One of the commonest complaints from Remain supporters following the Brexit referendum, and from Democratic supporters following the 2016 US Presidential Election, was that voters have been fed a diet of misinformation and propaganda by spurious media and social media websites, which confused and misled them.
It has even been alleged that bogus reporting of blatantly false news was a major factor in Donald Trump beating Hillary Clinton to the Presidency against the odds.
These allegations have now crystallised into publication of a list of “fake” media by a US academic that has been taken up and echoed by mainstream media, including the Independent and the New York Times. Facebook, in particular has come under fire for allowing so-called “fake” news sites to flourish among its pages. Facebook and Google have already responded to this criticism by saying they will reject advertising from the blacklisted sites. Facebook even has a “task force” manually weeding out suspect posts.
The now-infamous blacklist, which has already been withdrawn from circulation by its author following widespread reactions (but which is reproduced at the bottom of this article) was drawn up by Melissa Zimdars, assistant professor of Media and Communications at Merrimack College, who collected websites that she deemed “false, misleading, clickbait-y, and/or satirical “news” sources”.
The (once) highly respected New York Times welcomed the list in its magazine, carrying a link to the list on Google Docs (which has now been removed) and describing it as “An Extremely Helpful List of Fake and Misleading News Sites to Watch Out For”.
The Los Angeles Times asked if its readers “Want to keep fake news out of your newsfeed? College professor creates list of sites to avoid.”
The Independent was more cautious, headlining its story “A professor has made a list of websites she says publish ‘fake’ or ‘misleading’ news”, and reproducing the list on page but redacting those that it says are “satirical sites, because what they publish is deliberately tongue–in-cheek.”
So far, so storm-in-a-teacup. But the row has escalated several notches further and has inflamed both sides of the debate to even greater accusations. The publishing of what is in effect a blacklist, and the gleeful publicity given it by the established news media has given rise to accusations of political bias in their reporting and attempts by them at censoring alternative voices.
The Free Thought Project spoke for many when it responded,
“Make no mistake — a concerted effort by the mainstream corporate media is underway to undermine those who express peaceful dissent. A seemingly blatant attempt to discredit the alternative media by lumping independent publishers into a contrived category of ‘fake news’ has begun.”
Reporter Matt Agorist concluded;
“Not one of these websites provided a single example of any of the sites on this list reporting anything fake. All they did was promote disinformation (i.e. fake news) by claiming — without researching — that all the sites on this list are fake, because a ‘college professor’ put it together.”
Zimdars’ list is included at the end of this article. There’s no doubt that the list does contain some deliberate disinformation sites. But – almost laughably – it also contains sites like Private Eye, which, although a satirical magazine, is also one of the most important independent media voices in the UK and has been instrumental in breaking some of the biggest scandals, long before mainstream media dared to get onto the trail of wrongdoers. This alone suggests that Zimdars needs to study more thoroughly the media that she is so quick to censor. It also lends a whiff of the witch hunt to her collecting names for her blacklist.
In case you might think this is a peculiarly American rumpus, the same virus has infected British academia. Students at City University — which boasts one of the country’s top journalism departments — have voted for a campus ban on the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express. Why? The student union has deemed the views expressed by these popular papers unacceptable — claiming their editorial lines fuel ‘fascism, racial tension and hatred in society’.
This whole affair does raise again some legitimate questions that I often hear raised on the internet, especially on sites like Facebook. How trustworthy are the established mainstream media? Are they in the pockets of their owners, of politicians and influential big business? And are they constructing a carefully crafted narrative to soothe the minds of millions of viewers and readers to distract them from asking tricky questions about who really runs the world?
At this point I must declare an interest. I am a journo and as such am guilty of many of the things alleged against the press and probably much more. But, guilty though I am, my experience does enable me to say some things on the basis of experience rather than just conjecture.
My first observation is that before we can decide whether the media is corrupt, we must first define what we mean by corruption. I’m sorry to say that a complete list of complaints and suspicions about the press would fill many blog pages – too many to list here. But they do fall into recognizable categories.
- That proprietors tell their editorial staff what to write
- That Newspaper staff follow the political line of their proprietor whether told to or not
- That the mainstream media are in so cozily in bed with politicians, bankers and others of influence that they kiss arse when they should be reporting the truth
- That journalists are too opinionated, too cynical, too intrusive, and care nothing for ordinary people or for the truth, and push their own agenda
- That there is just as much misinformation, disinformation and propaganda in the mainstream media as anything you’ll find in alternative internet sites.
