- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 18, 2023

NewsGuard, which ranks news sites to counter what it deems misinformation, including stories that question COVID-19 vaccine safety and efficacy, received significant funding from a firm that represents some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies.

NewsGuard’s leaders denied any conflict of interest. They said the group’s investors have never contacted them and have no influence over the company’s rating system.

That rating system has steered advertisers from websites such as the British-based Daily Sceptic, which emerged early in the pandemic to challenge lockdowns, mandates, and vaccine safety and efficacy. It also has targeted natural health site Mercola and the conservative-leaning Federalist, which raised questions about mask mandates.

Journalists whose sites have been downgraded say the for-profit NewsGuard is working to censor news outlets that produce content its paying clients oppose.

“I think it’s a really sinister organization, and it’s the enemy of good journalism everywhere,” Toby Young, editor-in-chief of The Daily Sceptic, told The Washington Times.

One of NewGuard’s investors is Publicis Groupe, which represents some of the world’s leading pharmaceutical and health care companies, including COVID-19 vaccine maker Pfizer. Publicis was among a group of investors that provided $6 million to launch NewsGuard in 2018.

“NewsGuard will be able to publish and license ‘white lists’ of news sites our clients can use to support legitimate publishers while still protecting their brand reputations,” Publicis Groupe Chair Maurice Levy said when NewsGuard launched in March 2018.

NewsGuard has worked to steer advertisers away from news sites that publish articles related to the COVID-19 pandemic that it deems false or misleading, in particular articles listing potential side effects from vaccinations or whether they work at all to inhibit the spread of the coronavirus.

The Daily Sceptic ran afoul of NewsGuard content monitors.

The Daily Sceptic’s goal, Mr. Young said, “is to challenge the new, powerful class of government scientists and public health officials — as well as their colleagues in universities, grant-giving trusts, large international charities, Silicon Valley and the pharmaceutical industry — that emerged as a kind of secular priesthood during the pandemic.”

The site gets 1.8 million views every month, Mr. Young said, but its advertising has dried up since NewsGuard’s blacklisting.

After a series of exchanges challenging the site’s reporting on COVID-19, NewsGuard downgraded The Daily Sceptic’s rating to an abysmal 37.5, a mark that put it in the “red zone.”

When installed on internet browsers, NewsGuard warns readers and advertisers to “proceed with maximum caution” because the website, according to them, is not reliable and violates basic journalism standards.

“We’ve got almost no advertising in the past 12 months, close to zero,” Mr. Young told The Washington Times. “And I think that’s largely as a result of NewsGuard effectively blacklisting us.”

NewsGuard warned advertisers away from Mercola based in part on its report questioning whether the COVID-19 virus came from a biological laboratory in Wuhan, China. NewsGuard called the report “an unfounded conspiracy theory.” Mercola’s founder, osteopathic physician Joseph Mercola, has questioned the safety and efficacy of vaccines and traditional drugs. 

In an email exchange with the site, NewsGuard said it “has repeatedly acknowledged” the Wuhan connection was possible “but also quoted the overwhelming consensus of experts in the field concluding, unlike Dr. Mercola, that the virus had none of the characteristics of something that was deliberately made in a lab.”

NewsGuard began questioning Mr. Young about the content on his site in 2022 and sent a series of questions challenging additional reporting this year.

Among the many articles NewsGuard wanted The Daily Sceptic to remove from its site was a piece citing an August 2022 study on how COVID-19 vaccines impact heart health in teenagers.

Mr. Young’s article quoted directly from the abstract, which reported cardiovascular effects in 29.24% of patients. In an email to Mr. Young, a NewsGuard employee cited a pediatrician not involved in the study who called the claim “a flat-out lie.”

Mr. Young said all his efforts to explain, verify and, in some cases, amend the articles were futile.

Because he was unwilling to remove the articles from the site, NewsGuard slashed The Daily Sceptic’s rating from 74.5 to 37.5.

“Had I realized at the beginning of the process that I was being given no choice — that the only way to improve our rating was to delete the articles NewsGuard disapproved of — I wouldn’t have wasted so much time engaging with them. I stupidly thought NewsGuard wanted a genuine dialogue and didn’t just want to censor,” Mr. Young said.

NewsGuard General Manager Matt Skibinski told The Times that the company does not practice censorship, that it acts with utmost transparency, and that its investors and clients play absolutely no role in the company’s rating process.

