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The self-appointed digital arbiters of truth
By Mark Alexander
In 1996, when a small group of friends launched an email digest called "The Federalist," which we would rename a few years later "The Patriot Post," we were entering completely uncharted territory.
There were no other publications on the Internet for us to use as a template, and frankly, I thought this entrepreneurial First Amendment exercise might not make it through its first year. But with encouragement from a handful of the nation's leading conservative thinkers at the time, we did indeed. Even though email wasn't yet a ubiquitous means of communication, we had gained nearly 5,000 subscribers and were operating in the black!
We also did a few things that were entirely different from other publications — things that still set us apart today.
First, we chose an unconventional business model that was for-profit (so the IRS couldn't place editorial constraints on our content), but donor based, so we could offer our publication at no charge as a service to students, military personnel, and others with limited income. Today, we are sustained by the generosity of our grassroots donors and take no funding from any political benefactor, special-interest group, or parent organization.
Second, we also refuse any funding from advertisers. As our "About" page notes: "Our website pages and emails are certified 'Ad Free.' Because we do not depend on a single penny of ad revenue, we focus solely on providing you content that is actually newsworthy — worthy of your time — rather than constantly churning the ubiquitous topics that now dominate the mainstream media's relentless 24/7 recycled spin. ... We do not accept advertising to ensure our advocacy and editorial content is not restrained by commercial influence — as is the case with all mass media outlets. Thus, you will note our website and email editions are free of advertising clutter."
Third, as also noted, "We rely on reputable sources and never post the sensationalist non-news 'click bait' that now infests the pages of political news sites on both the Left and Right. Nor will you find any of the 'fake news' fabrications and editorial tripe driven by pursuit of market share that determines the advertising revenues on which commercial news websites depend."
And last, we chose to honor our nation's founders by publishing under a special pseudonym. As noted on our "About" page: "As was the case with The Federalist (Papers) in 1787, the premier resource for understanding the Liberty and Rule of Law enshrined in our Republic's Constitution, and from which we derive much of our constitutionally constructionist editorial inspiration, The Patriot Post is published under the pseudonym 'Publius.'"
The Federalist Papers were published by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay and provided a detailed explanation of the meaning of our Constitution in support for its ratification. But they chose to publish pseudonymously because it was the timeless message of Liberty enshrined in our Constitution that they were promoting — not themselves. Today, in a mainstream-media marketplace built largely on celebrity journalists, we still choose to promote Liberty above personality.
Some of our grassroots editors and contributors choose to be listed by pseudonym for the same reason, humility, which is an uncommon attribute in today's media-personality market. But then, none of us consider ourselves "professional journalists."
Since our inception, we've grown significantly. While we have loyal readers among key executive- and legislative-branch staff, as well as DC think tanks, our mission is to provide the timeless message of Liberty to grassroots American Patriots far outside the Beltway — those Americans who constitute who we really are as a people.
In recent years, even while endeavoring to maintain a low profile, our success has put us in the crosshairs of Leftmedia protagonists (or is that antagonists?) hell-bent on silencing those who refuse to comport with their political and cultural agendas.
The most perilous hazards to free speech on the Web, history's greatest First Amendment platform, are not Facebook and YouTube censors (though they are certainly a threat), but the media "fact checkers" and well-funded organizations that have positioned themselves, benignly they claim, as the digital gatekeepers of truth. And they are the ones pulling the social-media censorship strings.
Not content to dominate virtually every news medium on the planet, Leftmedia outlets have increasingly promoted their "fact-checking" arms as a way to establish themselves as the arbiters of what is "true." Increasingly, many of these "fact-checkers" produce what masquerades as fact but amounts to what we coined years ago as leftist "Dezinformatsiya," the old Soviet term for disinformation.
The irony is, these checkers' "ratings" of truthfulness are inevitably subjective and therefore irrevocably shaped by their own bias. Consequently, the media blacklists created by these self-appointed arbiters pose a greater threat to Truth and to freedom of speech than the "fake news" they claim to be guarding against. Recently, The Patriot Post was rated by an organization called NewsGuard, which provides a browser extension to rate news sources. It's now a standard feature in Microsoft's Edge browser, and it's also available for Google Chrome, Apple Safari, and Mozilla Firefox.
Launched in 2018 by some veteran mainstream-media journalists — Steve Brill of Court TV and former Wall Street Journal publisher L. Gordon Crovitz — NewsGuard employs an array of journalist watchdogs tasked with evaluating news sites on numerous criteria to help users determine the reliability of what they're reading and, conversely, steer clear of "fake news."
Let's stipulate for the record that the idea of an objective accreditation organization isn't bad in and of itself. It's akin to Underwriters Laboratories, the familiar "UL" brand that certifies, validates, tests, verifies, inspects, audits, advises, and educates regarding all manner of consumer products. But UL uses well-established and objective criteria.
