Running an independent media outlet is tough, and there’s a company called NewsGuard that’s making it even harder. NewsGuard claims to rate online content, including from media outlets, to see how trustworthy it is. But if we take a closer look, it’s doing more than that—it’s putting pressure on news organizations.NewsGuard started in 2018. It sends out “analysts” to review online content creators and give them ratings. The ratings appear as small badges with scores next to search results.
 
newsguard exposed

NewsGuard started in 2018. It sends out “analysts” to review online content creators and give them ratings. The ratings appear as small badges with scores next to search results.

But there’s more to the story. NewsGuard’s real power comes from its connections with advertising agencies. These agencies guide their clients to stop giving money for ads to content creators that NewsGuard’s “analysts” don’t like. Interestingly, big corporate media that are friendly with the establishment tend to get high scores. On the other hand, independent media that question the establishment often get low scores, even if they follow good journalism practices.

Subjective Criteria

NewsGuard says it’s fair and not biased. The company’s ratings look at nine things, like who wrote the article and if it follows the usual editorial rules. But in reality, most of the rating comes from whether NewsGuard thinks the content is truthful.

The first thing they check is if the source keeps spreading lies. They also look at how responsibly the source shares news. NewsGuard says if you fail the first test, you’ll fail the second. Another thing they check is if the headlines are accurate.

If NewsGuard thinks a headline is wrong, they count it as a failure. They also want to see a pattern of fixing mistakes, or what they think are mistakes. These four things together make up more than half of the score.

Even if NewsGuard can’t find any real problems, they can still take away points if the source doesn’t share the opinions they like.

It claims that such content providers “egregiously cherry-pick facts or stories to advance opinions.”

Meanwhile, NewsGuard requires at least 60 points to give it a “credible” rating.

This approach becomes especially concerning when NewsGuard itself gets the facts wrong. For example, during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company labeled the idea that the SARS-CoV-2 virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, as false. If a news source with a perfect score reported responsibly about the strong indirect evidence for a lab leak, it risked NewsGuard greatly lowering its score and wrongly tagging it as an “unreliable” source that “severely violates basic journalistic standards.”

The COVID-19 origins matter was a unique instance where NewsGuard later admitted its mistake, but only acknowledged that the lab leak theory couldn’t be entirely dismissed.

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Workers inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on Feb. 23, 2017. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

While it checks facts for others, NewsGuard seems to have its own opinions. There have been many cases where media outlets have faced criticism from NewsGuard for sharing views that challenge widely accepted ideas on topics like climate change, vaccine safety, COVID-19 restrictions, the Ukraine conflict, the World Economic Forum, and more. On these matters, NewsGuard appears to guard the mainstream perspective and demands that content creators stick to the expected viewpoint.

“I’ve had interactions with them where it was very obvious that they were anything but objective,” said John Tillman, head of the non-profit Franklin Foundation, which manages the news service The Center Square.

Most of the time, sources rated poorly by NewsGuard tend to be on the conservative side of politics.

The Media Research Center (MRC), a watchdog for conservative media, found that NewsGuard gave higher scores on average to left-leaning sources compared to right-leaning ones, with a difference of 22 points. The 2021 report was based on analyzing NewsGuard ratings for over 50 major news outlets categorized as left- or right-biased by AllSides, a company that gauges media bias through unbiased content and editorial assessments.

NewsGuard criticized the MRC report, claiming it picked specific outlets for the study and had a small sample size. MRC responded that the list included all news outlets reviewed by AllSides.

When MRC repeated the study in late 2022, the gap had widened to 25 points.

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Journalists and media crew members during an election night event in New York on Nov. 8, 2016. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

“Unlike the major fact-checking organizations, NewsGuard at least lives up to its name in that it’s a guard for the left’s news,” says Matt Palumbo, investigator for the conservative podcast “The Dan Bongino Show,” in his upcoming book “Fact-Checking the Fact-Checkers”.

