers you is that I call a spade a spade. Abjection is a perfectly deserved term for the Western media denounced in the first article. I call Ukrainian neo-Nazis and not nationalists or whatever other euphemism. And Russophobia in Ukraine is more than proven (if you don’t see it, I think you need to change jobs).
The following question is very long and I will answer each sub-question individually.
5. We also believe that your site does not meet our criteria of not publishing false content, collecting and presenting information responsibly, and not publishing misleading headlines. Indeed, we found many articles containing false information in their titles and texts:
a. For example, a March 2022 article entitled “Russia gets hold of documents on US biological laboratories in Ukraine” states that “for Kirillov, the haste with which Ukraine launched the destruction of all strains of pathogens in these US biological laboratories could indicate that they were working on strengthening the pathogenic properties of microbes there, which is a violation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. This would also explain why the US has set up these laboratories in Ukraine, instead of conducting such research on its own territory: to avoid being held accountable for what is happening there! And the ultimate proof that these US biological laboratories in Ukraine are hiding something was provided by Victoria Nuland, the US Secretary of State, herself during a Senate hearing!”
However, while the US has provided assistance to Ukrainian laboratories since 2005, and has contributed to the construction and modernization of Ukrainian laboratories, the laboratories themselves are managed and mainly funded by the Ukrainian government. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) clarified the terms of this agreement in a May 2020 press release, in which it stated that ‘there are no foreign biological laboratories in Ukraine’.
Moreover, there is no evidence that these laboratories were working on strengthening the pathogenic properties of microbes. An April 2020 statement on the website of the US Embassy in Ukraine said that the joint projects in Ukrainian laboratories were aimed at “strengthening and securing pathogens and toxins of security concern in Ukrainian government facilities”.
Also, when Victoria Nuland referred to these laboratories, she was referring to Ukrainian “diagnostic and biodefense” laboratories, not to biological weapons facilities.
Can you explain why you chose to publish this article on your website?
Why did you publish it? Because what you claim as facts are not facts. Your sources are simple statements from the SBU and the US embassy. That is to say, the Ukrainian secret services whose use of torture in a systemic way since the Maïdan is proven, and who were caught with both hands in the pot of false information concerning MH17… And the other source is the American government, that is to say, a government that did not hesitate for a second to lie before the UN (!!!) to justify its illegal war against Iraq by brandishing stories of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. Now that’s a reliable source…
For our part, we have published internal Ukrainian documents, not just statements, as evidence of US involvement in the work of the biological laboratories in Ukraine! Like these documents show that in 2010, Viktor Yanukovych tried to regain control of these biological research laboratories, since contrary to what you claim, the management of what was happening in these laboratories was beyond the control of the Ukrainian authorities! And what was happening there was, I quote from an SBU report (since you seem to consider this source as reliable):
“… These actions of the US side are considered by national experts as the formation of their own database of pathogen strains that are stored at Ukrainian sites, their storage system, as well as the control and study by military doctors of the effectiveness of the use of particularly dangerous infection pathogens in specific regions of Ukraine to create or improve new types of selectively acting biological weapons (against a particular race, genotype, territory of birth or residence).”
More recent documents released by Russia show that these laboratories, based in Ukraine but funded and supervised by the US, were studying diseases that can be transmitted to humans by migratory birds or bats. And if these labs mentioned by Victoria Nuland were, as you claim, only “diagnostic and biodefense” labs, why worry that they might fall into Russian hands? If these labs were only doing what you say, then there is nothing dangerous there.
And just to rub salt in the wound of your arguments, the DailyMail (hardly a Kremlin-friendly media outlet) published an article stating, with sources (in this case, emails found in the famous laptop Joe Biden’s son left at the repair shop), that “Hunter Biden helped secure millions of dollars in funding for a US subcontractor in Ukraine specializing in researching deadly pathogens, according to laptop emails. Oops. I think you’re good to review the ratings of all the news sites that had reported on this, and swallow your certainties about what’s true or not.
b. In February 2022, Donbass Insider published a French translation of Vladimir Putin’s speech justifying his decision to recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic. The speech was published in full, without comment or context in the news section of the site, and stated that “modern Ukraine was created entirely by Russia, or more precisely, by Bolshevik and communist Russia”. Putin also lamented that the communists had ‘given the republics the right to separate from the unified state without any conditions’ and added that ‘Ukraine has never had a stable tradition of a real state’.
