Researchers into the causes of President Kennedy's assassination and 9/11 attacks hold an advantage over most others in deciphering news about national security intrigues that rely on dubious evidence.
Students of those crimes have by now detected so much media self-censorship or exaggeration in reports about those attacks that it’s relatively easy for them to discern similar patterns in treatments of other high-stakes issues.
Democratic and Republican Campaigns Decoded
One example is the current alarm by U.S. officials and mass media over “fake news,” particularly as applied to propaganda involving 2016 election results. The term "fake news" is being applied primarily to independent websites — some of which are indeed outright frauds. National Public Radio's Laura Sydell reported one example last fall in We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator In The Suburbs. Here's What We Learned.
But other outlets being smeared as "fake" should be regarded as alternative media. Of varying credibility, they sometimes stumble, sometimes serve as propaganda outlets controlled — and sometimes play brave role in analyzing official reports and other conventional wisdom regarding historically important events. Such events include the 9/11 attacks and the assassinations of President Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy.
We focus below on several recent stories that expose credibility problems with Newsweek, its former owner the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CBS News, and the New York Times. These examples — including a remarkable screw-up by Newsweek in distributing copies of a magazine showing Hillary Clinton as our elected "Madam President" — help illustrate the credibility gap that mainstream outlets are inflicting on themselves, whether they admit it or not in their crusades against alternative outlets.
The analysis below comes in the midst of the current mainstream media's harsh, sudden, and seemingly relentless campaign against "fake news." We provide today's column as balance because many of the attacks resemble such previous and now-discredited campaigns as the CIA-driven Operation Mockingbird, in which the nation's 40 major news organizations combined to suppress inconvenient news during the 1950s and 1960s. Frank Wisner of the CIA and Washington Post publisher Philip Graham jointly operated the program, which was exposed in the 1978 book Katharine the Great by Deborah Davis.
The current allegations against Russia, including of hacking U.S. election-related sites and blackmailing GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, are beyond the scope of today's column. This editor attended a hard-hitting lecture on that topic Jan. 17 by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who delivered one of her last major speeches at the Atlantic Council's headquarters overlooking the Russian Ambassador's residence in Washington, D.C.
Power's claims that a conspiracy exists to promote fake news and hacking is a topic for another day, particularly because the complexities are intertwined with the role of U.S. government propaganda and disinformation. That inevitably points to important but complex and secretive machinations, including those suggested by her husband Cass Sunstein, a top Obama White House regulator in the Office of Management and Budget during the first term. (Sunstein, center, is shown with Power in a White House photo during her 2013 swearing in officiated by Vice President Joe Biden.)
Sunstein suggested as a Harvard Law professor in 2008 and then in his 2014 book Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas that the government hire professors and journalists as secret government operatives. Those operatives, he said, could use such professional disguise to disrupt research into such "dangerous ideas" as research that questions the government's account of 9/11 attacks. That is itself a dangerous idea, as Glenn Greenwald has noted in Obama confidant’s spine-chilling proposal.
Also a topic for another day is background on the latest developments in studies related to President Kennedy's assassination and 9/11 research. We at the Justice-Integrity Project have published an ongoing Readers Guide To JFK Assassination, and separately reported a comprehensive overview of 9/11 research in Experts Reject Planes, Fire As Cause For 9/11 WTC Collapses. The latter covered the historic Justice in Focus conference organized by Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth in New York City on the occasion of the 15th anniversary last September of the attacks.
Today's analysis focuses instead on exploring shocking shortcomings in basic research recently by several of our most prestigious news outlets coupled with a disturbing reluctance on their part to concede the scope of their credibility problems.
Newsweek's Election Day SNAFU
We start with Newsweek, which the Post sold for $1 in 2010 plus assumption of liabilities to entrepreneur Sidney Harman, husband of then-House Intelligence Committee chair Jane Harman (D-CA). Newsweek still retains some of the cachet of its former stature even though almost all of the 2013 staff is gone after multiple after ownership changes.
Shortly before the November elections, Newsweek (now owned by IBT Media) printed 125,000 copies of a souvenir magazine shown above featuring Hillary Clinton as the nation's new president. Newsweek understandably sought to scoop the competition with copies, to be sold for $10.99 per copy, as reported by NBC News. The magazine was also ready, if needed, to distribute an alternative issue with a cover reporting that Trump had won.
But a slip-up amid high expectations of Clinton victory caused some of the Clinton covers to be distributed in advance of the election, according to stories about the mess published by the Daily Caller and later amplified by its editor Matthew Cooper in a Fox News interview by host Tucker Carlson, the Daily Caller's editor.
