Bruce Fein Censorship Media

NewsGuard’s Scarlet Letter

The spirit if not the letter of the First Amendment prohibits both sophisticated and simple-minded violations of free speech, writes Bruce Fein.
Illustration from the 1758 edition of the “Index librorum prohibitorum” or “Index of Banned Books,” depicting the burning of books. (j4p4n, Openclipart)

By Bruce Fein / Consortium News

As the name NewsGuard portends, its Orwellian purpose is to safeguard readers from news sources that it stigmatizes with a red label akin to a scarlet letter.

The organization is in apostolic succession to the pope’s Index of Forbidden Books, ended by Pope Pius VI in 1966 after a protracted run of more than four centuries.  Freedom of expression does not look kindly on the Index.  

Its list of banned authors is synonymous with the Enlightenment:  John Milton, John Locke, Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Edward Gibbon, John Stuart Mill and other luminaries.

NewsGuard’s predicate is dubious: namely, that its putative analysts unerringly separate unreliable and reliable news sources according to the yardstick Justice Potter Stewart applied for defining obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” 

Without its training wheels, NewGuard implies that readers will tumble into error, like the victims of Spanish Grand Inquisitor Thomas de Torquemada.

NewsGuard’s website denies even a cameo appearance to the most trenchant and heralded paladins for free speech.  The following is an in-exhaustive list:

  1. John Milton in Aeropagitica: “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth to be put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
  2. John Stuart Mill in On Liberty opposing suppression of any view: “If the opinion is right, [the public] are deprived of the opportunity to exchange error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
  3. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes dissenting in Abrams v. United States: “[T]he ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
  4. Justice Louis Brandeis concurring in Whitney v. California: “If there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Somewhat like the Pope claiming infallibility in faith and morals, NewsGuard claims authority in grading news sources for accuracy and professionalism.  But there seems more than ample room for doubt.  

Fox News 

NewsGuard has awarded Fox News Network its highest “green” rating” for truth and reliability. Fox has a reputation as the Pinocchio of the news industry, fortified, among other things, by the meticulous 52-page opinion of the Superior Court of Delaware in US Dominion Inc., et al., v. Fox News Network, LLC, C.A. No.: N21C-03-257 EMD (December 16, 2021).  

US Dominion has alleged with countless specific examples that Fox knowingly, maliciously, repeatedly, and falsely claimed through its roster of All Star news broadcasters or guests that it provided voting systems services to state and local governments to rig the 2020 presidential election in favor of President Joe Biden.

The tip of the iceberg:  On Nov. 8, 2020, Maria Bartiromo asked Sidney Powell, a Trump partisan, “Sidney, we talked about Dominion software. I know there were voting irregularities.  Tell me about that.”  

Powell answered, 

“That’s putting it mildly … That is where the fraud took place, where they were flipping votes in the computer system or adding votes that did not exist … That’s when they had to stop the vote count and go in and replace votes for Biden and take away Trump votes.”  

Not a crumb of evidence has been adduced to support the Bartiromo-Powell joint hallucination. 

What is Sidney Powell’s reputation for truthfulness and honesty — at least regarding the 2020 presidential election?  A federal judge on Aug. 25, 2021, sanctioned her, Lin Wood and seven other pro-Trump lawyers for pursuing a frivolous election fraud lawsuit to make Trump the winner of Michigan’s electoral votes.

Sidney Powell, January 2019. (Fox News screenshot)

U.S. District Court Judge Linda Parker found that Powell and her colleagues

“filed this lawsuit in bad faith and for improper purpose. Further, they presented pleadings that … contained factual contentions lacking evidentiary support or likely to have evidentiary support.”

NewsGuard features former director of the C.I.A. and N.S.A. Gen. Michael Hayden on its advisory board. Neither agency has a reputation for candor or truthfulness, for example, the C.I.A.’s imaginary WMD in Iraq or the N.S.A.’s concealment of warrantless, suspicion-less spying on the entire United States population exposed by Edward Snowden. In his Memoir Playing to the Edge, Gen. Hayden references the challenges of monitoring the “not-yet-guilty,” a concept alien to the rule of law.

One of NewsGuard’s analysts is Zach Fishman.  He is doubtless an honorable man like all of Caesar’s assassins. Fishman previously was employed as a physical and life sciences reporter at The Academic Times and a finance reporter at Fastinform according to NewGuard’s website. He holds a master’s degree in health, environment and science journalism at Northwestern University, and a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  

Despite being tabula rasa about Ukraine, Fishman was tasked to evaluate the correctness of statements in Consortium News that the United States in 2014 organized a coup against a democratically-elected government in Ukraine and that neo-Nazis enjoy significant influence in the country.  

Isn’t this a little like sending an English major to investigate whether statements affirming Newton’s Laws of Motion are fair and accurate?  In any event, Consortium News’ Joe Lauria demolished Fishman’s uniformed skepticism in a June 2 article, “US State-Affiliated NewsGuard Targets Consortium News” in the manner of Napoleon at Austerlitz. 

The spirit if not the letter of the First Amendment prohibits both sophisticated and simple-minded violations of free speech. In Bantam Books v. Sullivan, for example, the United States Supreme Court condemned Rhode Island’s Commission to Encourage Morality in Youth by circulating a list of allegedly “objectionable” books to bookstores with an implied threat of prosecution if they were not removed. 

NewsGuard is similar. It seeks to suppress facts or opinions that diverge from its gospel by threatening a scarlet letter in hopes of diminishing the dissenter’s readership.  

In sum, NewsGuard is treasonous to the philosophy of the First Amendment and the journalist creed of letting readers decide without any thumbs on the scale.

Bruce Fein

Bruce Fein was associate deputy attorney general and general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission under President Ronald Reagan and is author of Constitutional Peril:  The Life and Death Struggle for Our Constitution and Democracy.

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