What’s the Main Source of Fake News?

It ain't loners blogging in their underwear. It's real reporters in real news rooms

By Dan Gifford

Firing Line magazine, 2017

California Democratic US Senator Dianne Feinstein recently said that "real reporters" -- those she defined as salaried employees of newspaper and broadcast companies -- are not to blame for fake news.

She's wrong.

Fact is, "real reporters" actually are the usual fake news sources -- especially regarding contentious issues like firearms.

An all too  common example.

Los Angeles Sheriff Deputy Dwight Van Horn, his department's firearm expert at the time, phoned me around 1996 with a tip. He said a "real reporter" at LA's KABC-TV asked him to identify and comment on what the reporter said was a dangerous new type of gun with incredible destructive power that gangs had acquired. The dangerous new gun that "real reporter" showed Van Horn?


It was an ordinary Model 1911 Colt .45, the same "weapon of war" iconic pistol the U.S, Army adopted years before W.W.I and millions of civilians have owned since about 1912. It is possibly the most widely owned handgun in the United States. Nothing new at all. Despite that fact, the "real reporter" put together a story that set new standards for flat out lies and hysteria -- "blood will run in the streets!" --- to elicit public panic and prohibitive legislation. It was the latest in a series of fake news KABC-TV stories about firearms stretching back into the 1970s. KABC's political pundit, Bill Press, told me the station's management encouraged such stories as a matter of righteous anti Second Amendment political advocacy. National news organization managements have done the same.


So that MSNBC's Contessa Brewer, Touré Neblett and Dylan Ratigan could go into histrionics about the danger posed to our black president by armed, racist white men, the 2009 video clip below of a white shirted man carrying an AR type rifle at an Obama speech was intentionally edited to support that narrative.


A wide shot of the same man on a different news channel shows what MSNBC edited out.


That white shirted man with a rifle is actually a black man -- something the MSNBC audience never saw or was told -- thereby cementing the perception that angry, armed, racist white men were indeed threatening Obama.

The urge to expose, inflame and condemn in the fashion of journalist giants past is common among "real reporters" even if it means faking facts or withholding them. To Upton Sinclair wannabe "real reporters," "corporate America cares more about profits than public safety or the environment" is a common theme. NBC played both when it rigged the explosion of a GM truck to claim it was unsafe and then faked a story about fish killed by profit greedy logging companies. To Sinclair Lewis wannabe "real reporters," the "will Donald Trump become the populist authoritarian of 'It Can't Happen Here?'" theme has taken hold.

Likening Trump to an illegitimate Manchurian Candidate put into office by the internet hackers of Russian President Vladimir Putin is also au courant even though earlier suggestions about Obama were considered racist conspiracy theories. However, one of those "real reporter" putsch efforts foundered recently when The Washington Post had to back away from its claim that Russian hackers -- ya know, Trump's Kremlin buddies -- invaded Vermont's power grid.

As with all effective propaganda, effective fake news often appears plausible and believable because it's spread through an authoritative source and plays on the target's own known beliefs and or ignorance.Given the daily gang shooting death toll in Los Angeles and the general public's lack of knowledge about guns, most KABC-TV viewers probably believed everything the "real reporter" told them about that Colt .45 because their operative assumption was that a "real reporter" would not lie. It's shocking, but they do.

Lou Dobbs, my boss at CNN, did on air retractions of negative but accurate stories about companies like Shearson Lehman Brothers who paid him thousands of dollars for side work. Ricoh advertising manager Don Franken -- now a Hollywood producer -- told me his company paid Dobbs more than $5,ooo a number of times. The assertion in the Wall Street Journal story below that "there is no evidence" the money paid Dobbs impacted his coverage is simply celebrity protection. The Journal was not interested in examples I offered.


CBS News star Dan Rather so wanted to derail the presidential election chances of George W. Bush that he and his producers conspired to produce an untrue story that Bush's father pulled official strings to keep his son from having to serve in the Vietnam War.


CBS News mega star Walter Cronkite, "the most trusted man in America" according to an opinion poll, misled his massive audience about the Vietnam War and thereby undercut American public and political support for it. In addition, Cronkite fund raised for one world governance through a communist front organization I was a member of at one time in addition to subtextually promoting that politic in his news casts.