Most remarkable and disturbing about the Newsweek snafu is that its staff did not even write or read the magazine cover story, according to Cooper. Instead, magazine executives authorized use of Newsweek's name to a contractor whose staff wrote compiled a souvenir issue of the magazine that could be sold at premium price.
Mistakes can happen anywhere. But the story behind Newsweek's shows the magazine's slender resources and operational control even as it launches tirades on national and world events as in days of old.
We next examine the Washington Post, which is in the forefront of outlets denouncing fake news, Russia and President-elect Trump's foreign policies.
Washington Post Smears Websites As Propaganda
A landmark in this post-election campaign against “fake news” was a Nov. 24 Washington Post story headlined Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say by technology reporter Craig Timberg. His column began this way:
The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.
Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human “trolls,” and networks of websites and social-media accounts — echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers. The effort also sought to heighten the appearance of international tensions and promote fear of looming hostilities with nuclear-armed Russia.
Two teams of independent researchers found that the Russians exploited American-made technology platforms to attack U.S. democracy at a particularly vulnerable moment, as an insurgent candidate harnessed a wide range of grievances to claim the White House. The sophistication of the Russian tactics may complicate efforts by Facebook and Google to crack down on “fake news,” as they have vowed to do after widespread complaints about the problem.
The Post reporter Timberg cited 200 web news and commentary sites identified by anonymous critics at a new organization called “PropOrNot (short for "Propaganda or Not") as deserving reprisal in as-yet unspecified ways, presumably from government and its private sector allies.
Timberg and his editors granted the new group anonymity while publishing their smear-job against other writers and outlets. That grant of anonymity signaled that the story was in effect a reflection of management's opinion, if not a hit job, even though the material was presented as a news story.
Timberg's language reflected the theme the newspaper was trying to make in trying to rev up animosity towards Russia and Trump:
There is no way to know whether the Russian campaign proved decisive in electing Trump, but researchers portray it as part of a broadly effective strategy of sowing distrust in U.S. democracy and its leaders. The tactics included penetrating the computers of election officials in several states and releasing troves of hacked emails that embarrassed Clinton in the final months of her campaign.
The response was quick and harsh.
“I believe this is extremely dangerous to alternative media, to journalists, journalism and democracy," responded Rob Kall, publisher of OpEdNews, a popular progressive site that PropOrNot cited as one of the suspected purveyors of fake news. Other sites include the popular conservative site Drudge Report, as well as one run by former GOP Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
Google has announced it will de-monetize ad revenues for websites that are accused of providing fake news," Kall continued in his Nov. 28 column Are the Mainstream Media Trying to Kill Their Competition? Or are Neocons Trying to Silence Critics? "Facebook is also involved in 'dealing' with 'fake news sites,'" Kall said. "That is a huge threat to all alternative media."
Kall (shown in a file photo) continued: "Who decides who or which site is a fake news or propaganda site? According to the Washington Post, some anonymous site which does not define the criteria it uses is who. This is dangerous."
Several other high profile commentators on the media have issued similar warnings, including Robert Parry (who broke the Iran-Contra scandal as a reporter for the Associated Press and Newsweek), Glenn Greenwald, Max Blumenthal, Wayne Madsen, Chris Hedges and Matt Taibbi.
“I was very proud,” wrote another critic, Unz Review Founder and Editor Ron Unz, on Dec. 1, “to see that the Washington Post included The Review in the official list of America’s major ‘Fake News’ Russian propaganda websites, apparently used by the Kremlin to subvert American democracy and thereby foster the spread of Godless Soviet Communism... err, the Russian Orthodox Christianity of Vladimir Putin.”
Unz, former publisher of The American Conservative magazine founded by Patrick Buchanan and a former Republican candidate for governor of California, mocked the Post further in his commentary, entitled Record Traffic for Our "Fake News" Russian Propaganda Website!
Los Angeles Times Touts Young Professor's Smear Of 'Fake' and 'Incredible' Sites
The Los Angeles published a similar smear job Nov. 15 in a column headlined Want to keep fake news out of your news-feed? College professor creates list of sites to avoid.
The column by writer Jessica Roy drew on the work of Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. Zimdars had worked with students to create a Google.doc that she was publicizing as sites to "avoid" because, according to her rating system, many of those sites were "false, misleading, clickbait-y and satirical 'news' sources" or else unknown to her and her helpers.
A review of the list suggests that it was assembled and publicized with a shallow knowledge of the subject matter, particularly for a work emanating from a college and presuming to instruct others about reliable research.