Contrary to Putin’s claim that ‘the Bolsheviks invented Ukraine’ and that Ukraine ‘never had a stable tradition of a real state’, Ukraine fought for independence in 1918, a status that lasted only a few years. In 1921, the Russian Bolsheviks defeated the national government of Ukraine and established the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Ukraine spent the next 69 years as part of the Soviet Union.
As for the claim that a weakened Moscow “gave” Ukraine the right to become independent from the Soviet Union “without any conditions”, it was the Ukrainians who chose independence in a democratic referendum. In 1991, as the Soviet Union dissolved, 84% of eligible Ukrainian voters went to the polls and over 92% voted to leave the Soviet Union. Moscow even promised to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty on the condition that it gave up its nuclear weapons – a fact commemorated in 1994 in an agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum.
Can you explain why you chose to publish this speech on your website without commentary or context?
Why did you publish the translation of Vladimir Putin’s speech without commentary or context? Well, because it was to provide 100% pure information without any personal opinions, which should be fine with you since you criticized me in question 4 for mixing information and opinions. And when I provide an article that is pure information, in this case, the complete translation into French of Vladimir Putin’s speech so that my readers can make up their own minds about the Russian President’s view of events by having the entire text in their own language, that doesn’t suit you either. You should know, guys, that either we are only allowed to provide pure and cold information, or we have to systematically make comments. But it can’t be both at the same time.
As for your arguments, Ukraine in its current borders is indeed a product of the USSR. The short-lived Ukrainian state that emerged after the 1917 revolution was not at all within the current borders of Ukraine, it was the USSR that gave it most of its territory. And three years of existence yes is not a “stable tradition of a real state”, don’t get me wrong.
Concerning the referendum held in Ukraine in 1991, this has nothing to do with the content of Vladimir Putin’s speech. He is talking about the Soviet constitution adopted in 1924, which allowed the republics the right to separate from the USSR unconditionally… You are mixing up everything.
Moreover, the nuclear weapons deployed in Ukraine did not belong to Ukraine, but to the USSR, as stated in the Lisbon Protocol, which predates the Budapest Memorandum (which was the result of Ukraine’s desire to monetize the application of what it had already signed in 1992). It was therefore normal for them to be sent back to Russia, which is the official successor state of the USSR. So this cannot be called a “condition”. Russia did not demand anything from independent Ukraine other than to return what belonged to it in order to comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
c. A June 2021 article entitled “Protassevich allegedly framed by his own side and handed over to Belarus to serve as a sacrificial victim” claims that the Belarusian authorities did not force the pilots of Ryanair flight 4978 to land in Minsk in order to detain Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich. The article says that “on May 23, 2021, at 12:25, while the Ryanair plane is still over the Volyn region of Ukraine, a first bomb threat e-mail arrives at Minsk airport” and that “after receiving the bomb threat e-mail, and despite its incongruities (such as the requests made) the airport authorities apply the international procedure foreseen in such cases and consider the threat to be real”.
In reality, the Ryanair plane was not diverted because of a bomb threat. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary called the hijacking a “case of state-sponsored hijacking” and confirmed to Politico in May 2021 that the Belarusian target was Roman Protasevich.
Can you explain why you chose to publish this article on your website?
I chose to publish it because of the facts stated in the article, such as proof that the Belarusian airport did receive bomb threat emails, and that the authorities did not know Protassevich was on board until his “friends” were screaming all over the internet that he was there, are worth more than the opinion of the Ryanair CEO!!! Are you serious when you say you assess whether my article is telling the truth or not, simply based on the opinion of the airline CEO? My article contains all the evidence to back up what I said, but for you O’Leary’s opinion is worth more than the facts? Is that your criteria for evaluating the information published by the sites you analyze? Your evaluation “criteria” are truly appalling in their partiality.
More generally, would you comment on your editorial process?
Yes, we report facts and testimonies from the field, and our articles are sourced and substantiated. We consider facts to be more valuable than the opinion or unproven statement of some official or CEO approved by your site. We have done this since the beginning of Donbass Insider, and we will continue to do so.