Even public officials lie to make fake news. Nayirah al-Sabah testified before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1990. She was presented by the Caucus co-Chairman, California Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos, as a Kuwaiti nurse who had witnessed atrocities committed by Iraqi troops.


"I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where 15 babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die." Can you feel your viscera building to go to war and kill Saddam Hussein's murdering bastards? Good. That's what President George H. W.Bush and the U.S. government "Deep State" of CIA spooks and other members of the military industrial establishment wanted.

Special thanks to Lantos for his lie that placed "Nurse Nayirah" in the witness chair because it was all fake news. The woman was not a Kuwaiti nurse. She was the Kuwaiti ambassador's daughter and her story was a scam concocted by the public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton, a powerful firm with well known ties to the CIA and other powerful Washington and world interests. More on the CIA - journalist connection down the page. But Lantos' Nayirah ruse worked so well that he did another one several years later during  congressional hearings about the government's actions against the Branch Davidians which resulted in the premeditated murder by FBI and other government actors of over 70 men, women and children.

In order to inflame the public against Davidian leader David Koresh, Lantos put 14 year old Kerri Jewell in the witness chair to read a story written for her by her father, the man on her left, about how Koresh  raped her when she was 10 years old.

Kiri's claim generated angry headlines around the country like this one in the Oklahoman: "Teen's Story Shocks Waco Hearings Girl describes Abuse by Koresh" and this one in the Washington Post: "Teenager Tells Waco Panel of Koresh's Lust."It's a blood pressure boosting story, but it's not true.

I produced Waco: The Rules of Engagement (WTRE), the documentary film that received the national Emmy for Outstanding Investigative Reporting, an Oscar nomination, the top award from the International Documentary Association and Human Rights Watch. Kiri's story was one of several sex accusations against Koresh I and my investigators looked into.

During that investigation, Ruth Mosher, Kiri's grandmother whom Lantos blocked from the hearings, told me and other WTRE researchers that Kiri's described molestation never happened because Kiri was with her at the time. Former Davidian David Thibodeau, author of the book Waco: A Survivor's Story, corroborated Mosher's story. No matter. Lantos knew all that and more -- like the fact Kiri's father had fabricated the story as part of a vicious child custody dispute and that he was using her story and appearance to get TV face time for himself to try and launch a show biz career. Lantos knew all that but still had Kiri testify.

If you are shocked that politicians and government officials would fake stories to further their agendas, know that academics also conspire to proselytize their ideologies and plant official narratives with fake news.

The veracity of a peer reviewed study bearing the imprimatur of a prestigious university is virtually unchallengeable to reporters, the public and lawmakers. Yet a recent Stanford study titled "Peer-Review Fraud: Hacking the Scientific Publication Process" found it's not uncommon for academics to lie about their data and engage in a conspiracy among their peers to verify results in order to get published. In that publish or perish world, published can translate into TV face time, celebrity, research grants and a chance to be a political player. Rarely are academic frauds discovered right away if at all. So their false claims can linger on in the form of false beliefs that become the basis for bad law. That's why the case of Emory University professor Michael A. Bellesiles' 2000 book "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture" is so remarkable.


Bellesiles' book "attacked [and undercut] the central myth behind the National Rifle Association's interpretation of the Second Amendment," said the Journal of American History and other prestigious publications. NRA president Charlton Heston said the book's findings were "ludicrous." Bellesiles replied as an Ancien Régime noble might have to a sans culotte republican: "when Professor Heston gets his Ph.D. and does the research, I might be open to persuasion."  But the book was a fraud and Idaho software engineer Clayton Cramer, a veritable sans PhD David,fought the sneering arrogance of America's academic community Goliath to slay its lies.

Emory fired Bellesiles and all of his award kudos were rescinded. But discredited does not necessarily mean dead. Bellesiles still has defenders and their perspective is worth an attempt to understand for contemporary sans-culottes who lack the facile word skills of their elite academic and media betters. So, even though Bellesiles' book is an acknowledged fraud, his defenders say it reveals larger "truths" or "alternate facts" as Counselor to President Trump Kellyanne Conway might put it.

