‘Fake News’, Russia, And The Conflict Of Interest At The Washington Post

As the controversy over fake news rages on, a notable conflict of interest exists concerning one of the media outlets that has driven much of the conversation.

While much of the blame for so-called “fake news” has been placed on smaller, more independent publications, it may turn out that at least some of responsibility actually belongs to the more established media outlets.

As a leading American publication, the Washington Post has earned an air of legitimacy that many newer, less well-known publications do not yet possess. However, in this new era of “fake news,” the conflict of interest that was created when the ownership of the Washington Post changed hands may call into question the credibility of even one of America’s most distinguished publications.

In 2013, the Washington Post was purchased by Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon. That same year, Amazon also obtained a CIA contract worth $600 million. At that time, The Nation pointed out the conflict of interest that these dealings posed.

“[Jeff Bezos] recently secured a $600 million contract from the CIA. That’s at least twice what Bezos paid for the Post this year. Bezos recently disclosed that the company’s Web-services business is building a ‘private cloud’ for the CIA to use for its data needs.”

Additionally, The Institute for Public Accuracy released a statement by Robert McChesney condemning the move.

“When the main shareholder in one of the very largest corporations in the world benefits from a massive contract with the CIA on the one hand, and that same billionaire owns the Washington Post on the other hand, there are serious problems. The Post is unquestionably the political paper of record in the United States, and how it covers governance sets the agenda for the balance of the news media. Citizens need to know about this conflict of interest in the columns of the Post itself.

“If some official enemy of the United States had a comparable situation — say the owner of the dominant newspaper in Caracas was getting $600 million in secretive contracts from the Maduro government — the Post itself would lead the howling chorus impaling that newspaper and that government for making a mockery of a free press. It is time for the Post to take a dose of its own medicine.”

However, despite the journalistic condemnation, the Washington Post continued to operate without clearly addressing the conflict presented by Bezos’ financial interests at Amazon being intertwined with the interests of the CIA. Shortly after the CIA contract was finalized, Amazon issued a statement, saying simply, “We look forward to a successful relationship with the CIA.”

Bezos’ conflict of interest is once again newsworthy after the Washington Post used highly questionable sources to promote identifying and blacklisting “fake news” sites in late November. Using a sensationalized headline claiming involvement from Russia, this story relied on unnamed analysts from a shadowy group known as PropOrNot to cast suspicion for the influx of “fake news” on Russia.

Stack of newspapers advertising fake news
[Image by DNY59/iStock]

While Rolling Stone condemned the “fake news” article, calling it “shameful and disgusting” and saying that the PropOrNot group sounded more like a lone teenager than a sophisticated organization, the Post’s credibility nonetheless became the catalyst for a flurry of anti-Russia sentiments and fake news anxiety.

“Any sane reporter would have booted them out the door. You want to blacklist hundreds of people, but you won’t put your name to your claims? Take a hike. Yet the Post thought otherwise, and its report was uncritically picked up by other outlets like USA Today and the Daily Beast. The ‘Russians did it’ story was greedily devoured by a growing segment of blue-state America that is beginning to fall victim to the same conspiracist tendencies that became epidemic on the political right in the last few years.”

In an article for the Intercept, Glenn Greenwald also criticized the Washington Post, zeroing in on the hypocrisy of both the publication and the PropOrNot researchers.

“The article is rife with obviously reckless and unproven allegations, and fundamentally shaped by shoddy, slothful journalistic tactics.”

Ironically, as Greenwald pointed out, the Washington Post’s fake news expose targeting Russia was itself riddled with questionable information and unsubstantiated claims.

“In casting the group behind this website as ‘experts,’ the Post described PropOrNot simply as ‘a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds.’ Not one individual at the organization is named. The executive director is quoted, but only on the condition of anonymity, which the Post said it was providing the group ‘to avoid being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers.’

“In other words, the individuals behind this newly created group are publicly branding journalists and news outlets as tools of Russian propaganda — even calling on the FBI to investigate them for espionage — while cowardly hiding their own identities.”

Several weeks after publishing the questionable expose on “fake news” from Russia, the Washington Post again created controversy in early December by alleging interference from Russia in the U.S. presidential election. Although according to the Inquisitr, the source of the email leaks that plagued the Democratic party this year remains unclear, the Washington Post nonetheless published a bombshell report accusing Russia of meddling in the U.S. presidential election. That article cited an anonymous CIA source with knowledge of a secret assessment that allegedly confirmed Russia had actively worked to help Trump win the White House. While no substantiating evidence of this accusation was given, the unknown source was adamant that Russia was to blame.

“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected. That’s the consensus view.”

However, in an interview with the Guardian, Craig Murray, a U.K. Ambassador and close associate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, quickly refuted that claim, leading to suspicion that the Washington Post was indeed spreading fake news.

“I know who leaked them. I’ve met the person who leaked them, and they are certainly not from Russia and it’s an insider. It’s a leak, not a hack; the two are different things.”

In response to the report, the White House ordered a full investigation into the matter. A spokesperson for President-elect Donald Trump simply dismissed the charges, taking a swipe at the CIA’s credibility in the process by pointing out a particularly infamous role the CIA had once played in spreading fake news.

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

As Norman Solomon wrote for Common Dreams several months after the Washington Post changed hands, the job of the media is to expose potential corruption and fake news, not cover it up.

“News media should illuminate conflicts of interest, not embody them. But the owner of the Washington Post is now doing big business with the Central Intelligence Agency, while readers of the newspaper’s CIA coverage are left in the dark.”

First the U.S. legalized domestic propaganda. Now it’s time to silence the opposition.
1. https://t.co/oRqEHT7ivr
2. https://t.co/Fgi0nU0Umj pic.twitter.com/b3z32qMGj6

— Dustin Templeton (@dustin_temple10) December 28, 2016

Now that the Washington Post has published multiple stories based on unnamed sources that seem intent on painting Russia as a villain, it’s worth questioning where the fake news is actually coming from. When the owner of the Washington Post also owns the majority of Amazon, at a minimum, it should be disclosed to the public that Amazon earns massive profits directly from the CIA, and Bezos has a financial incentive to keep his clients happy.

For the Washington Post to promote the conversation about fake news using incendiary, unsubstantiated articles targeting Russia, while also failing to be upfront about their own conflict of interest, perfectly exemplifies the manufactured fake news crisis. If a well-known, highly-respected media outlet doesn’t hold itself to this very basic standard of journalism, we shouldn’t be surprised when some people become unable to recognize fake news, or when others begin turning to alternate news sources in their quest to find the truth.

[Featured Image by filo/iStock]