Is There Reason to Be On Guard over NewsGuard?

It sounds more authoritative in the original Latin — Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” — but that phrase, translated “Who watches the watchers” or “Who guards the guardians”, is potent enough in English. And it serves an apt question today, eighteen centuries after Roman poet Juvenal first posed it.

That ancient maxim comes to mind as an outfit styling itself NewsGuard has emerged on the internet scene. In a Wall Street Journal piece, NewsGuard co-founder Gordon Crovitz explains what he and Steve Brill have in mind in launching this company:

Instead of black-box algorithms, NewsGuard will use human beings to rate news brands Green, Yellow or Red depending on whether they are trying to produce real journalism, fail to disclose their interests, or are intentional purveyors of fake news. Our team of journalistically trained analysts will also create “nutrition label” write-ups reporting key facts about each brand. The nutrition labels will profile the 7,500 news brands that account for 98% of online news engagement in the U.S., with overseas markets to follow. We will be transparent about our criteria and processes, and invite readers and publishers to contribute. Our evaluations will reflect the wisdom of both experts and the crowd.

Sounds rather noble and perhaps it’ll all turn out that way. But, in light of what we’ve discovered about the reliability of other somewhat comparable fact-checking operations like Snopes and Politifact, a bit of healthy skepticism toward the claims of Crovitz, Brill and Co. might be warranted or even a heaping helping of same.

Whatever the professed motives and mission statement of the NewsGuard folk, none of that is really the pressing question. Their objectives might be  might be praiseworthy; but still unanswered? Are they capable of carrying them out fairly? Will their final product prove trustworthy?

While, of course, Crovitz, Brill, et al, have every right to take their stab at policing the fake news phenomenon, the rest of us similarly have a right to maintain a cautionary regard toward their months-old enterprise. Pardon a second reference to a hoary Latin aphorism, but I urge a caveat-emptor (Let the buyer beware) attitude.

Respectfully, who anointed this team of journalistically trained analysts the sentinels of media integrity? Theirs are high stakes claims and aims, indeed: a SWAT team of NewsGuard analysts and trained journalists supervised by experienced editors. There are lofty allusions to legitimate news publishers versus fake news”, well-known brands and journalism’s pivotal role in democracy.

Then, this: The Brill/Crovitz operation will profile the 7,500 news brands that account for 98% of online news engagement in the U.S., with overseas markets to follow. Yowza!

There’s an especially ominous pledge of a ‘white list’ of legitimate news publishers for advertisers to avoid fake news sites; not more regulation, mind you, but a free-market solution.  So, the plan is advertisers en masse will be waved off from particular sites because the folks at NewsGuard decide to tag them unreliable? Gulp. That’s a rather daunting power-reach for any single collection of people, whoever they may be.

Once more, the overall project isn’t necessarily out-of-bounds, but the potential for abuse is harrowing. An internet watchdog’s bankrupting other internet news or opinion platforms simply by dint of its say-so may not be government interference it’s still a sobering prospect, which ought to be scrutinized warily, at best.

We have no political axes to grind, assures NewsGuard’s website. According to the Yale News, Anna-Sophie Harling, NewsGuard’s vice-president of business development, guarantees the company’s ratings were objective and unbiased, partly because every review is subjected to multiple rounds of drafting and editing by experienced journalists as well as senior editors.

Well, good to know. And you can’t blame Harling’s organization for tooting its own horn  what start-up enterprise wouldn’t? That aside, to borrow another maxim (this one without Latin roots):  Just sayin’ it doesn’t make it so. 

A bottom-line quandary endures: it may be the NewsGuardians have set themselves an impossible task, to wit, establishing an iron-clad filter for media fairness and integrity.  A worthy aspiration? No denying. But it fails to eliminate a hardy tension between genuinely free speech (an unrestricted press) and unquestionable media reliability. That tension is probably ineradicable, in this mortal age at least.

Who definitively determines what the fake in fake news defines? Who authoritatively identifies the trained journos in contrast to the amateurs? What pointedly constitutes a legitimate news source as opposed to its illegitimate opposite number? These nettles are grist for ongoing and undying debate for a healthy reason and probably need to remain so. In a perfect arrangement, everyone ongoingly holds everyone else to account.

The establishment of air-tight objectivity, the case-closed removal of bias? Who ain’t for that?  Everyone ought to strive for it, to cheer it one while never losing sight of the trustworthiness dilemma always lurking in the recesses of any and every news/opinion outfit. That would apply to CNN, FoxNews, Breitbart, Huffington Post, Google properties, Snopes, and so forth  and, yes, it would include NewsGuard.

For all that, in any human endeavor, the yucky threat of bias can never be comprehensively dismissed

But we don’t use algorithms! retort NewsGuard’s moguls. So the silver-bullet solution to potential lack of objectivity is Newsguard’s human beings-versus-black box algorithms schematic? Once more quoting Crovitz from the WSJ:

“[T]he engineers” over at “Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms” deserve commendation for “us[ing] artificial intelligence to limit pornography and hate sites … but interpreting the nuances isn’t a task for computers.”

I can’t help but observe experience tells us it’s not always a task for flawed people, either. (Who unpacks that term “hate site”, for instance? How do they do it?)

Crovitz’s compatriot Steve Brill stresses, “every once in a while, human intelligence is better than artificial intelligence.”

I’d add: Until it’s not.

And that’s the journalistic fly-in-the-ointment even NewsGuard’s posse of “professional journalists” can’t exhaustively extricate.

The brute reality is, as columnist Rob Morse has recently pointed out, it’s only hard work by news consumers that can sufficiently address the media bias bugaboo: examining multiple sources, testing data, investigating and researching. It sounds challenging for time-crunched individuals because it is. Different colored shields bestowed by “expert” journalists from on-high doesn’t – can’t – irrefutably resolve the matter.

Thomas Jefferson brashly intoned, “We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

And, Difference of opinion leads to enquiry, and enquiry to truth … We both value too much the freedom of opinion sanctioned by our Constitution, not to cherish its exercise even where in opposition to ourselves.

One-hundred years further on, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis averred, when it comes to exposing “falsehood and fallacies” …  the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” His specific recommendation? “[F]ull discussion” – that is, debate, reflection, comparison and contrast of contending claims and viewpoints.

No hint in there of a single person or group absolving responsible citizens of that labor-intensive duty. No whiff of a suggestion that a solitary seal of approval settles things, stamping one source “Acceptable”, another “Unacceptable”.

In any human effort, what can never be presumed entirely absent is the human-fallibility factor: duplicity, partiality; agenda-setting; short-sightedness; conscious or unconscious misreading of the facts.  Juvenal’s “watchers”, his “guardians”, are not automatically exempt; not even NewsGuardians.

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