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Heritage Tries Its Hand At News, But Forgets The Facts

Memo Pad Politics

Heritage Tries Its Hand At News, But Forgets The Facts


The Daily Signal,  The Heritage Foundation’s online “news” website, debuted Tuesday, offering up vagaries and unverifiable assertions aplenty, but too few empirical facts and little in the way of attribution. Its first video was a publicist’s dream, a puff piece that no serious news organization would air.

What appears in The Daily Signal matters because it is assured a large audience eager for reinforcement of deeply embedded views, but no real evidence that would challenge or even bring into question the factual basis of those views.

Reader comments on the Signal’s first investigative piece – the only solid piece of fact-based journalism it published Tuesday – showed just how eager Signal readers are to read confirmation of their biases into pieces and to ignore inconvenient facts, especially subtly presented truths that run contrary to the Heritage Foundation’s well-established perspectives.

Heritage opened its doors in 1973 and has since worked to ensure business dominance of American politics and government. It likes to describe itself as the true champion of the poor in America. A realistic appraisal of its policies shows that it favors protecting existing wealth against the creative destruction by which the existing economic structure is constantly under siege from new wealth seekers.

Heritage also turns a blind eye to the many stealth forms of welfare for the already rich that I detailed in my books Perfectly Legal, Free Lunch, and The Fine Print.

America needs fact-based, insightful and aggressive journalism — both opinion and fact — from every point on the spectrum. But sadly, much of what we get from what mainstream news organizations mislabel  “conservative” is radical rhetoric that far too often has little basis in fact or even reality.

Progressives and liberals in particular should encourage, and read, quality journalism from the right because it will help weed out flabby, half-baked ideas by everyone not in accord with the Koch brothers and Fox News chief Roger Ailes. Without rigorous journalism from the far right, the whole country suffers a paucity of informing debate.

The framers used empiricism and reason to make their case for our Constitution and were critical of naked assertion, vague accusations and failure to test hypothesis with verifiable facts.

The breathtaking distortions and even lies by some of our best-known opinion journalists who self-identify as conservatives drew my scrutiny in National Memo columns this year, which you can read here, here, here and here.

The Signal surely cannot quarrel with my call for fact-based news and opinion, as its website says, “We are committed to news coverage that is accurate, fair and trustworthy. As we surveyed the media landscape, it became clear to us that the need for honest, thorough, responsible reporting has never been more critical. That’s a challenge in today’s fast-moving world. And it’s a challenge we’re willing to accept.”

The website then proclaims:

We are dedicated to developing a news outlet that cuts straight to the heart of key political and policy arguments – not spin reported as news. The Daily Signal is supported by the resources and intellectual firepower of The Heritage Foundation – a dedicated team of experienced journalists to cover the news and more than 100 policy experts who can quickly help put issues in perspective. We believe this combination of news, commentary and policy analysis will establish The Daily Signal as a trusted source on America’s most important issues.

We believe that high-quality, credible news reporting on political and policy issues is of paramount importance to an informed and free society. This is a reflection of that Jeffersonian notion that the greatest defense of liberty is an informed citizenry.

So, let’s take a look first at the Signal’s featured first-day video, an interview with Sharyl Attkisson, a former reporter and anchor for CBS, CNN and PBS.  The headline is hyped, describing an interview with the Signal’s own correspondent as “exclusive.”

The headline also promises a report on “Journalism’s Very Dangerous Trend” but presents zero verifiable evidence of anything dangerous or even of any trend.

After Attkisson quit CBS, she told Bill O’Reilly in April that her Benghazi, Obamacare and “Fast and Furious” gun stories did not make the air because senior producers lost interest. O’Reilly, an entertainer possessed of masterfully honed commercial instincts, skillfully conflated that into an implication of foul motives at CBS without a shred of empirical evidence that anyone could verify. Classic O’Reilly.

At The Daily Signal, producer Kelsey Harkness tossed Attkisson softballs, even puffballs. As edited, the video shows zero effort to get beyond rhetoric to empirical evidence — names, dates, specific stories, etc. Naked assertion without verifiable specifics is not reporting, it is propaganda, an irony evidently lost on the Signal’s editors.

Harkness promises two more installments, so perhaps we will see some actual reporting by her in the days ahead. Hopefully she will improve with experience, but if not, she can look forward to a superb career as a flack, as reporters call publicists.

The Daily Signal let Attkisson mix and conflate issues in a way no serious and experienced journalist would let pass. Her vague assertions about CBS newsroom managers, as edited, flowed seamlessly into a different issue — non-journalists who use social media to confuse the public.