It's not an uncommon point of view, I have found, among politically involved academics. And it's what Wellesley College professor Marjorie Agosin told me about another academic fraud that received much favorable false news mileage. Rigoberta Menchú was awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for writing "I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala."


The book was touted as her personally written account of atrocities inflicted on her and others by the "fascist" Guatemalan military. Only later were the book's described atrocities found to be fabrications and the actual writer identified as French Marxist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, the wife of Marxist Regis Debray. Regis had provided the intellectual foundation for Che Guevara's bloody Bolivian guerilla war strategy.

No matter.

Professor Agosin told me during a phone interview that "Even if Menchú's book isn't true, it's still the truth." Agosin's "truth" or "alternate fact" as I understood it, was that even if the atrocities described were fabricated, other atrocities were committed by Guatemalan government forces against the Guatemalan Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movement. But it's a one way truth. According to her line of reasoning, to say the known mass murders committed by the Marxists were atrocities is a subjective interpretation of necessary means to overcome capitalist oppression within the context of justifiable class struggle.

You may reject Agosin's "ends justify the means" consequentialism, but please know it has emotional traction for many of America's "real reporters" and academics largely because of the romantic chic affinity for Marxist "freedom fighters" that permeates America's newsrooms and university ivory towers. That fake news can cause such a one sided truth as Agosin's to linger in the public subconscious to be later exploited for political propaganda has been noted as long as humans could communicate through language. That is why the motivation and subtext behind fake news can be so much more than it appears.

As with Cronkite, it's not just the words he spoke, it's how he spoke them, what facial expressions he used and what pictures were juxtaposed to support his words and expressions. Product sellers know it, politicians know it and so do the world's intelligence agencies including our own.

The Central Intelligence Agency began to influence popular opinion through "real reporters" shortly after it was formed after W.W.II. via the cooperation of Washington Post President and CEO, Philip Graham. According to numerous books and sources, Graham soon had the Post staffed with writers and editors who had "intelligence backgrounds." In the book, "The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America," Frank Wisner, head of the CIA's Office of Policy Coordination, is said to have bragged that he was "capable of playing any propaganda tune he desired" through bought reporters. "You could get a journalist cheaper than a good call girl, for a couple hundred dollars a month" boasted a CIA source in another book, "Katharine the Great," a biographical sketch of Katharine Graham, the wife of Philip.

She took over Post management after her husband, Philip Graham, committed suicide. According to that book and others, Wisner 'owned' "real reporters" and name columnists at the New York Times, Newsweek, CBS, and other major news sources and turned them into mouthpieces for what is colloquially called the "Deep State." Said Deep State is essentially the "military industrial complex" and the "scientific-technological elite" President Dwight Eisenhower warned about in 1961. But both have grown.

As investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald told Fox' Tucker Carlson during a January 12th interview, the Deep State now is a hybrid entity of the military, federal law enforcement, intelligence agencies and private institutions dependent on federal funding that none want ended or even reduced. It is connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, America's elected leaders. Greenwald notes America's current Commander in Chief has questioned that power and drawn enough blow-back for the Senate's top Democrat to warn him he's spitting into the wind. "You take on the intelligence community and they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you," said Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer to Rachel Maddow last weekend. "So even for a practical, supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he's being really dumb to do this."

Off-the-record Deep State weapons include leaks, threats of prosecution, bureaucratic sleight of hand, "slow-walking" urgent directives and blackmail among the less ominous ones. It's well known -- at least in Washington -- the Deep State may have agendas and goals that can be at odds with elected office holders and that it generally exerts its will through propaganda spread by "real reporters" and academics. If that is true, and I saw ample evidence that it was during my 1960s time as a reporter in Washington, what sort of fake news is the Deep State's cadre of permanent bureaucrats now spreading? What news is it keeping from the public? There's really no way to know because we don't know what we don't know.


This column was first published in Firing Line magazine. Dan Gifford is a national Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated film producer and former reporter for CNN, The MacNeil Lehrer News Hour and ABC News. ###