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Journalists





The Fake News About "Fake News"


Tips for analyzing news sites,a list of media outlets compiled by Merrimack College Assistant Professor Dr. Melissa Zimdars, first circulated soon after the 2016 election when concerns over “fake news” became widespread. The document purports to be a guide to help readers discern reliable and unreliable news sites, and it is now being promoted by the Harvard University Library on its website. The guide itself, however, is in need of some corrections. To Dr. Zimdar’s credit, the document does state that “all tags may be subject to revision based on feedback, discussion, continued analysis, or website changes etc.” This analysis will examine two sites that have been incorrectly classified by Dr. Zimdar’s guide.

 

The lengthy document lists various websites, either news sites or sites designed to look like news sites, and rates each site using a combination of labels including (among others):

 

Fake News (tag fake): Sources that entirely fabricate information, disseminate deceptive content, or grossly distort actual news reports. … 

Extreme Bias (tag bias): Sources that come from a particular point of view and may rely on propaganda, decontextualized information, and opinions distorted as facts. …

Proceed With Caution (tag unreliable): Sources that may be reliable but whose contents require further verification or to be read in conjunction with other sources.

*Political (tag political): Sources that provide generally verifiable information in support of certain points of view or political orientations.  

*Credible (tag reliable): Sources that circulate news and information in a manner consistent with traditional and ethical practices in journalism (Remember: even credible sources sometimes rely on clickbait-style headlines or occasionally make mistakes. No news organization is perfect, which is why a healthy news diet consists of multiple sources of information). … 

 

Two listings on the site stand out as mislabled. Dr. Zimdars lists the Alternet site as “political” but “credible,” and MintPress as simply “political.” Both of these sites are extremely biased, and have published false assertions concerning Israel and the Middle East. MintPress, moreover, appears to have affiliations with hate sites. 

 

ALTERNET

 

Alternet describes itself as:

 

An award-winning news magazine and online community that creates original journalism and amplifies the best of hundreds of other independent media sources. AlterNet’s aim is to inspire action and advocacy on the environment, human rights and civil liberties, social justice, media, health care issues, and more. Since its inception in 1998, AlterNet.org has grown dramatically to keep pace with the public demand for independent news. We provide free online content to millions of readers, serving as a reliable filter, keeping our vast audience well-informed and engaged, helping them to navigate a culture of information overload and providing an alternative to the commercial media onslaught. Our aim is to stimulate, inform, and instigate.

 

Analysis of a few of Alternet’s stories about the Middle East, however, shows it is anything but reliable.

 

On January 18 of this year, the website published an article titled, “Israel Begins Ethnically Cleansing Bedouin Community to Build Jews-Only Town,” by Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal. Both authors are anti-Israel extremists.  Blumenthal was one of two radical activists criticized by a councilman from Germany's Left party as “well-known anti-Semitic journalists.” (The other, David Sheen, has also been published by Alternet.)

 

The headline's claim that Israel would be building a “Jews-only town,” a claim repeated in the body of the article, is false. What the authors refer to as “ethnic cleansing” was actually the destruction of eight homes and four other structures that had been built illegally on state land. Seventy other homes in the same village remained, and the residents of the destroyed homes were to receive financial compensation and new plots of land not far from site of the illegally built houses.

 

The court decision that authorized the destruction of the structures made clear that the displaced residents would be able to purchase property in the planned new town if they chose to do so.  The court wrote, “this is not expulsion and not expropriation, but the proposed evacuation involves various proposals of moving, construction, compensation and the possibility of homes, whether in the town of Hura where most of the residents of the illegal villages involved will be moved, or in the community of Hiran, which is to be built [emphasis added].”

 

The same article also falsely claims that “some twenty percent of Israel's citizens are Palestinians, and none of them enjoy a modicum of legal or political equality.” In fact, Israel’s Basic Law guarantees equal rights to all of its citizens. Claims that Israel has dozens of discriminatory laws have been debunked. Israel’s Arab minority (referred to in the article as “Palestinian citizens”) votes, has representation in Israel’s parliament, has full access to higher education and health care, and has access to Israel's courts for redress of grievances.

 

On May 18, 2016, Alternet published an article claiming that Hamas, the terrorist group that rules Gaza, “does not ‘deny’ Israel’s right to exist.” Author Vijay Prashad added that “Israel is not denied by [Khaled] Meshal, the leader of Hamas.”