“NewsGuard does not censor any content — nothing we do blocks users’ access to any publisher’s website,” Mr. Skibinski said. “Instead, we provide users with information about our assessments of different media sources, including all of the criteria we used and our rationale for the rating, and let each user decide for themselves how much to trust the source. Similarly, clients that use our data make their own decisions about how to incorporate it into their businesses — though, to our knowledge, none of them uses our data to block users’ access to content.”

In May, NewsGuard funder Publicis Groupe signed a deal with Pfizer, which made tens of billions of dollars off the production of its COVID-19 vaccine and associated treatments. The drugmaker and vaccine giant hired Publicis to oversee its “integrated global engine,” which includes data and technology, media and creative production.

In August, NewsGuard contacted Mr. Young with questions and objections to content on his site. One article under scrutiny quoted a study that briefly appeared in The Lancet, one of the oldest peer-reviewed general medical journals.

In a review of autopsies, the study’s researchers found “a total of 240 deaths (73.9%) were independently adjudicated as directly due to or significantly contributed to by COVID-19 vaccination.” The Lancet removed the study, and The Daily Sceptic reported why. Its conclusions, The Lancet editors said, “are not supported by the study methodology.” NewsGuard nonetheless flagged the article.

NewsGuard also criticized an article by The Daily Sceptic citing a Cleveland Clinic study that found those with up-to-date COVID-19 vaccinations had higher infection rates. NewsGuard said the article failed to include a verbatim line from the study’s authors advising that a causal relationship was not proved.

A third criticism cited a Daily Sceptic article about the thousands of adverse events reported by those who took the Moderna vaccine, and a fourth criticism centered on a 2022 article about a Canadian doctor raising alarm over high death rates, many of them sudden, among physicians who were triple-vaccinated.

Some on the list, NewsGuard argued, “lacked any plausible connection to COVID-19 vaccines” and included a doctor who died in a fall while attempting to climb K2, the world’s second-highest mountain.

Mr. Young said he has given up on working with NewsGuard because his detailed defenses of the articles on his website have not raised the rating but, in fact, have lowered the rating because he has refused to delete his reporting.

It is unclear how much of NewsGuard has been funded by Publicis, which is listed third among investors that pumped the initial $6 million into the company.

Other investors include the Knight Foundation, Huffington Post co-founder Nick Penniman and Tom Ridge, who served as homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush.

When asked, Mr. Skibinski would reveal only that the contribution from Publicis is less than 1% of News Guard’s revenue and less than 1% of company expenses.

“NewsGuard got this funding, and then goes after so-called COVID disinformation,” constitutional law expert Bruce Afran told The Times. “NewsGuard’s got an inherent conflict of interest built in.”

Mr. Afran is representing Consortium News. The website is suing NewsGuard over claims of unlawful censorship as NewsGuard operates under a $750,000 contract from the Defense Department.

The lawsuit calls NewsGuard “functionally an intelligence proxy for the United States” that claims to be an independent news company.

NewsGuard tagged all 20,000-plus Consortium News articles and videos published since 1995 with warnings to “proceed with caution.” NewsGuard ruled that Consortium News produces “disinformation” and “false content” and is an “anti-U.S.” media organization.

NewsGuard downgraded Consortium News after entering into a contract with the Defense Department to employ its “misinformation fingerprints” to track “state-sponsored misinformation.”

The company took issue with the news site’s reporting on claims of neo-Nazism in Ukraine, labeling the 2014 government takeover in Kyiv as “a coup” and calling mass deaths in the Donbas region a “genocide.”

According to Consortium News executives, NewsGuard based its stark red-label warning on just six articles and none of the outlet’s videos and appeared to disregard the company’s thorough defense of its content.

NewsGuard argues that it is one of many companies that rate the reliability of news and that it operates with the greatest transparency and accountability.

The Pentagon contract and other data licenses for government entities make up a single-digit portion of NewsGuard’s revenue, Mr. Skibinski said.

“These government licenses have nothing to do with our ratings of news websites,” he said. “Instead, the government licenses relate to a different database, our Misinformation Fingerprints catalog of the most significant false claims spreading online, where the focus is on disinformation targeting the U.S. and our allies from hostile information operations from Moscow, Beijing and Teheran. We are proud of this work defending democracies from disinformation.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at sferrechio@washingtontimes.com.

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