Experts Address 'Fake News,' Fairness, Access, Economic Issues


Stay alert and accessible — and treasure fairness — was the consensus message of expert media speakers at an April 25 conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

Voicing those themes was luncheon keynote speaker Brian Stelter, chief media correspondent for CNN Worldwide and anchor of “Reliable Sources,” his network's weekly Sunday morning show analyzing media performance on news stories.

This column summarizes the conference, which was primarily organized by the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Following that summary, I'll illustrate how the term "conspiracy theory" has hobbled many journalists for decades from applying standard practices of fact-based reporting and fairness to life-and-death issues that are especially controversial.

brian stelter npc april 25 2019 jip img 6274Stelter's remarks followed a morning session featuring a dozen other media, academic and legal experts from diverse U.S. institutions. They similarly explored themes of the conference, which was entitled: Speech, Free Press or Free for All? Social Media and the First Amendment.

Stelter, pictured at left, began by praising social media from a general and personal standpoint. He noted that the web and social media had facilitated his rapid rise in journalism from blogging as an undergraduate at Towson University in Baltimore to being hired as a New York Times staff reporter as his first job out of college. He enthusiastically described meeting his future wife via Twitter.

The downside of new media, the CNN anchor noted, includes vast amounts of deceptive and hate-filled social media traffic that he, fellow journalists and the public must evaluate.

Like many previous speakers at the conference, Stelter advised journalists to implement standard practices, such as fairness, accuracy, critical intelligence and to avoid personal opinion, except where clearly labeled.

He illustrated these views by describing how he had recently engaged in a long and (from his viewpoint) productive on-camera interview with a video crew from the InfoWars radio show of Alex Jones, whom Stelter described as promoting a highly negative, long-running campaign that has demonized Stelter, his shows and his networks as "fake news." This is congruent to President Trump's insults against CNN.

alex jones headshotJones uses so little evidence and so much partisan bombast in his on-air screeds that he has been blocked by a number of major social media platforms and been forced to apologize or undergo defamation litigation by some whom he has targeted.

Among those obtaining belated apologies are the owner of a Washington DC pizzeria that Jones (shown at right) accused participating in a pedophile ring that didn't exist.

"Pizzagate" — as the concoction was dubbed by Jones and his political allies, and then the news media — included the preposterious allegation that prominent Democrats were torturing and otherwise abusing children in abandoned subway tunnels underneath a pizza shop far from any known subway tunnel. The accusations were hurled days before the November 2016 election as Donald Trump, Jones's preferred presidential candidate, was immersed in a sex scandal.

Jones and several radio guests also targeted parents of 2012 shooting victims at a school shooting massacre in Newtown, Connecticut by claiming that child actors pretended to be killed. Some of those parents are currently deposing Jones in a lawsuit showing what appears to be his extremely reckless charges, as reported here, among other places: How Alex Jones and Infowars Helped a Florida Man Stalk Sandy Hook Families.

Such major violations of the journalistic practices and other elements of the public trust have prompted many CNN journalists and others to label Jones a "conspiracy theorist." A  big problem here is that "conspiracy theorist" is a smear term that some smear term that some journalists commonly apply also to advocates of unpopular positions thought to be undocumented because of journalists' failure to examine them.

martin luther king npc 1962Beyond mere theories, they involved solid research that the demonstrates the impossibility of government accounts of the 1960s assassinations of President Kennedy in Dallas, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis and Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, as well as the similarly improbability of explanations for the "9/11" attacks in September 2001. King is shown during his 1962 appearance at the National Press Club, whose historian described it as the first speech ever at the club by an African-American.  

As editor of the Justice Integrity Project, I reflected during the week's conference on whether and how to pose productive questions on certain of these issues to Stelter and to the other expert speakers, who are all listed below.

It's obvious to me from experience that most attempts to raise publicly certain hot-button issues in a way that challenges conventional wisdom often risk irritating event hosts, putting a speaker on the defensive, and otherwise foreclosing meaningful exchange of information.

So, at this conference, I chose to approach the speaker after his public remarks — and, unlike many journalists and others speaker in a similar situation — Stelter responded in what I regarded as a thoughtful, open, mutually productive manner congruent with his public remarks. Details are below.

Brief Background

brian stelterStelter, shown at right in the photo on his Twitter site @BrianSteller, had been introduced at the luncheon by journalist Barbara Cochran, who is retiring this spring after serving as the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Journalism and Director of the Washington Program of the Missouri School of Journalism.

Previously, Cochran had held such major positions as managing editor of the Washington Star, executive producer of NBC's Meet the Press and then vice barbara cochran npc cspan 2018president and Washington Bureau Chief of CBS News. She currently chairs the National Press Club's Journalism Institute, a co-sponsor of the day's forum.