 

Prashad acknowledged, but quickly dismissed, the language in the Hamas Charter that states, “Israel will exist, and will continue to exist, until Islam abolishes it, as it abolished that which was before it.” To support his claim about Hamas, Prashad relied mainly on a New York Times interview with Meshal, in which the Hamas leader stated, “We are with a state on the 1967 borders, based on a long-term truce.” Prashad omitted, however, that in the very next sentence, the Times “asked what ‘long-term’ meant, he [Meshal] said 10 years.” In other words, even if they obtained a state, according to Meshal, after ten years Hamas would once again resume its fight. Prashad further omitted that Meshal’s interviewers noted that, “he repeated that he would not recognize Israel, saying to fellow Arab leaders, ‘There is only one enemy in the region, and that is Israel.’” These statements, in the very article that Prashad cited, patently contradict his claim that “Israel is not denied by Meshal.”

 

The inconsistencies were pointed out to Prashad at the time by blogger Elder of Ziyon. The article, however, was never corrected.

 

On May 12, 2015, Alternet published a piece by Zaid Jilani, a staff writer, titled, “6 Crazy Things Israel has done to Maintain Racial Purity.” At the time, the Anti-Defamation League criticized the piece for its “hyperbole and distortions,” and most of the article contained just that. One point in particular, however, went beyond distortion to repeat a long-since debunked libel. 

 

In the piece, Jilani claimed that “for years, the Israeli government was injecting Ethiopian Jewish immigrants with birth control, often without their knowledge or consent. When the practice was exposed in 2013, it was ordered to be halted.

 

As CAMERA detailed at the time, reports on this issue arose from a single television news story with highly problematic reporting. The doctor who ran the program in question for Ethiopian women stated:

 

JDC runs the medical program in Gondar for potential immigrants to Israel. As part of this, we offer voluntary contraception to our population. Our clinic offers both birth control pills and injectable contraception. If a woman prefers another method of contraception such as implantable or tubal ligation, we send them to facilities down the road in the city of Gondar for this.

 

Women come to the program because they desire family planning. We present the various options to them and they choose. So women both choose to use contraception and choose their method. And choose when to discontinue contraception. It has always been that way in our program. … 

 

Injectable contraceptives are the most desired throughout the country. They are easy, culturally preferred, and offer the ability to be on birth control without a woman informing her husband, which is an issue here. …

 

Neither myself nor my staff have ever told any women in our program that they should take Depo-Provera for any reason. 100% of Depo-Provera shots are purely voluntary, and may be discontinued (or changed to another method) at any time.

 

There was also never any effort to "halt" the practice, as there was no practice to halt. Rather, in light of the report, the Health Ministry director-general Professor Roni Gamzu put out a precautionary instruction: “without taking a stand or determining facts about allegations that were made, I would like to instruct, from now on, all gynecologists in the HMOs not to renew prescriptions for Depo-Provera for women of Ethiopian – or any other – origin, if there is the slightest doubt that they have not understood the implications of the treatment." Claims that the Ministry admitted the practice had occurred were based on a mistranslation, and were retracted by the outlet that printed the mistranslation. Yet, two years after the claims were rebutted, Alternet published the disputed allegations as undisputed truth.

 

As the above examples illustrate, this publication should be labeled as “unreliable,” rather than as “credible.”

 

MINTPRESS

 

MintPress was founded in 2012 by Mnar Muhawesh. At the time, Muhawesh was 24 years old and her only experience in professional journalism was an internship at a local Minneapolis television station and some freelance work. While MintPress is labeled merely “political,” it is an unreliable fringe site that is affiliated with hate sites.

 

Affiliation with Hate Sites

 

In January of 2016, CAMERA documented MintPress’s connection with the fringe American Herald Tribune:

 

American Herald Tribune (AHT), which appeared suddenly in October 2015, is so obscure that even Google searches for the name at the time of this writing yield virtually nothing. There is one glaring exception to its anonymity — MintPress posted AHT articles four times over a span of five days this month …. 

 

The American Herald Tribune website is registered to Tim King, who also happens to be founder of the crackpot Salem-news.com site and a contributor to the rabidly anti-Semitic Veterans Today, a hate site affiliated with none other than Veterans News Now, which Yahoo promoted last year.

 

American Herald Tribune's output is exactly what one would expect from a site with such unseemly associates.