David Cay Johnston

David Cay Johnston won a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of taxes in The New York Times. The Washington Monthly calls him “one of America’s most important journalists” and the Portland Oregonian says is work is the equal of the great muckrakers Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair.

At 19 he became a staff writer at the San Jose Mercury and then reported for the Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and from 1995 to 2008 The New York Times.

Johnston is in his eighth year teaching the tax, property and regulatory law at Syracuse University College of Law and Whitman School of Management.

He also writes for USA Today, Newsweek and Tax Analysts.

Johnston is the immediate past president of the 5,700-member Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) and is board president of the nonprofit Investigative Post in Buffalo.

His latest book Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality an anthology he edited. He also wrote a trilogy on hidden aspects of the American economy -- Perfectly Legal, Free Lunch, and The Fine Print – and a casino industry exposé, Temples of Chance.

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  1. sigrid28 June 3, 2014

    Is there actual bias here or just fluff? Take this sentence, a kind of mission statement from “The Signal’s” website, cited by Johnston: “We believe that high-quality, credible news reporting on political and policy issues is of paramount importance to an informed and free society.” When you see (or hear) “political . . . policy . . . paramount,” all in the same sentence, you know you’re experiencing the kind of literary alliteration that puts the “puff” in “puff piece.”

    Let’s look at some of the modifiers in the sentence: How would “high-quality, credible news reporting” vary from “low-quality, credible news reporting” anyway? What in the world would be news reporting that is not credible? Science fiction, or what? Oh, maybe that’s the kind of “signal” they are talking about.

    Returning to the scholastic windbag part of the sentence, with all of those puffed up “p”s, just try to think of something that would NOT fall into the category of “political and policy issues” . . . “of paramount importance to an informed and free society.”

    Put another way, the editors appointed by the Heritage Foundation state that any topic on earth can be reported in a way that coincides with what you already believe. They do not say whether or not “The Signal” will do the same.

  2. tarajunky June 4, 2014

    “But unless you are a careful reader, you could miss that these
    experiments all took place during the George W. Bush administration.
    That brings us back to Heritage’s new outlet feeding an audience what it wants rather than what it needs to know.”


    How was Bush involved? How was Obama involved? Are you really going to argue that the report is somehow slanted because it didn’t specifically mention the completely extraneous detail about which President was in office at the time?

    The report provides the dates numerous times, but why are you obsessing over the dates?

    I think you unintentionally proved the “troubling trend” that was mentioned in the headline. There are some in the media that would spike this story just because Obama is in office, and it wouldn’t be considered “helpful” somehow. It has zero to do with Obama, but the mere association with his Presidency is a risk that can’t be taken, and it doesn’t fit the agenda.

    I think the story is compelling and worth reporting, despite your Bush Derangement Syndrome.

    1. davidcayjohnston June 4, 2014

      Columnist here… you missed my point, Tarajunky. Of course no president had any role in these experiments.

      My point was about readers who are primed to blame Obama, a point flagged at the top of the column and then documented down below. As the line after the one you cited states:

      **One of the first to comment on Attkisson’s investigative piece wrote: “Don’t forget that this is the Obama administration. The same people that burn aborted babies to generate electricity.”**

      I then go on to note that there are plenty of crazy replies posted at centrist and liberal websites, too, and suggest an antidote.

      Your “derangement” comment is also off base. I have written pieces showing the Bush administration behaved better in some ways than the Obama administration, the first of which ran just 9 days after Obama’s 2009 inauguration at cjr.org

      That said, given Heritage’s long track record and President DeMint’s public statements, I am sure that had these experiments been conducted during the Obama years the piece would have been edited to invoke the name of Obama again and again. If you doubt it go scrutinize the Signal website.

      1. i2grok June 4, 2014

        Mr. Johnston, I admire your response. You kept a level of civility that often is lacking in threads and blogs. You provide facts and citations which are sorely lacking in most responses in threads.
        Thank you

  3. LeeTexInAustin June 4, 2014

    You suggest in the article there are legitimate/good conservative journalism sources. Would you recommend your top 3 please? Thanks.

    1. davidcayjohnston June 5, 2014

      Columnist here….
      Well, that is the problem, a real lack of serious right wing news based on fact and reason.

      The WSJ opinion pages have seriously deteriorated under Paul Gigot, but remain important to read. Investors Business Daily is predictable and strident, but often makes good points. Ditto Barron’s, which last I checked had the highest average income readership in the country.

      I read everything from NatRev (see my column linked above on its serious shortcomings under Rich Lowry) to American Spectator and Blaze (both the political equivalent of the alien-spotting weekly tabloids).