As part of her introduction, Cochran (shown on C-SPAN at the club last December in a file photo) praised Stelter's extraordinary achievement in using social media to become known as an expert in network news coverage by those like her when he was a freshman at Towson.

He created the website TVNewser as a freshman and then leveraged that student-era expertise to earn a staff reporting post at the New York Times in his first job out of college. He has worked there until he joined CNN in 2013 

He writes a nightly e-newsletter about the media. Insider tip: He told the audience Thursday (about a hundred journalists, students and others interested in free press issues, that he often gets story ideas and on-air guests from Twitter, with his reading efforts sometimes prioritized to read first the emails of those who follow him.

A review of his Twitter site shows what is surely a rarity for such a high-profile anchor: He has had posted at the top since April 3 two job openings for staff on his show.

What Else We Learned

Readers here know that we often report on this site evidence about themes disparaged in the mainstream media, such as facts about the aforementioned JFK, MLK and RFK murders, and that we publish also a near-daily collection of news and commentary about media issues here.

lee harvey oswald marine corbis via getty imagesOne example relevant to Thursday's discussion was our 2014 column Don't Be Fooled By 'Conspiracy Theory' Smears focusing in part on perceived shortcomings at CNN and elsewhere in covering the 50th anniversary of JFK's murder.

Anchors at those networks frequently described as "conspiracy theorists" researchers who differ from the Warren Commission's1964 report that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy. Oswald is shown at right as a Civil Air Patrol cadet before his service in the U.S. Marines that included work on the U-2 spy plane program.

That most Americans, according to decades of public opinion polls, don't believe the Warren Report fosters a huge divide between the establishment media and the public that extends beyond 1960s assassinations to a host of events in this century.

Non-experts have become emboldened against supposed media experts over issues because declassified documents from recent years have shown that the term "conspiracy theory" was popularized beginning in 1967 by the CIA with the specific intent of smearing those journalists and academics investigating JFK's murder who were not regarded by authorities as Warren Report supporters.

Here are details from our 2014 commentary about this. I urge readers to evaluate evidence with an open mind — and regard with special suspicion those commentators who slant their coverage with the loaded smear words "conspiracy theory" without citing specific evidence:

Jim GarrisonNo one has time to investigate everything without preconceptions. For efficiency, we rely in part on slanted commentary by our favorite sources. But if the stakes are high and we want to be honest we should admit (at least to ourselves) that our preliminary conclusions should be subject to change based on new data. 

My suggestions follow the spirit of the Justice Integrity Project's JFK Assassination "Readers Guide" last fall. That multi-part series began with a catalog of books, archives, reports and videos. It proceeds to assess various theories of President Kennedy's 1963 murder.

By now, we know from declassified documents that the CIA undertook a massive secret campaign to smear critics of the Warren Commission by labeling them "conspiracy theorists."

For example, the campaign used members of mainstream media friendly to the CIA to discredit New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (shown below in a photo by Lynn Pelham). Garrison was prosecuting New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw in what Garrison alleged was a conspiracy to murder Kennedy. Shaw, an OSS liaison to high-ranking British officials during World War II, founded a major regional trade mart in New Orleans shortly after the war. Garrison alleged that Shaw met with rightist opponents of JFK to plan his murder.

A 50-page CIA memo, known as "CIA Dispatch 1035-960," instructed agents to contact their media contacts and disparage those, like Garrison, who challenged the Warren Commission findings that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK and acted alone. The 1967 document is here in the original, and here in reformatted text of its summary.

cia logoMinutes of CIA meeting that same year indicated CIA feared that Garrison would win a conviction.

Garrison's powerful explanation of his case to a nationwide NBC-TV audience in 1967, required under right of reply because of the network's attacks on him, is doubtless unique in American history and can be seen


nbc news logoBut a jury promptly acquitted Shaw following more than a dozen deaths (including suicide) of his potential witnesses and an intense smear campaign against Garrison by the national media.

More generally, Operation Mockingbird was the CIA's secret program to plant stories in certain prestigious news outlets.  

"With this [CIA] memo and the CIA’s influence in the media," author Peter Janney wrote in a guest column on our Justice Integrity Project site in 2013, "the concept of 'conspiracy theorist' was engendered and infused into our political lexicon and became what it is today: a term to smear, denounce, ridicule, and defame anyone who dares to speak about any crime committed by the state, military or intelligence services."

Janney, whose late father Wistar Janney had been a high-ranking CIA executive, continued: "People who want to pretend that conspiracies don’t exist — when in fact they are among the most common modus operandi of significant historical change throughout the world and in our country — become furious when their naive illusion is challenged."