Soon after the social media “purge” of independent media sites and pages this past October, a top neoconservative insider—Jamie Fly—was caught stating that the mass deletion of anti-establishment and anti-war pages on Facebook and Twitter was “just the beginning” of a concerted effort by the U.S. government and powerful corporations to silence online dissent within the United States and beyond.
While a few, relatively uneventful months in the online news sphere have come and gone since Fly made this ominous warning, it appears that the neoconservatives and other standard-bearers of the military-industrial complex and the U.S. oligarchy are now poised to let loose their latest digital offensive against independent media outlets that seek to expose wrongdoing in both the private and public sectors.
As MintPress News Editor-in-Chief Mnar Muhawesh recently wrote, MintPress was informed that it was under review by an organization called NewsGuard Technologies, which described itself to MintPress as simply a “news rating agency” and asked Muhawesh to comment on a series of allegations, several of which were blatantly untrue. However, further examination of this organization reveals that it is funded by and deeply connected to the U.S. government, neo-conservatives, and powerful monied interests, all of whom have been working overtime since the 2016 election to silence dissent to American forever-wars and corporate-led oligarchy.
More troubling still, NewsGuard—by virtue of its deep connections to government and Silicon Valley—is lobbying to have its rankings of news sites installed by default on computers in U.S. public libraries, schools, and universities as well as on all smartphones and computers sold in the United States.
In other words, as NewsGuard’s project advances, it will soon become almost impossible to avoid this neocon-approved news site’s ranking systems on any technological device sold in the United States. Worse still, if its efforts to quash dissenting voices in the U.S. are successful, NewsGuard promises that its next move will be to take its system global.
Red light, green light . . .
NewsGuard has received considerable attention in the mainstream media of late, having been the subject of a slew of articles in the Washington Post, the Hill, the Boston Globe, Politico, Bloomberg, Wired, and many others just over the past few months. Those articles portray NewsGuard as using “old-school journalism” to fight “fake news” through its reliance on nine criteria allegedly intended to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to online news.
NewsGuard separates sites it deems worthy and sites it considers unreliable by using a color-coded rating—green, yellow, or red—and more detailed “nutrition labels” regarding a site’s credibility or lack thereof. Rankings are created by NewsGuard’s team of “trained analysts.” The color-coding system may remind some readers of the color-coded terror threat-level warning system that was created after 9/11, making it worth noting that Tom Ridge, the former secretary of Homeland Security oversaw the implementation of that system under George W. Bush, is on NewsGuard’s advisory board.
As NewsGuard releases a new rating of a site, that rating automatically spreads to all computers that have installed its news ranking browser plug-in. That plug-in is currently available for free for the most commonly used internet browsers. NewsGuard directly markets the browser plug-in to libraries, schools, and internet users in general.
According to its website, NewsGuard has rated more than 2,000 news and information sites. However, it plans to take its ranking efforts much farther by eventually reviewing “the 7,500 most-read news and information websites in the U.S.—about 98 percent of news and information people read and share online” in the United States in English.
A recent Gallup study, which was supported and funded by NewsGuard as well as the Knight Foundation (itself a major investor in NewsGuard), stated that a green rating increased users’ likelihood to share and read content while a red rating decreased that likelihood. Specifically, it found 63 percent would be less likely to share news stories from red-rated websites, and 56 percent would be more likely to share news from green-rated websites, though the fact that NewsGuard and one of its top investors funded the poll makes it necessary to take these findings with a grain of salt.
However, some of the rankings NewsGuard itself has publicized show that it is manifestly uninterested in fighting “misinformation.” How else to explain the fact that the Washington Post and CNN both received high scores even though both have written stories or made statements that later proved to be entirely false? For example, CNN falsely claimed in 2016 that it was illegal for Americans to read WikiLeaks releases and unethically colluded with the DNC to craft presidential debate questions to favor Hillary Clinton’s campaign that same year.
In addition, in 2017, CNN published a fake story that a Russian bank linked to a close ally of President Donald Trump was under Senate investigation. That same year, CNN was forced to retract a report that the Trump campaign had been tipped off early about WikiLeaks documents damaging to Hillary Clinton when it later learned the alert was about material already publicly available.