In November 2019, NewsGuard got in touch with RealClearInvestigations (RCI) and questioned their use of unnamed sources to uncover the alleged identity of the whistleblower who initiated the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

In response, RCI asked NewsGuard if it was also reaching out to The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, or BuzzFeed to question their use of anonymous sources. However, NewsGuard reportedly didn’t reply.

When NewsGuard gave a negative label to the conservative education platform PragerU, the CEO, Marissa Streit, tried to fix the situation in good faith. She told PragerU’s founder, Dennis Prager, during a podcast interview that they believed it was a mistake. But instead of a simple correction, NewsGuard sent them a list of demands.

NewsGuard asked PragerU to stop criticizing the COVID-19 lockdown policies, to stop questioning the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, to avoid discussing any COVID-19 treatments not approved by the government, and to halt discussions questioning the seriousness of climate change, among other things.

They also wanted to know who donated to PragerU, but the organization refused because they were worried about potential donor targeting.

“They want to smear these people. That’s the only reason they want their names,” Mr. Prager said.

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In PragerU founder Dennis Prager’s view, NewsGuard lacks respect for the pursuit of truth through differences in opinion. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Marissa Streit attempted to make changes to meet some of NewsGuard’s demands and see how they would respond. For example, when a PragerU commentator questioned the motives of the World Economic Forum in a podcast, NewsGuard demanded that the video be taken down.

According to Dennis Prager, NewsGuard doesn’t seem to value the search for truth through diverse viewpoints.

“I still haven’t noted what did we say that’s misinformation, as opposed to [an opinion on which] honorable people can differ,” he said.

The negative rating from NewsGuard led PragerU’s video hosting provider, JW Player, to sever ties with them.

Since then, PragerU has started an online petition against NewsGuard.

“They are powerful in a very bad, malevolent, malicious, destructive way,” Mr. Prager said.

NewsGuard has argued that its process is fair because it contacts the rated outlets for their input and includes their comments in the ratings.

However, PragerU’s experience suggests that this might just be a routine practice, and the arguments from the outlets don’t seem to influence the final rating. In the end, it seems that the targeted outlets often give up and no longer consider NewsGuard relevant.

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Anthony Watts founder and editor of WattsUpWithThat.com and a fellow with the Heartland Institute. (heartland.org)

Anthony Watts and Charles Rotter are in charge of WattsUpWithThat.com, a blog that presents content skeptical of the extreme effects of climate change.

They believe that NewsGuard is not being honest in its intentions.

“They are purposefully focused on destroying the credibility of websites they don’t like,” said Mr. Watts, who is associated with the Heartland Institute, when speaking to The Epoch Times.

Earlier this year, a NewsGuard team member named Zack Fishman contacted Mr. Watts about a few articles. One of these articles mentioned that the arrest of climate activist Greta Thunberg was “staged”. Mr. Fishman disagreed, stating that it was a real arrest. However, Mr. Watts clarified that he was referring to the way in which Ms. Thunberg was arrested. A video circulating online showed police officers posing with her while she was smiling and laughing before they took her away.

“It boils down to a disagreement with the reviewer,” Mr. Watts said.

“They apply these sort of credentialist straw man games,” Mr. Rotter said.

“It’s like, ‘We found this study that contradicts what this person said, therefore you’re wrong.’”

Even if Mr. Fishman identified actual mistakes, they appeared to be quite minor to question the overall credibility of the entire blog, which is what NewsGuard did.

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Newsguard attaches credibility ratings to news outlets and other content creators. (Petr Svab/The Epoch Times)

Mr. Fishman pointed out three or four articles to Mr. Watts with claims he could dispute. Nonetheless, the website has published tens of thousands of articles. NewsGuard itself has suggested that its ratings should not solely be based on the accuracy of a few specific pieces of content.

