The MRC's Loud And Lame War On NewsGuard
The Media Research Center enjoys ranting at the website rating service for pointing out that conservative websites aren't very credible -- but it doesn't actually disprove any of NewsGuard's findings.
By Terry Krepel
The Media Research Center has had a longtime dislike for the website credibility rating firm NewsGuard. An April 2020 post by Corinne Weaver, attacked the organization for pointing out that Rush Limbaugh made false statements about the coronavirus:
A new report from liberal Microsoft partner NewsGuard, “ Tracking Facebook’s COVID-19 Misinformation ‘Super-spreaders,’” went after large Facebook pages that “repeat, share, and amplify these myths” about COVID-19. The second example on the list was Rush Limbaugh’s Facebook page, which had shared “a link to Limbaugh’s site with false claims that the coronavirus was created in a lab as a bioweapon and that it is similar to the common cold.”
Both Weaver and NewsGuard are confusing here. Because NewsGuard is focusing on misinformation on Facebook, its initial focus is on Limbaugh's Facebook post, which was made on Feb. 29 and linked to a transcript from Limbaugh's Feb. 24 show. NewsGuard has appended a correction (which Weaver has not acknowledged) fixing the date issues.
Weaver, however, is misleading about what Limbaugh said. The question to which she refers that Limbaugh answered with an "I don't know" occurs toward the end of a lengthy rant in which Limbaugh did, in fact, declare that he was "dead right" that "The coronavirus is the common cold, folks" and that "It probably is a ChiCom laboratory experiment that is in the process of being weaponized."
Even the Feb. 26 transcript that was apparently originally linked by NewsGuard is more problematic that Weaver will admit. Limbaugh falsely claimed that "This is the 19th coronavirus" (in fact, the number represents 2019, the year it was discovered), again claimed "Coronavirus is a respiratory virus like flu, like the common cold. I’m not wrong about this," and did very much argue that the virus was released by China in retaliation.
Weaver tried to make her own specious allegation that NewsGuard is "liberal," largely through guilt by association, citing not only Brill's alleged political donations but also money donated to it by Poynter and the Knight Foundation, which she dismissed as a "liberal journalism institute" and a "liberal foundation for journalism," respectively. Her proof that Poynter is "liberal" is that it identified the MRC as biased.
That's extremely thin gruel to make such accusations. But the MRC will keep making that gruel because a narrative must be maintained.
Nevertheless, a month later, Alexander Hall cited Weaver's post in huffing that "Liberal website ratings firm NewsGuard has expanded its partnership with Microsoft in order to spread 'news literacy.'" Hall offered no actual evidence that NewsGuard is "liberal"; instead he complained that co-CEO Steven Brill "has reportedly given four times more money to Democrats than to Republicans and added: "NewsGuard has a history of political partisanship. It has slimed figures like Rush Limbaugh and mischaracterized a post on Limbaugh's Facebook page. NewsGuard highlighted 'a link to Limbaugh’s site with false claims that the coronavirus was created in a lab as a bioweapon and that it is similar to the common cold.' NewsGuard was neither accurate about what he actually said, nor even the date of the post."
In May 2021, the MRC's Kayla Sargent freaked out over NewsGuard launching a service that would allow advertisers to block its ads on websites that contain misinformation -- weirdly screaming in the headline that this was "DISGUSTING." She huffed that "NewsGuard’s new service to help advertisers fight what it considers to be 'misinformation' could even be dangerous to the idea of free speech, because the organization is so overtly left-leaning." She offered no credible evidence that NewsGuard is "left-leaning."
(NewsGuard also had an encounter with WorldNetDaily's Joseph Farah, who had a meltdown when a NewsGuard tried to ask him basic questions about WND's notoriously unreliable "news" operation.)
