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Finding Facts Amidst Conjecture

Louise Mensch has published a number of real scoops – but her reports have not been reliably true. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Finding Facts Amidst Conjecture

Every day I try explaining exactly this to my wife, that there is an unhealthy mix of truth and false stories in the news.  My unwavering assessment is that the vast majority of “news” stories, including the mainstream media, are absolutely false. 

In Louise Mensch’s (see story below for more information) case, she has two impediments to telling the truth. Both impediments are almost excusable, but cannot remove the guilt that must be bestowed upon her for her publication of a plethora of bad scoops.  

  1. She is a Brit and may not be familiar with American law.  Thank goodness she has never relied on this excuse.
  2. She is absolutely obsessed, perhaps possessed, with getting rid of Trump.  I would add “as President” but I almost think she would be most satisfied if he just went away. In this regard, she is an itch that will never go away, not unless she is somehow barred from being a journalist and that just won’t happen. Besides, she honestly can be a very good journalist. It’s just that her tendency to launch precludes her duty to verify and corroborate – much like the man she is vowed to expunge.

Let’s talk for a second about truth and reality.  Louise Mensch is a journalist and should abide by the rules of journalistic integrity. She has a deep and broad network of sources and has a ton of experience.  She makes an almost instantaneous analysis of the information fed to her and almost immediately publishes a short blurb on Twitter. Therein lies the problem, the same problem plaguing Trump: tweets are instantaneous, non-retractable, and have the potential to be used as sources for other journalists.  The speed of the tweets is not the problem.  The problem is with the veracity and truthfulness of her statements on twitter. 

Reporting on twitter is much like fly-fishing. A lure is cast upon the waters and sometimes a fish strikes, but mostly it sits, watching, as the fly repeatedly touches on the water. Teasing. Teasing more. Until the fish cannot stand the temptation and seizes upon the fly. 

Mostly that fly is false news but occasionally it is a verifiable fact. 140 characters can seldom say “this” is the background, this is corroboration, this can be verified ‘here’.  Much like my spaghetti theory, she is flinging facts against the wall to see what sticks. Often, however, these are not facts but conjecture.  A guess based on a gut feeling after her near instantaneous analysis, honed by years of experience…   Most experienced journalists would hold the facts at that point, thinking that ‘this makes sense’, but will wait for verification. 

I can’t blame her. She is merely a product of today’s “now” news, the first with the news wins – period. It is the adjective to the noun of news that makes all the difference, however.  The adjective may be false, truthful or even unverified. 

Because of the freedom of the press, we cannot bar Louise Mensch to ‘journalist jail’ until she learns to verify or corroborate. Our only option is that we become educated to the fact that she has a tendency to fling out 100 ‘factoids’, 99 of which may not be true, but just one might be golden. We, gentle readers, must learn to distinguish which is which.  We must watch what she publishes and dismiss the vast majority of what she writes and seize upon that one tiny little nugget of information.  

The bigger problem is the mainstream media is operating under the same rules. Perhaps they’re using Louise Mensch’s tweets as their source and declaring “this” will sink Trump!  I, for one, am sick and tired of all these disaster predictions. When I read experienced journalists and editors stating ‘this will definitely lead to an impeachment’, I just sigh.  I just have to wait for a shred of evidence, not a plethora of conjecture. 

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New fake news dilemma: sites publish real scoops amid mess of false reports

Louise Mensch is among a number of bloggers offering a mix of true and inaccurate stories, forcing readers to discern for truth for themselves

The need for vigilance in distinguishing real journalism from “fake news” has become well established since Donald Trump was elected with help from bogus online stories.

But readers are now being confronted with an even tougher challenge: decoding the work of writers whose track records of faulty reporting are occasionally interrupted by stories that are actually true.

The trait has appeared among pro- and anti-Trump writers alike, as bloggers on each side of a chaotic political crisis mix information from knowledgeable insiders with wild allegations about their opponents.

Media experts said readers should remain on guard.

“Even a blind pig finds a truffle once in a while,” said Kathleen Culver, director of the University of Madison-Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics. Culver noted that the supermarket tabloid the National Enquirer published authentic bombshells on the infidelity of former senator John Edwards in 2008 before resuming its less credible output.

The anti-Trump blogger Louise Mensch, who scooped mainstream reportersearlier this year, excited her followers over the weekend with a nonsensical 92-word post claiming that a sealed indictment – intended by the justice department to “form the basis of Mr Trump’s impeachment” – had already been “granted” against the president over his links to Russia.

Skeptics noted that criminal indictments are not “granted”; that impeachment is initiated by Congress, not an executive agency; and that Mensch appeared to have misunderstood the supremacy clause of the US constitution, which she incorrectly said meant Trump must be impeached before he could be prosecuted.

