Media Watchdog Exposes ‘Fake News’

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    Accuracy in Media recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Founded in 1969 by Reed Irvine to combat liberal media bias, the organization has a new leader. Adam Guillette spoke to The Daily Signal about his plans for Accuracy in Media, the threat of “fake news,” and the media’s relentless attacks on President Donald Trump. Listen to the podcast or read a lightly edited transcript below.

    Rob Bluey: Your organization has been around from the start of the conservative movement, and you are doing some really transformational things. So I want to delve into a couple of those. But before we begin, share with us the mission of Accuracy in Media and what it is you do.

    Adam Guillette: Reed Irvine founded our organization in 1969 because that was a time where you had Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, lying to Americans about what was happening in the Vietnam War. So he set out to use a combination of citizen activism and investigative journalism to create a healthy skepticism of the media. And when he passed away just over a decade ago, The New York Times credited, or blamed, depending on how you view it, blamed him with creating skepticism toward the media today.

    Bluey: And of course, it was also just five years after Barry Goldwater had made his run for president, so pre-Ronald Reagan and a lot of the figures that modern conservatives really identify with. You were at the vanguard back then to do the type of work that you were doing.

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    Guillette: That’s exactly right. They were doing investigative journalism before it was cool. They were the hipsters of investigative journalism. They were taking on media bias using citizen activism before the internet. Before you could send out an action alert and get all of your followers to email this person or email this congressman, they would mail postcards to their supporters and say, “Fill this out, send it to the address on there, and tell them what you think about that article in the paper.” 

    They were doing brilliant stuff at a much more difficult time when there was no real precedent for how to do it or how do you go about exposing media bias. They were making it up as they went along and they did it very well.

    Bluey: So you just celebrated this 50th anniversary in Washington. You’re new to the organization as its leader. Tell us about where you want to see and take the organization in the future.

    Guillette: I want to bring back our great history of investigative journalism. I think moral outrage is the most powerful force in all of politics and nothing elicits moral outrage better than hidden camera, undercover investigative journalism. 

    And it is a target-rich environment. There are so many folks in the media and outside the media that should be exposed. There are some incredibly powerful targets in the media that nobody really talks about. People complain about Rachel Maddow or they complain about The New York Times. Most of the people watching MSNBC already are of that political persuasion.

    I’m more worried about the influence from sites like Now This and BuzzFeed. People signed up for Now This on Facebook because of puppy videos. Who doesn’t like puppy videos? Fast forward a couple of years, they have 10 million followers and they start putting out news that’s so biased that CNN calls them out for it, and they’re reaching easily influenced young people who signed up for puppy videos and sharing propaganda with them on a daily basis. That’s dangerous.

    Bluey: It’s really remarkable to see the growth of some of these sites. If you’re a parent or somebody who doesn’t necessarily keep tabs on what the millennial generation or Gen Z is following, that’s how they are consuming their news. They’re not getting it through the evening newscast or the newspaper. They are turning to sites and platforms like Snapchat and Twitter to consume that news and information.

    I want to go back to the investigative reporting piece of it, because you previously were at Project Veritas, so you obviously have some knowledge and experience doing those undercover investigations. Talk to us about how that experience shaped your view and why you think that it’s so important to pursue at Accuracy in Media.

    Guillette: I’ve really come to the conclusion that politics is so much more determined by emotion than by fact and logic, for better and for worse. We would argue for worse. 

    And we can either sit around and bemoan the fact that political voters don’t make their decisions logically and largely make them emotionally, or we can embrace the fact that human beings are creatures of emotion. They make decisions emotionally and then search for logic and facts to back them up.

    The most effective method of persuasion is leading with emotion and backing it up with facts. The left, they’re masters at emotion. We resign ourselves to facts and statistics and put people to sleep. 

    Say we’re debating Obamacare. We’ll stack up all the facts and statistics and prove that it’s a bad idea. And someone might say, “OK, I kind of agree.” The left comes in and says, “Well, what about that single mother over there?” And just like that the battle has been lost.

    So one thing I learned at Veritas and previously at the Moving Picture Institute is that when you use emotional arguments to draw people in, that gets them to understand how much you care and that gets them to care, and then you can use your facts and logic and statistics to back up your argument and say, “This isn’t anecdotal. In fact, X, Y, and Z.” 