That hatred has only grown more visceral. When NewsGuard announced it was spreading its ratings system to broadcast news, the MRC decided to declare war. Joseph Vazquez ranted against the "leftist" NewsGuard in a Dec. 3 post, first repeating the MRC previous factually deficient attack on the organization over its Limbaugh fact-check, then adding:
NewsGuard even went after pro-life organizations like Live Action, giving it a dubious score of “30” out of 100 and accused that it “severely violates basic journalistic standards.” Meanwhile, NewsGuard rates baby slaughter mill Planned Parenthood with a “75” score and claimed its “ website adheres to basic standards of credibility and transparency.” [Emphasis added.]
Note that Vazquez hung political labels on Jezebel but not LifeSite or Live Action, which are unambiguously right-wing. He also forgot to mention that LifeSite is a notorious spreader of misinformation, particularly about COVID; when social media shut down its accounts because of the misinformation it spreads, the MRC conferred victimhood on it. Vazquez also didn't prove that Planned Parenthood is unreliable or that LiveAction is reliable (Live Action got kicked off Instagram for spreading misinformation). Vazquez further whined:
A December 2020 report by NewsGuard illustrated the bias the site has against conservatives. It claimed that organizations listed “published falsehoods about both COVID-19 and the 2020 U.S. election.” The list included outlets like Breitbart, The Blaze, The Epoch Times and LifeSiteNews. The “Trustworthy and Trending” list, on the other hand, included liberal propaganda outlets like NBC News, The New York Times, Microsoft’s MSN.com, The Washington Post and the taxpayer-funded National Public Radio.
Vazquez provided no evidence to dispute any specific findings. Again note that Vazquez laughably called credible news outlets "liberal propaganda" while putting no ideological label on the unambiguous right-wing outlets he defended.
The gauntlet having apparently been thrown, the MRC slapped together a so-called "study" in an attempt to tar NewsGuard as having a liberal bias, which Vazquez hyped in a Dec. 13 post:
A new analysis reveals the extraordinary left-wing bias of website ratings firm NewsGuard, which should concern every American given that it is expanding its reach into cable and broadcast TV news. Liberal outlets were rated 27 points higher on average than news organizations on the right.
But as ConWebWatch has documented, AllSides is a right-leaning fact-checker that uses sloppy labeling, and the MRC has previously praised it for leaning into its "liberal bias" narratives. Nevertheless, Vazquez tried to make a case for AllSides' credibility, claiming that "Even the liberal Poynter Institute cited two media experts who shared 'praise for the stated methods for rating bias' by AllSides." Vazquez did weirdly complain, though, that "AllSides including Deseret News in its 'lean right' list is disputed by MRC research"; as ConWebWatch has also documented, that "dispute" is based solely on coverage on two stories seven years apart in which the paper -- which is owned by a division the Mormon Church, hardly a bastion of liberalism -- dared to accurately report bad news about a Republican.
Vazquez then moved on to cherry-picking attacks on NewsGuard's numbers:
The breakdown of the lists of outlets is even more revealing in terms of their individual grades. Socialist site Jacobin, scored an astonishing "92.5" by NewsGuard. The same outlet published Marxist propaganda in October headlined: “Socialism Isn’t Just About State Ownership It’s About Redistributing Power.” In April 2020, Jacobin published a piece celebrating how “[s]ocialism is back on the agenda in the United States, thank God. And today’s newly minted socialists shouldn’t be afraid to embrace Marxism.”
Vazquez seems to be arguing that Jacobin and The Nation be rated lower simply for advocating a political viewpoint he gets paid to disagree with, and he offered no evidence why those views, in and of themselves, should automatically make a website less credible. He continued:
By comparison, The Federalist, posted in the “right” AllSides list, was scored the worst with a ridiculous “12.5” on NewsGuard. A predominant reason for the abysmal rating, according to NewsGuard, was that The Federalist questioned the efficacy of mask mandates for COVID-19, even though liberal CNBC (not on the AllSides list, but has a “95” NewsGuard rating) cited a study showing that cloth masks were only 37 percent effective at filtering out virus particles. Another August preprint study did not find an “association between mask mandates or use and reduced COVID-19 spread in US states.”
