NewsGuard received an email on July 1, 2021, from Phillip W. Magness, a senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, following publication of NewsGuard’s rating of the institute’s website, AIER.org. NewsGuard is publishing the letter in its entirety and has included the responses that NewsGuard submitted to Magness’ questions. Answers to Magness’ questions are in bold. Questions 1-7 were answered by NewsGuard co-CEO Steven Brill. Questions 8-21 were answered by John Gregory, NewsGuard’s deputy editor for health and the author of the Nutrition Label for AIER.org.
Dear Mr. Gregory,
We corresponded previously regarding your company’s NewsGuard’s rating practices for websites that it reviews.
NewsGuard’s coverage of Covid-19 policy, and your own role in conducting investigations for NewsGuard on this topic, have recently come to our attention in relation to a report that we are currently preparing on the growth and practices of the journalist “fact checker” industry over the last few years.
After reviewing your work and your company’s practices, we wanted to give you and an opportunity to respond to several questions on these subjects. If you are unable to comment on certain questions pertaining to NewsGuard’s corporate policies, we would appreciate an answer from a representative who is in a position to do so. We have separated our questions into categories pertaining to your own articles and to NewsGuard for your convenience. Any response comments from yourself or another representative of NewsGuard will be accurately reflected in our report when it is published in the coming weeks.
Phillip W. Magness
General questions about NewsGuard’s corporate and transparency policies
1. What is the relationship between NewsGuard and the persons identified as its “financial investors” on its website? Is there a reason why NewsGuard does not disclose the amount of funding it has received from each of these investors?
Steven Brill: The relationship is what the website says it is: They are investors. We disclose the relative size of their investments, but because most are private parties we do not disclose the exact amount.
2. Are any of NewsGuard’s financial investors employed by or financially connected to websites or parent companies that have been reviewed by NewsGuard? If so, what measures does NewsGuard employ to disclose this relationship to its readers? What measures does NewsGuard use to minimize the potential conflicts of interest in its rating of websites that are financially or personally connected to its corporate investors?
Brill: If there are, they are always disclosed prominently in our Nutrition Label. For example, Gordon Crovitz was formerly employed at the Wall Street Journal. And to minimize conflicts, no analyst is allowed to work on a label published by an entity with which he or she or a family member has a direct connection. You would know all of this if you simply looked at how we explain all of this – clearly and prominently – on our website.
3. Does NewsGuard employ any writers or investigators who have advanced formal qualifications in healthcare, medicine, economics, public policy, or general qualifications in a scientific or social scientific field? If so, who are they, and what is the nature of their involvement in NewsGuard’s healthcare-related fact checking endeavors?
Brill: A lot of us have qualifications and graduate degrees in some of the fields you mention. But we are journalists, not doctors. And when we make judgments about health care sites (or corporate finance sites) we rely on – and quote — sources who are the experts. You would know that if you read our Nutrition Labels or looked at the description of our multi-layered process on our website. In fact, as you know, we actively sought your comment on the substantive issues we raised in our Nutrition Label, but you declined to engage with us on that basis.
4. We note that NewsGuard’s website states that its affiliates “have no political axes to grind.” How do you reconcile this statement with John Gregory’s public social media presence, evincing longstanding interests in Illinois politics, partisan political figures primarily associated with the Democratic Party, advocacy positions in the areas of healthcare policy, and previous employment at a for-profit firm that describes itself as a marketing and advocacy agency for healthcare executives?
Brill: Before working at NewsGuard, John Gregory covered Illinois politics as a reporter for the Illinois Radio Network, which explains why he follows or is followed by figures in Illinois politics on social media. Similarly, he previously covered the health care industry as a reporter and editor for TriMed Media, which included reporting on health policy advocacy groups.
John’s role at TriMed Media was as a reporter and editor for its news publications, which are targeted to people who work in the health care industry. Like many trade publications, TriMed’s separate marketing department does offer services such as producing sponsored webinars for health care organizations. However, John was not involved with these services, as he worked solely on the editorial side of the company until he came to NewsGuard in 2018.
5. How does NewsGuard reconcile its claim to “have no political axes to grind” with an advisory board that includes multiple former political appointees (Arne Duncan, Michael Hayden, Tom Ridge, Richard Stengel, Elise Jordan) and multiple former elected officials to political offices (Tom Ridge, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Ed Vaizey)? How does your company reconcile this same claim with its employment of staff investigators who publicly boast of their involvement with partisan political campaigns for elected office?