Among the striking deficiencies:
Her list described "unknown" the sites of: the Heritage Foundation (arguably the major conservative think tank in the nation's capital); the National Review, founded by William F. Buckley, one of the founders of the modern conservative movement; OpEdNews, one of the nation's most popular progressive sites in terms of web traffic; Strategic-Culture.org, a Russian government-funded commentary site whose ownership arguably fits the professor's theory of state-funded bias; and NomiPrins.com, named for the former Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns managing director Nomi Prins who became an author and whistleblower well-regarded in progressive circles.
Striking also was the professor's description of the WhoWhatWhy investigative site as "unreliable." Why? The professor does not define her terms for any of these labels, suggesting that the smear was either a casual or amateurish undertaking with scant planning and great subjectivity.
WhoWhatWhy founder and editor Russ Baker holds a stellar reputation as a rigorous fact-checker. Shown in a file photo, he is also the best-selling author of Family of Secrets, the iconic book about the Bush dynasty, as well as an impressive career that has included a stint as an staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review, and many columns for other prestigious national magazines and newspapers.
I know Russ Baker and his work quite well, and would place him within the top one percent of all journalists I know who care about rigorous sourcing of complex stories. For someone to criticize him as "unreliable" without explanation, therefore, is like someone claiming without explanation that (as some fake news providers recently did) that top Democrats are torturing and murdering children in Washington, DC's abandoned subway tunnels: it's perhaps possible at first glance, but without evidence it reflects worse on those making the allegation than the targets, especially since there are no abandoned subway tunnels in the nation's capital and no reports of missing children.
In sum, it is easy to see why the Los Angeles Times promptly appended an editor's note to its November column:
UPDATE: Nov. 17, 5:52 p.m.: The professor who created the list has taken down the Google doc. She said it was a safety measure in response to threats and harassment she and her students and colleagues had received. She is continuing to work on it and plans to release it in the future in a format other than a Google doc.
Interestingly, that update makes no concession of regret about the clear deficiencies of Professor Zimdars' list, which continued to circulate via other news outlets and social media until currently. For this column, I contacted her for comment. She responded that the Los Angeles Times sought out her and her list after it became popular on the web. She said the list is a work in progress that has been reposted. As of this writing, it showed the same problems cited above from the original published in November.
Similarly, the Washington Post published an editor's note also recognizing the controversy regarding its above-cited news article by reporter Craig Timberg on Nov. 24 that listed supposedly fake or disreputable news sites. The editor's note said:
The Washington Post on Nov. 24 published a story on the work of four sets of researchers who have examined what they say are Russian propaganda efforts to undermine American democracy and interests. One of them was PropOrNot, a group that insists on public anonymity, which issued a report identifying more than 200 websites that, in its view, wittingly or unwittingly published or echoed Russian propaganda.
A number of those sites have objected to being included on PropOrNot’s list, and some of the sites, as well as others not on the list, have publicly challenged the group’s methodology and conclusions. The Post, which did not name any of the sites, does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet, nor did the article purport to do so. Since publication of The Post’s story, PropOrNot has removed some sites from its list.
In sum, these major news organizations took scant responsibility after publishing warning lists that smeared independent competition — including political opinion sites and hard-hitting investigative sites probing major stories — by lumping them together with out-and-out scam sites.
The New York Times Touts Snopes As Fact-Checker, Ignores Snopes Scandal
One of the ways mainstream news organizations reveal their bias is by harping on the government funding for some news outlets and sources while ignoring similar or even vastly greater government funding outlets, personnel and sources favored by news managers. Thus most major Western news organizations avoid sending war correspondents to the long-running war in Syria or quoting the government (cited as "the regime" on rare occasions when it is quoted).
Instead, even our most prestigious newspapers rely heavily on the so-called "White Helmets" (typically described as a humanitarian team of rescue workers in rebel-held Syrian locales) and the "Syrian Observatory for Human Rights" (a one-man operation based in the U.K.countryside by a rebel sympathizer who has not been in Syria for more than a decade).
Both the White Helmets (How a Syrian White Helmets Leader Played Western Media by Dr. Gareth Porter), and the "Observatory" have been reported as funded by Western intelligence as part of the covert operation to fund rebels long enough to overthrow Syria's "regime." But that kind of information is rarely disclosed by the mainstream. Instead, Western audiences read and see year upon year of spin, such as a CBS 60 Minutes episode Dec. 18, Syria's White Helmets: "Hope in a hopeless place, extolling the White Helmets as heroes saving bombing victims in Aleppo.