In cherry-picking that piece, Vazquez didn't mention all the other misinformation the Federalist has published. He went on to whine:
Only two “lean-right” outlets on the AllSides list were given “100” scores by NewsGuard, both of which happen to be the Democrat-favoring Deseret News and the anti-Trump Reason magazine. Another anti-Trump outlet listed in the “lean right” AllSides list was The Dispatch, which received a “92.5” score from NewsGuard. It appears NewsGuard is more willing to award great scores to “lean right” sites that ironically publish pro-liberal content it approves.
Vazquez is again arguing that only websites that spout the same right-wing views he gets paid to advocate should be considered "credible." He refuses to take into consideration the idea that conservative websites are, in fact, less credible than liberal-leaning ones.
This "study" is a complete failure. But you know who loved it? AllSides, the supposedly neutral operation it relied on for its ratings. It devoted a Dec. 14 post to reviewing the findings and giving them credence, once again leaning into the MRC's politically motivated bias narratives: "Journalists tend to lean left, which reflects in their work. It makes sense that NewsGuard would rate them more highly because NewsGuard’s review staff is mostly made up of longtime mainstream journalists."
That, of course, is the ultimate evidence that the MRC's "study" is fatally flawed.
The bogus war continues
Brian Bradley spent a Dec. 20 post whining that NewsGuard signed a deal with an ad-services company to help it "prevent monetization on the platform by news sites that NewsGuard does not rate as 'generally trustworthy,'" attacking NewsGuard's filtering process as "arbitrary" without providing evidence to back it up. Bradley remained performatively butthurt about NewsGuard's ratings: "NewsGuard scored The Federalist, a right-of-center online publication, according to AllSides, with a 12.5 rating for “credibility,” apparently for questioning the efficiency of mask mandates, but rated socialist site Jacobin at 92.5. Jacobin vomited a piece last year heralding that “[s]ocialism is back on the agenda in the United States. Thank God.” Like Vazquez, Bradley didn't explain why a publication should be rated lower simply because it advocates a viewpoint he gets paid to disagrees with (or why Jacobin got the "socalist" tag while the Federalist was described as being merely "right-of-center.")
Tierin-Rose Mandelburg rehashed the MRC's attack line on NewsGuard, and its bogus study hack-job in a Dec. 29 "CensorTrack" video, again complaining that it rated Jacobin higher than the Federalist. She attacked NewsGuard's rating system as "a roundabout way to censor conservative voices," despite the fact that neither she nor the MRC have proven that NewsGuard is trying to do that or even that its scoring system has a documented bias.
Joseph Vazquez devoted a Jan. 12 post to marshaling a full right-wing attack against NewsGuard, which he baselessly labeled "left-wing," as well as pushing other misinformation:
The left-wing media’s Ministry of Truth website ratings firm NewsGuard is at it again, slamming conservative news outlets while promoting liberal rags. And conservative leaders are furious.
Only at the MRC would established established news operations with decades of balanced journalism under their belts like the Washington Post and the New York Times be considered "left-wing propaganda," while the right-wing sites be described as merely "conservative" and not the right-wing propaganda they actually are. He also didn't mention that, for example, ZeroHedge has a documented history of spreading misinformation. Instead, he let Newsmax respond:
NewsGuard flogged Newsmax, which received an absurd 35/100 score, for allegedly publishing “false and unsubstantiated claims about vaccines and COVID-19.” Newsmax said in a statement to MRC’s Free Speech America that it “strongly supported both the effectiveness of vaccines and CDC efforts to contain COVID. We frequently quote top medical experts for our reports. Not every medical expert agrees with all government policies, and Newsmax will occasionally publish such disagreements.”
In fact, ConWebWatch has caught Newsmax publishing numerous examples of COVID misinformation, which trying to disavow responsibility for doing so with a disclaimer that the columns were written by a "non-clinician." And Vazquez didn't mention that Newsmax is currently being sued by election-tech firms Dominion and Smartmatic for publishing false information about them in pushing Donald Trump's Big Lie about 2020 election fraud.
