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Truthdiggers of the Week: Journalists Who Ripped Washington Post, PropOrNot for McCarthyite Hogwash

Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Assistant Editor and Poetry Editor
Natasha Hakimi Zapata is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American Literature at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain. She also holds a Creative Writing M.F.A. from Boston University and both a…
Natasha Hakimi Zapata

Flickr / CC 2.0

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a person or group worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

As many of our readers know, Truthdig, along with Truthout, CounterPunch, Naked Capitalism and WikiLeaks, among 200 alternative news websites from all over the political spectrum, were named as Russian propagandists on a blacklist compiled by a shadowy site called PropOrNot that was used as a source for a chilling piece by Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg on Nov. 24. The list, which some in the media have branded “McCarthyite,” has been widely criticized, particularly because Timberg and the Post did not disclose sufficient identifying details about the accusing group, which has not released its members’ names. And neither Timberg nor Post editors have provided any insight on their reasoning in publishing PropOrNot’s findings. For its part, PropOrNot continues to offer erratic, at times childish, responses to the backlash.

In the days after publication of the Post’s story, many fellow journalists have come to the defense of Truthdig and several other sites the list identified, tearing apart both the Post for its role in propagating the shameful list and PropOrNot’s careless methodology in choosing the publications it named. Below are some of the highlights of the defenders’ responses.

At The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Ben Norton wrote a detailed account of the entire fiasco and condemned The Washington Post’s part in disseminating so-called research by this “new, hidden, and very shady group”:

Even more disturbing than the Post’s shoddy journalism in this instance is the broader trend in which any wild conspiracy theory or McCarthyite attack is now permitted in U.S. discourse as long as it involves Russia and Putin — just as was true in the 1950s when stories of how the Russians were poisoning the U.S. water supply or infiltrating American institutions were commonplace. Any anti-Russia story was — and is — instantly vested with credibility, while anyone questioning its veracity or evidentiary basis is subject to attacks on their loyalties or, at best, vilified as “useful idiots.” … The Post itself — now posing as a warrior against “fake news” — published an article in September that treated with great seriousness the claim that Hillary Clinton collapsed on 9/11 Day because she was poisoned by Putin. And that’s to say nothing of the paper’s disgraceful history of convincing Americans that Saddam [Hussein] was building non-existent nuclear weapons and had cultivated a vibrant alliance with al Qaeda. As is so often the case, those who mostly loudly warn of “fake news” from others are themselves the most aggressive disseminators of it.

Indeed, what happened here is the essence of fake news. The Post story served the agendas of many factions: those who want to believe Putin stole the election from Hillary Clinton; those who want to believe that the internet and social media are a grave menace that needs to be controlled, in contrast to the objective truth that reliable old media outlets once issued; those who want a resurrection of the Cold War. So those who saw tweets and Facebook posts promoting this Post story instantly clicked and shared and promoted the story without an iota of critical thought or examination of whether the claims were true, because they wanted the claims to be true. That behavior included countless journalists.

Adrian Chen outright called Timberg’s piece and PropOrNot’s list “propaganda about Russian propaganda” in a piece for The New Yorker, in which he explained that he had passed on the very same shoddy “research” that Timberg and the Post deemed worthy of printing:

The story of PropOrNot should serve as a cautionary tale to those who fixate on malignant digital influences as a primary explanation for Trump’s stunning election. The story combines two of the most popular technological villains of post-election analysis—fake news and Russian subterfuge—into a single tantalizing package. Like the most effective Russian propaganda, the report weaved together truth and misinformation.

Bogus news stories, which overwhelmingly favored Trump, did flood social media throughout the campaign, and the hack of the Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s e-mail seems likely to have been the work of Russian intelligence services. But, as harmful as these phenomena might be, the prospect of legitimate dissenting voices being labeled fake news or Russian propaganda by mysterious groups of ex-government employees, with the help of a national newspaper, is even scarier. Vasily Gatov told me, “To blame internal social effects on external perpetrators is very Putinistic.”

In a piece for Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi called the Post’s story “shameful and disgusting”:

All of this is an outgrowth of this horrible election season we just lived through.

A lot of reporters over the summer were so scared by the prospect of a Trump presidency that they talked – in some cases publicly – about abandoning traditional ideas about journalistic “distance” from politicians, in favor of open advocacy for the Clinton campaign. “Trump is testing the norms of objectivity in journalism,” is how The Times put it.

These journalists seemed totally indifferent to the Pandora’s box they were opening. They didn’t understand that most politicians have no use for critical media. Many of them don’t see alternative points of view as healthy or even legitimate. If you polled a hundred politicians about the profession, 99 would say that all reporters are obstructionist scum whose removal from the planet would be a boon to society.

The only time politicians like the media is when we’re helping them get elected or push through certain policies, like for instance helping spread dubious stories about Iraq’s WMD capability. Otherwise, they despise us. So news outlets that get into bed with politicians are usually making a devil’s bargain they don’t fully understand.

They may think they’re being patriotic (as many did during the Iraq/WMD episode), but in the end what will happen is that they will adopt the point of view of their political sponsors. They will soon enough denounce other reporters and begin to see themselves as part of the power structure, as opposed to a check on it.

This is the ultimate in stupidity and self-annihilating behavior. The power of the press comes from its independence from politicians. Jump into bed with them and you not only won’t ever be able to get out, but you’ll win nothing but a loss of real influence and the undying loathing of audiences.

