Faking It At the MRC
The Media Research Center does everything it can to avoid discussing the problem of "fake news" -- and certainly not how Brent Bozell's attack on purported bias at Facebook helped create it.
By Terry Krepel
Earlier this year, Media Research Center chief Brent Bozell joined other conservatives in attacking Facebook for alleged bias on its "trending topics" feed, even taking part in a right-wing delegation to Facebook HQ to rant at them the error of their ways, proclaiming that "no one knows more about liberal bias in the media than we do."
After the meeting, Bozell touted the intimidation factor he employed: "I explained from our standpoint between the Media Research Center and for America, my other organization we have some 19 million Facebook fans. You know, I think we're biggest out there and we’ve never had a problem, but there’s too much smoke to dismiss the lack of a there is a problem within Facebook[.]"
But another member of the conservative delegation at the Facebook meeting, Glenn Beck, had a different view of what happened, painting it as a attempt by conservatives to shake down Facebook: "The overall tenor, to me, felt like the Salem Witch Trial: ‘Facebook, you must admit that you are screwing us, because if not, it proves you are screwing us.’" Beck added, "What happened to us? When did we become them?"
Tellingly, the MRC's writeups of the Facebook controversy and the conservatives meeting with Facebook officials failed to acknowledge Beck's point of view on the Facebook meeting and downplayed the fact he was even there. Even in an appearance on Beck's own TheBlaze TV, Bozell didn't mention Beck's participation.
Well, that Bozell-led visit to Facebook had its intended effect -- and proved Beck right.
Gizmodo reported that Facebook's news feeds have become swamped by items from fake news sites designed to boost Donald Trump's presidential campaign, and sources said Facebook was afraid to do anything about it lest it offend Bozell's brigade again:
According to two sources with direct knowledge of the company’s decision-making, Facebook executives conducted a wide-ranging review of products and policies earlier this year, with the goal of eliminating any appearance of political bias. One source said high-ranking officials were briefed on a planned News Feed update that would have identified fake or hoax news stories, but disproportionately impacted right-wing news sites by downgrading or removing that content from people’s feeds. According to the source, the update was shelved and never released to the public. It’s unclear if the update had other deficiencies that caused it to be scrubbed.
Now that the election is over, Facebook is finally cracking down on fake news.
It looks Bozell and the MRC got what it wanted -- media outlets too intimidated by right-wing activists to something even so basic as fix a flaw that permits the dissemination of fake news. And as long as that fake news benefited a Republican, we have to assume the MRC is perfectly fine with that -- after all, we'd never hear the end of it from Bozell and Co. if the fake news Facebook wouldn't stop benefited Hillary Clinton.
Or if the MRC itself was accused of peddling fake news. CNN's Brian Stelter mentioned NewsBusters in a segment on right-wing faker news -- actually, didn't even mention it; he just used a screenshot of a couple of NewsBusters items in passing -- and the MRC got the vapors. Brad Wilmouth wrote in a Nov. 19 post:
In a pre-recorded piece aired on New Day Saturday, CNN's Brian Stelter included images of two NewsBusters articles (here and here) as he complained that many people were fooled by "BS" and "fake news," sharing such material with others through social media during the 2016 presidential election.
Wilmouth went on to state that "NewsBusters executive editor Tim Graham demanded that Stelter issue a correction and emphasized that all of us at NewsBusters take issues of accuracy seriously (despite what Stelter may consciously or erroneously think and opine to viewers)," adding links to Graham tweeting that "If you can't explain where we FAKED it, @BrianStelter we at NewsBusters want a correction" and "Anyone who reads @newsbusters -- if you find something 'Pants on Fire' or 'Fake' on NB, we will take it seriously. No flies in our soup!"
Wilmouth and Graham have a point -- to a certain extent. Of the two NewsBusters posts that got blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances in the CNN segment, one is as run-of-the-mill right-wing rant by Christian Toto overstating what comedian Amy Schumer said about Trump voters; while she mocked them by questioning if they could read her Instagram post "through the holes in your sheets," the headline of Toto's item claims she called them "Clueless KKK Members." The item did contain an added editor's note asserting that Hillary Clinton's emails, which Schumer said contained "nothing incriminating," actually contained "Classified information very likely hacked by foreign agents."
The second post was one by Matt Philbin, which complained that the media was examining the white-nationalist ties of Steve Bannon instead of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, who Philbin smeared as an "anti-Catholic bigot." In fact, Podesta is a Catholic himself, and he merely complained about conservative Catholics, not attacked the entire religion.