Vazquez get another criticized outlet a say:
LifeNews, which got a 30/100 rating, was smeared for allegedly publishing “false health claims about abortion safety and about COVID-19.” The outlet’s founder, Steven Ertelt, told MRC’s Free Speech America that “NewsGuard is not a legitimate fact-checking outlet, but rather it's a biased left-wing web site run by former liberal media staffers that presents a one-sided view falsely alleging that pro-life content is not factual simply because it disagrees with the content.”
Again, LifeNews has been busted for spreading false information about President Biden's views on abortion and about Planned Parenthood. Vazquez didn't mention that either.
Despite actual facts to back him up, Vazquez came back on Jan. 17 to rant against CNN's Brian Stelter for having NewsGuard officials on:
CNN’s Reliable Sources anchor Brian Stelter slobbered over the leftist website ratings firm NewsGuard as some sort of paragon of journalistic virtue.
Again, Vazquez demands punishment of a publication simply for having a political view different from his. That's not the way to build and defend and argument -- but it is the way the MRC insists on operating.
MRC shows its partisan colors
The ranting continued in a Jan. 26 post by Catherine Salgado against a new NewsGuard initiative:
Biased online ratings firm NewsGuard is taking its information war to schoolchildren through a deal made with the American Federation of Teachers.
Again, that MRC "study" offered no evidence to dispute NewsGuard's findings, and AllSides is a right-leaning fact-checker with sloppy labeling whose work has been touted by the MRC before, making it immediately suspicious. Salgado went on to parrot an absurd attack issued by her boss:
MRC President Brent Bozell blasted the AFT-NewsGuard partnership, suggesting it is worse than critical race theory in public schools. “The left has found a dangerous and equally disingenuous new way to indoctrinate our children, without their parents knowing. NewsGuard is partnering with a national teacher's union to bring their biased ratings into classrooms nationwide. This is as bad as CRT. In fact, it's worse. Like CRT, it is designed to push a leftist ideology on children, but unlike CRT, the left is not going to give it a name this time. This is purposely designed to go under the radar of public scrutiny.”
Judging a website's credibility is "worse" than critical race theory? Only in Bozell's fevered brain.
Speaking of that bogus study, an anonymously written Feb. 1 post -- curiously credited only to "NB Staff," not any of the MRC writers who have been attacking NewsGuard for months -- tried to mount a counterattack when NewsGuard similarly stated that the study was "fundamentally flawed," leaning on AllSides' endorsement of the study to defend itself:
The leftist ratings firm NewsGuard criticized a Media Research Center study of the site’s ratings, calling it “fundamentally flawed.”
Again, AllSides is a right-leaning operation, so the MRC touting how AllSides endorsed its so-called "study" is circular logic. And of course Skibinski's description of the sites the MRC chose for its study as "cherry-picked" was absolutely true; in a part of his letter the anonymous MRC writer decided not to highlight, NewsGuard has given perfect ratings to numerous sites, including a few on the AllSides list the MRC used, such as Reason and the Deseret News (which, again, the MRC insists is "liberal" based on two stories seven years apart and despite the fact that the paper is owned by a division of the not-liberal Mormon Church). Skibinski also noted that NewsGuard has given another prominent conservative operation, the Daily Signal, a perfect rating, though it wasn't on the AllSides list.
The anonymous MRC writer didn't comment on another allegation Skibinski made -- that it made no effort to contact NewsGuard for a response to its study. By contrast, he wrote, "NewsGuard contacts websites for comment and feedback if it looks like they will fail any criteria." By noting that, Skibinski has exposed an inconvenient truth about the MRC: It's a partisan political operation, not a "research" organization, and putting out attacks without allowing anyone to respond beforehand is what a partisan political operation does.
And the MRC wasn't done. Read Part 2 here.