      The American Conservative often has solid material. And while libertarian as opposed to conservative, much of what appears in Reason is quite reasoned and its editors respond to criticism of arguments that are based on skewing the data or not thinking a concept through (which everyone, including me, is guilty of at times).

      George Will is serious just enough of the time to be worth quick look at each column as the ones that are nonsense can be quickly identified.

      I am sure there are others that are just not coming off the mental hard drive at the moment. Suggestions from other readers are welcome.

      1. LeeTexInAustin June 5, 2014

        Really appreciate it. I followed (Twitter) some in the past, but found them to be so ideologically-driven that I didn’t have the patience/time to filter the occasional good reporting from the vitriol/garbage/etc.

  4. irishtap June 4, 2014

    First of all: It is patently absurd to suggest this organization has the slightest compassion for the poor. This cultist haven, is where plans were formed to bring about the demise of unions and to cultivate a narrative toward “attacking real jounalism”, with the catch phrase ‘liberal mainstream media’. Of course this delivered us FOX News, and Limbaugh’s hate radio, which helped turn back societal progress by twenty years.
    The only thing legitimate, regarding this ‘den of right-wing arrogance and myth building’ is the fact – they’re all zealously dedicated to creating a false reality to undermine the masses. These greed driven, recklessly inhumane and unpatriotic soldiers of hell, meet for sole purpose to conjure the best scheme for bringing us to servitude.

  5. Allan Richardson June 4, 2014

    The right wing media in this country are as “fair and balanced” as Pravda, Radio Moscow, Radio Berlin during the war, Radio Tokyo during the war, etc.

  6. holyreality June 4, 2014

    Thanks Mr Johnston,
    You bring up a great point, and even a way past. Unfortunately I see any conservative “news” entity today as a spout for GOP bubble reality.

    This phenomena begins with an “everybody knows” empirical thought, then following suppositions either support this concept, or condemn others for their “ignorance”.

    Of course Cheryl has a grudge against her producers, expecting her to offer real journalism is akin to asking a bear to use silverware when gorging themselves on salmon.

    That said, I eagerly await the Newsmax channel. Like a train wreck I just have to look to see how far overboard they can go.

  7. Justin Napolitano June 4, 2014

    Just what we need, another lying sack of shi$.

  8. howa4x June 4, 2014

    Why will anyone watch this when you have FOX non news to see. How much fabrication can the right dream up? How many half truths are there?

  9. ExRadioGuy15 June 5, 2014

    Here’s the problem with FRWNJ media: they’re not really “media”. What people need to understand is that the Republican Party started a Fascist “gaslighting” propaganda campaign in the Roaring Twenties to take advantage of the millions of new voters–women– that had just got the right to vote. The GOP made the calculation back then that the truth, facts, logic, reason and common sense don’t serve their Fascist purposes.
    Having done much research on Fascism, I can tell you that, without propaganda, a Fascist regime cannot survive. Propaganda is a recurring theme among the 14 defining characteristics of Fascism, as outlined by Laurence Britt in his Spring 2003 article in Free Inquiry magazine.
    The Fascist gaslighting propaganda campaign of the GOP has not ceased since its beginning. It slowed to a crawl during the 30’s and 40’s because, after the Wall Street Crash of ’29, millions of people, even GOP Progressives and Moderates, realized that the GOP platform was all about lying to them over and over again for the benefit of the wealthy and big corporations. Things have come full circle since then….
    Back then, those Progressive and Moderate Republicans were smart enough to realize that their party had pulled the wool over their eyes and acted accordingly. I call that effort the first Republican Progressive and Moderate Revolution. It lasted from 1930 to 1966.
    Unfortunately, the Fascist gaslighting propaganda campaign has been so successful since the GOP turned the intensity of it back up in the 1960’s that we need another Republican Progressive & Moderate Revolution. Today’s GOP Progressives and Moderates need to show the same intelligence and bravery their forebears did.

  10. Youz Guys June 5, 2014

    Standing against the injustice of plunder in no way implies that one regards advancement of the less fortunate as an unworthy cause.

  11. InChains April 10, 2016

    The Daily Signal is about as reliable as Conservapedia. This is a “news” site that claims “welfare wages [are] higher than working wages” for crying out loud.
    If ~$200 a month (the maximum amount of food stamps in most states, which is all the majority of recipients can qualify for) is higher than working wages, and most people work between 30 & 40 hours a week, I’d like to know when the minimum wage dropped to less than $2 an hour.


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