NewsGuard seems to utilize reasonably objective standards. It uses a simple color system of green checkmarks and red Xs to quickly show how a site measures up on the nine factors deemed most important to credibility and transparency. Some items are weighted more than others. For example, it's worth more points to not repeatedly publish false content or to clearly distinguish between news and opinion than it is to reveal who's in charge or to disclose ownership and financing. A site's total score out of 100 then determines whether the overall rating is green or red, and each site is then given a fuller "Nutrition Label" that explains its rating.
The extension also has an orange smiley face that helpfully explains when a site — like our staff favorite, The Babylon Bee — is satire or humor. Other sites like YouTube and Wikipedia receive a blue "i" indicating that content is user-generated and is thus subject to inaccuracies.
If the standards are solid, and if they help define what constitutes respectable journalism, what's the big deal? Again, when commercial operations promote themselves as the gatekeepers and arbiters of truth, they're at risk of becoming politicized and failing their own standards of objective assessment. The assessors aren't machines, and they are therefore subject to the same human biases as the rest of us.
A few NewsGuard assessments suffice to illustrate the point.
FoxNews.com gets three red Xs — for allegedly failing to regularly correct or clarify errors, disclose ownership and financing, or reveal who's in charge. Interestingly, the overall rating is still a green checkmark.
Meanwhile, CNN.com somehow receives a complete slate of green checkmarks. We've spent decades now documenting CNN's brand of fake news. In just the last 18 months, this includes staging an anti-Second Amendment rally, running misinformation on AR-15s, airing multiple false stories about President Donald Trump, and joining in the media lynch mob that viciously attacked a group of Catholic high-school students with a dishonestly edited video clip.
But other examples raise more questions about objectivity.
BuzzFeed News, which to its credit does have some reputable journalists, has a perfect rating. The site is best known for "lolcats" and "listicles," but its news division should also be known for leaking the Hillary Clinton-funded and completely unverified anti-Trump "Russian dossier," breaking a false report about Michael Cohen, and setting up a fake website to impersonate economist and pro-Second Amendment journalist John Lott.
BuzzFeed's violations of journalistic integrity didn't merit a reduction in NewsGuard's rating.
(Coincidentally, The Patriot Post is currently the target of BuzzFeed's resident fake-news expert (rich irony noted) and his colleague at Syracuse University. More on their motives and objectives soon, but suffice it to say that when the substance or merits of a media outlet's content can't be challenged, attempt to undermine their credibility.)
Moreover, how is it that the big news organizations propagating the demonstrably fabricated Russian collusion delusion for the last two years are rated anything other than "biased" for relentlessly promoting the Democrat Party's political agenda?
The Daily Signal and National Review, two solidly conservative sites, receive all green checkmarks, so, to be fair, NewsGuard doesn't reflexively downgrade right-leaning websites. But, predictably, it appears to tilt left.
For the record, The Patriot Post is rated quite well, nicked only for transparency — because, as noted above, some of our writers choose to publish pseudonymously under the "Publius" model. So what we've always done for reasons of humility (and in some cases, security), NewsGuard considers an affront to its standards. Of course, promoting ideas over personalities is an enigmatic standard for most media analysts.
But the potential for subjectivity to infect an objective rating system is always present. Arguably, much of what the Leftmedia outlets run as news is steeped in opinion, but they still sport NewsGuard's vaunted green checkmarks.
And regarding objectivity, totally absent from the media-raters questions is one critical criterion that should be weighted as highly as any other: "Does your news site depend on advertising revenue?"
That key question isn't asked by NewsGuard, Poynter Institute, or any of the other ostensible arbiters of truth, like the insidious Southern Poverty Law Center, which, incredibly, is still cited as a credible organization by certain major media outlets.
Clearly, the question about advertising revenue isn't asked because virtually every media outlet would receive a red X, while we'd be in the green!
For the record, there's nothing "transparent" about how MSM editors shape or select news, because it could influence their lifeblood, which is advertising revenue. As I noted previously, The Patriot Post does not accept advertising to ensure our advocacy and editorial content is not restrained or guided by commercial influence.
Nor do the raters ask how much information media outlets collect on their users or subscribers, or whether they sell or share what should be private information. Again, virtually every media outlet would receive a red X — but not The Patriot Post.
While I view NewsGuard as a reputable organization (and for-profit, by the way), there are other emerging "truth arbiters," especially the media "fact checkers" on the payrolls of Leftmedia outlets, who are clearly endeavoring to constrict the speech and reach of organizations that do not agree with their political and social agendas.
And a final note: At some point, once even reputable news evaluators are well embedded as the go-to source for such evaluations, what questions might they add to their criterion, which require compliance with their political and social agendas in order to get a favorable rating?
So, who will rate the raters?
Mark Alexander is the executive editor of the Patriot Post.