In the MRC's defense, these types of items are not the blatantly fake news that has people concerned -- this sort of hyperbolic ranting is par for the course at NewsBusters. That's not to say the MRC hasn't been promoting fake news, however.
Before the election, the MRC went all in in relentlessly promoting a Fox News story citing anonymous sources to claim that an indictment of Hillary Clinton was imminent and that her email server was almost definitely hacked. It complained that non-right-wing media were ignoring the "massive bombshell" and attacked news outlets that did their own reporting and concluded otherwise while pointing out the holes in Fox News' account. with Bozell himself ranted about the "media cover-up" and declared, "We will report developments on this continuing cover-up every hour from here on out."
None of those hours were devoted to a post that told readers the truth: Fox News effectively retracted both claims. Anchor Bret Baier admitted that "just wasn't inartful, it was a mistake" to report that an indictment was forthcoming, "and for that I'm sorry." He also walked back his claim that it was all but certain -- a "99 percent accuracy" -- that Clinton's private server had been hacked, conceding that "there are still no digital fingerprints of a breach."
That not only undercuts Wilmouth's claim that "all of us at NewsBusters take issues of accuracy seriously" and Graham's assertion that "if you find something 'Pants on Fire' or 'Fake' on NB, we will take it seriously," it proves that the editor's note in Toto's post on Schumer was fake as well. So maybe Stelter wasn't that much out of line.
In other words, it was fake news, and the MRC embraced it.
There are also things like NewsBusters blogger Tom Blumer deceptively trying to blame all birtherism on Hillary Clinton (which, to the very limited extent her campaign was associated with the issue, ended around the time her 2008 campaign did) as a ploy to get Trump off the hook for pushing the issue for five years. NewsBusters also has a blogger hiding behind the fake name of "Bruce Bookter"and hired aggressively pro-Trump partisan Jeffrey Lord to blog there as well, who has his own history of fake news.
The fake news the MRC puts out isn't the crude clickbait designed to make money; it's things like dubious studies so narrowly defined and unscientifically conducted they're meaningless as anything except a partisan cudgel.
The public is smarter than they are given credit for, and are very perceptive. So, the fear that fake news is what drove a Trump victory over Clinton is powered by a distrust with the intelligence the public. If Stelter and the media want their credibility back, then they need to show some trust in the public and not just demand that the public trust them.
Of course, neither of these two Stelter-bashing posts noted that Facebook reportedly refused to implement standards that would weed out fake news in order to avoid provoking another attack from right-wingers like Bozell over claims of bias and censorship.
If the MRC was really as interested in accuracy as Graham and other employees claim it is, it would address the false Fox News claim in its discussions of the fake-news controversy.
Instead, the MRC has apparently decided to redefine "fake news" as something only the "liberal media" does.
Loyal MRC apparatchik Dan Gainor made a Nov. 21 appearance on Fox Business -- where, like on sister network Fox News, MRC talking heads are all but assured their anti-media views will never be subject to question -- in which he was called on to rant about an incomplete quote of Reince Priebus that NBC tweeted out (yes, this outrage is centered on a tweet). Asked if the Trump administration would establish a registry for Mulsims, Priebus responded, “Look, I’m not going to rule out anything, but I wouldn’t, we’re not going to have a registry based on a religion.” Gainor and Fox Business anchor Melissa Francis were incensed that NBC tweeted out only the first part of Priebus' statement, even though it actually negates the latter half of it.
Gainor ranted in response: "Of course it's something to get upset about. This is the same network that gave us Brian Williams and fake news. The media are all upset about fake news and they’re giving us fake news!"
No, Dan, Williams did not report "fake news" -- he embellished his personal association with certain news events. Not fully quoting Priebus to the MRC's satisfaction, even though his statement was self-contradicting, is also not fake news.
Fake news is what Facebook allowed to appear from shady websites that cared more about making money and creating clickbait than telling the truth -- a situation that came about in no small part because Facebook was afraid of Gainor's boss, Brent Bozell, accusing it of liberal bias (again). It's the MRC promoting that fake Fox News story, then refusing to clearly tell its readers the story was fake.
As long as Gainor and the rest of the MRC desperately try to obfuscate and redefine and change the subject, there will never be a serious discussion of fake news in which the MRC takes part.