House GOP launches investigation into federally funded news ratings group’s impact on free speech

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The House Oversight Committee announced this week that it has launched an investigation into a news-rating system that purportedly ranks which news outlets are trustworthy, with the focus of the probe surrounding whether the ratings group’s contracts with federal agencies have an influence on what news it attempts to suppress.

Oversight Chair James Comer, R-Ky., said Thursday his committee was investigating NewsGuard’s impact ‘on protected First Amendment speech and its potential to serve as a non-transparent agent of censorship campaigns.’

In a letter to Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz, NewsGuard’s chief executive officers, Comer requested documents on the group’s ‘business relationships with government entities, its adherence to its own policies intended to guard against appearances of bias, how it tries to avoid and manage potential conflicts of interest arising from its investors and other influences, and actions that may have the impact of delegitimizing factually accurate information.’

‘A primary concern for the Committee is the Department of Defense contract NewsGuard was awarded in 2021, which raises questions about the involvement of federal agencies in potential censorship campaigns,’ Comer wrote in the letter. ‘One concerned journalist expressed fear that NewsGuard’s activities are an extension of federal efforts — since struck down by courts — to coerce social media companies and to ‘destroy the financial survival of disfavored outlets. . . . ‘

Comer told the duo that his committee is looking to ‘make an independent determination about whether NewsGuard’s intervention on protected speech has been in any way sponsored by a federal, state, local, or foreign government.’

Comer also pointed out in his letter that NewsGuard ‘touts’ how its editorial employees sign a pledge to ‘refrain from any political activities, such as participation in or donations to political campaigns, opinionated social media posting, involvement in protests, or other activities that could call into question my fairness or create the appearance of political bias.’

‘The social media accounts of several individuals listed as ‘editorial’ on NewsGuard’s online list of employees casts doubt on NewsGuard’s commitment to enforcing this pledge and anti-bias efforts,’ Comer said.

NewsGuard has reportedly received nearly a million dollars from the federal government, most of which came from the Department of Defense. NewsGuard was also awarded a prize after participating in a State Department co-sponsored ‘COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation’ tech challenge.

Several advertisers use the service as a way to find niche audiences for a product or service. Other advertisers, however, reportedly use the service to prevent doing business with networks or outlets that peddle ‘misinformation.’

‘The Committee does not take issue with a business entity providing other businesses and customers with data-based analysis to protect their brands. Rather, we are concerned with the potential involvement of government entities in interfering with free expression. Truthfulness and transparency about the purpose and origin of inquiries and managing conflicts of interest that may impact the public good are also relevant,’ Comer added.

‘This appears to be a very biased, very unfair service that’s getting federal funds. It could be another backdoor attempt at censoring conservative media outlets,’ Comer said during a recent appearance on One America News. ‘What’s their criteria that just happen to give networks like MSNBC and CNN tremendous grades, and then networks like OAN, Newsmax and Fox very poor grades?’

NewsGuard is a web extension that ’employs a team of journalists and experienced editors to produce reliability ratings and scores for news and information websites based on nine journalistic criteria,’ according to the group’s website. News sources that are ranked by NewsGuard receive scores from certain journalists and ‘experienced editors’ who are tasked with rating publishers on a scale of 0 to 100, based on ‘a set of apolitical criteria of journalistic practice.’

Comer requested a number of documents from NewsGuard — including complete versions of ‘current and past contracts with government entities’ and ‘records of all disciplinary or corrective actions taken by NewsGuard over the past five years related to violations’ of its editorial employee pledge — that are due on or before June 27, 2024.

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