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The MRC vs. Media Literacy, Part 2

A second Media Research Center report assailing efforts to teach people to be discerning about the media they consume is as wildly biased as the first -- right down to the repeated smearing of Germans as censorious Nazis.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 5/20/2024

Tim Kilcullen

The Media Research Center’s Tim Kilcullen wasn’t done doing shoddy and wildly biased “media research” about a government grant program, in which he also viciously smeared Germans (and supporting Americans) as censorious Nazis. He had a second, related report that appeared in a Jan. 17 post filled with much of the same. He started this way:
In Part 1 of this report, the MRC Censorship Investigation Project uncovered how the Biden administration used the federal government to silence Americans who don’t support its leftist agenda through a year-long series of State Department seminars that trained teachers to use censorship tools in their classrooms. Now in Part 2, we detail how the federal government is using taxpayer money from the Department of Homeland Security’s terrorist prevention program to censor conservatives nationwide. 

Like the State Department before it, the DHS is using the University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab (the “Rhode Island Lab”) to accomplish its anti-American goals of training teachers to use censorship tools in the classroom and silence political dissent. Biden’s DHS approved a three-phase censorship strategy, set to culminate close to the 2024 presidential election. 

The DHS funded this endeavor through the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) Grant Program. MRC Free Speech America previously reported on this controversial program and how it has been weaponized to target Christians, conservatives and the Republican Party.

ConWebWatch has documented how Kilcullen and Luis Cornelio’s TVTP grant report, released last May, was such a mess and so filled with bogus claims that even Fox News felt compelled to fact-check it and correct the record. Kilcullen went on to rant about how supposedly mean things were said about certain conservatives:

Phase 1 of this strategy was the launch of a public awareness campaign, featuring DHS-commissioned blog posts attacking former President Donald Trump, “MAGA supporters,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, free speech and the Second Amendment. The campaign also included controversial podcasts, panel discussions and community events to generate support for censorship. The blog-post portion of the campaign used incendiary language disparaging Biden’s political opponents, all funded with taxpayer dollars. Examples include: 
  • “We are all living in a darker, scarier, angrier, less hopeful country thanks to Mr. Trump’s influence. Are we on the verge of civil war?”
  • “Donald Trump was also adopting the shock-jock style that Rush Limbaugh built into a cultural phenomenon, including his misogynistic and racist comments, conspiracy theories, and grievances.”
  • “It won’t be easy, but we really have to reduce Trump’s influence” 
  • “[I]t’s tempting and entertaining to tune into the circuses of the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, Louis Farrakans [sic], and MAGA supporters.”
  • “It turns out even Fox Media has limits on how much misogyny and racism it will tolerate from its stars–witness the canceling of Tucker Carlson’s show last week.”

Kilcullen didn’t dispute the accuracy of any of those statements, nor did he explain how Louis Farrakhan became a Trump supporter. Then he was back to dishonestly portraying media literacy as “censorship”:

Phase 3 of the recently launched strategy provides cash prizes of up to $1,000 for children who create social media posts to increase demand for “media literacy” mandates — a euphemism for censorship. The program mimics the German socialist model introduced as part of the Rhode Island Lab’s partnership with the State Department, which focuses on pushing teachers to turn children into “media producers.” 
  • To enhance this astroturf campaign, Biden’s DHS selected the leftist lobbying group “Media Literacy Now,” which lobbies state legislatures for laws requiring “media literacy.” Media Literacy Now has a revenue-sharing agreement with Ad Fontes, the company that provides the “Media Bias Chart” used to disparage conservative media. Because the two organizations also have overlapping board members and staff, they essentially function as a single enterprise.

Kilcullen served up his old tactic of personal attacks on people who didn’t follow right-wing narratives:

The launch event, which was a “packed” in-person ceremony, was followed by a series of virtual follow-up events dubbed “Courageous Conversations.” These community events were structured to promote “media literacy” strategies for tackingling [sic] “propaganda, disinformation, and conspiracy theories in social media.” In their events, [Renee] Hobbs and [Pam] Steager repeatedly reiterated that the entire “Courageous Conversations” were intended to be replicated across America so as to “keep the conversation going,” and that the Rhode Island Lab would be offering material support for participants willing to conduct an event of their own. 

Unsurprisingly, Steager and Hobbs used 2023’s “Courageous Conversations” to push far-left propaganda, with staff often jumping in to make provocative, politically-charged claims on pop culture and politics. Among the more outlandish inputs to their “conversations” were that “content moderation” could never be censorship, that Russia had “influence[d]” the 2016 election and that actress-turned-conservative activist Gina Carano had “a long history of making really creepy, antisemitic comments.”