This is not to argue that such groups as the White Helmets do nothing good because of the source of their funding, only that the mainstream news organizations that extol them tend to ignore completely questions about their funding, mission and obvious participation in propaganda efforts that the news organizations are eager to advance for the ultimate objective of continuing the war and overthrowing the government.
You can see for yourself via a link to the CBS broadcast of Syria's White Helmets by the "60 Minutes" team led by correspondent Scott Pelley.
The issue of government funding is important in part because it is frequently used as a way to disparage competing news outlets that receive such funding. Mainstream media opposed to the Trump administration thus reported breathlessly that his incoming aide Michael Flynn received a payment for appearing on RT television. One can rest assured that whatever trivial honorarium was involved is nothing compared to the kind of money bestowed on retired generals make elsewhere, including on boards of defense contractors.
By contrast, the pervasive system of pass-through organizations designed to obscure U.S. government funding of news organizations is seldom mentioned, much less explored. Independent writers, however, have disclosed vast sums laundered through innocuous-sounding foundations, think tanks, and government proprietaries and front companies.
Victoria Nuland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, even boasted in late 2013 at the National Press Club that the United States had spent $5 billion to create the conditions necessary to overthrow the pro-Russian government in the Ukraine. That spending (largely obscured by laundering through "democracy-building" groups) led to a government overthrow and Nuland's scandalous intercepted phone call when she was caught conspiring with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine on who should lead Ukraine after its revolution, as reported in U.S. diplomat apologizes for profane remarks on E.U. in leaked phone call.
This preamble leads to the bizarre situation in December whereby two separate New York Times reporters quoted Snopes.com, a prominent California fact-checking service without reporting that it had been itself accused of scandalous activity by the editor's ex-wife and co-founder.
The more in-depth of the Times stories on Dec. 26 quoting Snopes co-founder David Mikkelson was For Fact-Checking Website Snopes, a Bigger Role Brings More Attacks. Reporter David Streitfeld began:
The last line of defense against the torrent of half-truths, untruths and outright fakery that make up so much of the modern internet is in a downscale strip mall near the beach. Snopes, the fact-checking website, does not have an office designed to impress, or even be noticed. A big sign outside still bears the name of the previous tenant, a maker of underwater headphones. Inside there’s nothing much — a bunch of improvised desks, a table tennis table, cartons of Popchips and cases of Dr. Pepper. It looks like a dot-com on the way to nowhere.
Appearances deceive. This is where the muddled masses come by the virtual millions to establish just what the heck is really going on in a world turned upside down. “Rationality seems to have fallen out of vogue,” said Brooke Binkowski, Snopes’s managing editor. “People don’t know what to believe anymore. Everything is really strange right now.”
Streitfeld, an experienced media writer at the Times, mentioned controversy about the site and Mikkelson but quickly dismissed it as "fake news" spread by conservative enemies of the site and without any basis. Here is Streitfeld's treatment:
One way to chart Snopes’s increasing prominence is by measuring the rise in fake news about the site itself. If you believe the internet, the founder of Snopes, David Mikkelson, has a longer rap sheet than Al Capone.
He was supposedly arrested for committing fraud and corruption and running a pit bull ring. In the wake of a deal that Snopes and others made this month to start fact-checking for Facebook, new slurs and allegations poured forth. The underlying message of these spurious attacks is that the movement to fact-check the internet is a left-wing conspiracy whose real goal is to censor the right, and therefore must be resisted at all costs (emphasis added).
Thus Streitfeld and the Times, with no real analysis, dismiss attacks as false.
But here is the part of the story the Times did not see fit to mention either in Streitfeld's article or one published the same day by his colleague Jeremy W. Peters, whose story quoting Snopes in positive fashion was headlined With Claims of ‘Fake News,’ Conservatives Take Aim at Media.
Missing entirely from the Times coverage was a story broken by the Daily Mail five days previously and re-reported by Daily Caller reporter Peter Hasson in Snopes Co-Founder Accused Of Embezzling Company Money, Spending It On Prostitutes.
Hasson continued in his Dec. 21 story:
The founder of mythbusting website Snopes, which was recently tapped by Facebook as one of four “fact-check” organizations patrolling the site for “fake news,” embezzled $98,000 in company funds before spending it on “himself and the prostitutes he hired,” according to legal documents filed by his ex-wife reviewed by the Daily Mail.
