NewsGuard Can Save You From Putin!

The New York Times headline was an attention grabber worthy of Sen. Joe McCarthy: “How Amazon, Geico and Walmart Fund Propaganda.” A subhed explained: “Algorithms are sending ads by American brands onto Russian disinformation sites.” The op-ed by L. Gordon Crovitz, a former publisher of the Wall St. Journal, culminated in a sales pitch for his latest venture, NewsGuard. The company’s business plan is to do for internet news sites what Red Channels did for Hollywood movies: maintain a blacklist. Patriotism for personal profit —perfect plan.

Crovitz’s first paragraph invoked Lenin and Putin:

Lenin is sometimes said to have predicted that capitalists would sell Russia the rope with which they would be hanged.* Yet not even Lenin could have imagined Vladimir Putin’s success in getting some of the largest Western companies to subsidize his disinformation efforts by advertising on his government-run “news” websites.

The top programmatic advertiser on Mr. Putin’s Sputnik News site? The Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, through ads bought on behalf of Berkshire Hathaway’s Geico insurance. Sputnik News peddles Kremlin propaganda on topics such as Syria and straightfacedly reports Mr. Putin’s denials of interfering in other countries’ elections.

Isn’t a “news site” supposed to report the news straightfacedly? Did Crovitz expect Sputnik to scowlingly report Putin’s denials? Or mockingly? Is that how they would handle the story at the Wall St. Journal? (Of course not. The WSJ would simply ignore Putin’s denials.) As for poor Syria, millions of Americans got a look at Bashar Al-Assad in a 60 Minutes segment that aired in 2015. He’s an ophthalmologist, his wife is a banker, they met in London, they are not religious zealots. The interviewer was hapless Charley Rose, an unlikely Kremlin agent.

Crovitz can only estimate how much US companies spent advertising on Sputnik and RT (Russia Today), but he can name names and try to shame:

Geico is hardly alone in financing propaganda through what’s called “programmatic advertising,” ads that are placed automatically by algorithms, without judgment based on the content or journalistic standards of the websites. Mr. Putin’s leading disinformation arm, RT.com, attracted programmatic advertising from 477 companies and brands over a recent six-month period… Among RT.com’s top 20 programmatic advertisers: Amazon, PayPal, Walmart and Kroger. For Sputnik, its 196 programmatic advertisers in addition to Geico included Best Buy, ETrade and Progressive Insurance.

These all-American brands don’t intend to subsidize the Kremlin. The problem is that with programmatic advertising brands can target the kinds of audiences they want to reach online, rather than specifying, as they once did, on which websites their ads should appear. As a result, these ads inadvertently end up on all kinds of inappropriate sites…

Whatever the amount, companies are supporting websites that are the very definition of corporate social irresponsibility. RT describes its role as encouraging people in other countries to “question more” — that is, promoting divisiveness in the United States and Europe.

To accuse RT of “promoting divisiveness” in the US and Europe is really ludicrous. As if African-Americans would accept the murder of their children by police if it weren’t for outside agitators —the essential White Supremacist line. John Stewart, Amy Goodman, Michael Moore, John Oliver, Samantha Bea and others reported and commented on the same events covered by RT, and their tone was every bit as biting towards racist cops, the ascendant arms industry, greed-driven bankers, mine owners, for-profit healthcare…

“Question more” was the signature sign-off line of Larry King, who conducted interviews on RT that seemed no different than the ones he conducted for 25 years on CNN. Then his show was called “Larry King Live;” on RT it was “Larry King Now.” I forget who King was talking to in the spring of 2016 when he mentioned that Donald Trump had phoned him to discuss the pros and cons of running for President. “Donald Trump is no buffoon,” King cautioned his guest. “It’s a big mistake to write him off as a buffoon.” King has interviewed the Donald more than 100 times over the years. He has been talking to people on-air since the late 1950s. After gaining popularity with radio shows based in Miami and New York, he reached a nationwide audience in 1985 with an all-night show on which a 90-minute interview was followed by call-ins from listeners. Larry King is as American as baseball. (Watching LA Dodger games on TV in recent years, you’d see him sitting behind home plate and seriously observing the field.)