It’s pretty obvious that there is a kernel of truth in all these allegations. Newspapers are commercial enterprises whose aim is to make profits and their owners often do have political agendas. The first thing to notice, though, is that no newspaper proprietor in Britain or the US has run for political office.
As a freelance, I’ve written for just about all the UK’s national newspapers over the last 47 years, have appeared on BBC TV and ITV in both features and News programme and one thing I can say with certainty is that no-one has ever once told me what to say or changed a single word of my articles, except to tighten up the prose occasionally.
One other thing that struck me during the Brexit referendum was that Rupert Murdoch gave his editors freedom to choose which side they would support, and the Times chose to support Remain, while the Sun supported Leave – hardly the proprietorial control of urban myth.
It’s also important to appreciate that any story that gets published in a mainstream paper goes through more than one pair of hands – often many pairs. The chances of one individual being able to slip a highly personal bias into a story and get away with it are minimal. In most cases, what readers consider to be bias or propaganda is in fact simply a view with which the reader violently disagrees – and herein lies much of the problem.
During my time as a journo, no-one (either in the media or anywhere else) has ever offered me money to say nice things about them, although a very long list of PRs have, of course, tried to talk me into being complimentary about their clients and have offered me generous hospitality. To be frank, I don’t think either of us expected these lunches and trips abroad to result in anything other than me being aware of their clients’ existence.
Another point to make is that these days, staff writers on nationals would have to refuse any but the most frugal hospitality and certainly refuse any gift – even a pen with a logo on it. Indeed I think most people would be surprised at just how high the ethics standards of almost all news media are. I once wrote a feature for the Sun (about Anglo-German relations – the subject of a book I’d written) and hence, as a freelance on the paper’s books, I received the updated code of journalistic ethics published by News UK.
I think most non-journalists would be staggered by how restrictive the code is, both in terms of how little I am allowed to pay a source for information and how much I may accept in hospitality. Other publications also have very rigid codes of conduct that they publish.
You might think that these codes of conduct are for show and are not really enforced, but both the New York Times and the Independent have sacked staff journalists for making up quotes. The Times even sacked a staffer because he showed the article he was writing to a source before it was published. Again, this might sound like a trivial offence but the Times’s view is that agreeing to show work in progress to a source in this way would lead to a two-tier media. The smart, the rich, the powerful would get to see what was being written about them whereas Joe Public, and Jo Public would not.
Over the past two decades there has been a long string of public scandals in the UK involving public figures. Every one of these scandals was revealed to the public by the media – not by the Government, or the Opposition, or the police, or the judiciary, or the Crown or Local Government, but by the press and TV.
Among media than can hold their heads high are the Times (exposed doping in Olympic events) The Telegraph (MPs expenses) The Guardian (illegal GCHQ surveillance) The Daily Mirror (Ebola crisis in Libya) News of the World (Pakistan cricketers bribes) Daily Mail ( medical data sold for cash) Private Eye (Profumo scandal and many others) and ITV News ( child sexual abuse.)
One name that I’m sorry to say I wasn’t able to include in this list is that of BBC TV News who signally failed to report on child sexual abuse by its own BBC star performers like Jimmy Savile, on its own BBC premises, and who blatantly supported the Cameron Government’s Remain campaign.
There is at least one area where people are rightly suspicious of mainstream media. Big papers like the Times and Telegraph, and the big broadcasters, absolutely must have access to government departments and ministers in order to be able to do their job. But it is the government departments and ministers who decide who gets access, when in the news cycle, and how much access they get. In order to get this access, journalists have to play ball.
This quid pro quo relationship is a very subtle but very effective way of ensuring that press is relatively compliant. If you want a seat on the Prime Minister’s aircraft or campaign bus, you have to show the PR managers that you won’t be too negative – not in any obvious way, of course, but by demonstrating that you are a cool head and safe pair of hands who can be trusted to do the decent thing.
This cozying up for access is at its worst in the political lobby – a virtual closed shop of reliable acolytes who can be counted on not to rock the boat more than is necessary for cosmetic public consumption. And, of course, the chances of a smaller, dissenting publication (say, the communist Daily Worker) being given such access are pretty thin, which means that its readers are being denied full first-hand account of what those who govern them say and do. Any publication or website that dares to tell the unvarnished truth (Guido Fawkes blog springs to mind) is likely to be frozen out entirely and has to rely on alternative sources like Wikileaks.
