By Daniel Espinoza
Almost four years of mainstream media hype about “fake news” and “Russian meddling” propaganda has brought to the world exactly what they were intended to bring: an effective mechanism for internet and social media censorship.
In the center of this move toward global discourse control is an organization called the Poynter Institute, home to the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), a body created to coordinate, promote and train dozens of fact-checkers from around the world.
The IFCN and many non-profits working in the same field are funded by the big capitalist “philanthropists” of our era, like George Soros, Pierre Omidyar, Bill Gates, and even the Koch brothers…but also by the US Department of State and a shady “aid” – in reality, political meddling – organization, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), historically linked to the CIA and regime change operations.
Google and Facebook – itself tied to the warmongering Atlantic Council and its “Digital Forensic Research Lab” – are also associated with Poynter, by funding and partnerships to fight “fake news” (including the development of an “automated” fact-checking program for the upcoming 2020).
The marriage between Poynter’s IFCN, politically inclined billionaires, the State Department – and the whitewashed public face of the Deep State – suggest that the institute is probably working in what Nelson Poynter, its founder, worked on for a key part of his life: propaganda and censorship for the US government.
Although this information is not available in Nelson Poynter’s Wikipedia profile or in poynter.org’s history page, his work for a government propaganda agency is not exactly a secret. A resemblance of his wife, Henrietta, also at the institute’s website, quickly passes over the fact that Poynter did work for the Office of War Information (OWI) during WWII, but his specific role as a government censor and propagandist is never mentioned.
FILM CENSORSHIP AND THE BIRTH OF THE VOICE OF AMERICA
Nelson Poynter was recruited by the OWI with his wife Henrietta, who worked as assistant program chief under Elmer Davis, head of the agency. She came up with the name for the “Voice of America”, the famous psychological war operation of the US government.
The radio project was established in February 1942 and soon grew to be the most important US overt propaganda arm of the Cold War.
Unlike his wife’s job, Poynter’s regarded not radio – or his previous line of work, journalism – but movies. In 1942, the OWI’s Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) set up office in Hollywood, naming Poynter as its head. His mission was to act as liaison between the agency and the owners of Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox, MGM and the other big studio names.
Elmer Davis, head of the OWI, regarded films as:
The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds”, in part, because they “do not realize that they are being propagandized”.
Davis was a career journalist who worked for ten years for the New York Times before being recruited by the government. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House needed the film industry to incorporate specific themes in their movies, ideas that promoted the notion of WWII as being a “popular” war, fought to defend his Four Freedoms.
But at first, Poynter’s office in Hollywood had little veto power over what the industry could produce – for the entire Western world – limiting itself to suggest cosmetic changes here and there, or the toning down of reactionary and racist imagery and language, an inherent feature in the Hollywood of that era.
The heads of the studios were in fairly good terms with the US Army, historically close to the industry. Its owners were happy to portrait US wars abroad as heroic, in exchange for the lending of military equipment, installations and expert advice.
But in most cases, a disappointed Poynter complained, war ended up only as “a backdrop” for shallow romance, cheap comedies and other proven formulas. Poynter and his boss at the BMP, Lowell Mellett, also hired a former assistant of Harold Lasswell, a famous social researcher who said – back in the 30s – that democracy needed propaganda because people were not the best judges of their own interest.
Eventually, the team devised a way to exert more power over the unruly, reactionary and overly commercial Hollywood studios. They decided to ask the US Office of Censorship to weight in and threat them with banning “offending” films from export, seriously reducing their potential earnings.
According to Koppes and Black’s Hollywood Goes to War, it was a success, prompting MGM, Warner and the other big names to start turning their scripts for review to the Poynter. The BMP knew it was important to intervene right at that stage, before big amounts of money were spent in production.
Poynter was a diligent censor and propagandist, going as far as to suggest dialogues for the movie scripts he was reviewing, breaching “one of the industries taboos” and provoking the powerful tycoons, according to the authors mentioned above.
When the war ended, Poynter went back to journalism. He eventually took over the St. Petersburg Times (renamed Tampa Bay Times in 2012), owned by his father. He also founded the Congressional Quarterly with his wife Henrietta, who died in 1968. As we can read in the Poynter institute’s website:
When Henrietta died suddenly at the age of 66, Nelson mourned deeply. ‘Her passing marked the end of an era for Mr. Poynter,’ said David Shedden, former research librarian at The Poynter Institute. ‘He started looking to the future and thinking about his legacy. He focused on creating a school for journalists, which of course became the Modern Media Institute, and then the Poynter Institute’.”
Nevertheless, historian W.C. Bourne explains that many of the OWI’s top brass – as Elmer Davis and Nelson Poynter, former journalists – returned to the corporate media after the war, but “retained an abiding belief in the things for which OWI stood and the possibilities of accomplishment in the international information picture”.
Many of them also retained the Deep State contacts and a nationalistic “spirit of collaboration”.