The Washington Post, whose $600 million conflicts of interest with the CIA goes unnoted by NewsGuard, has also published false stories since the 2016 election, including one article that falsely claimed that “Russian hackers” had tapped into Vermont’s electrical grid. It was later found that the grid itself was never breached and the “hack” was only an isolated laptop with a minor malware problem. Yet, such acts of journalistic malpractice are apparently of little concern to NewsGuard when those committing such acts are big-name corporate media outlets.
Furthermore, NewsGuard gives a high rating to Voice of America, the U.S. state-funded media outlet, even though its former acting associate director said that the outlet produces “fluff journalism” and despite the fact that it was recently reformed to “provide news that supports our [U.S.] national security objectives.” However, RT receives a low “red” rating for being funded by the Russian government and for “raising doubts about other countries and their institutions” (i.e., reporting critical of the institutions and governments of the U.S. and its allies).
Keeping the conversation safe for the corporatocracy
NewsGuard describes itself as an organization dedicated to “restoring trust and accountability” and using “journalism to fight false news, misinformation, and disinformation.” While it repeatedly claims on its website that its employees “have no political axes to grind” and “care deeply about reliable journalism’s pivotal role in democracy,” a quick look at its co-founders, top funders and advisory board make it clear that NewsGuard is aimed at curbing voices that hold the powerful—in both government and the private sector—to account.
NewsGuard is the latest venture to result from the partnership between Steven Brill and Louis Gordon Crovitz, who currently serve as co-CEOs of the group. Brill is a long-time journalist—published in TIME and The New Yorker, among others—who most recently founded the Yale Journalism Initiative, which aims to encourage Yale students who “aspire to contribute to democracy in the United States and around the world” to become journalists at top U.S. and international media organizations. He first teamed up with Crovitz in 2009 to create Journalism Online, which sought to make the online presence of top American newspapers and other publishers profitable and was also the CEO of the company that partnered up with the TSA to offer “registered” travelers the ability to move more quickly through airport security—for a price, of course.
While Brill’s past does not in itself raise red flags, Crovitz—his partner in founding Journalism Online, then Press+, and now NewsGuard—is the last person one would expect to find promoting any legitimate effort to “restore trust and accountability” in journalism. In the early 1980s. Crovitz held a number of positions at Dow Jones and at the Wall Street Journal, eventually becoming executive vice president of the former and the publisher of the latter before both were sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in 2007. He is also a board member of Business Insider, which has received over $30 million from Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos in recent years.
During the George W. Bush administration, AEI was instrumental in promoting the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq and has since advocated for militaristic solutions to U.S. foreign policy objectives and the expansion of the U.S. military empire as well as the “War on Terror.” During the Bush years, AEI was also closely associated with the now-defunct and controversial neoconservative organization known as the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), which presciently called, four years before 9/11, for a “new Pearl Harbor” as needed to rally support behind American military adventurism.
The Heritage Foundation, like AEI, was also supportive of the war in Iraq and has pushed for the expansion of the War on Terror and U.S. missile defense and military empire. Its corporate donors over the years have included Procter & Gamble, Chase Manhattan Bank, Dow Chemical, and Exxon Mobil, among others.
Crovitz’s associations with AEI and the Heritage Foundation, as well as his ties to Wall Street and the upper echelons of corporate media, are enough to make any thinking person question his commitment to being a fair watchdog of “legitimate journalism.” Yet, beyond his innumerable connections to neoconservatives and powerful monied interests, Crovitz has repeatedly been accused of inserting misinformation into his Wall Street Journal columns, with groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation accusing him of “repeatedly getting his facts wrong” on NSA surveillance and other issues. Some of the blatant falsehoods that have appeared in Crovitz’s work have never been corrected, even when his own sources called him out for misinformation.
For example, in a WSJ opinion piece that was written by Crovitz in 2012, Crovitz was accused of making “fantastically false claims” about the history of the internet by the very people he had cited to support those claims.
As TechDirt wrote at the time:
Almost everyone he [Crovitz] sourced or credited to support his argument that the internet was invented entirely privately at Xerox PARC and when Vint Cerf helped create TCP/IP, has spoken out to say he’s wrong. And that list includes both Vint Cerf, himself, and Xerox. Other sources, including Robert Taylor (who was there when the internet was invented) and Michael Hiltzik, have rejected Crovitz’s spinning of their own stories.”