Rosie used to watch RT on the small Panasonic atop the refrigerator. The hour-long news show, produced in New York, was informative. Most of the on-air talent seemed to be American 30-somethings, politically “progressive.”  The women were all smart, urbane and way more appealing  than the harpies at Fox News. I didn’t think the male comedians were funny, but they thought they were. There was a very clear explainer of financial news named Ed Harrison but RT dropped him before we in the East Bay suddenly stopped getting it about a year ago.

RT.com is but one example, Crovitz writes, cyberspace is full of sites that no reputable company should support with ad buys. He points to three he considers totally loony:

Among the top 20 advertisers on the site Healthy Holistic Living, which has promoted milk thistle as a cancer treatment, are Amazon, Citibank, Hertz and Hilton —as well as the Navy Federal Credit Union. A site called Healthy Food House, which ran an article that said, “Our aim today is to persuade you that there is no such a disease as cancer, as it is only a B-17 deficiency,” carried advertising from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Its top two advertisers were Amazon and Google. A website perhaps appropriately called The Mind Unleashed, which blamed Israel for the Sept. 11 attacks and claimed that certain foods are better than radiation or chemotherapy for cancer treatment, ran advertising from Procter & Gamble, CBS and Best Buy.

To avoid getting sidetracked by milk thistle, let’s stipulate to Crovitz’s basic point: the current programmatic advertising model results in reputable companies buying space on websites their executives and shareholders would disdain for one reason or another. Crovitz has the solution, but before pitching it, he points out the inadequacy of alternative approaches:

Some advertisers have tried to keep their ads off inappropriate sites. Procter & Gamble stopped advertising on YouTube in 2017 for a year because its ads kept appearing alongside videos promoting pedophilia and white supremacy. The broader problem, however, remains.

Some advertisers are trying a cure worse than the disease. Instead of deciding which websites to support with advertising and which to shun, advertisers use a black list* (sic) of words like “Trump,” “taxes” and “antitrust,” keeping their ads off web pages that mention such topics. This amounts to a boycott of serious news.

Other advertisers such as JPMorgan Chase have had their staff try to decide which news sites are safe for their brands. However, the lists they compile can quickly become outdated because there are so many new purveyors of misinformation.

This is Crovitz’s message to prospective clients: Avoiding guilt by association with unsavory websites is too important to leave up to “staff” or algorithms, only dedicated specialists can protect you, hiring experts is a PR imperative! And BTW:

“The company I work for, NewsGuard, provides this service for a fee.”

The Times IDs Crovitz as “co-founder and co-chief executive officer of NewsGuard, which rates news publishers based on their reliability.” Wikipedia tells us that he co-founded a company called Journalism Online that was sold two years later for $45 million.  Crovitz has become one of the one percent and deploying his internet acumen against the arch-villain. “If this approach catches on,” he wrote in conclusion to his op-ed, “Mr. Putin will just have to spend more of his government’s own money to promote its disinformation.”

NewsGuard is a good name for a company whose purpose is to guard against the American people receiving certain kinds of news. Whichever company becomes the go-to arbiter of news publishers’ “reliability” will in effect be a very powerful censor.

* The link is to a Wall St. Journal story by Suzanne Vranica that ran August 15, 2019 headlined “Advertisers Blacklist News Stories Online.” At least the WSJ editors know that blacklist is one word, not two, but the usage is jarring. News stories don’t get blacklisted, people do —and not just labor organizers and dissident writers. Vranica and Crovitz point to different words that could trigger a “don’t advertise” warning for clients. She wrote:

“Like many advertisers, Fidelity Investments wants to avoid advertising online near controversial content. The Boston-based financial-services company has a lengthy blacklist of words it considers off-limits. If one of those words is in an article’s headline, Fidelity won’t place an ad there. Its list earlier this year, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, contained more than 400 words, including ‘bomb,’ ‘immigration,’ and ‘racism.’ Also off-limits: ‘Trump.’”


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Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at fred@plebesite.com

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