A LEGACY OF CENSORSHIP
Nelson Poynter’s work for the government ended many decades ago, and it would be reasonable to suggest that his ties to the US government and its propaganda apparatus probably never involved the journalism institution he founded years after leaving the OWI.
But we have evidence pointing precisely in the opposite direction.
Firstly, the obvious – and open – ties between the institute and today’s version of the foreign meddling machine installed by the US during the Cold War (i.e. the NED). As informed on many occasions by independent journalists, one of the founders of the National Endowment for Democracy once admitted that:
A lot of what we do today was done covertly twenty-five years ago by the CIA.”
Secondly, the intimate ties between the Poynter Institute and the US State Department, which selected it to conduct the “Edward Murrow Program for Journalists”. It brings together “more than 100 emerging international journalists from around the world to examine journalistic practices in the United States”.
In other words, to be indoctrinated in Western corporate journalism and culture and start a relationship with a potential foreign opinion leader.
The State Department’s Murrow program is part of Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), an agency dedicated to “cultural diplomacy”, intimately tied to intelligence and foreign policy since way before the Cold War. The participants to be trained by Poynter are chosen by US embassies abroad.
A 2017 report of the historical success of the educational exchange agency stated that:
…565 alumni of the ECA programs are current heads or former heads of state and government, and 31 alumni are heads of international organizations.”
Thirdly, the Poynter Institute, too, redacted an infamous blacklist of “fake news” sites, with the intention of marginalize and, in this case, deny many of them of any kind of advertisement money.
A BLACKLIST TO DEFUND THEM ALL
For this operation, launched on April 30, 2019, Poynter ganged-up with the rest of the fact-checking “cartel”, so to speak.
The institute gathered the blacklists and analysis done in recent years by Snopes, Fact-check.org, Politifact (owned by the Tampa Bay Times and Poynter), OpenSources and the Fake News Codex, and used them to create the mother of all blacklists, naming 515 “unreliable” news websites.
It was retracted shortly after its publication, on May 2, after coming under criticism for “unreliability and poor methodology”. The irony! And this should be understood as an indictment on the whole bunch. As one critic from the George Washington University noted:
Beneath the veneer of its precision, the fact-checking enterprise relies heavily on opinion and interpretation…If a list summarizing fact-checking results and verified by fact checkers is ultimately retracted by those same fact checkers for not being rigorous, it underscores the question of why we should trust anything from the fact-checking community.”
To add insult to injury, Poynter’s dubious list of “unreliable websites” was intended to cause financial harm to those named in it, by guiding advertisers and ad-technology applications to deny them of ads.
After the retraction, Stephen Gutowski, a writer from one of the affected websites, Free Beacon, wrote:
What a disgusting exercise in bad faith from an organization that’s supposed to be about improving and promoting journalism. Instead, they’re creating tabloid-level listicles to smear reporters without offering even a single piece of evidence. Shame on you, @Poynter.”
Philip Klein, from The Washington Examiner – also listed – thought it was:
…worrisome to call for advertisers blacklisting news organizations, especially given the opacity of the process and arbitrariness of many of the judgements [sic].”
The International Fact-checking Network and its more than a hundred “associated” – subordinated – smaller fact checkers around the globe, are also funded by the same “philanthropists”, like Bill Gates, whose foundation already finances tens of mainstream corporate news outlets with tens of millions of dollars, just like the Columbia Journalism Review recently uncovered.
Regarding Poynter and Gates, specifically:
…Poynter senior vice president Kelly McBride said Gates’s money was passed on to media fact-checking sites, including Africa Check, and noted that she is “absolutely confident” that no bias or blind spots emerged from the work, though she acknowledged that she has not reviewed it herself.”
In a blatant conflict of interests, those same fact-checkers often (try to) debunk information related to the Gates Foundation, just like a private PR agency.
When “fact-checking”, the members of this private-public consortium often limit themselves to copy/paste from their “parent” sources, like Poynter’s Politifact and Snopes.
As Emil Marmol and Lee Mager recently wrote for Project Censored, the “fake news” psychological operation was little more than a “Trojan horse for silencing alternative news and reestablishing corporate news dominance”:
The fake news hysteria created by those in government and echoed by the corporate news media is being harnessed and used as a pretext for the suppression of dissent and counterhegemonic viewpoints while re-establishing the corporate press’s preeminence as the sole purveyor and manufacturer of public opinion”.
The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the degenerative process under the guise of “protecting us”, prompting democratic governments to take dangerous paths, like arresting citizens for promoting street marches on Facebook.
The internet opened up a world of information to the regular citizen, we must keep it open so more of us can take a look.
Daniel Espinosa lives in Arequipa, second largest city of Peru. He graduated in Communication Sciences in Lima and started researching propaganda and mainstream media. He writes for a Peruvian in-print weekly, Hildebrandt en sus trece, since 2018, and collaborates with many online media. His writings are a critique of the role of mass media in society. You can read his previous work through his MuckRack profile.