Brill-Crovitz Start-Up News Guard Will Take Aim at Fake News
The big question is will Google and Facebook use News Guard’s green-yellow-red signals to separate fake news from real news reporting?
By Ken Doctor
Can trust be monetized?
That’s just one of the intriguing questions around the mid-2018 launch of News Guard, being brought to audiences everywhere by that veteran New York media production team of Steve Brill and L. Gordon Crovitz.
The business partners foresaw the land rush toward daily newspaper paywalls even before the New York Times (NYT – Get Report) launched its now-leading model, and cashed out of that Press Plus business twice. Now they see a new publisher need: trustworthiness. And they see a marketplace straining to counter the epidemic of fake news.
Clearly, their epidemiological approach to the topic that now feeds Congressional egos at high-profile platform-CEOs-in-the-dock hearings differs from many of the non-profit experiments addressing the same issue
News Guard is building towards a staff of 40-60 journalists, backed by as much as $6 million in funding.
These vetters will evaluate sites — not stories or individual journalists — and issue both simple-to-understand green-yellow-red signals and longer-form descriptions of the sources. Co-founders Crovitz, a former Wall Street Journal publisher and now serial digital business entrepreneur, and Brill, founder of American Lawyer, Court TV and Brill’s Content, will work mostly full-time on the new business and lead it.
What’s green, I asked them in a phone interview Sunday?
“That they strive to do accurate information, but there may be some caveats,” says Brill. “For example, this is hypothetical because we haven’t had our vetters do this, but let’s say The Wall Street Journal. The Journal — I’m guessing we haven’t done this yet — will get a green, but when you click through you’d be told that by its own definition the editorial page is really different from the news pages.
“Basically, we’re going to be bold enough to say there’s a difference between the Denver Post and the Denver Guardian. The Denver Guardian is the site that popped up one day before the election to announce that the Pope had endorsed Mr. Trump. And it turns out, obviously, the Denver Guardian doesn’t exist, and you trace the site back to Macedonia or someplace. We’ll do that.”
Paint the Macedonian profiteers as red, but then who gets the yellows — caution advised?
“RT [Russia Today] is yellow because RT acknowledges that it’s government-funded propaganda,” says Crovitz of one Russian disinformation source “Sputnik [which doesn’t acknowledge its funding] is red,” That’s the gist.”
Those kinds of interpretation — and colorings — are bound to open up robust debates.
While some credibility seems black and white, gray colors many other publishers. News Guard aims to rate 10,000 news sources in 2018, reckoning that those account for 90% of news consumption.
“If you search for fracking right now,” says Brill, “you’ll see one of the first sites that pops up is something called the Fracking Information Center or something like that. If you look at it carefully and dig down and follow the strings, you find out that it’s financed by the American Petroleum Institute.
“If you down a couple of rungs, you see something by The Washington Post. But there is a difference between The Washington Post writing about fracking and the American Petroleum Institute.
Certainly, there is. Will News Guard parse the vagaries of American Petroleum Institute publishing?
“We are,” said Brill. “And the American Enterprise Institute and Center for American Progress. Both likely will be green because they’re serious people who do serious scholarship. But they’ll get a megaphone, in addition to a green, and when you click through, you’ll find out that the American Enterprise Institute, very good people doing serious work, but they have a particular point of view and a particular mission. And the Center for American Progress, same thing, but they have a different point of view.
“The high school kid who has to write a paper on global trade, will at least be able to assess the differences.”
I asked them what would seem to be one of the litmus test questions for News Guard, given a news world in which facts and alternative facts now cohabitate.
When News Guard looks at Fox News, what color will it see?
“We’re not going to comment on anything in particular,” says Brill. “And there are two reasons. One, it would be stupid. The second is, it involves reading the actual foxnews.com site, which I haven’t done that much of, and our vetters certainly haven’t done that much of. I literally don’t know as I’m sitting here talking to you. We’re not going to get into what we’re going do because it’s just intellectually dishonest, because we haven’t done it yet.”
Importantly, News Guard would rate FoxNews.com, not the TV channel’s content.
“If Sean Hannity” website is in the top 90%, separately, we would rate that separately,” adds Crovitz.
“Fake news” itself is a quickly compromised term
Think of all that’s recently been conflated – fake ads, fake news, the liberal media conspiracy and more. Further, everyone who is in the ad-selling game is trying to monetize trust. Top national publishers promise, as part of their digital ad pitches, safe placement, reaching “premium audiences.” Even the new blockchain, cryptocurrency content start-ups, from Civil to Hubii embed anti-fakery as a key principle of why their solution will rock the marketplace.
Of course, trust is integral to a credible press. That’s nothing new, even as its under multiple assaults by politicians, state actors and even the “media” itself as Fox News, owned by Twenty-First Century Fox (FOXA – Get Report) , Drudge, Breitbart and now Sinclair Broadcast Group (SBGI – Get Report) smudge so many long-drawn lines of fair play.
What’s changed is the intentional muddying of old-fashioned terms like fact and accuracy.
Against that blur, NewsGuard’s traffic intersection signal model seems simple enough.
The big question: Who will see the lights?
The answer to that question will make or break NewsGuard.
It is the world of Facebook (FB – Get Report) , Alphabet/Google (GOOGL – Get Report) and YouTube that has long required signals, and it is those platforms, and their poorer cousins, who would have to prominently display them.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations, and they’re big companies so you don’t want to read too much into early enthusiasm or receptivity, but we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing if we didn’t think there was a market for it,” says Brill. “It’s an essential part [of getting News Guard widely used and accepted as a standard], but it’s not where you start …. We might start with one or more of them.”