“Our ratings do not mean that a site with a poor rating will never get a story right, or that a site with a strong rating will never get a story wrong,” explained Matt Skibinski, the general manager of NewsGuard, to Breitbart.

NewsGuard contends that it assesses journalistic standards—when it identifies errors, are they corrected?

However, Mr. Watts was not unwilling to fix errors. He believed that these weren’t mistakes in the first place, but rather matters of legitimate differences in viewpoint and opinion.

“These people are like robots. It’s very difficult to actually have a discussion with them,” Mr. Rotter said.

Establishment Guard

Mike Benz, previously in charge of the digital department at the State Department and now heading the Foundation for Freedom Online, asserts that NewsGuard is just one piece of a larger censorship industry that has grown over roughly the past six years.

He points out that the key players in this industry are not mainly aligned with political parties but are more aligned with the established authorities. Even conservative outlets can get high NewsGuard ratings, but this often requires them to support the mainstream perspectives on specific issues.

This industry emerged as a response to the rise of populism in the West, starting around 2015 with events like Brexit and the election of President Donald Trump. The trend continued with other notable populist leaders such as Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy, explained Mr. Benz.

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President Donald Trump takes the oath of office during his inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20, 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

According to him, the establishment attributed citizens’ choices of “wrong” leaders to online media, including social platforms.

“From the 1940s until the present, there has been this bipartisan conception of foreign policy,” he said. “There is this uniparty axis that was being broken apart by the rise of free and unfettered news online that was growing to such popularity that the gatekeepers of national security state-aligned media, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the majors, like CBS, ABC, NBC, were now no longer the dispositive forces on elections around the world, particularly in the United States and across the EU.

“NewsGuard basically grew out of this soup in 2017 as the national security state and various opportunists on both sides of the political aisle, in particular the neoconservative wing of the GOP and pretty much all of the Democrat Party, except the anti-war left, joined together with various elements of the national security state, including the Pentagon, the State Department, and the intelligence services, to come up with basically a plan to end the popularity and availability of alternative news online.”

Mr. Tillman reached a somewhat similar conclusion.

“What they’re really trying to do is control information flow, because they don’t like the democratization of information,” he said.

Notably, NewsGuard’s Advisory Board is populated with figures who are aligned with the established order. Among its prominent members is Gen. Michael Hayden, a former head of both the CIA and the NSA. Mr. Benz characterized him as a prominent figure in the “national security state”.

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Mike Benz, executive director of the Foundation For Freedom Online and a former State Department official. (Jack Wang/The Epoch Times)

Mr. Hayden’s Twitter account clearly displays strong aversion, even going to extremes, towards President Trump and his supporters. In one tweet he shared, he compared Trump supporters to the Taliban terrorist group. Another tweet likened them to Nazis, and there was even one demanding the removal of well-known Republican lawmakers like Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Matt Gaetz, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Green.

Other advisors for NewsGuard include Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who formerly led NATO; Arne Duncan, the former education secretary during the Obama administration; Don Baer, a former spokesman for the Clinton White House; and Tom Ridge, who was the initial head of the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

During the past year, the World Economic Forum has actively endorsed NewsGuard.

Their influence goes beyond just the United States; it stretches to countries like Canada, Australia, and Europe, and is gradually expanding to other parts of the world, indicating a clear aim for widespread global coverage.

Moreover, their ratings are employed by different sectors of the censorship industry, involving researchers and individuals, some backed by funding from the U.S. government. These parties are working on developing tools to identify and counter viewpoints that are not favored online.

Addressing the risks of misinformation in their 2022 white paper, NewsGuard mentioned that “researchers using NewsGuard’s source reliability data found that anti-establishment networks disseminated content from a large number of NewsGuard Red-rated sites during the German Federal Election in 2021, proliferating anti-vaccination, anti-lockdown, and anti-climate protection content specifically.”

NewsGuard is a self-appointed misinformation watchdog. It seems to be just one more way Americans are not allowed to think for themselves.

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