Commentary

Microsoft Allies With NewsGuard On Flawed News Ratings

Microsoft signed on as the first major client of NewsGuard, a startup that claims to fight “fake news” by rating the reliability of publishers. Yet its own rating system deserves more transparency.

NewsGuard aims to make the internet safer for entrenched media giants and their corporate sponsors deemed undeserving of public scrutiny. The company created a browser extension — a small piece of software attached to web browsers like Microsoft Edge — that shows a rating for more than 2,000 news and information sites.

A red “X” means the source is unreliable, while a green check mark signals trustworthiness, based on nine criteria for credibility and transparency. The ratings also appear in Google’s search results. The biggest weighting in NewsGuard’s rating system is for not “repeatedly” publishing false content.

NewsGuard endorses established publications, like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. BuzzFeed, FoxNews.com, The Hill, The Daily Beast and HuffPost also get a seal of approval.

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Newsmax, a conservative media company where I worked as a financial editor for four years, gets a green light, which doesn’t surprise me. I stand by everything I wrote and edited there as factual, while much of its content is aggregated from mainstream sites.

NewsGuard considers conservative website Breitbart and liberal site Daily Kos unreliable for not handling the differences between news and opinion responsibly, among other complaints. Those negative ratings will only reinforce the suspicions their readers have toward mainstream media rather than changing anyone’s mind.

News sites that get funding from the U.S. government, such as Voice of America, NPR and Stars and Stripes, all get NewsGuard’s seal of approval. Government-backed sites like Qatar's Al-Jazeera and Russia's RT do not. China’s Xinhua site doesn’t appear to have a NewsGuard rating yet.

NewsGuard’s effort looks like another attempt to re-litigate the 2016 election, when every major news outlet confidently predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. They were embarrassed their crack teams of journalists in the Beltway echo chamber didn’t foresee the Trump upset.

NewsGuard’s myopic operations won’t stop the spread of fake news among the internet’s “walled gardens” of social media companies, especially encrypted messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. Facebook’s censors can’t disrupt those back channels, although the social network giant has tried to limit the forwarding of messages in countries like India.

I’m skeptical of a company started by Steven Brill, author and founder of the magazine TheAmerican Lawyer, given his flawed commentaries about nearly everything.

Brill also founded the ill-fated Brill’s Content, a consumer magazine that focused on the inner workings of the media industry – as if any average person really cared about it. The magazine's reporting was mostly forgettable.

The first issue’s cover story didn’t focus on the media as much as allegedly illegal leaks from the office of Ken Starr, the special counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton.

Leaks obviously aren’t as transparent as direct quotes from named sources, but they’re a necessary journalistic currency. Perhaps that’s why “dependence on unnamed sources” doesn’t get NewsGuard demerits.

Brill’s recent book, “Tailspin,” his entry into the anti-Trump pantheon, is one of the worst analyses I’ve read about “the people and forces behind America’s 50-year fall.” The self-satisfied tome claims to reveal the sources of U.S. economic inequality without once mentioning its biggest source: the Federal Reserve.

No one will ever accuse of NewsGuard of biting the hands of the Beltway elites.

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