11 PM IS AN INSIDE JOB
Meet Ben Swann, the Republican Pizzagate Truther Hosting Atlanta’s CBS Nightly News
An Atlanta CBS news anchor blocked out six minutes of airtime to imply Pizzagate could be real. It isn’t his first brush with far-right conspiracies.
News anchor Ben Swann aired a six-minute “investigation” into Pizzagate in America’s ninth-largest TV market on Tuesday night.
“Media is telling you the entire story is a hoax or fake news, but what does that even mean?” Swann asked on the 11 p.m. newscast of Atlanta’s CBS affiliate. He was referring to the debunked conspiracy theory spread by 4chan and InfoWars that Clinton campaign chief John Podesta is connected to a child sex ring in the basement of a pizza shop that has no basement.
Swann is no stranger to airing pseudo-investigative reports of elaborate conspiracies on the local affiliate of TV’s most watched national network, at his former employer Russia Today, and on his own website, Truth in Media—which shares a contact phone number with a prominent member of the Republican Liberty Caucus, a tax-exempt 527 political committee.
Last month, in a CBS 46 “Reality Check” segment that went viral on Facebook, Swann asked “If (Syrian President Bashar al) Assad is Committing Genocide in Aleppo, Why Are People Celebrating in the Streets?” The segment has garnered over 67,000 shares on Facebook alone.
In his last job at Russian state-TV outfit Russia Today in 2015, he reported that “any credible evidence does not seem to exist” that Russia shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, simply that it “fit the narrative the U.S. administration was hoping for.” On his own YouTube channel he said he had “major problems with the theory” that the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting and Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings were each conducted by “lone gunmen.”
“There’s a good reason to question this whole narrative: There’s been no evidence so far provided by police, other than what they’ve told us,” he said in his Sandy Hook truther video.
Swann took the same approach to Tuesday’s Pizzagate exposé, saying he spent the “last month investigating” it. In the report, Swann never reached out to any of the mentioned pizza shops, the FBI, the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, John Podesta, the Clinton campaign, or any of the people named or featured in pictures that aired throughout the report.
“To be clear, not one single email in the Podesta emails discusses child sex trafficking or pedophilia. That is a fact. But there are dozens of what seem to be strangely worded emails dealing with pizza and handkerchiefs,” he said. “What the media is ignoring is that the Comet Ping-Pong Pizza place is actually referenced in the Podesta emails at least a dozen or so times.”
Swann mostly repeats talking points from what he calls “self-described online investigators,” wherein he compares a triangle in a pizza place logo to a triangle in a “boy love group.”
“I want you to see these images here. Notice this one on the end. Triangle? That image signifies something called ‘boy love,’” he said.
Swann ends the segment by asking, “Why hasn’t any investigation taken place?” into Comet Pizza, the shop Edgar M. Welch shot into with an AR-15 last month. Welch said he was “investigating” the fictional sex-slave ring he thought was in its backrooms or basement.
“Keep in mind again, there is no proof here that there is a child sex ring being operated out of a D.C. pizza parlor. Investigators have already proven there is nothing to this story, right?” Swann concludes. “Well, actually, no.”
The Daily Beast repeatedly tried to reach executives at CBS 46 and CBS News for comment on Wednesday. After several emails, CBS 46 News Director Frank Volpicella answered a phone call at 6 p.m., saying he didn’t have time to comment because his newscast was about to go on the air.
“I will say Ben was meticulous with his fact-finding and sourcing on his Reality Check segment,” Volpicella said.
When pressed about the lack of any reporting in the piece, Volpicella doubled down.
“Ben was meticulous,” he said. “I have to go,” telling The Daily Beast to call back immediately after the show ended. But Volpicella and station staffers then ignored or turned away a half-dozen phone calls requesting further comment.
The report was also posted to Swann’s website, Truth in Media, which he created in 2013 and where he posts his CBS 46-funded “Reality Check” segments, many of which echo talking points from websites like RT and InfoWars that are rarely seen in mainstream media.
Recent “Reality Check” topics, which all aired at the 11 p.m. hour in Atlanta, include “Why ‘Health Issues’ Prove Clinton Campaign ‘Untrustworthy’ on Many Levels” and “5 Problems with CIA Claim That Russia Hacked DNC/Podesta Emails.”
Swann is also “crowdfunding” an episode about how “U.S and partners intentionally created ISIS,” through his Facebook page, which has more than 419,000 followers. He’s raised over $12,000 of his $55,000 goal.
Repeated emails and calls to Swann also went unreturned.
The phone number listed under the contact section on Truth in Media’s website belongs to Joshua Cook, who previously used the same number as a contact for South Carolina’s Republican Liberty Caucus in the political organization’s press releases. (Reached at the number, Cook declined to comment Wednesday, saying Swann would soon release a statement.)
Cook was the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Liberty Caucus as recently as 2014, and he is currently listed as a committee member on RLC’s national website. Cook has written more than 500 articles on Truth in Media’s website since Swann founded it in 2013, while serving as RLC’s South Carolina chairman or national committee member.
In 2013, the Republican Liberty Caucus posted an interview with Swann on its website titled “RLC Joins Forces with Ben Swann’s Truth in Media Project.” The caucus is “dedicated to working within the Republican Party to advance the principles of individual rights, limited government, and free markets.”
“We’re very strong believers in breaking the two-party system because it is, in many ways, the same message coming from both sides,” Swann said to RLC National Chairman Matt Nye in the interview.
In 2013, Swann was a featured guest at the Republican Liberty Caucus national convention alongside Ted Cruz, Reince Priebus, and Rand Paul. He also hosted several events with local RLC chapters, including a $350-per-table “private lunch.”
After leaving Cincinnati Fox affiliate WXIX in 2013, Swann appeared regularly on Russia Today between 2013 and 2015. He was featured in segments in which he denied the Russian government shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and alleged that an RT anchor resigning in protest on-air was a “stunt coordinated with a Neo-Con Think-Tank and driven in part by Daily Beast writer James Kirchick.”
Swann’s last RT report aired in May of 2015, before he was hired by CBS 46 in June of that same year.
Update: National CBS News spokesperson Christa Robinson sent a statement to The Daily Beast after publication of this article.
"WGCL-TV in Atlanta is not owned or operated by CBS. As such, CBS News has no editorial control over the station’s news product," she said.