After divorcing from his first wife, Barbara Mikkelson, David Mikkelson married Elyssa Young, a former porn star and current escort who now works for Snopes as an administrator, according to the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail also revealed that top Snopes “fact-checker” Kim LaCapria claimed on her personal blog that she has “posted to Snopes” after smoking marijuana. As TheDC previously revealed, LaCapria describes herself as “openly left-leaning” and once claimed that Republicans fear “female agency.” (Related: "Fact-Checking Snopes: Website’s Political ‘Fact-Checker’ Is Just A Failed Liberal Blogger.")
As originally reported by TheDC, Snopes almost exclusively employs leftists as fact-checkers, many of whom have exhibited a clear distaste for Republican voters. TheDC could not identify a single Snopes fact-checker who comes from a conservative background.
Not covered in these excerpts are claims from the divorce papers that the Mikkelsons were taking huge income from their operation, reputedly $700,000 one year for her and $350,000 for him. That kind of money is not typical for bloggers. No outside (and certainly not the New York Times profile) explored where that money came from.
The gist of the scandal was confirmed also by Forbes Magazine in The Daily Mail Snopes Story And Fact Checking The Fact Checkers. Forbes reporter Kalev Leetaru wrote on Dec. 22, 2016, "When I reached out to David Mikkelson, the founder of Snopes, for comment, I fully expected him to respond with a lengthy email in Snopes’ trademark point-by-point format, fully refuting each and every one of the claims in the Daily Mail’s article and writing the entire article off as “fake news.”
It was with incredible surprise therefore that I received David’s one-sentence response which read in its entirety “I'd be happy to speak with you, but I can only address some aspects in general because I'm precluded by the terms of a binding settlement agreement from discussing details of my divorce.”
At the end of the day, it is clear that before we rush to place fact checking organizations like Snopes in charge of arbitrating what is “truth” on Facebook, we need to have a lot more understanding of how they function internally and much greater transparency into their work.
That advice was published in Forbes four days before the New York Times went with its two stories dismissing attacks on the Snopes operation as totally false and ignoring the contrary material without explanation.
What's the Problem?
These examples show that mainstream media continue to ignore their complicity in what they decry as “fake news.”
Traditional broadcasters and print outlets use many dubious “news” sources that foster the current crisis whereby public-relations techniques, propaganda, and political dirty tricks are destroying civic discourse.
Many of these problems are rooted in a servile and otherwise unprofessional adherence to the ideological, political and financial agendas of an outlet’s ownership, as I have observed over four decades in communications and law.
The apparatus is further supported by vast numbers of bureaucrats in journalism and academia who provide a veneer of respectability to research about "fake news" that cannot withstand in-depth scrutiny. As one of many examples, the School Library Journal published a column Nov. 26 (Truth, truthiness, triangulation: A news literacy toolkit for a “post-truth” world) touting the Snopes, Zimdars and other dubious sources cited here. The column was by Joyce Valenza, an assistant professor of teaching at Rutgers University, who one can charitably say may not be on the front lines of research.
The problems are especially acute for JFK assassination and 9/11 researchers, who must contend with ongoing institutional bias of mainstream and alternative outlets and their personnel who are as quick to decry what they term "fake news" as "conspiracy theory."
The good news, however, is that the bold spirits in these communities are tested, determined and otherwise well-positioned to identify both facts and fakery for the betterment of all.
Andrew Kreig, a member of the 9/11 Truth Action Project Lawyers Committee, is a Washington, DC-based lecturer, investigative reporter, attorney and author with more than four decades experience. He edits the work of the non-partisan Justice Integrity Project, has appeared on hundreds of radio, cable and television interviews, and authored two investigative non-fiction books exploring the nation's power Andrew Kreigstructure.
Spiked: How Chain Management Corrupted America's Oldest Newspaper (1987) provided a pioneering case study of how ownership affects news coverage. Presidential Puppetry: Obama, Romney and Their Masters (2013, updated in 2016) documented how every U.S. president after Jimmy Carter developed covert relationships with either the CIA or FBI before entering politics, thereby facilitating their relationships with the power structure that uses such bodies as an operational arm.
Kreig (shown in a file photo) formerly led the Wireless Communications Association for a dozen years as president/CEO in its mission to advance wireless services via the Internet. He holds law degrees from Yale and the University of Chicago, and is an active member of numerous bar, journalism and other civic groups.
Contact the author Andrew Kreig
Andrew Kreig, a member of the Lawyers Committee for 9/11 Inquiry, is a Washington, DC-based lecturer, investigative reporter, attorney and author with more than four decades experience. He edits the work of the non-partisan Justice Integrity Project, has appeared on hundreds of radio, cable and television interviews, and authored two investigative non-fiction books exploring the nation's power.