We would add, however, that journalists who pooh-pooh the existence of apparently genuine conspiracies, such as the long-term cover-up of evidence regarding the JFK assassination, open the door for partisan propagandists like Alex Jones to establish credibility with the tens of millions of Americans who do not believe the Warren Report -- and try to steer those audiences into baseless theories on other topics.

What He Said

With that background in mind, I left Thursday's public Q&A to others, and enjoyed the learning opportunity from hearing the speakers and audience members.

The experts listed below described the real-world challenges for journalists trying to uphold reasonable professional standards while their employers are making drastic layoffs and other financial cuts, while at the same time angry voices populate social media with both legitimate and phony complaints.

For example, Stelter and Jeff Koseff, U.S. Naval Academy assistant professor of cybersecurity law, both declined in separate remarks to endorse any particular congressional solution to problems they described because, they said, they are analysts and not advocates.

As the conference concluded, I approached Stelter, who remained to talk one on one with anyone.

I briefly referred to the history of "conspiracy theory" and asked what he thought of its frequent use by his CNN colleagues and others.

He seemed surprised at this history and asked for an alternative to the term.

My response was "evidence," either good or bad evidence examined on a case by case basis.

As one example, I noted how kathleen kennedy townsend npc cropped IMG 6241two of Robert Kennedy's children, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland's former lieutenant governor (shown in a Justice Integrity Project photo last month at right) and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., were among those who signed a statement this year stating that they do not believe the official verdict finding that Sirhan Sirhan killed their father. That statement is reported, among other places, here (Kennedy and King Family Members and Advisors Call for Congress to Reopen Assassination Probes). 

Similarly, the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner / Coroner in 1968, Dr. Thomas Noguchi (shown below with one of his recent statements), has always maintained that Kennedy was killed from the rear in Los Angeles that year, whereas Sirhan was in front of the victim, according to witnesses.

The controversy has important current political implications, I noted, because some human rights advocates are angry with 2020 Democratic presidential contender kamala harris portraitKamala Harris, now a California Senator shown at left, because she as California attorney general ignored requests to revisit the RFK murder prosecution. 

Sirhan's attorney Dr. William F. Pepper, a 1964 county chairman supporting the late Sen. Kennedy in his Senate race and friend to the late senator, has said that Harris never considered new evidence in the case out of apparent fear of being branded as a "conspiracy theorist" and otherwise incurring resentment from "law enforcement" and the "intelligence community.".

During my conversation with Stelter, I offered the further suggestion that the two Kennedy family members and a medical expert like Noguchi (a past president of the National Association of Medical Examiners) likely had more incentive than the average on-air news reporter to dig deep into this kind of complicated matter.

So, I asked whether it might be best to avoid a loaded term like "conspiracy" that thwarts any logical discussion because the term when used by reporters pre-judges the evidence.

Stelter said he would consider the matter in the future and try to read about it.

That sounded reasonable to this observer and highly congruent with Stelter's and others' suggestions throughout Thursday's conference..

More generally, let's just imagine what the world would be like if lots more opinion leaders acted in conformance with the high-minded words in their public speeches and if low-minded "fake news" providers were required to produce their evidence, or lack thereof. 


thomas noguchi with quote latest small


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Editor's Note: This column was updated after publication and edited for brevity. Contact the author This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Related News Coverage

April 25, 2019

National Press Club, Event: Speech, Free Press or Free for All? Social Media and the First Amendment, Missouri–Hurley and Price Sloan Symposium Staff report, April 25, 2019. Is the First Amendment still relevant in the age of social media? How can we be sure that what we’re reading and watching is true? What can social media platforms do to curtail the spread of misinformation and lies? How can journalists make the best use of social media to enrich their reporting and to gain more audience while at the same time protecting themselves from harassment?

The Missouri–Hurley and Price Sloan Symposium on Thursday, April 25, at the National Press Club, will explore these questions and more with journalists, social media experts and legal scholars. The event is sponsored in partnership with the National Press Club Journalism Institute.

The keynote luncheon speaker will be Brian Stelter, the chief media correspondent for CNN Worldwide and anchor of “Reliable Sources,” a weekly program that examines top media stories and journalism practices. Stelter reports for CNN Media and writes a nightly e-newsletter. He is a former New York Times media reporter and is the author of the best seller, Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV.

