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.