Brill: The members of our (politically balanced) Advisory Board have no say at all in any individual ratings or Nutrition Labels. (And I’m curious what “ax” you think someone like Tom Ridge is grinding.)
Also, that staff member did not “publicly boast” of his involvement in partisan politics. Rather, we required him to disclose on our website (which is where you saw it) that before becoming a professional journalist (in fact before he went to college), he volunteered on a campaign. We require all such disclosures, no matter how relatively trivial, because we want to be completely transparent.
6. How does NewsGuard reconcile its claim to “have no political axes to grind” with its founder and co-CEO Steven Brill’s longstanding public advocacy of political opinions surrounding the Obamacare law and pertaining to federal healthcare policy in general?
Brill: I’m a journalist. I write magazine articles and books that have offended people on both sides of an aisle.
7. Do the proprietors of NewsGuard believe that a degree or professional experience in journalism, communications, or English literature qualifies its writers to evaluate advanced subject matters in the areas of healthcare, epidemiology, medicine, biology, statistics, economics, public policy, or social science? If so, please elaborate on your rationale for this belief.
Brill: Yes, as long as they consult real experts and always seek comment from all sides of any issue.
Questions for John Gregory regarding Covid-19 fact-checking claims:
8. At several points over the last year and a half, you have made public and private inquiries to multiple websites where you vigorously contested their reporting of the Wuhan Virology ‘lab leak’ hypothesis of Covid-19. For example, you wrote via email to one website that “There is no evidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source of the outbreak, and genomic evidence has found that the virus is “96% percent identical at the whole-genome level to a bat coronavirus.”” In another example, you publicly chastised a medical news website for failing to issue a “formal correction or retraction” of an article suggesting that the “Coronavirus may have leaked from China’s highest biosafety lab.”
While the origins of Covid-19 are still unknown, numerous scientists and public officials have come to view the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis as a plausible source of the virus, worth investigating along with alternative theories positing a natural source. For example, President Biden has called for an investigation of the possibility of an accidental lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In light of this information, why have you not publicly corrected your own previous statements dismissing the lab leak hypothesis? Why have you not informed the websites you purported to fact-check on this hypothesis that your previous judgements of their claims were premature?
John Gregory: Neither of the statements you cited are inaccurate. The lab leak theory remains unsubstantiated and under investigation. My February 2020 tweet was also accurate, as the preprint study cited by News-Medical.net did not mention the lab leak theory and the site did remove the article without making a correction for having misrepresented the study.
NewsGuard published the following Editor’s Note on our website on June 17, 2021:
Recent reports have raised anew the possibility that the COVID-19 pandemic may have been precipitated by a leak from a Chinese research lab in Wuhan. As with all subjects, NewsGuard seeks to be careful in distinguishing between unsubstantiated claims published on the websites we review versus provably false claims. For example, reports that a Harvard professor was arrested for creating the COVID-19 virus are provably false, while claims that the virus leaked from a lab are not substantiated but not, as of now, provably false.
Thus, the notion that the virus leaked from the lab is not, and has never been, listed below as a “COVID-19 Myth” because while not substantiated, it is also, as of now, not provably false.
In a recent review of NewsGuard’s Nutrition Labels covering 246 websites that mentioned examples about the origins of the COVID-19 virus, we found that in 225 of those cases we adhered to that standard by describing the lab leak claim as unsubstantiated, not false. However, in 21 instances, our language was not as careful as it should have been; in those cases, NewsGuard either mischaracterized the sites’ claims about the lab leak theory, referred to the lab leak as a “conspiracy theory,” or wrongly grouped together unproven claims about the lab leak with the separate, false claim that the COVID-19 virus was man-made without explaining that one claim was unsubstantiated, and the other was false. NewsGuard apologizes for these errors. We have made the appropriate correction on each of the 21 labels.
However, because NewsGuard’s approach to rating websites involves looking at much more than a single story, a single topic, or even a single editorial practice, no site was given a Red rating by NewsGuard solely because it speculated or asserted that the COVID-19 virus leaked from a lab. In all of the Nutrition Labels we reviewed, Red-rated sites had promoted other false or unsubstantiated claims, including false claims that the COVID-19 virus was created in a U.S. military lab, that it was engineered using parts of HIV, or that it was stolen from a Canadian lab by Chinese spies.