This alone makes alternative news sources desirable – indeed, essential, if the public is to be fully informed, and in my view this controlled access is sufficient fully to justify Wikileaks.
Although this kind of thing makes some areas of national journalism as dirty and compromising a business as politics itself, it is not necessarily corrupt in the worst sense of the term. No money or well-paid jobs are changing hands and if the paper gets hold of a big scandal, it is very unlikely to hold back. Scandals sell newspapers.
But there is a dark side to mainstream media. Sometimes mainstream media see themselves as custodians of the news: the only true interpreters of events, and look down on others – especially on the internet – who they consider outsiders who are unqualified to report on or analyse big events. The blacklist of so-called “fake” news sources seems to be a good case in point.
But the kind of cozying-up described earlier inevitably gives rise to an” inside” and an “outside” group and wherever you get this division you get suspicions. Just as the public thinks anyone who publishes news is corrupt, so the fringe media think mainstream is corrupt – hence people like Zimdars. Her existence is cause for concern because no-one has actually published a blacklist before, nor have mainstream media previously taken up what most sensible people would regard as a mcCarthy style witch hunt.
Zimdars is representative of many press critics in that she believes only she and people like her know what is really going on and ordinary people have to be protected from having their minds corrupted by the media because they are not bright enough to read between the lines themselves.
In reality, it is often people like Zimdars who don’t get what they’re reading – such as her choice of Private Eye, demonstrating that she has no idea what a well-researched and high trusted source like the Eye looks like, nor how it and other alternative sources have been instrumental in breaking some of the biggest scandals in British and American public life for many decades.
Some mainstream media have gleefully welcomed Zimdars’s list and used it as an opportunity to berate their rivals on the internet, especially those that they consider to be lacking in professionalism and those who are clearly mischief making with (mainly political) propaganda.
In one sense, I applaud the New York Times, Independent and other serious media for calling out bad journalism and lobbying that masquerades as reporting and yet at the same time, I remain uneasy. It’s too easy to lump together people you disagree with, and people who criticize you, with the real bad hats, all under the guise of “cleaning up” journalism – as Zimdars has done. There is a whiff of “You draw up a list – I’ll round up an angry mob and light the torches” about the whole process.
As ever, when the issue of freedom of speech comes up, in the end the question is settled by the simple realisation that freedom of speech means the right of people to publish things you violently disagree with – and would ban if you got half a chance.
Below is Zimdars’s list together with her method of categorization (courtesy of The Daily Dot)
“CATEGORY 1: Below is a list of fake, false, or regularly misleading websites that are shared on Facebook and social media. Some of these websites may rely on “outrage” by using distorted headlines and decontextualized or dubious information in order to generate likes, shares, and profits. These websites are categorized with the number 1 next to them.
“CATEGORY 2: Some websites on this list may circulate misleading and/or potentially unreliable information, and they are marked with a 2.
“CATEGORY 3: Other websites on this list sometimes use clickbait-y headlines and social media descriptions, and they are marked with a 3.
“CATEGORY 4: Other sources on this list are purposefully fake with the intent of satire/comedy, which can offer important critical commentary on politics and society, but have the potential to be shared as actual/literal news. I’m including them here, for now, because 1.) they have the potential to perpetuate misinformation based on different audience (mis)interpretations and 2.) to make sure anyone who reads a story by The Onion, for example, understands its purpose. If you think this is unnecessary, please see Literally Unbelievable.”
21stCenturyWire.com (2, 3)
The Free Thought Project (3)
ActivistPost.com (2, 3)
Addicting Info (3)
Private-eye.co.uk (includes 4)
Associated Media Coverage
Indecision Forever (1)
RealNewsRightNow.com (1, 4)
Bipartisan Report (3)
InfoWars (1, 2)
Red State (3)
Blue Nation Review (2,3)
Breitbart (2, 3)
RileNews.com (1, 4)
Call the Cops (4)
Cap News (4)
The Free Thought Project (3)
Borowitz Report (4)
The Onion (4)
The Other 98% (3)
The Stately Harold
ConspiracyWire (WideAwakeAmerica.com) (2)
Naha Daily (4)
NCT (New Century Times)
US Uncut (3)
Newslo (1, 4)
NewsMutiny.com (1, 4)
World Net Daily
World News Daily Report (4)
Empire News (1)
Occupy Democrats (3)
UPDATE 27 November 2016
This assault on alternative media is starting to look more and more like a well-planned campaign. The once-prestigious Washington Post is now uncritically peddling the same unchecked and one-sided stories. For more details see here:-