Joshua Frank, co-editor of “CounterPunch,” another left-leaning site named on the blacklist, details a revealing email exchange with PropOrNot:

In further emails, I explained to the group that there were many other media outlets that were not tools of Russian propaganda; Truthout, Truthdig, BlackAgendaReport, Antiwar.com, among others. Here is their reply:

“If Truthout, Truthdig, Antiwar, BlackAgendaReport, etc, were to reach out to us like you did, things might well end up playing out very similarly to how this one has! We’ve asked people to do that on our site. Several have. Others have not.”

And then this gem:

“If someone contacts us and the resulting conversation makes clear that they understand, for example, how Putin’s Russia is a revisionist authoritarian wannabe-imperialist kleptocracy that uses ‘fake news’ as online propaganda, then we have a lot of common ground. That factors into our understanding of the merits, but more importantly, becomes a basis for constructive movement forward.”

Huh? That isn’t very sound methodology if you ask me, more like a shallow smear campaign manufactured by amateurs. PropOrNot will consider taking these sites off their blacklist, not based on the sites’ content but on whether or not they contacted PropOrNot directly and if “they understand” Putin is a bad hombre? The group lists these aforementioned sites right along RT and Sputnik News, both of which are openly funded by the Russian government and provide a point of view that’s in line with the Kremlin. It’s clearly a case of guilt by association.

See more of Frank’s, as well as Truthdig columnist Sonali Kolhatkar’s, responses to the smear in the video below.

The Nation’s James Carden recalled a 2014 report by The Interpreter that can be seen as a similar attempt at blacklisting writers and organizations for supposedly putting forth “disinformation.” Carden wrote then that the fact that the media hailed the report rather instead of condemning it was a harbinger of the media’s fragile future:

An ominous sign, as well as a sign of things to come, since, as we have seen, throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, much of the liberal commentariat worked itself into a neo-McCarthyite frenzy from which it has not yet recovered. By this point it hardly needs pointing out that some liberal pundits have themselves been actively engaged in a disinformation campaign for some time. How else can one describe former New Republic editor Franklin Foer’s thoroughly debunked piece on the Trump Organization’s “secret email server” connected to a Russian bank.

Max Blumenthal decried the PropOrNot blacklist and the Post in a scathing report for AlterNet, coming to the following alarming conclusion:

PropOrNot’s malicious agenda is clearly spelled out on its website. While denying McCarthyite intentions, the group is openly attempting to compel “formal investigations by the U.S. government, because the kind of folks who make propaganda for brutal authoritarian oligarchies are often involved in a wide range of bad business.” The group also seeks to brand major progressive politics sites (and a number of prominent right-wing opinion outlets) as “‘gray’ fake-media propaganda outlets” influenced or directly operated by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). It can then compel Facebook and Google to ban them, denying them the ad revenue they rely on to survive. … As scrutiny of PropOrNot increases, its credibility is rapidly unraveling. But that has not stopped Beltway media wiseguys and Democratic political operatives from hyping its claims. Fake news and Russian propaganda have become the great post-election moral panic, a creeping Sharia-style conspiracy theory for shell-shocked liberals. Hoping to punish the dark foreign forces they blame for rigging the election, many of these insiders have latched onto a McCarthyite campaign that calls for government investigations of a wide array of alternative media outlets. In this case, the medicine might be worse than the disease.

From a different side of the political gamut, we have Philip Giraldi’s critique, published in The American Conservative:

The mainstream media, which clearly is having some difficulty in explaining why anyone should pay attention to it, is eager to discover new reasons why the reporting in the lead-up to the elections was so awful. It is convenient to claim that the Russians planted false stories, and furthermore are attempting to destroy our democracy, which would be a good segue if only anyone would actually believe any of it. The fact is that the public does not trust the media because the reporting has been both intrinsically biased and selective, with Team Clinton being the beneficiary of the status quo far more often than not in the recent electoral campaign. The clearly perceived bias is precisely why the public seeks out alternative sources of information and latches on to fake stories—and while it may be true that a Russian government ministry is responsible for some of what is being produced, the allegation that there exists a plot to destroy American democracy is a bridge way too far. The Democratic and Republican parties are already doing that without any help from Moscow.

For more information on Truthdig’s response to the blacklist, here are Truthdig communications coordinator Sarah Wesley, left, Deputy Editor Kasia Anderson, Publisher Zuade Kaufman and Editor in Chief Robert Scheer discussing the issue in a recent Facebook Live session:

Meanwhile at Daily Kos, a user wrote, “The way to fight fake news is not to give credence to anonymous trolls compiling blacklists. It’s to collaborate in verification and support for news sources that have a record of applying consistent editorial standards.” And even more-mainstream publications such as Fortune and The Hill discredited PropOrNot and called the Post out on its promotion of the shady organization.

Unfortunately, not everyone has caught on to the fact that, as Fortune puts it “No, Russian Agents Are Not Behind Every Piece of Fake News You See,” and CNN, MSNBC and others have continued to spread the story as truth despite the many credible critiques mentioned above.

But this just highlights the importance of the denunciations by the many journalists who continue to speak out against this censorship attempt and in favor of investigative reporters’ work in general. At a time when freedom of the press is under fire from several directions, quality journalism is more crucial than ever. And true journalism cannot survive in an environment that favors an official version of facts and would squelch independent thinkers whose main goal is keep our nation’s leaders accountable.

For this reason, those who called the Post and PropOrNot out on their McCarthyite bullshit are our Truthdiggers of the Week.

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