The oligarch team’s deep bench
While Brill and Crovitz’s connections alone should be enough cause for alarm, a cursory examination of NewsGuard’s advisory board makes it clear that NewsGuard was created to serve the interests of the American oligarchy. Chief among NewsGuard’s advisors are Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security under George W. Bush, and Ret. General Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, a former NSA director, and principal at the Chertoff Group, a security consultancy seeking to “advise corporate clients and governments, including foreign governments” on security matters that was co-founded by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who also currently serves as the board chairman of major weapons manufacturer BAE Systems.
Another NewsGuard advisor of note is Richard Stengel, former editor of Time magazine, a “distinguished fellow” at the Atlantic Council, and Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy under President Barack Obama. At a panel discussion hosted last May by the Council on Foreign Relations, Stengel described his past position at the State Department as “chief propagandist” and also stated that he is “not against propaganda. Every country does it and they have to do it to their own population and I don’t necessarily think it’s that awful.”
Other NewsGuard advisors include Don Baer, former White House communications director and advisor to Bill Clinton and current chairman of both PBS and the influential PR firm Burson Cohn & Wolfe as well as Elise Jordan, former communications director for the National Security Council and former speech-writer for Condoleezza Rice, as well as the widow of slain journalist Michael Hastings—who was writing an exposé on former CIA director John Brennan at the time of his suspicious death.
A look at Newguard’s investors further illustrates the multifarious connections between this organization and the American political and corporate elite. While Brill and Crovitz themselves are the company’s top investors, one of NewsGuard’s most important investors is the Publicis Groupe. Publicis is the third-largest global communications company in the world, with more than 80,000 employees in over 100 countries and annual revenue of over €9.6 billion ($10.98 billion) in 2017. It is no stranger to controversy, as one of its subsidiaries, Qorvis, recently came under fire for exploiting U.S. veterans at the behest of the Saudi government and also helped the Saudi government to “whitewash” its human rights record and its genocidal war in Yemen after receiving $6 million from the Gulf Kingdom in 2017.
Furthermore, given its size and influence, it is unsurprising that Publicis Groupe counts many powerful corporations and governments among its clientele. Some of its top clients in 2018 included pharmaceutical giants Eli Lilly, Merck, Pfizer, and Bayer/Monsanto as well as Starbucks, Procter & Gamble, McDonald’s, Kraft Heinz, Burger King, and the governments of Australia and Saudi Arabia. Given its influential role in funding NewsGuard, it is reasonable to point out the potential conflict of interest posed by the fact that sites that accurately report on Publicis’ powerful clients—but generate bad publicity—could be targeted for such reports in NewsGuard’s ranking.
In addition to the Publicis Groupe, another major investor in NewsGuard is the Blue Haven Initiative, which is the venture capital “impact investment” fund of the wealthy Pritzker family—one of the top 10 wealthiest families in the U.S., best known as the owners of the Hyatt Hotel chain and for being the second-largest financial contributors to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Other top investors include John McCarter, a long-time executive at U.S. government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, as well as Thomas Glocer, former CEO of Reuters and a member of the boards of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., financial behemoth Morgan Stanley, and the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as a member of the Atlantic Council’s International Advisory Board.
Through these investors, NewsGuard managed to raise $6 million to begin its ranking efforts in March of 2018. NewsGuard’s actual revenues and financing, however, have not been disclosed despite the fact that it requires the sites it ranks to disclose their funding. In a display of pure hypocrisy, NewsGuard’s United States Securities and Exchange Commission Form D—which was filed March 5, 2018—states that the company “declined to disclose” the size of its total revenue.
Why give folks a choice?
While even a quick glance at its advisory board alone would be enough for many Americans to decline to install NewsGuard’s browser extension on their devices, the danger of NewsGuard is the fact that it is diligently working to make the adoption of its app involuntary. Indeed, if voluntary adoption of NewsGuard’s app were the case, there would likely be little cause for concern, given that its website attracts barely more than 300 visits per month and its social-media following is relatively small, with just over 2,000 Twitter followers and barely 500 Facebook likes at the time of this article’s publication.