Legal Panel

• Anupam Chander, Professor of Law, Georgetown University
• Andrea Matwyshyn, Professor of Law and Co-Director, Center for Law, Innovation and Creativity, Northeastern University
• Jerry Ellig, Professor, The George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center
• Jeff Koseff, Assistant Professor of Cybersecurity Law, U.S. Naval Academy’s Cyber Science Department
• David Vladeck, former Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, A.B. Chettle Chair in Civil Procedure, Georgetown University
• Moderator: Sam Halabi, Director of the Center for Intellectual Property & Entrepreneurship and Associate Professor of Law, University of Missouri School of Law

Journalist Panel

• Manuel Garcia, Standards Editor, Gannett
• Angie Holan, Washington Bureau Chief, PolitiFact
• Cecilia Kang, Technology Reporter, New York Times
• James Warren, executive editor, NewsGuard, former chief media writer, Poynter Institute
• Hannah Wise, Audience Development Editor, Dallas Morning News
rfk richard allen edwin guthman• Moderator: Barbara Cochran, Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Journalism and Washington Program Director, University of Missouri School of Journalism

April 11, 2019

Justice Integrity Project, Book and Lecture Review: RFK's Collected Works Provide Powerful Lessons For Today, Andrew Kreig, April 11, 2019. The inspirational words and actions of the murdered 1968 presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy came alive once more during a book lecture on April 10 by his eldest daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and biographer Richard "Rick" Allen at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

The speakers, drawing from RFK: His Words For Our Times, a 480-page book republished last year, provided a compelling and entertaining discussion of why the senator exemplified leadership qualities of enduring value to the public.

April 10

The Irish Echo (“The USA’s most widely read Irish-American Newspaper”), Kennedy, King families call for new probes, James J. Kelleher (Dr. Kelleher is a mlk injustice quotationretired professor of political science from the College of the Canyons in California), April 10, 2019. Why should these investigations (JFK, MLK, RFK and Malcolm X) be reopened?

Andrew Kreig, an attorney and the director of the Justice Integrity Project in Washington, DC, stated, "All four asssassinations are iconic events in American history that have generated intense controversy, in part because the implications remain important for world affairs."

Kreig, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, pointed out that all four investigations reached flawed conclusions and that there was solid evidence that contradicted the findings in all four investigations.

March 29

ny times logoNew York Times, How Alex Jones and Infowars Helped a Florida Man Stalk Sandy Hook Families, Elizabeth Williamson, March 29, 2019. Mr. Jones and Infowars gave Wolfgang Halbig airtime, a camera crew and help raising money to harass Sandy Hook shooting victims’ parents. In the world of conspiracy theorists, Alex Jones and Wolfgang Halbig fueled each other’s darkest tendencies.

alex jones headshotSoon after the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Mr. Jones, right, the right-wing provocateur, began spreading outlandish theories that the killing of 20 first graders and six educators was staged by the government and victims’ families as part of an elaborate plot to confiscate Americans’ firearms.

Many of the most noxious claims originated in the mind of Mr. Halbig, a retired Florida public school official who became fixated on what he called “this supposed tragedy” at Sandy Hook. Court records and a previously unreleased deposition given by Mr. Jones in one of a set of defamation lawsuits brought against him by the families of 10 Sandy Hook victims show how he and Mr. Halbig used each other to pursue their obsession and promote it across the internet.

wolfgang halbigOver several years, Mr. Jones gave Mr. Halbig’s views an audience by inviting him to be a guest on Infowars, his radio and online show. Infowars gave Mr. Halbig a camera crew and a platform for fund-raising, even as Mr. Halbig (shown in his photo on Twitter in an account the service has disabled because of his abuses of the service) repeatedly visited Newtown, demanding thousands of pages of public records, including photos of the murder scene, the children’s bodies and receipts for the cleanup of “bodily fluids, brain matter, skull fragments and around 45 to 60 gallons of blood.”

Given practical support and visibility by Mr. Jones, Mr. Halbig hounded families of the victims and other residents of Newtown, and promoted a baseless tale that Avielle Richman, a first grader killed at Sandy Hook, was still alive.

The deposition and its details about Mr. Jones’s operation and his interactions with Mr. Halbig were made public on Friday, days after Avielle Richman’s father, Jeremy Richman, killed himself in Newtown’s Edmond Town Hall, where Avielle Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to brain science that the family established in their daughter’s name, had an office.

Jan. 22, 2019

Justice Integrity Project, Kennedy and King Family Members and Advisors Call for Congress to Reopen Assassination Probes, Andrew Kreig, Jan. 22, 2019. An unprecedented coalition of family members, researchers, film makers, and former law enforcement and other government officials is calling for a new investigation of the four iconic 1960s assassinations.

May 26, 2014

Justice Integrity Project, Don't Be Fooled By 'Conspiracy Theory' Smears, Andrew Kreig, May 26, 2014. CNN and Newsweek recently launched dubious tirades against what they called "conspiracy theories."  As a way to understand such varied messages, I urge readers to evaluate evidence with an open mind — and regard with special suspicion those commentators who slant their coverage with the loaded smear words "conspiracy theory" without citing specific evidence.