Again, Kilcullen did not dispute the accuracy of any of those statements. Then, as he did in the TVTP grant report, he failed to understand how pyramid graphics work:

One May 2023 event, titled “Feelings and Facts,” ordered participants to explore an interactive “Conspiracy Chart.” The chart provided a list of alleged conspiracy theories that it described as past “THE ANTISEMITIC POINT OF NO RETURN” and equivalent to “Holocaust denial.” Among the supposedly hateful “theories” were the idea that American institutions are permeated with “cultural Marxism” and use of the phrase “Trans Agenda.” The Conspiracy Chart also claimed the “only one sordid reason” why “conservative and far-right media” investigate George Soros (a prominent activist billionaire) is “because he is Jewish.” 

As Part 1 of this report detailed, the Rhode Island Lab pushed a curriculum created with money from Soros himself. This curriculum ordered teachers to use the censorship tool NewsGuard in their classrooms.

In fact, Kilcullen’s employer has used anti-Semitic tropes to attack Soros — something he failed to mention.

Kilcullen went on to whine that “Another ‘conspiracy theory’ the chart labeled as equivalent to 'Holocaust denial' was belief in a ‘deep state’ — a bureaucracy within the administrative state which sought to sabotage the Trump presidency.” Yet again, he refused to explain why the right-wing “deep state” obsession is not a conspiracy theory. He further complained that right-wing bias in Spanish-language media was called out:

A June 2023 event encouraged attendees to watch a propaganda video titled “Misinformation in the Latino Community.” In this video, NBC/Comcast pundit Carmen Sesin claimed that Florida’s shift towards Trump from the 2016 to 2020 was “absolutely” because of “disinformation” in “Spanish-language media.” 

This same video disparaged attendees at a rally for then-candidate (and now Republican Congresswoman) Monica de la Cruz and identified Telegram channels for nationally-syndicated radio host Dan Bongino and publication The Western Journal as problematic. The video claimed (without evidence) that Spanish-language radio channels like Actualidad 1040AM and Radio Mambi had spread disinformation against “Joe Biden” and that the stories may have come from Russia. 

The video also warned of “a wave of misinformation aimed at Latinos heading into 2022” that could hurt Democratic Party candidates and recommended that platforms like Meta and Telegram be more aggressive with their censorship efforts to prevent the spread of so-called misinformation.

As ConWebWatch documented when the MRC freaked out over interests partially funded by Soros purchasing certain radio stations, Miami’s Radio Mambi was, in fact, filled with disinformation and right-wing conspiracy theories. Shows on Actualidad 1040AM, also in Miami, have also spread right-wing misinformation.

Kilcullen also complained that one presenter “required students to read an essay by now-presidential candidate Cornel West, wherein he declared that ‘antisemitism has proven itself to be a powerful force in nearly every post of Western civilization where Christianity has a presence.'” That statement also went unchallenged, which raises the question of why he bothered to include it in the first place. He ranted further:

Another guest was then-Congressman David Cicilline, who joined the podcast to hawk his controversial book House on Fire. According to the book description on Amazon, “House on Fire identifies the key threat to our democracy—that the GOP has become a Trumpist authoritarian cult—and outlines how we fight back.” Cicilline resorted to similar incendiary language on the podcast, deriding a proposed Utah women’s rights law as “targeting trans kids” and demanding censorship legislation “to be sure that these [social media] platforms are responsible for the amplification of dangerous, toxic, untrue content” such as (in his words) “misinformation” from “Trump.” Steager enthusiastically endorsed Cicilline’s comments.

Cicilline concluded the podcast by saying that “media literacy ought to be taught in every single school in this country, and every grade, because it’s never too young to begin to develop those skills.” Steager responded “Thank you. We believe that too.”

Yet again, Kilcullen did not factually dispute anything Cicilline said, justify his implication that media literacy is a part of that, or even explain what is supposedly "controversial" about his book. Instead, he quoted his boss:

“The left’s ‘whole of society approach’ is really about empowering leftwing organizations to fight against American values and democratic norms,” commented MRC Free Speech America Vice President Dan Schneider. “It is clear that Cicilline realized that he would have more power as the head of the Rhode Island Foundation to push a leftwing agenda than he had as a duly-elected Member of Congress who chaired an influential committee. The usurpers of our Constitution are well organized and are colluding with the Biden administration to bring our democracy to an end.”

Schneider didn’t explain how only right-wing narratives, and not liberal ones, equate to “American values and democratic norms,” especially given that the current head of the Republican Party and presumed Republican candidate for president spread demonstrable lies about an election he lost and incited a riot to overturn election results he didn’t like.

