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Washington Post on the ‘Fake News’ Hot Seat

At least one of the websites blamed in a story for supposedly circulating Russian propaganda is threatening to sue the storied newspaper.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

The Washington Post—whose coverage of Watergate four decades ago angered the powers that be, toppled a president, and defined courageous journalism—has unleashed a hornet’s nest of a different sort, one unlikely to earn a Pulitzer Prize.

Indeed, Washington’s newspaper of record—which was purchased in 2013 by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos from the storied Graham family—is uncomfortably weathering a barrage of criticism from fellow journalists and others for a front-page story published over the Thanksgiving holiday.

The story, by Post technology reporter Craig Timberg and published Nov. 24, purported to reveal how “sophisticated” Russian propagandists had spread fake news through hundreds of web sites to destabilize American democracy, thwart Hillary Clinton and elect Donald Trump to the White House.

So far the story—which has attracted millions of page views and more than 14,000 comments—has provoked lawsuit threats from at least two of the web sites, notably the widely respected financial blog Naked Capitalism, which fired off a legal letter demanding a retraction and apology even though the Post story does not specifically mention Naked Capitalism or any of the other allegedly Russian-influenced websites.

There has also been a fusillade of disparaging commentary in publications ranging from The Intercept to The New Yorker.

“I thought it was completely ridiculous that the Post would put this sorry piece of trash on the front page,” Andrew Cockburn, the Washington editor of Harper’s magazine, told The Daily Beast in a typically vehement slam.

“The ‘Washington Post’ ‘Blacklist’ Story Is Shameful and Disgusting,” was the headline on Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi’s takedown.

The critics panned the Post story’s heavy reliance on the judgments of unnamed “researchers” for PropOrNot.com, a shadowy website launched three months ago ostensibly to expose “Russian influence operations targeted at US audiences, distinguish between propaganda and commercial ‘clickbait’, and help identify propaganda and push back.”

Granting PropOrNot’s “executive director” anonymity to save him from “being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers,” the Post credulously cited the group’s assessment of “more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season”—a list that included not only Naked Capitalism, but also such independent enterprises as Counterpunch.org (founded by Alexander Cockburn, Andrew’s late brother), the right-leaning DrudgeReport.com, the libertarian website of former Reagan administration assistant treasury secretary and ex-Wall Street Journal editor Paul Craig Roberts, and the left-leaning Truthdig.com and Truth-out.org.

Political satirist and sometime journalist Harry Shearer—best known as the voice of Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders and dozens of other characters on The Simpsons—has been regularly tweeting about the controversy.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, he especially praised the journalism of Naked Capitalism during the 2008 financial meltdown. “My first reaction when I saw it [the Post story] was that they’re going to be walking this story back within a week,” he said.

Naked Capitalism’s editor “Yves Smith,” the pen name of investment advisor Susan Webber who launched the blog in 2006, has so far not threatened to sue PropOrNot, whose so-called “blacklist” went online a few days after the group launched its Twitter feed on Nov. 5. The secretive group, which lists its business address in Santa Fe, New Mexico but has apparently registered, if at all, under an unknown name, had enjoyed negligible traffic until the Post trumpeted its existence.

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“I really don’t want to discuss our possible litigation strategy,” Webber told The Daily Beast, when asked why she was focusing her legal firepower on the Post and not PropOrNot. “The real damage here was done by the Washington Post’s amplification of a group that had no background…that was non-existent before it announced itself on Twitter.”

She added: “That does not mean that we were not significantly harmed by PropOrNot, the originator of this false tale, but I had chosen not to respond to them when I first saw their site, which was several days before the Post story ran, because they had no traffic. There’s no point in calling attention to a site that has no traffic.”

But after the Post published its story, “they got traffic and their Twitter lit up immediately,” Webber said, “and it was very clear the reputational damage was done.”

Timberg declined to comment on the controversy, and PropOrNot didn’t respond to an email. The Post has yet to walk back Timberg’s story, and maybe never will. But amid the storm of condemnation and an open letter from Naked Capitalism’s attorney demanding a retraction and apology, the paper appended a highly unusual editor’s note to the online version, attempting to distance the Post from PropOrNot.

The note claimed that PropOrNot—by most accounts the dominant source of the Post’s report—was only one of “four sets of researchers [consulted for the story] who have examined what they say are Russian propaganda efforts to undermine American democracy and interests.”

The note added that while the story cited PropOrNot’s “report identifying more than 200 websites that, in its view, wittingly or unwittingly published or echoed Russian propaganda,” it didn’t name any of the sites.

Astonishingly, considering the Post’s respectful treatment of PropOrNot and the story’s front-page play, the editor’s note argued that the paper “does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet, nor did the article purport to do so.”

That surprising assertion seemed to conflict with a statement the paper issued the previous week, as the criticisms were gaining traction, that “The Post reviewed [PropOrNot’s] findings, and our questions about them were answered satisfactorily during the course of multiple interviews…We granted PropOrNot anonymity in this case because of a credible fear of reprisal.”

The Post declined to comment further. But in a letter to an attorney for Truthdig.com, the leftist news and commentary site founded by investigative reporter Robert Scheer, the Post’s lawyer said the paper won’t retract the story, as Truthdig also has demanded, because, among other reasons, Timberg’s story didn’t mention Truthdig or link to PropOrNot’s “list,” and thus had no “basic journalistic” obligation to contact the site for a response.

“If it were truly ‘basic journalistic practice’ to contact every entity named in an unflattering way in any document about which the press reports,” wrote Post attorney James A. McLaughlin, “it would be all but impossible for the news media to function.”

Webber, meanwhile, said the paper’s explanations “are not satisfactory,” and she’s keeping open her options for legal redress.

Writing as “Yves Smith,” she argued: “The Post is being disingenuous in trying to take the position that its featuring of a newbie group with no track record whatsoever was not tantamount to an endorsement… The fact that journalists almost immediately found the blacklisted sites and took the Post to task on Twitter and shortly thereafter in news stories shows that the Post did damage to Naked Capitalism and other publishers vastly beyond the original publication of the [PropOrNot] list by amplifying it…”

Paul Craig Roberts, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast that he’s ready to join a potential lawsuit against the newspaper.

“Why don’t we just get all 200 of us to sue,” Roberts said, “so we can get all of Bezos’s billions?”