 

CAMERA then documented examples of American Herald Tribune’s attacks on Jews, conspiracy theories about Sept. 11, homophobia, and conspiracy theories about the Israeli government paying Nazis. (American Herald Tribune is not on Professor Zimdar’s list.)

 

Indeed, based on its promotion of American Herald Tribune materials, and after contact from CAMERA, Yahoo determined in 2016 not to include MintPress content on its site, with a spokesperson saying, “MintPressNews does not uphold the editorial standards of Yahoo and [it] was immediately blocked on January 21 [2016]."

 

Another example of this affiliation with fringe or hate sites is MintPress’s reliance on the hate site If Americans Knew. In a July 2016 video interview conducted by Muhawesh, at about 9 minutes in, the video displays information from If Americans Knew. A 2012 MintPress article also relied on a report from If Americans Knew.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, Alison Weir, the founder of If Americans Knew, “employs anti-Semitic imagery and portrays Israel and its agents as ruthless forces that control American policy through brutal intimidation and deception.” CAMERA has also previously debunked the work of Weir and her organization.

 

Unreliability

 

On August 29, 2013, MintPress ran a story claiming that anti-Assad rebels, rather than Assad’s government, were responsible for a chemical weapons attack inside of Syria. However, on September 20, the reporter whose byline ran with the story, Dale Gavlack (who was also a stringer for the Associated Press) denied having written it. A September 21, 2013 statement by Muhawesh claimed that “Gavlak wrote the article in it’s [sic] entirety as well as conducted the research.” The New York Times’ Robert Mackey wrote of this dispute that, based on the conflicting accounts between Gavlack and MintPress, it was “impossible to determine who is right.” However, the other reporter whose byline ran with the story, Yahya Ababneh, subsequently “told BuzzFeed he reported the piece himself and merely asked Gavlak, a longtime and well-respected Middle East correspondent … to help him translate and pitch the story.”

 

In a piece questioning MintPress's reliability over the Syria chemical weapons story, Buzzfeed reporters Rosie Gray and Jessica Testa wrote:

 

According to the source [a former employee] familiar with Mint Press’ operations, stories about Saudi Arabia and Israel would in particular be edited a certain way. Saudi Arabia-related stories would almost always be edited to include a line about Saudi financing of terrorist groups, the source said. One writer was forced by Muhawesh to refer to the Palestinian territories as an “open-air prison” in a news piece.

 

“They’re super anti-Israel,” the source said.

 

In the same article, Gray and Testa observed that “interviews with former employees and people familiar with the inner workings of Mint Press, and an examination of public records … reveal an agenda that lines up, from its sympathy with the Syrian regime to its hostility to Sunni Saudi Arabia, with that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Odeh Muhawesh studied under an ayatollah for five years after the Islamic Revolution, and where he visited as recently as this summer.”

 

There are other examples of MintPress’s problematic original content as well. For example, a July 22, 2016 article by Muhawash titled, “Documentary Reveals How Israel Convinces Americans Palestine Occupies Israel,” claims that: 

 

Starting in December of 1947, their [Christian and Muslim Palestinians] land and property was seized and destroyed to make way for the state of Israel, where white only European Jews would live. Over 750,000 Palestinians were expelled and over 10,000 were killed by the British and US armed Zionist militias, and later Israeli forces, during the Nakba, an Arabic word meaning “catastrophe.”

 

While claims such as these have been made before by anti-Israel activists, they are baseless. The population of Israel today is approximately 20 percent Arab. In addition, non-white and non-European Jews have long been part of the fabric of Israel, and Jewish refugees who were expelled from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen make up about half of the Jewish population of the country, along with many Jews from Ethiopia and India. The claim, therefore, that Israel was or is a place for “white only European Jews,” is false.

 

The claim that 750,000 Palestinians were expelled is inaccurate as well. Of the Palestinian Arabs who became refugees after 1948, the majority fled from war, and were not expelled.

 

A September 14, 2015 article, “Julian Assange: US & Israel Planned To Overthrow Assad In 2006,” claimed that “WikiLeaks cables reveal that these plans [to destabilize Syria] came from the Israeli government, and show that the U.S. government intended to work with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Egypt to encourage the breakdown of the Assad regime as a way of also weakening Iran and Hezbollah.” Neither the cable that appears to be the one referred to (no citation to a cable was provided), nor the interview with Julian Assange that accompanies the article, supports this claim.

 

As these examples illustrate, MintPress should be labeled extremely biased and unreliable.


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