“This new reality, in which purveyors of fake news occasionally report verified information, reminds us, once again, of how difficult it is to be news literate in our information ecosystem,” said Jonathan Anzalone, a lecturer in journalism at New York’s Stony Brook University.

Undeterred, Mensch bullishly said on Twitter on Monday that mainstream reporters “know they are being scooped on the story of the century”.

In a series of messages to the Guardian, Mensch denied that she had posted inaccurate stories. “I believe in a free press. People both can and should write whatever they want,” said Mensch.

The situation mirrors one, noted by BuzzFeed News, that now surrounds far-right bloggers supporting Trump, such as Mike Cernovich. Having consistently published false stories and championed ludicrous conspiracy theories such as the “Pizzagate” paedophilia myth, Cernovich was apparently rewarded by sources close to Trump with real disclosures.

Cernovich was first to report that Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s national security adviser, was involved in “unmasking” the names of Americans in transcripts of foreign communications intercepted by US intelligence. The report was later matched by Bloomberg News and has become a source of intense controversy among conservatives.

Asked for comment, Cernovich sent a link to a post he published in December that aimed to distance himself from Pizzagate despite his prominent role in promoting the debunked conspiracy theory.

“The primary challenge that Mensch and Cernovich pose is that they take strong political positions and have drawn a number of likeminded followers who want to believe the information that they share, regardless of its veracity,” said Anzalone. “Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning divert them from the search for facts.”

The latest errors by Mensch, a former Conservative member of the UK parliament, were in keeping with past falsehoods she has posted online, including that the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, were funded by Russia, that the rightwing blogger Andrew Breitbart was assassinated at the order of Vladimir Putin, and that dozens of public figures are currently Russian agents.

Still, her weekend post caused a sensation among online readers desperately seeking signs of Trump’s imminent downfall. It was shared thousands of times on Twitter and Facebook, including by users with strong followings, such as the media professor Jeff Jarvis and the Blink-182 singer Tom DeLonge. Mensch was previously praised for her work on the topic by Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor who taught both Obama and the US supreme court’s chief justice, John Roberts.

And Mensch’s post was difficult to dismiss outright because she and her co-author, Claude Taylor, had earlier reported a pair of details from the investigations into Trump’s alleged links with Russia that were later confirmed by major mainstream news outlets.

On the eve of November’s election, Mensch was first to report US officials had been granted a warrant by the secret foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court to look into connections between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Over the following months, her reporting was followed by outlets such as the Guardian, the BBC and the Washington Post.

Mensch told the Guardian that her reporting “has been proven accurate in advance over and over again, not merely on the Fisa warrant story”.

Taylor, a former official in Bill Clinton’s White House, reported on Twitter on 29 April that grand jurors were considering the FBI’s findings on possible Trump-Russia links, and went on to specify that one grand jury was sitting in the eastern district of Virginia. CNN later reported that grand jury subpoenas from that jurisdiction had indeed been issued to associates of Michael Flynn, Trump’s disgraced former national security adviser.

Yet Mensch promptly undermined this reporting with a totally inaccurate follow-up. On 6 May, Mensch told readers she had “verified independently” that two mysterious-seeming federal court cases – one in New York City, the other in eastern Virginia – were nascent prosecutions related to Trump. Taylor promoted the post on his Twitter account, which has gained a cult following among some anti-Trump readers.

When informed by readers that publicly available dockets showed there was nothing mysterious about the cases, and they had nothing to do with Trump – the Virginia case concerned guns seized by federal agents from a woman in Fairfax, while the New York case was an unrelated $10m lawsuit – Mensch appeared unfazed. A tweet linking to the discredited post remained pinned at the top of her Twitter account.

Taylor said in an email that independent or citizen journalists should be held accountable for how accurate their reporting turned out to be. “Speaking only for myself, I do not expect to hit 100% in terms of accuracy but I do hope, when all is said and done, to be over 80% – roughly stated,” he said.

Paula Poindexter, an associate professor in journalism at the University of Texas, said: “This is a reminder that there’s a critical need for news literacy and critical thinking skills, so people of all ages have the tools to distinguish between legitimate news and fake news – and we can begin to restore the public’s trust in the press again.”

Such was impact of Mensch’s 6 May post that Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, used it as the basis of an incendiary claim during a CNN interview on 10 May that a second grand jury looking into Trump-Russia links was separately under way in New York.

When asked whether Markey had confirmed this to be true, an aide to the senator told the Guardian that he was simply referring – though not by name – to Mensch’s post and two related articles published by Palmer Report, a leftwing site whose record for accuracy has also come under fire.

A spokeswoman later emailed to say that Markey’s remarks had been erroneous and that he apologized for causing confusion. “Senator Markey believes it is of the utmost importance that solid facts and unimpeachable information are the foundation for all investigations into this matter,” said the spokeswoman.


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