To illustrate its slip-it-under-the-radar strategy, NewsGuard has gone directly to state governments to push its browser extension onto entire state public library systems, even though its website suggests that individual public libraries are welcome to install the extension if they so choose. The first state to install NewsGuard on all of its public library computers across its 51 branches was the state of Hawaii—which was the first to partner with NewsGuard’s “news literacy initiative,” just last month.
According to local media, NewsGuard “now works with library systems representing public libraries across the country, and is also partnering with middle schools, high schools, universities, and educational organizations to support their news literacy efforts,” suggesting that these NewsGuard services targeting libraries and schools are soon to become a compulsory component of the American library and education system, despite NewsGuard’s glaring conflicts of interest with massive multinational corporations and powerful government power-brokers.
Notably, NewsGuard has a powerful partner that has allowed it to start finding its way into the public libraries and school computers throughout the country. As part of its new “Defending Democracy” initiative, Microsoft announced last August that it would be partnering with NewsGuard to actively market the company’s ranking app and other services to libraries and schools throughout the country. Microsoft’s press release regarding the partnership states that NewsGuard “will empower voters by providing them with high-quality information about the integrity and transparency of online news sites.”
Since then, Microsoft has now added the NewsGuard app as a built-in feature of Microsoft Edge, its browser for iOS and Android mobile devices, and is unlikely to stop there. Indeed, as a recent report in favor of Microsoft’s partnership with NewsGuard noted, “we could hope that this new partnership will allow Microsoft to add NewsGuard to Edge on Windows 10 [operating system for computers] as well.”
NewsGuard, for its part, seems confident that its app will soon be added by default to all mobile devices. On its website, the organization notes that “NewsGuard will be available on mobile devices when the digital platforms such as social media sites and search engines or mobile operating systems add our ratings and Nutrition Labels directly.” This shows that NewsGuard isn’t expecting its rating systems to be offered as a downloadable application for mobile devices but something that social media sites like Facebook, search engines like Google, and mobile device operating systems that are dominated by Apple and Google will “directly” integrate into nearly every smartphone and tablet sold in the United States.
A Boston Globe article on NewsGuard from this past October makes this plan even more clear. The Globe wrote at the time:
Microsoft has already agreed to make NewsGuard a built-in feature in future products, and [NewsGuard co-CEO] Brill said he’s in talks with other online titans. The goal is to have NewsGuard running by default on our computers and phones whenever we scan the Web for news.
This eventuality is made all the more likely given the fact that, in addition to Microsoft, NewsGuard is also closely connected to Google, as Google has been a partner of the Publicis Groupe since 2014 when the two massive companies joined Condé Nast to create a new marketing service called La Maison that is “focused on producing engaging content for marketers in the luxury space.” Given Google’s power in the digital sphere as the dominant search engine, the creator of the Android mobile operating system, and the owner of YouTube, its partnership with Publicis means that NewsGuard’s rating system will soon see itself being promoted by yet another of Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies.
Furthermore, there is an effort underway to integrate NewsGuard into social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, as NewsGuard was launched, co-CEO Brill stated that he planned to sell the company’s ratings of news sites to Facebook and Twitter. Last March, Brill told CNN that “We’re asking them [Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and Google] to pay a fraction of what they pay their P.R. people and their lobbyists to talk about the problem.”
On Wednesday, Gallup released a poll that will likely be used as a major selling point to social media giants. The poll—funded by NewsGuard and the Knight Foundation, which is a top investor in NewsGuard and has recently funded a series of Gallup polls relating to online news—seems to have been created with the intention of manufacturing consent for the integration of NewsGuard with top social media sites.
This is because the promoted findings from the study are as follows:“89% of users of social media sites and 83% overall want social media sites and search engines to integrate NewsGuard ratings and reviews into their news feed and search results” and “69% would trust social media and search companies more if they took the simple step of including NewsGuard in their products.” However, a disclaimer at the end of the poll states that the results, which were based on the responses of 706 people each of whom received $2 to participate, “may not be reflective of attitudes of the broader U.S. adult population.”
With trust at Facebook nose-diving and Facebook’s censorship of independent media already well underway, the findings of this poll could well be used to justify its integration into Facebook’s platform. The connections of both NewsGuard and Facebook to the Atlantic Council make this seem a given.