Kilcullen went on to rage against another partner:

Another official partner is more overtly partisan: Moms Demand Action (MDA). MDA is a radical gun-confiscation group which has pledged to “fully embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).” MDA, a part of the umbrella organization Everytown for Gun Safety, is backed by activist billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the owner of Bloomberg News and former New York City Mayor . (Part 1 of this report detailed how Rhode Island Lab’s “affiliated faculty” member Lauren McClanahan, a graduate of the State Department series of seminars, had students in her Bellingham, Washington class create a propaganda video advocating for donations to the Everytown for Gun Safety network.) 

While most taxpayers would likely be alarmed that the DHS-created “Courageous RI” partnered  with a hyper-partisan activist group like MDA, such an alliance is emblematic of the Biden administration’s “whole of society approach.” The Rhode Island Lab and Media Literacy Now are able to act as a conduit between the government and the more extreme elements of the left in order to enact “systemic change in K-12 education.” 

Unsurprisingly, Kilcullen offered no evidence to back up his smear that MDA is “radical” or backs “gun confiscation.” He then served up his employer’s dishonest “censorship” talking points:

The Rhode Island Lab article further argued in favor of censorship along the lines of what the Biden administration has been accused of: strongarming social media companies to silence dissident speech. The blog suggested that “leaders have the capacity to stand up against false narratives in real time, flag inflammatory content for removal by social media companies, and provide non-partisan online spaces for intercommunal engagement.” 

This same DHS-funded article wrongly claimed that “the political right enjoys higher amplification” on social media “compared to the political left.” This is untrue. As MRC’s shows, conservatives are overwhelmingly more likely to be censored than those on the left. 

In fact, CensorTrack is worthless as anything but a partisan number-generating tool. Because CensorTrack collects only examples of “censorship” involving right-wingers, Kilcullen cannot legitimately cite it to assert that “conservatives are overwhelmingly more likely to be censored than those on the left.” In fact, the content that social media companies have subjected to moderation are lies and misinformation, not “dissident speech,” and Kilcullen doesn’t back up his assertion. And he repeated his defense of Rush Limbaugh:

Another of the blogs even disparaged the late Presidential Medal of Freedom-winner Rush Limbaugh, commenting that “Donald Trump was also adopting the shock-jock style that Rush Limbaugh built into a cultural phenomenon, including his misogynistic and racist comments, conspiracy theories, and grievances.” The piece also attacked Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) as “the extreme fringe of the right wing,” and remarked, “It turns out even Fox Media has limits on how much misogyny and racism it will tolerate from its stars–witness the canceling of Tucker Carlson’s show last week.” 

Again, Kilcullen did not dispute the accuracy of those assessments. He resumed attacking NewsGuard and Ad Fontes:

The State Department seminars focused on bringing longstanding German censorship strategies to American classrooms. Among the strategies educators were instructed to employ were using videogames to teach children to reject so-called “misinformation,” instructing students to rely on hopelessly biased, anti-conservative fact checking sites like PolitiFact and Snopes and training educators how to use censorship tools like Ad Fontes and NewsGuard to block student access to websites with dissident views. This last aspect is particularly disturbing, as Media Literacy Now — the Rhode Island Lab’s fiscal agent for the grant — received 10 percent kickbacks from certain Ad Fontes subscriptions. 

In Courageous RI’s formal announcement, the Rhode Island Lab explained that for Phase 2 of the program, it would conduct a series of seminars for American educators. These seminars, which are currently being conducted, mirror what was done at the State Department events covered in Part 1 of this report — training educators how to implement “media literacy” in American classrooms. However, unlike with the State Department seminars, the work is being done behind closed doors, but evidence shows that these seminars are still being conducted in a hyper-partisan manner. 

The application for the DHS seminars reveals that potential participants were asked to rank their ideology on a 1–10 scale from “Strong Red Conservative” to “Strong Blue Liberal.” A teacher who participated in this program told the Media Research Center (MRC) she believed that, after self-identifying as a “conservative,” she was deliberately confined to a breakout group controlled by the director of the Rhode Island Lab so as to limit her access to the most damning material.

Kilcullen refused to identify this person or offer any corroborating evidence for her story. He went on to repeat his biased assertion that media literacy is “a euphemism for censorship” and perpetuated his earlier portrayal of Germans as Nazi-esque censors:

Among the educational programs the Rhode Island Lab promoted at the State Department seminars was one crafted by the organization MEET Tolerance (MEET is an acronym signifying “Media Education for Equity and Tolerance”). As detailed in Part 1 of this report, the MEET Tolerance curriculum explained how to use “children as media producers,” where young students would be “[a]dvocating intercultural values and social justice through [their] own media productions and practices.” Part of MEET Tolerence’s curriculum is a strategy developed by socialist German politician Konstantin von Notz to reward grade school students with prizes for crafting Instagram posts as part of a seemingly grassroots push for censorship laws. 