    I think it’s a great one-two punch that our entire movement could be utilizing. It’s a much better way to get people to pay attention to policy papers and graphs and statistics and so forth when you lead with the emotional arguments that investigative journalism can bring forth.

    Bluey: Adam, I wholeheartedly agree. I hear it often from our president at The Heritage Foundation, Kay Coles James. It’s one of the reasons we started The Daily Signal five years ago was to do a better job of exactly what you’re describing. 

    It is challenging for conservatives because we too often want to resort right to the facts and the data and the numbers, but those stories are so powerful and can be incredibly helpful in terms of convincing people and persuading them that our solutions really are going to lead to a better life for all Americans.

    Guillette: That’s right, and that we’re not just calculated pencil pushers, obsessed with numbers, that we actually care about individuals, that we actually care about you and so forth, and the kind of stuff you’re talking about is what most effectively accomplishes that.

    Bluey: Tell us how somebody could go about finding the work that you’re doing as you’re producing this investigative reporting. Where do they go to find it?

    Guillette: The website is AIM.org. We’re also on all the social media channels and we literally just relaunched a couple of weeks ago, and we’re working right now to hire investigative journalists and to build a small cadre or small army of them out there working on a variety of fronts in a variety of states. 

    I can’t specifically name too many of our targets right now, but it is an incredibly target-rich environment that we face. Our movement could use umpteen organizations doing investigative journalism to bring our ideas to light, to expose morally outrageous behavior, and I’m excited for what we’re going to accomplish next year.

    Bluey: Prior to The Daily Signal launching, we had an investigative reporting team here at The Heritage Foundation, so that was a precursor to what eventually became The Daily Signal. I admire you. It’s hard work. It’s not easy. It takes time and a lot of effort on the part of journalists who are pursuing investigative reporting. But I give you credit for doing it.

    You mentioned social media just a moment ago. It is increasingly difficult for conservatives, it seems, to get their message out using the social media platforms. We have heard all sorts of debates recently about whether or not companies are going to ban political advertising and whether or not algorithms are biased against conservatives. I wanted to give you an opportunity to weigh in on what you think the current state of affairs is with some of these social media platforms.

    Guillette: Now, we’re certainly dealing with tremendous difficulties with sites like Twitter and Facebook. Twitter was caught shadow banning. They said they were trying to block Russian bots from taking over their site. When asked what terms they use to flag a Russian bot, they said, “Well, people are tweeting about God, guns, American flag emoji. Then you know it’s a bot.” 

    These are the people that we’re dealing with, people who think that if you’ve got an American flag emoji, you’re obviously a Russian bot because somebody living in Silicon Valley never confronted anyone in their life who would use an American flag emoji in a non-ironic sense. So that absolutely is a challenge.

    I would say we’ve got a lot of self-inflicted wounds with social media as well. We’re very often happy to be in our own echo chamber and share stuff that’s really only of interest to people who share our beliefs. We’ll endlessly virtue signal about pro-life causes as if we’re going to save one baby with every like and five babies with every share, ignoring the fact that everyone in my social network [is] already pro-life. I think that’s a big problem with it. 

    Other times organizations within our movement create content that really are only appealing to our echo chamber, only appealing to our supporters and aren’t necessarily of interest to the easily persuadable 19-year-olds.

    It’s a challenge, because if you’ve got to pitch something to a financial supporter of your organization, it’s got to appeal to them, but obviously what’s going to appeal to a 65-year-old may not be as appealing to a 19-year-old. And I think we can more better balance that and make sure that the content we create in social is going after that actual audience.

    Bluey: You’ve had experience doing it even before coming to Accuracy in Media at Project Veritas and the Moving Picture Institute. What advice do you have for people who might be active on social media? How can they do a better job of breaking out of those echo chambers?

    Guillette: It’s just like if you’re giving a speech to an audience. The thing is know your audience. Who are you going after? Speaking their language. If your audience only spoke French, you would at the very least have subtitles. But so frequently we’ll create content that really is only appealing to our group, and it’s understandable because it’s so rare to see content for us. 