Another NewsGuard service shows that this organization is also seeking to harm independent media financially by targeting online revenue. Through a service called “Brandguard,” which it describes as a “brand safety tool aimed at helping advertisers keep their brands off of unreliable news and information sites while giving them the assurance they need to support thousands of Green-rated [i.e., NewsGuard-approved] news and information sites, big and small.”
At the time the service was announced last November, NewsGuard co-CEO Brill stated that the company was “in discussions with the ad tech firms, leading agencies, and major advertisers” eager to adopt a blacklist of news sites deemed “unreliable” by NewsGuard. This is unsurprising given the leading role of Publicis Groupe, one of the world’s largest advertising and PR firms, has in funding NewsGuard. As a consequence, it seems likely that many, if not all, of Publicis’ client companies, will choose to adopt this blacklist to help crush many of the news sites that are unafraid to hold them accountable.
It is also important to note here that Google’s connection to Publicis and thus NewsGuard could spell trouble for independent news pages that rely on Google Adsense for some or all of their ad-based revenue. Google Adsense has long been targeting sites like MintPress by demonetizing articles for information or photographs it deemed controversial, including demonetizing one article for including a photo showing U.S. soldiers involved in torturing Iraqi detainees at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.
Since then, Google—a U.S. military contractor—has repeatedly tried to shutter ad access to MintPress articles that involve reporting that is critical of the U.S. empire and military expansion. One article that has been repeatedly flagged by Google details how many African-Americans have questioned whether the Women’s March has aided or harmed the advancement of African-Americans in the United States. Google has repeatedly claimed that the article, which was written by African-American author and former Washington Post bureau chief Jon Jeter, contains “dangerous content.”
Given Google’s already established practice of targeting factual reporting it deemed controversial through Adsense, Brandguard will likely offer the tech giant just the excuse it needs to cut off sites like MintPress, and other pages equally critical of empire, altogether.
An action plan for the genuine protection of journalism
Though it is just getting started, NewsGuard’s plan to insert its app into every device and major social-media network is a threat to any news site that regularly publishes information that rubs any of NewsGuard’s investors, partners or advisors the wrong way. Given its plan to rank the English-language U.S. news sites that account for 98 percent of U.S. digital news consumption, NewsGuard’s agenda is of the utmost concern to every independent media page active in the United States and beyond—given NewsGuard’s promise to take its project global.
By linking up with former CIA and NSA directors, Silicon Valley Giants, and massive PR firms working for some of the most controversial governments and corporations in the world, NewsGuard has betrayed the fact that it is not actually seeking to “restore trust and accountability” in journalism, but to “restore trust and accountability” in news outlets that protect the existing power structure and help shield the corporate-led oligarchy and military-industrial complex from criticism.
Not only is it trying to tank the reputations of independent media through its biased ranking system, NewsGuard is also seeking to attack these alternative voices financially by slipping its ranking system by default onto all computers and phones sold in the U.S.
However, NewsGuard and it agenda of guarding the establishment against criticism can be stopped. By supporting independent media and unplugging from social media sites committed to censorship, like Facebook and Twitter, we can strengthen the independent media community and keep it afloat despite the unprecedented nature of these attacks on free speech and watchdog journalism.
Beyond that, a key way to keep NewsGuard and those behind it on their toes is to hold them to account by pointing out their clear conflicts of interest and hypocrisy and by derailing the narrative they are carefully crafting that NewsGuard is “non-partisan,” “trustworthy,” and true guardians against the scourge of “fake news.”
While this report has sought to be a starting point for such work, anyone concerned about NewsGuard and its connections to the war machine and corrupt corporations should feel encouraged to point out the organization’s own conflicts of interests and shady connections via its Twitter and Facebook pages and the feedback section on NewsGuard’s website. The best way to defeat this new tool of the neocons is to put them on notice and to continue to expose NewsGuard as a guardian of empire, not a guardian of journalism.
Correction | An earlier version of this story wrote that CNN’s collusion with the Clinton campaign was illegal. However, upon further investigation, MintPress News could not corroborate that such a move was, in fact, illegal, though it is clearly in breach of journalistic ethics. As a consequence, the sentence in question was changed to say that CNN “unethically colluded” with the Clinton campaign. MintPress apologizes for the error and thanks its readers for bringing this oversight to our attention.
— Gianni (@LrrJean) March 28, 2022