This German astro-turf model, titled the “Youth Media Contest, is “Phase 3” of the TVTP grant program. The Rhode Island Lab is currently offering cash prizes to “high school and college students” who create social media posts “designed to raise public awareness of the harms of hateful extremist propaganda.” In order to “win” their payment, children and young adults must produce “videos, billboards, memes, screencasts, infographics, and simple video productions” to “reduce the power of harmful propaganda and disinformation.” 

In its grant proposal to the DHS, the Rhode Island Lab boasted that this third phase would create “[p]ublic demand for media literacy in public education,” as “[p]ropaganda can be used in socially-beneficial ways.” The Rhode Island Lab predicts that as a long-term result of Phase 3’s astroturf push for “media literacy” mandates, “[p]ublic demand for media literacy in public education [will be] increased.” 

As Part 1 of this report detailed, Media Literacy Now defines “media literacy” as “a tool to create the society we all deserve: one that nurtures racial equity, social justice, and true democracy. Media literacy equals cultural change.” Its quest for “media literacy” is based on the idea that making too much information available to the public is inherently a threat. Media Literacy Now subscribes to the fringe idea that society is threatened by an “infodemic.” This theory defines “[a]n infodemic [as] an overabundance of information,” and this overabundance could only be corrected by having “media and social media platforms … collaborate with the UN system with Member States and with each other” to censor information with which the collective disagrees. 
Kilcullen didn’t explain what, exactly, is purportedly censorious about teaching people to be discerning about the media they consume — unless the goal of him and his fellow right-wingers is to flood the political space with shoddy work, then cry “censorship!” whenever that shoddiness is pointed out. After all, that’s been the MRC’s playbook in attacking NewsGuard and Ad Fontes — portraying the lower scores they gave to some right-wing outlets as evidence of political bias but offering no relevant evidence that those scores weren’t deserved.

On that note, one of Kilcullen’s final “recommendations” is to send parents to attack those purportedly “unscrupulous censorship firms”: “Parents should call their local school boards and check if Ad Fontes and/or NewsGuard have been imposed in their children’s classrooms. If they have, parents should demand their removal.” He also huffed that “Congress must defund all domestic censorship programs, including the TVTP program that targets Sec. Mayorkas’s critics and finance anti-American activism” — but he hid the fact that he lied about the TVTP program.

This was followed by the usual promotion of this wildly biased report. Tim Graham’s Jan. 17 podcast portrayed Kilcullen’s hit job as exposing a “deep state” conspiracy: “But complain about anonymous bureaucrats waging policy war within the ‘deep state,’ and you’re defined as one of those conspiracy kooks who could turn violent.” He also referenced “German-Inspired Censorship” in his headline.

A Jan. 18 post by Gabriela Pariseau touted how “WMAL host Chris Plante highlighted a recent MRC Study exposing how the federal government is using taxpayer money from the Department of Homeland Security’s domestic terrorist prevention program to target conservatives” and “read the Daily Wire’s write-up of the MRC’s report over the airwaves,” then closed with fearmongering: “Free Speech is not their thing, The Bill of Rights is not their thing and they’re using our taxpayer money to launch propaganda efforts from universities and government agencies. These are dangerous people, they’re not on our side. They’re not liberals. They’re the left.”

Kilcullen’s boss, Brent Bozell, did his own radio hit with right-wing host Larry O’Connor, ranting that he federal government is “using fascist tactics against its own people, funded by its own people.” Writer Tom Olohan portrayed Bozell as ridiculously framing media literacy as “leftist indoctrination,” quoting him as saying that ““Media literacy means-if you challenge climate change, you are illiterate.” O’Connor’s show is where Bozell went full Nazi in smearing the program the previous week, calling it an “Aryan youth movement.”

The MRC also found a compliant right-wing senator to parrot the narrative, as described in a Jan. 18 post by Catherine Salgado: “Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) demanded answers from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas following MRC Free Speech America’s bombshell report uncovering how the agency used taxpayer funds to push for censorship of conservatives.”

Finally, an anonymously written Feb. 7 post featured an early champion of the program reneging on it:

The state representative and former house minority leader who headlined the launch event of a Biden administration-funded censorship and indoctrination program is now disavowing the project after an MRC exposè on the subject. 

Rhode Island Rep. Brian Newberry (R) once supported a so-called “media literacy” initiative created with over $700,000 from President Joe Biden’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and initially developed by Biden’s Department of State. Now, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity has revealed that Newberry is calling for government officials to abandon the scandal-plagued program.

But it’s not “scandal-plagued.” The only “scandals” that exist are in the overheated and biased rhetoric manufactured by Kilcullen.

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