9. In your company’s review of AIER.org, you chastised the authors of a February 2021 article by stating that they advanced a “false claim that face masks can increase a person’s intake of carbon dioxide.” While your report depicts this claim as a settled factual matter, a recent randomized clinical trial study reported in the journal JAMA – Pediatrics found some evidence that “carbon dioxide mixes with fresh air and elevates the carbon dioxide content of inhaled air under the mask, and this was more pronounced in this study for younger children.” The authors of the JAMA-Pediatrics report further conclude that their results “suggest that children should not be forced to wear face masks.” In light of these findings and the ongoing state of scientific investigations into the health effects of mask use, are you willing to acknowledge that your previous characterization of this position as a “falsehood” was premature? Will NewsGuard be issuing an appropriate correction to acknowledge that the scientific consensus on this subject is more ambiguous than you previously claimed?
Gregory: Your February 2021 article stated as fact that both children and adults can suffer “CO2 intoxication” and “a reduction in blood oxygenation (hypoxia) or an elevation in blood CO2 (hypercapnia)” from wearing face masks. This short-term study did not measure blood CO2 levels. No correction is needed on our part.
10. In your company’s review of AIER.org, you linked to a pair of articles on the Byline Times blog by well-known 9/11 Truther and conspiracy theorist Nafeez Ahmed, both of which falsely alleged that the Koch Brothers were financially involved in the drafting and the promotion of the Great Barrington Declaration at AIER in October 2020. Do you endorse Mr. Ahmed’s false claims by including them in your review? Do you consider Mr. Ahmed’s brand of journalism to be consistent with the standards and practices advocated by NewsGuard in its rating system and used to evaluate website content?
Gregory: The links listed at the bottom of our Nutrition Labels sometimes include articles that we come across while researching a website but are not referenced within the label itself. That was the case here, as we did not reference any information from Mr. Ahmed’s articles in the label, nor did we mention his allegation that the Koch Brothers were involved in financing the Great Barrington Declaration. Moreover, that link was sorted under the History section, and nothing in the History section of a site’s Nutrition Label affects its rating on NewsGuard’s nine criteria.
11. In your company’s review of AIER.org, you stated in reference to the Great Barrington Declaration’s authors (Kulldorff, Gupta, and Bhattacharya) that “none of the three had published peer-reviewed research about the COVID-19 pandemic at the time they authored the declaration.” In reality, Dr. Bhattacharya co-authored a seroprevalence study of Covid-19 that appeared in the JAMA on May 18, 2020 – almost 5 months before the Great Barrington Declaration. Will NewsGuard be issuing a correction of your false statement about Dr. Bhattacharya’s research on Covid-19?
Gregory: This will require a correction on our part. In citing PolitiFact’s article about the declaration, both we and PolitiFact missed this May 2020 JAMA study on which Dr. Bhattacharya is listed as the seventh author. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.
12. All three principal signers of the Great Barrington Declaration are authors or co-authors of scientific studies on Covid-19 that were under various stages of peer review at the time of the Declaration’s signing (October 2020). Several of these studies have since been accepted for publication at academic journals – a process that often takes several months to complete. Would you agree that it is misleading to depict these authors as having not conducted peer-reviewed research on Covid-19, when in fact such research was undergoing review at the time of the Declaration and has long since appeared in print? In repeating this claim, was it your purpose or intention to cast doubts upon these scientists’ qualifications to comment on Covid-19?
Gregory: We will be correcting the factual error that you mentioned in your previous question. While you claim that several more studies from the GBD co-authors were under review at various journals when the declaration was published in early October 2020, two of the three journal articles you cited in this question do not state when the research was submitted or accepted by journals.
In fact, the one journal article that you cited that does provide this information — published by Annals of Epidemiology and co-authored by Martin Kulldorff — states it was received on Oct. 27, 2020, and accepted on Nov. 14, 2020 — after the Great Barrington Declaration had been published.
13. In your company’s review of AIER.org, you quote (now-former) U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock as stating “we should have no confidence that we would ever reach herd immunity to covid, even if everyone caught it.” Although scientists do disagree about policy aspects of reaching herd immunity for Covid-19 through both vaccination and natural immunity, as well as the threshold necessary for immunity effects to be realized, Mr. Hancock’s characterization of herd immunity as unreachable “even if everyone caught it” is directly at odds with most mainstream scientific theories of immunity. Dr. Anthony Fauci, for example, has often stated that he anticipates reaching herd immunity after between 70 and 85% of the U.S. population is vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19. Most other public health scientists agree that herd immunity is attainable through a combination of vaccination and natural immunity, even as they may differ from the Great Barrington Declaration authors about specific policy interventions. Furthermore, Mr. Hancock is not a medical scientist and has no qualifications or research experience that would establish him as an authority on herd immunity. Why did NewsGuard rely upon dubious scientific claims by a politician such as Hancock when evaluating the scientific merits of the Great Barrington Declaration? How do you reconcile this choice of a testimonial with NewsGuard’s published standards for credible sourcing, and with its claims to be an apolitical organization?
