Steven Brill remembers exactly where he was when he was struck by the idea to found the Court TV network: in the backseat of a cab. There was no such incandescent moment behind his latest venture—NewsGuard, a browser plug-in that provides a Good Housekeeping-type seal of approval, or not, for over 2,000 news sites, as determined by a transparent team of journalists. Rather, Brill, who demonstrated NewsGuard for us at our Ideas We Should Steal Festival earlier this month, stumbled upon the idea before the term “fake news” had suddenly entered the national lexicon.
Brill had always been a visionary, having founded, in addition to Court TV, American Lawyer and Brill’s Content magazines, as well as the Yale Journalism Initiative. Even before the election of Donald Trump, he’d seen the need for some type of referee’s tool in the credibility wars. He was researching what would turn out to be his 2015 bestseller, America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System.
“I didn’t know anything about health care before I started,” Brill says. “And I was seeing all this stuff, on Facebook feeds, on Google feeds. And I realized I had no idea how reliable most of it was. I’d come across articles from specialized health care websites about a purported disease, only to find out that it was content produced by a drug company that just happened to make the most expensive drug for that disease. I started to come up with a metaphor: You walk into a library and the books are arranged by subject, title and author, and you have a librarian who can tell you about the conservative or liberal background of an author. Well, we have about 3 million pieces of paper with information on them flying around through the air, and we don’t have a librarian to help us understand them. That’s the Internet. We need NewsGuard to help us make sense of all those pieces of paper.”
Along with his partner, former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz, Brill raised $6 million from investors like The Knight Foundation and lined up partners to launch NewsGuard.
Here’s how it works: Brill’s team of trained journalists use nine weighted criteria—including “does not repeatedly publish false content” and “clearly labels advertising”—to analyze and rate thousands of news sites. The team provides an in-depth “Nutrition Label” for each reviewed site, as well as a simple ranking system ranging from green icon—“trustworthy”—to red, for “unreliable.” It is apolitical, transparent and does not restrict speech in any way. “Bringing more information to people about the news sources they encounter online is NewsGuard’s only business,” the company pledges.
It bears noting that there are other efforts underway to combat our modern-day scourge of fake news, though most either attack it by prioritizing news literacy efforts, or by using algorithms. NewsGuard, on the other hand, as Crovitz says, is a “journalistic solution to a journalism problem,” as evidenced by the startup’s first hire last year, the esteemed Jim Warren as executive editor.
“I never thought there would be a tech answer,” Brill says. “There are some areas where human intervention is better than artificial intelligence. Knowing the difference between The Denver Post and Denver Guardian is one of them.”
NewsGuard came to market early last year, and, to date, has been downloaded 162,000 times. A Gallup poll commissioned by NewsGuard and the Knight Foundation found that 60 percent of users are less likely to share sites that have been given the red icon. That said, to date, Brill has essentially been serving the already converted; NewsGuard’s downloaders are likely predisposed to its ethos.
But—critically—his business plan is to sell the plug-in to the platforms that have unwittingly aided and abetted the spread of fake news. (An off-shoot product, launched a year ago, is BrandGuard—targeted toward advertisers who don’t want their messaging showing up on sites like InfoWars.) Brill has been in talks with Facebook, Google and Twitter, in effect offering each an opportunity to be a part of the solution to the problem they’ve helped create.
The biggest risk? “The mentality of tech companies is often that everything has a tech solution,” Brill says. He’s struck a deal with Microsoft and is also in conversation with companies like Comcast, to whom he’d offer a significant discount in order for NewsGuard to be an opt-in option for its mobile and broadband customers.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Sadly, facts are no longer stubborn things.
Meantime, Brill and Crovitz have embarked upon an ambitious pro bono program, making NewsGuard available to users in over 700 libraries, including Los Angeles and Chicago. Alas…not in Philly. “We’ve been unable to get to first base in Philly,” Brill notes, having heard from the Library’s tech team that adoption here would be too complicated. “That’s something no other library system has told us.”
Brill concedes that NewsGuard isn’t the answer to all that ails us. It reviews and fact-checks sites, not individual articles, and, because it’s the product of establishment journalists, it doesn’t necessarily address the widespread distrust of news in general. (A Gallup poll last year indicated that less than half of the electorate, and only 18 percent of Republicans, could identify a news source they found fair and objective.) But the sunken state of our public discourse is a complex thing, as Brill brilliantly outlines in Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty year Fall—and Those Fighting to Reverse It, his book last year that remains the fullest yet explanation for America’s slide these last decades. When the very definition of news is under assault, when we live in a news cycle on permanent fast-forward—more information and yet less wisdom than ever—wouldn’t something that provides context be, at the very least, an important tool on the way toward some information equilibrium?
In the post-World War II era, when America was building the most vibrant economy in history and, at least, standing for freedom and liberty around the globe, we agreed at home on an established set of underlying facts. That’s why there wasn’t much daylight between, say, Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the national stage, or Ed Rendell and Arlen Specter locally.
It was Moynihan, come to think of it, who once said that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Sadly, facts are no longer stubborn things.
Remember All The President’s Men? The way editor Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards, hectored his young reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, to secure two credible sources for each fact before it could make it into the paper? Well, that Bradlee-like gatekeeper is a thing of the past. We’re all our own editors now. At the very least, we should all secure two credible sources before we believe anything, let alone before we pass it on to others. Brill has come up with a way for us to do just that, to help each of us become, in effect, citizen editors.
Want a little more background? Check out these related articles:
- Steven Brill’s new book may be the most important explanation yet of just how we got here
- Media coverage of a Drexel professor’s “White Genocide” Christmas tweet raises the question: What is news, anyway?
- Newsela, an app for K-12 students leads the anti-fake-news revolution
Header photo: Wikimedia