By Ben Olson
Editor’s note: In the first installment of this new media series, we talked about the general impact the Internet has had on political discourse. In this second article, we’ve decided to focus on a few alternative media groups that have popped up in our own backyard.
Fifty years ago, the news was presented by one of three networks or a local newspaper. Relying on the reporting of trained journalists, media consumers had no choice but to trust those who reported the news.
While the Internet has opened up the possibility of worldwide discourse, it has also put the responsibility of media literacy upon the shoulders of the individual media consumers. In other words, the Internet is a land of caveat emptor, or buyer beware, when it comes to trusting that a journalist used factual information in their reportage of a given story.
Some sites have earned that trust over years of accurate reporting. But over the past five years, an increasing number of agenda-driven news sites have popped up throughout Idaho on both sides of the aisle.
For Bob Neugebauer, publisher of GemStatePatriot.com, the alleged bias of mainstream media was the impetus for starting his own news gathering service two and a half years ago.
“We decided we needed some kind of communiqué to bring the conservative news to people,” said Neugebauer.
The self-professed “Tea Party newsletter” based out of Meridian mostly covers issues dealing with the Constitution, politics and socially conservative ideas. It publishes every two weeks.
“There is very little conservative-oriented news in this state, even though we are a Republican state,” said Neugebauer. “Most of our legislators have gone to the moderate slant.”
The Internet, says Neugebauer, is primarily responsible for allowing ideas to spread outside of the mainstream.
“The Internet is the one medium where we can get it out there,” he said. “People are slowly but surely understanding if we don’t have this alternative media, we are unable to understand fully the problems that we have in our state or our country.”
Neugebauer believes most mainstream media has slanted far to the left in recent years.
“I find most of their reporting is biased,” he said. “You get tired of reading the same old, same old. I don’t say I’m not biased. I don’t hide it. All I can do is do what I think is right. It’s more of a truth than what’s spoon-fed to you by the liberal media.”
Derek Farr believes the responsibility of accurate reporting should outweigh any inherent bias, no matter if it’s “hidden” or outwardly stated. Farr, the executive director of BetterIdaho.org, said his site is “a communications shop for progressive ideas.”
“There was a group of people in Idaho who felt there needed to be a better balance in our politics,” said Farr. “We needed an online presence, a non-traditional media presence that talks about issues in a progressive way.”
Farr, a former reporter, decided to launch his site last year in order to gain the latitude in not just reporting on issues, but being able to take a step further by discussing the impact of the issues.
“I wasn’t capable of reporting on the real impacts … because it violates what a reporter’s job is,” said Farr. “Doing this job, I’m the frustrated id of the reporter I used to be.”
When asked how his site differs from those on the opposite side of the political spectrum, Farr said, “When I look at the news, I don’t see conspiracies. It’s not the evil media machine. I see people. In the case of this Malhuer thing, the alternative media … is just there to simply verify the alternate universe of fact. My audience does not get happy if there are slips of facts.”
The abandonment of facts has Farr concerned, especially when alternative news sites take no responsibility over errors in their reporting. He views it as a push-pull reaction.
“The push is Donald Trump, out there saying clear falsehoods … not even bothering to correct them,” said Farr. “The pull is that there are these audiences who want to consume information that simply verifies their core beliefs.”
While GemStatePatriot.com and BetterIdaho.org both list bylines and sources for the majority of their material, another site of recent notoriety seems to operate under more of a shadow.
RedoubtNews.com began appearing in news feeds over the past year. Mostly reporting stories with a Tea Party slant, the site only occasionally lists bylines of authors. When bylines are listed, it usually only includes the author’s first name. The only contact information available is an email submission form.
On the website, RedoubtNews.com states: “Most of you know us, and know that we make every effort to be accurate and fair.” The citation goes on to say the site owners used to work with “another news organization” which had attempted to control what information was shared with the public “because it did not fit within their agenda.”
After some brief investigation, the domain for RedoubtNews.com was found to be registered to Bret Roush, who also owns Panhandle Appliance and Repair in Priest River. Among other items, Confederate flags were listed for sale on the store’s Facebook page. Despite repeated requests for an interview over a two-week period, Roush ultimately chose not to participate.
Two weeks ago, an article without byline appeared on RedoubtNews.com with the following headline: “Syrian refugees quietly enter Idaho.” In the article, the unlisted author stated, “This information was confirmed to me by two different, and separate, sources.”
“The report is inaccurate and completely untrue,” stated Jon Hanian, press secretary for Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter.
All four refugee resettlement organizations in Idaho also denied the rumor’s truth.
“That story is not true,” said Zeze Rwasama, director of CSI Refugee Center in Twin Falls. “My agency in Twin Falls has never resettled any Syrians.”
