You MUST do better, NBC News

MEMO

TO:        Noah Oppenheim, President, NBC News

RE:         Disinformation

DATE:   December 29, 2019

Dear Noah,

You really need to invite Claire Wardle from (formerly) Harvard University’s First Draft Project to visit your newsroom and educate your directors and producers about disinformation. You also ought to book a full “back to class” day of Chuck Todd’s time with Claire. Although he’s making good efforts, In both his recent Rolling Stone interview and in his “Alternative Facts” Meet the Press program on December 29, Todd indicated he really doesn’t understand disinformation (DI), and what DI campaigns are.

WHAT DI IS

Disinformation is manufactured information that is deliberately created or disseminated with the intent to cause harm.

Disinformation feeds off of inauthentic information. Inauthentic information is not transparent in its origins and affiliation. The source of the information tries to mask its origin and identity.

These definitions aren’t from me, or from Russia, or from any unusual source. They stem from Wardle’s work, and all the definitions are incorporated in a seminal work from the Analytic Exchange Program (AEP) report titled “Combatting Targeted Disinformation Campaigns: A Whole of Society Issue,” issued in late October 2019.  The Director of National Intelligence, the Dept. of Homeland Security, the FBI, the MITRE Corporation, Booz Allen Hamilton, and prominent government, business, and educational organizations all contributed to this report.

It should be required reading at NBC News and in newsrooms across the U.S.

Todd doesn’t fully grasp it. Additionally, he is failing to differentiate between disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation. Until and unless you, he and all of NBC News “gets it” with respect to disinformation and DI campaigns, you run the risk of continuing to misinform the public. Do you want to do that?

Here is a chart which briefly explains the three types of “information disorders” (as Wardle calls them) in a diagram:

Claire Wardle “Information Disorder: The Essential Glossary” Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, July 2018

WHY IT MATTERS

Pew Research tells us that the gap between “Rs” and “Ds” on the role of journalists and journalism has never been greater in our nation’s history. According to Pew’s “Trusting the News Media in the Trump Era” (2018-2019) among highly politically aware citizens there is a 75 percent differential between those who believe that journalists will act in the best interests of the public (91% for Ds, vs. 16% for Rs). Restoring the public’s trust in journalism and the credibility of journalists should be the first and foremost priority for NBC News, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and all media outlets.

With great specificity, the AEP report calls on news media programs to provide transparency regarding sources, authors, and produces of news content. This includes their expertise, funding, conflict of interest and agenda. News media organizations should strive to meet journalism standards of trustworthiness, such as citing sources, correcting mistakes, and avoiding conflicts of interest and political bias.

WHAT TODD SHOULD HAVE DONE

In Justice Department Inspector General (IG) Michael Horowitz’ December 9 report on the conduct of the FBI, the IG debunked the work of Christopher Steele and Steele Dossier as being both false and unverified. Additionally, Horowitz reported that the FBI failed to inform the FISA Court about this fact, but instead continued to apply (and receive approval on) FISA warrants to keep several U.S. citizens under constant surveillance. Subsequent media and government reports have affirmed this to be the case. The FISA court itself has assailed the FBI for its failure to follow the law.

So, when Todd interviewed Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron, The New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet, he should not have been throwing them underhanded softball-type questions. These media sources reported dozens of times on the Steel Dossier in early 2017 and continued on in 2018 and 2019. Their stories went a long way toward creating and sharing a narrative about the Donald Trump candidacy and 2016 election campaign which the IG’s reports and other government sources are now describing to be completely false.

That, Noah, is far worse than “alternative facts” because at least many media outlets are challenging false statements, whether they be from Republicans or Democrats.  DI campaigns count on you – the media – to help them spread half-truths and falsehoods. That’s what you must be on guard against, because when you do so you play right into the hands of malevolent DI actors.

Here’s what Todd should have asked:

  • What were the sources of your reporters’ stories on the Steele Dossier?  If they provided information to your outlet “off the record” or “on background” did you accept that as fact and without verification? If it has been proven subsequently that the information was false, what steps have you taken to correct your stories?
  • Did your media outlet make a strong effort to ascertain who paid for the Steele Dossier?  If not, why not? “Follow the money” is one of the oldest adages student journalists learn in their public affairs reporting courses. Are media outlets today still doing this? When did NBC News, the Washington Post, and The New York Times do stories on who funded the Steele Dossier?

The late Tim Russert was a strong and fair interviewer who relentlessly pursued his subjects with questions such as these. He’d be rolling over in his grave if he saw the December 29 edition of “Meet the Press” and understood how far this program has fallen from the high journalist standards it established when it began in 1947, and especially  compared to the high standards maintained under Russert’s watch from 1991 until 2008.

For the sake of an informed populace, Noah, and to prevent further spreading of misinformation, do much more to get your act together at NBC News.

Published by jkerezy

I'm an associate professor of Media and Journalism Studies (MJS) at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, and have also had a "side job" as a high school speech and debate coach for the past 13 years. I also worked in journalism, public relations and marketing for many years before going into higher education. My professional email address is john.kerezy@tri-c.edu

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