Our attorney, Jim Moody, sent a letter over the weekend to key figures at the Washington Post, demanding a retraction of its story, Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election by Craig Timberg, that defamed Naked Capitalism and other well-regarded websites.
Immediately after Timberg’s dubious story ran, journalists immediately sounded alarms about the Post endorsing and promoting a McCarthyite blacklist, and even worse one that clearly had no sound evidentiary or methodological foundation. Timberg’s piece was widely derided by other publications and prominent writers, including the New Yorker, the media watchdog FAIR, Ben Norton and Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept and Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone. A representative assessment came from Patrick Maines, president of The Media Institute, at The Hill: “….perhaps the shoddiest piece of feature writing since Rolling Stone published its blatantly false story about a campus rape at the University of Virginia.”
In addition to calling for a retraction, our lawyer also demanded a prominent public apology and an equally prominent opportunity to reply. He asked for a reply in three business days.
The Post did respond in three business days, posting a statement at the beginning of the Timberg article.
However, the Post’s action was inadequate and served to confirm a lack of commitment to integrity and fact-based reporting. This text now appears at the beginning of the “fake news” story:
Editor’s Note: The Washington Post on Nov. 24 published a story on the work of four sets of researchers who have examined what they say are Russian propaganda efforts to undermine American democracy and interests. One of them was PropOrNot, a group that insists on public anonymity, which issued a report identifying more than 200 websites that, in its view, wittingly or unwittingly published or echoed Russian propaganda. A number of those sites have objected to being included on PropOrNot’s list, and some of the sites, as well as others not on the list, have publicly challenged the group’s methodology and conclusions. The Post, which did not name any of the sites, does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet, nor did the article purport to do so. Since publication of The Post’s story, PropOrNot has removed some sites from its list.
This part of the statement is remarkable: “…does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet.” This is tantamount to an admission that not only did the Washington Post do no fact-checking, but that it also does not consider fact-checking to be part of its job. And it has the temerity to accuse others of engaging in “fake news”?
This minimalist walk-back does not remedy the considerable damage done to Naked Capitalism and other sites. The Post is being disingenuous in trying to take the position that its featuring of a newbie group with no track record whatsoever was not tantamount to an endorsement. It is also disingenuous to take the position that referring in the story to PropOrNot’s “200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season” which had already published at PropOrNot’s did not legitimate it and drive traffic to a previously unknown site. The fact that journalists almost immediately found the blacklisted sites and took the Post to task on Twitter and shortly thereafter in news stories shows that the Post did damage to Naked Capitalism and other publishers vastly beyond the original publication of the list by amplifying it, which led other major news sites like USA Today and Daily Beast to pile on.
As one of the publishers of another site on PropOrNot’s hit list said via e-mail”
No mainstream news consumer will see this editorial comment, after having been blasted by WaPo and the other media which loudly trumpeted the faux study.
Here were some other reactions:
what a bunch of cowards. "This blacklist that served as the entire news basis of our piece is bullshit but we wont retract the story" https://t.co/V5ZSwSMgTg
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) December 7, 2016
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) December 7, 2016
— Joshua Frank (@joshua__frank) December 8, 2016
— RogerFolken (@RogerFolken) December 8, 2016
Responding to consumer protests that WaPo’s reading material on Russia is defective and false, and that its reporter on Russian propaganda, Craig Timberg, is a fabricator, the newspaper announced last night that it “does not itself vouch for the validity” of what it publishes about Russia, the recent US presidential election, or American democracy. For “validity”, the Washington Post’s editors mean truth. For “does not vouch for”, they mean what Nash Holdings and Bezos are calculating as a put-call option on lying.
We also received many e-mails privately, none of which saw the Post’s response as adequate. A representative note from a financial analyst and writer:
Not enough! They need to apologise. They should also fire Timberg.
From a journalist:
Mealy mouthed calculation. Now let’s see whether management and their lawyers think this “mitigation” will stifle NC’s legal demands. In the old days of defamation law, the entire story would be suspended or removed, and a notice put in place where the story was. This indicates WaPo thinks they can circulate lies so long as they signpost them. No duty or no responsibility for reporting the truth, and no liability for lying, faking, etc. If homicide were like lying, then the WaPo approach is that so long as murderers issue disclaimers, victims deserve what they get.
Readers were similarly unimpressed. For instance:
The Post has made clear that it does not consider fairness and accuracy to be important. How can journalists there, who, unlike Timberg, care about the integrity of their work, feel comfortable working for a management that is promoting a rush to the bottom in the interest of getting stories out faster and getting more eyeballs? And why should the public at large trust the Post? After the firestorm of criticism, the editors and publishers of the Post should recognize that they have a serious quality control problem. If Timberg and the editors responsible are not fired or demoted, this sends a clear message to all other writers that anything goes.
We want to thank readers for their support. Dealing with a libel of this magnitude has been emotionally draining not just for me but Lambert and other writers, enormously time consuming, and is already having an impact on my health. Other sites damaged by the Post have expressed interest in pursuing legal action. I doubt this handwave-masquerading-as-a-concession will dim their resolve.
But as much as Naked Capitalism has been caught in the crosshairs of an unwarranted attack, it is critical to recognize what is really at stake. Since the first net neutrality fights of the early 2000s, major media enterprises and pipeline providers schemed to restrict the freedom of the Internet and re-assert the position of traditional brands and the few newer players who have managed to attain the scale and brand recognition to make them Too Big To Squash. Because smaller web publishers have had enough natural allies in these fights, these legislative threats to an open Internet have been successfully beaten back.
But the multi-fronted censorship efforts, particularly using Facebook bans and software tools to silence or discourage readership of sites that successfully challenge mainstream narratives, is a new, private sector-led initiative which is far more challenging to contest by virtue of lacking a clear focus for joint action. We hope that other publishers as well as users of information recognize how serious this threat is and take forceful countermeasures. This is not the time to be complacent.
We hope you will help us rise to this challenge. And we will be taking more action, so stay tuned.