Rwasama said that since refugees need special documentation to travel, there is no way for them to enter the state without resettlement agencies knowing about it.
Christina Bruce-Bennion, the director of Agency for New Americans in Boise, has heard the rumor about Syrian refugees entering Idaho several times before.
“There seems to be this odd rumor that keeps popping up,” said Bruce-Bennion. “I’ve heard 200, I’ve heard 300. It is definitely not the case … the refugee program does not operate in secrecy.”
Bruce-Bennion attributes this rumor to fringe alternative media sites: “Some groups and websites are part of this larger network of groups that seem to have latched onto some key misinformation, and don’t seem to want to understand the accurate information.”
For people like Bruce-Bennion and Rwasama, the spread of misinformation is one of the troubling aspects of alternative media. Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, disagrees.
Rep. Scott has re-posted several posts from RedoubtNews.com among other alternative news sites. When asked why she found alternative media more appealing than mainstream, Rep. Scott said alternative media had “more details on events and actual truth.” She believes mainstream media carries an inherent bias, and that alternative news sources had, in several incidents, given more factual reporting than traditional news outlets.
Farr, on the other hand, believes sites such as RedoubtNews.com are dangerous precisely because some Idaho lawmakers treat them as bonafide news sources, even if the reporting contains misinformation. He was left scratching his head when Scott recently visited the Malheur Wildlife Refuge with fellow lawmakers Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, and Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay on a “fact finding mission.”
“Talk about an alternate reality,” said Farr. “I can’t verify anything Judy Boyle says in [an interview she gave]. She said there was a county commissioner screaming and yelling, saying their presence jeopardizes their reelection. I contacted the Harney County Commissioners and found none up for reelection, and none had even talked to Boyle.”
“It’s this Donald Trump phenomenon,” Farr continued. “People are comfortable in this alternative reality. You can present them these right-wing sites, and there is absolutely no scrutiny to it whatsoever, even if it flies directly in the face of fact. When you have an elected official pointing to it as fact, it verifies it. That’s wrong.”
What media professionals are saying:
Given the rapid changes in media and distribution, many journalists are adapting to the new circumstances while maintaining their commitment to factual reporting. We asked regional journalists what they thought of social media and the upswing in agenda-driven Internet news outlets. Our colleagues at the Boise Weekly, George Prentice and Harrison Berry, got back to us with their thoughts.
With many getting their news exclusively from their social media feed, do you worry that political discourse is being hurt by media outlets with an agenda?
GP: … I honestly don’t think that political discourse is helped or hurt by social media feeds. The content of those feeds is nothing more than a collection of comments from engaged citizens. … Mainstream media can get rather sloppy when leaning heavily on social media commentary without confirming that it’s a very small slice of the population.
HB: This is a source of concern for some, but not for me. I came of age in a time when Fox News was the go-to anathema news outlet—responsible, allegedly, for giving voice or cover to defunct or propagandist political views. … At the same time, however, Fox News had more on-the-ground journalists than any other cable television news channel, and it paid them better wages. … By and large, people value accurate, truthful reporting and can smell the difference between having their opinions validated and a truthful record of current events.
How would you distinguish your work from that of the agenda-driven outlets?
GP: It’s ultimately important to me that readers can’t determine what my personal politics, views or belief are by reviewing my work.
HB: Most news organizations and journalists distinguish themselves through their mission statements and their histories as news-gathering organizations, but fail to mention the day-by-day journalistic values like continuously putting out a product for public consumption and the rigors of the editing process. … It’s a busy, personally grueling occupation that doesn’t leave time or intellectual bandwidth to dwell on forwarding an agenda. For the reporter, the gooey center of a story is the story itself—the people involved, the scientific/political/ideological/social implications—and not whether it gives succor to our preconceived notions.
What are your thoughts on the need for trained journalists given the democratization of media through the Internet?
GP : … My sense is that news consumers continue to turn to agenda-driven or partisan Internet media sources because they are provocative, engaging and even entertaining while traditional media is asleep at the wheel. The amount of duplication among Idaho media sources is stunning. Someone says something at the Statehouse. Someone else responds. And a 250-word news story with not much more than those quotes shows up in nearly every newspaper in the state. That’s not reporting. It’s stenography.
HB: I have a graduate degree in journalism from the University of Iowa. As a working journalist, I have mixed feelings about the value of my degree. … Journalism didn’t spring out of colleges and universities, and the skills needed to do it can be learned in the newsroom through years of ego-bruising, soul-sucking trial and error. … That said, reporters are curious people eager for insight, and an education in journalism can provide exactly that in addition to skills handy in the newsroom.