Like it or not, this is the age of fake news. From right-wing conspiracy rags like InfoWars and Breitbart to your crazy Uncle George’s Facebook feed, these shoddily vetted, heavily distorted and often factually incorrect stories are becoming increasingly prevalent. This is creating a sense of distrust with the traditional mainstream media for many Americans. It’s often difficult to see the lines between fact and fiction.
Few know this better than Andrew Feinberg. A UW-Madison grad, Feinberg recently (and publicly) left his post as White House correspondent for Sputnik, a state-sponsored Russian news service. While there, Feinberg — who has also contributed to The Hill — found himself immersed in a world of half-truths and repackages, of taking earnest reporting and turning it into Kremlin fairy tale.
Feinberg now seeks to draw a clearer line for news consumers and journalists alike. Alternative perspectives are important, he says, but “there’s a difference between an alternative perspective and a perspective that’s based on bullshit.”
“There is no wrong side of the narrative. There’s truth and there’s not truth,” he emphasizes.
The Bozho recently caught up with Feinberg to discuss the politics of propaganda.
When did you start at Sputnik, and when did you first get an inkling that something funky was going on?
I started the Monday after Trump took office, and pretty much the first thing that set off alarm bells was when I started filing stories and they kept taking my byline off of them. They don’t have bylines. Their style guide says that the only stories that wouldn’t get a byline are basically like if you would rewrite a press release. That kind of story. But other than that, you know, if you write something, you’re supposed to be able to put your name on top of it. But they don’t do that, and the reason they give is that, “Oh, if it’s an exclusive, then we put a byline on it.” Obviously, if you talk to someone for an exclusive story, and they know who they talked to, you can’t not put someone’s name on it. But if you go to, say, a White House press briefing, and you write something based off of that, they don’t put a name on it. Basically anything other than an interview with someone, they don’t wish to have your name on top of it.
So there was sort of a feeling that you were being used as a set of skills that they could twist however they please?
I wouldn’t put it like that. What I say about it is that on one hand, the Russian reporters there told me that it’s a Russian thing, and some independent Russian newspapers don’t do that. So on one hand, it might be a cultural thing. But either way, it makes it easy to shape the truth because if you write something and there’s no name on it, then there’s no accountability for it. And if there’s no accountability for it, you can write whatever you want because there’s no one person to be singled out as the person writing the lies.
— Andrew Feinberg (@agfhome) June 5, 2017
What was the specific event that pushed you over the edge to leave Sputnik?
They wanted a lot on Seth Rich. They wanted me to keep pushing the White House about it, and they wanted me to help push the narrative that Seth Rich was murdered because he was the DNC leaker, which is of course a ridiculous statement. Seth Rich was a voter data analyst, an algorithm guy. So he wasn’t the I.T. guy, but they make him seem like this employee, who was one of x number of people working on data analytics, that it’s the same as being the I.T. guy in charge of everyone’s computer and everyone’s email. Which is ridiculous. He’s a data analyst, but to someone who doesn’t know any better that sounds like “Sure, he would have had access to their computers, he’s a data analyst.” And that’s absurd. But they want it because obviously if Seth Rich is the guy this gets pinned on, then Russia had nothing to do with it. And if Russia had nothing to do with it, then all the sanctions and all the talk of this whole investigation is hysteria by Democrats who can’t handle that they lost the election.
Do you have any post-Sputnik plans at the moment?
Right now, I’m looking for what’s next. But while I’m looking, I’m talking to people about my experiences at Sputnik because they’re very good at social media, and they’re part of a whole ecosystem that feeds these narratives that are not based in reality. And because they’re so good at packaging stuff, someone who’s not a sophisticated consumer of news isn’t necessarily going to know the difference. Someone’s who’s conspiratorially minded is susceptible to this stuff — younger people, especially — because of the package. And I think it’s important to get the word out so that people know what they’re looking at when they look at stories on Sputnik and RT (formerly Russia Today) because there are a lot of American news sites that sometimes pick up stories that originate [there] — InfoWars, Breitbart, that kind of thing.
The other reason I’m speaking out is because I was one of the more experienced reporters there. There are a lot of people there who are young, they’re just out of school, looking for their first job, and they might not know any better. I knew what I was getting into, but I took the job because I received assurances of editorial independence that turned out to be lies. But people who haven’t been around the block might be happy just to get a full-time job in journalism. I mean, I was happy to have a full-time job in journalism. Freelancing isn’t fun. [Laughs] So I want to make sure that American journalists are educated.
So people know when and why to call bullshit on something?
Yeah, and so people know that this is not a good place to work. There are many, many state-sponsored news agencies that do wonderful work. Voice of America, BBC. Al Jazeera has shelves and shelves of Peabody Awards. And Sputnik and RT, they like to put themselves in that category. That’s not true. They’re not just state sponsored, they’re state controlled. They get their marching orders from Moscow, and that’s what they go with. Whatever narrative the Russian government wants, that’s what they go with. And you don’t see that at other state sponsored news organizations. And I want people to know that Sputnik and R.T. are not the same as a regular state sponsored news organization.
So just because they dress up as one doesn’t mean they necessarily are.
Yes, exactly. The gathering and dissemination of news is something that can be considered a public good. If governments want to sponsor news organizations, that in and of itself is not a bad thing, as long as there’s the editorial independence that places like the BBC and Al Jazeera and Voice of America and all those organizations have. Sputnik doesn’t have that. There’s a big difference. So I want to make sure that people who might really be desperate for a job don’t go into it thinking that it’s just the same as all the others but Russian. They may tell you that when they’re interviewing — like they did to me — but it’s not true.