    There’s you guys, there’s some others out there, but if I turn on TV, odds are it’s going to be a left-wing point of view offering comedy. If I turn on a network show, odds are it’s going to be a left-wing storyline subtly being put through. 

    So I can understand why people are so excited to make content that’s specifically for us. But if we seek to persuade, if we don’t just seek to motivate the base, the goal should be knowing your audience and trying to actually persuade them and speaking in a language that they speak in.

    A lot of times, we’ll see videos created that are incredibly long on our side and incredibly fact-based. Well, if you have a 12-minute video and consistently people are clicking away on YouTube after two minutes, YouTube is going to down-rank your video like crazy and you’ll sit there and say, “Well, those jerks are biased against conservatives. Those jerks.” 

    Well, no, it’s because YouTube wants you to watch videos for the rest of your life. They’d like you to watch one video until it ends, then another, then another, and if people are clicking away two minutes into your video, they don’t want people to see your video. It’s your own darn fault. Our side needs to embrace more effective tactics on YouTube and on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bluey: That’s so true. I had an opportunity earlier this year to attend the Social Media Summit that President [Donald] Trump hosted at the White House, and I believe he either was asked or he referenced the fact that some people say, “You wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for social media.” He says he would be president regardless. 

    I have my own doubts. Social media definitely gave him a direct line of communication to the American people. He’s still using it, obviously, with Instagram and Twitter and Facebook on a daily basis. I think it’s so important that conservatives leverage that opportunity. 

    For years we complained about the media serving as a filter and not letting through the information that we were trying to get out there to more and more Americans. I think that’s one of the reasons you do hear concerns about some of the social media companies today is that they don’t want to see information restricted or limited, but you have to create effective content that people want to consume as well.

    Guillette: That’s exactly right. Certainly there’s bias against conservatives. Certainly the power they have is incredibly dangerous. 

    We often talk about Eisenhower’s farewell address and how he warned about the military-industrial complex. In that same speech, he warned about the dangers of a technological elite that could take over our nation without us even realizing it. That danger exists with Google and with Facebook and with Twitter. Google can redefine words like they did with fascism without you even realizing it.

    Three years ago, Google, to fight fascism, left-wing ideology, which it is, as soon as Trump started getting called a fascist, they redefined the term as a right-wing ideology. What a dangerous power. 

    Similarly, Facebook, they know your political inclinations. They can make it so on Election Day if you’re of a political inclination they like, they’ve got banners on the top saying, “Vote today, vote today, vote today,” and if they disagree with your beliefs, those banners ain’t there. That’s a tremendous power they’ve got. 

    But the first thing we need to focus on, no self-inflicted wounds. Let’s at least use them as effectively as we can.

    Bluey: [Facebook founder and CEO] Mark Zuckerberg gave a big speech here in Washington, D.C., at Georgetown University where he talked about the benefits of free speech and why he wanted to keep Facebook as open to different points of view as possible. 

    He came under some fire for that from those on the left, which, it seems that they don’t necessarily agree with that instinct that we should have a freedom to speak our minds. 

    Do you think that he’s sincere in those remarks? Do you think Facebook is trying to position itself differently from some of those other social media platforms? Or is this just lip service?

    Guillette: Even if he’s fully sincere—let’s assume that—he doesn’t have control over every bit of his organization every day, as Project Veritas exposed. There were folks inside the organization who were demonetizing and down-ranking people endlessly, just as we saw on Twitter. So it’s more to the company than Mark Zuckerberg. He’s not the only one there. 

    And what we need to do is first use these platforms properly, and second, if we find legitimate instances that we can prove of them being biased, let’s expose that again and again and again and create that outrage amongst the American people as a whole that will cause them to reform their ways. 

    They’re always going to have a cranky, loud leftist majority that they probably go to cocktail hours with every Thursday afternoon that is going to have their ear telling them that they should be blocking hate speech and we’ve got to be aware of that and we have to counterbalance it with a majority in America of people who think that it should be a platform for all viewpoints and those folks putting pressure on Facebook from the other side.

    Bluey: And I might be remiss if I didn’t ask you about President Trump, who we’ve talked about, and somebody who has used the term “fake news.” He’s constantly criticizing the media as being biased against him despite the tremendous economic success he’s had in this country leading it as the president. What are your thoughts on the traditional media, the national news media’s coverage of him, particularly as we head into an election year?