Gregory: Quoting the then-U.K. Health Secretary’s comments on the Great Barrington Declaration was and is relevant to explaining the views of those who criticized the declaration.
14. What are your own qualifications (e.g. formal education, advanced degrees, professional experience) in the fields of healthcare, epidemiology, medicine, biology, health policy, or health economics? If you do not have formal qualifications in these fields, why do you not disclose this fact on your public profile where you describe yourself as a specialist in healthcare reporting and a deputy editor in health-related subjects?
Gregory: As Steven Brill said, I’m a journalist, not a doctor, and NewsGuard’s judgments about health care sites rely on — and quote — sources who are the experts. Nothing in my biography is inaccurate or misrepresents my journalistic qualifications.
An M.D. is not required to show that AIER.org’s claim that there is a “lack of safety data and testing” for COVID-19 vaccines is false, among the other false claims we found in your content.
15. What was the nature and length of your past employment with TriMed Media, a for-profit consultancy company that – according to its marketing literature – provides strategic marketing, branding, sales strategy consultation, and website optimization to healthcare industry companies and executives?
Gregory: I worked as a reporter and editor for TriMed Media’s news publications, which are geared toward an audience of health care professionals. What you described in your questions were roles of the company’s separate marketing department, and I worked entirely on the editorial side of the operation.
16. The profile on NewsGuard’s website presents you as having worked in journalism for TriMed media. Given that TriMed and its subsidiaries openly describe themselves as for-profit healthcare industry advocacy and consulting firms, do you consider it accurate to depict their products as “journalism” or “reporting” in the traditional sense of a news media outlet? Please elaborate.
Gregory: Yes, because as previously stated, I worked as a reporter and editor for TriMed Media’s news publications, covering topics such as new clinical research and technologies, health policy, and health regulation at the state and federal level. I did not work for the marketing department, advocate for health care companies, or do any sort of consulting work.
17. TriMed media advertises its services as consisting of “reducing the per capita cost of healthcare,” “Generat[ing] leads for your sales team,” “increase[ing] brand recognition” for healthcare industry companies. Do you believe that these services are consistent with best practices for journalism as advocated by NewsGuard? Do you believe that TriMed media and its subsidiaries appropriately distinguish between journalistic content and their publicly advertised for-profit business services to healthcare providers?
Gregory: Again, you are describing roles for TriMed Media’s marketing department. I worked solely on the editorial side as a reporter and editor and had no involvement in the marketing services you described.
18. A subsidiary service of TriMed media’s HealthExec newsletter advertises its services thusly: “From virtual events, video storytelling, research and customer success stories to design, marketing and strategic campaign and project development, our full-service content team is your team’s secret weapon to boost awareness and revenue.” Do these stated objectives bias your ability to independently “fact check” news content pertaining to the same healthcare industry?
Gregory: No, they do not bias my ability to do my work at NewsGuard, as I did not perform any of those marketing department tasks when I worked at TriMed Media between 2016 and 2018.
19. Would you agree that your recent affiliation with TriMed Media and its subsidiaries creates the appearance of a conflict of interest in light of your present role as a fact-checker for healthcare industry-related media coverage?
Gregory: No, I would not agree, because your questions are predicated on the inaccurate assertion that I was involved in work handled by TriMed Media’s marketing department.
20. Why does your NewsGuard profile fail to disclose or mention that TriMed Media and its subsidiaries primarily provide for-profit consultancy, marketing, and communications services for the healthcare industry? Do you consider this lack of disclosure to be consistent with NewsGuard’s published disclosure policy for editorial employees?
Gregory: There’s nothing to disclose because, again, I worked as a reporter and editor at TriMed Media, not in marketing, consulting, or communications services.
21. Does NewsGuard employ any other persons who have been previously affiliated with TriMed Media, its subsidiaries, or any other similar industry or trade consulting company working in healthcare?
Gregory: NewsGuard analyst Anicka Slachta also worked at TriMed Media’s Cardiovascular Business magazine as a reporter before coming to NewsGuard, and like me, she did not work in the marketing department.