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Newsguard Case Highlights the Pentagon's Censorship End-Around
The Consortium News lawsuit against a private news rating system lays out how the government can suppress speech by proxy
Monday, the independent website Consortium News filed suit against the United States of America and Newsguard Technologies. The complaint targeting both the government and a private media ratings service is an important one, putting the censorship-by-proxy system on trial.
On September 7, 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense gave an award of $749,387 to Newsguard Technologies, a private service that scores media outlets on “reliability” and “trust.” According to the suit, roughly 40,000 subscribers buy Newsguard subscriptions, getting in return a system of “Nutrition Labels” supposedly emphasizing “safe” content. Importantly, Newsguard’s customers include universities and libraries, whose users are presented with labels warning you that CBS is great and Tucker Carlson is dangerous:
Consortium News was labeled a purveyor of “disinformation,” “misinformation,” and “false content,” and, worst of all, “anti-U.S.” This is despite the fact that, according to the suit, Newsguard only flagged six articles out of the tens of thousands Consortium News has published since the late award-winning reporter Robert Parry founded it in 1995. As Consortium News points out, Newsguard downgrades its entire 20,000+ library of available online articles with these flags based on the handful of edge cases, all of which involve criticism of U.S. foreign policy.
A particular irony is that Parry, a decorated AP and Newsweek reporter, founded Consortium News specifically to address topics suppressed by mainstream editors. Now Parry’s old site is being downgraded for dissenting reports on subjects like the 2014 Ukrainian coup and neo-Nazism in Ukraine, coincidentally topics that are “the subject of NewsGuard’s ‘Misinformation Fingerprints’ project that is under contract with the Cyber Command,” as the suit reads.
Newsguard denies it’s influenced by the government. In fact, its denials are part of the reason for the suit. When Michael Shellenberger and I testified before Congress in March, we mentioned Newsguard as a “government-funded” ratings service. I was quickly contacted by email by co-CEO Gordon Crovitz, who hastened to correct me: Newsguard isn’t government-funded, but merely an organization that receives government funds. He wrote:
As is public, our work for the Pentagon’s Cyber Command is focused on the identification and analysis of information operations targeting the US and its allies conducted by hostile governments, including Russia and China.
Our analysts alert officials in the US and in other democracies, including Ukraine, about new false narratives targeting America and its allies, and we provide an understanding of how this disinformation spreads online. We are proud of our work countering Russian and Chinese disinformation on behalf of Western democracies.
Crovitz added that “contrary to claims made in the hearings, we oppose any government involvement in rating news sources,” saying Newsguard “is entirely independent and free of any outside influence, including from the U.S. or any other government.”
The letter, CC’ed to co-CEO and editor Stephen Brill, was subject-lined “Inaccuracies relating to NewsGuard.” I immediately wrote back:
Crovitz didn’t answer at the time, but Newsguard did simultaneously release the letter to the UK-based Press-Gazette. When I reached out for comment again after the filing of this litigation this week, asking once again how “government-funded” could be inaccurate, Crovitz finally answered, writing:
“We are ‘government funded’ in the same way that Verizon is ‘government funded: We have licensed data to the government for a fee, just as Verizon has provided telco services for a fee.”
The government pays us both for our commercial offerings. Our Pentagon contract is a single-digit percent of our revenues.
So, they are government-funded, just not wholly government-funded. These are the people rating others on accuracy, remember.
The conceit about funding isn’t complicated, but it works. Because Newsguard has other customers, it can claim to be an “independent” news service that just happens to downgrade news reports that contradict and/or criticize the policy of its major client, the Department of Defense. It’s censorship, but through a silencer. As the Consortium News suit reads:
NewsGuard and the United States in violation of the First Amendment are carrying out a governmental program under the “Misinformation Fingerprints” contract to publicly label, target and stigmatize news organizations as disfavored, unreliable, as journalistically not responsible… where said organizations differ or dissent from U.S. policy.
The suit also details what I think is the more insidious part of the system. In the guise of an independent news service, Newsguard contacts outlets and interrogates them about disputed content, not-so-subtly pressing for retractions. Again, from the suit:
In the course of the government contract, NewsGuard and the United States have acted to retaliate against those news entities and media organizations that refuse to retract or correct their articles; such retaliation consists of the “false content” warnings, the red flag and associated content described in this Amended Complaint…
Racket received one of these irritating queries this year. Call it what you want, but it comes down to Pentagon Cyber Command giving a big check to “analysts” who happen to slap red revenue-sapping warning tags on outlets that report on controversial topics like war or government censorship.
As I wrote to Newsguard when they contacted me, “media outlets should gain and lose trust based on how they are evaluated by audiences, not paid services.” This system allows institutions like the Department of Defense that have no legal remit to meddle in the domestic news landscape to pressure private media outlets.
That’s over and above the DoD’s already hugest-on-earth-by-far public relations budget. Think of the scale of petty determination one must have to spend over $500 million a year on messaging and be so dissatisfied with the results that you feel the need to spend more on private services that downgrade independent news critics. It’s particularly grating that your tax dollars are spent hiring private services that label news outlets using terms like “anti-US.” State-sponsored impugning of patriotism is a bold stroke, even by the low moral standards of the anti-disinformation era.
“When media groups are condemned by the government as ‘anti-U.S.’,” said Bruce Afran, attorney for Consortium News, “the result is self-censorship and a destruction of the public debate intended by the First Amendment.”
I was remiss in not getting this story up before, but will have more as the case goes on.
Consortium News is seeking “a permanent injunction… barring the government and NewsGuard from continuing such practices” and “more than $13 million in damages for defamation and civil rights violations.” You can read their coverage here.