    Guillette: As we’ve even seen that The New York Times, Project Veritas exposed, they’re all chasing the Trump bump. It’s an era of declining clicks, declining subscribership, and so forth. So they’ve given up objective journalism and instead are writing any kind of anti-Trump content they can because they know there’s a rabid base of people who want to read that content and it’ll sell. 

    It’s almost as if they’re writing fan fiction in their newspapers and on their websites because that’s of interest to that base of subscribers. That’s morally outrageous. Don’t pretend to be a journalist. The greatest threat to real news is fake news. These folks say that attacking the news is a threat to our democracy. Their fake news is a threat to our republic. It’s morally outrageous.

    Bluey: Adam, the other thing that I associate with that are polls indicating the trust in media and journalists appears to be at record lows. Increasingly, it seems that the American people are looking for alternative sources, probably places like Accuracy in Media and The Daily Signal, because they have lost trust in other media platforms. 

    What is it that you’re going to do at Accuracy in Media to make sure that you are on the same level and breaking through and having success as a New York Times or Washington Post or a big TV network?

    Guillette: We’re going to confirm suspicions. We are going to expose bias. We’re going to catch people engaged in morally outrageous behavior and maintain a healthy skepticism. And I think when these folks get exposed again and again and again, it’ll cause some people to reform their ways. 

    We’ve got a profession now where it’s much like contractors or trial lawyers or politicians. The few remaining good journalists are going to want to be in a position where they say, “These folks have given me a bad name,” and they’ll start to speak out against the fake news going on out there.

    Bluey: Adam, as we wrap up here, anything else you’d like our audience to know about the work you’re doing at Accuracy in Media and your new leadership of the organization?

    Guillette: Sure. Follow us on all of our social media platforms at @AccuracyInMedia. One thing we’re launching in the beginning of next year is we’re going to be working with conservative social media influencers to expose influencers and celebrities and reporters sharing fake news online. 

    I think there are so many celebrities out there who are far more influential with news than any journalist that we would talk about because if you’re a young person, you’re not following Rachel Maddow and Twitter unless you’re a leftist, but you might be following Jaden Smith or Justin Bieber and they’ll be incredibly influential when they share fake news.

    We’re building an army of folks who will activate as soon as we see that sort of thing being shared and respond to it, not in a tribal, divisive manner saying, “You blankety blank, sharing fake news.” But rather when George Takei shared the photos of kids in cages on the border, [of] immigrant children, and said, “Darn you Trump for doing this,” people responded and said, “Appreciate your concern about kids on the border. That photo’s from the Obama administration.” And to his credit, Takei corrected the record and apologized.

    I think if we can replicate that again and again and again and say to these celebrities and to these influencers, “Listen, I appreciate your concern in X issue, but what you shared was wrong,” people will either be more hesitant to share fake news because they don’t want to get called out and look like a fool or they’ll start actually checking the facts before they get out there and they’ll apologize when they screw it up.

    Bluey: And we can certainly hope that this is successful because I can tell you that I still hear repeated to this day the claim about President Trump and cages. 

    You can even have an apology, but because of the cultural influence and the way that news spreads, sometimes that message doesn’t ever filter back to the people who saw the original post. So it’s really important that you’re doing this project.

    I’d also say culture, as Andrew Breitbart always said, is upstream from politics. These cultural figures and celebrities are oftentimes the ones at the forefront and the politicians are the ones lagging behind.

    Guillette: Politicians are followers, not leaders. They follow the polls, they follow the celebrities, they follow the money. These folks in the culture have a much greater influence over our nation than a Rachel Maddow or even a Sean Hannity does. Although those people have tremendous value for what they do, they’re not as much reaching undecided folks and easily persuaded young people as these celebrities are.

    Bluey: Adam Guillette, thanks so much for joining The Daily Signal. Congratulations on your new role at Accuracy in Media. We wish you the best.

    Guillette: Thank you so very much for having me.

    Rob Bluey is executive editor of The Daily Signal, the multimedia news organization of The Heritage Foundation. Send an email to Rob.