Are purveyors of fake news endangering the lives of real journalists?

Max Blumenthal of "Grayzone Project" broadcasts a pro-Maduro message from Caracas

By Mathew Foresta

Earlier this week Univision journalist Jorge Ramos and his crew were detained by Venezuelan authorities. According to Ramos this was a reaction to some uncomfortable questions he asked Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro during an interview. Ramos detailed his experience being detained and having his crew’s equipment and electronic devices seized in an Op-Ed for The New York Times.

It took little time for Maduro’s American supporters to initiate a smear campaign against the journalist.

At the vanguard of all this is Grayzone Project editor Max Blumenthal, a blogger with a history of ethically questionable behavior. The Daily Beast’s Charles Davis reported that Dania Valeska Aleman Sandoval was tortured for protesting the regime of Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega. Blumenthal’s Grayzone Project used video of her torture extracted confession to criticize those opposing Ortega’s regime. Additionally, he tweeted a picture of himself with a bag over his head to mock a report that Syrian civilians were desperately trying to make homemade gas masks. Journalist Sulome Anderson recently announced she was suing Blumenthal and Norton “for libel and defamation.”

Blumenthal was amongst a group of reporters questioning Ramos after his return to Miami.

“I just asked Jorge Ramos if Now that he’s back in Miami, he had any plans to confront Marco Rubio for calling for the killing of Nicolas Maduro. He boasted that Mike Pence supported what he did in Venezuela and refused to answer the question,” he tweeted. “Jorge Ramos to my question about Rubio’s call for the murder or Nicolás Maduro: “Marco Rubio and Mike Pence and many others were supporting what we were doing in Venezuela.”

If true, this would be pretty damning. Was Ramos admitting that he was acting as a proxy of the US regime change machine?

In fact, the video Blumenthal himself posted in the tweet contradicts this. When Blumenthal says “so you were acting on their behalf and you’re accepting their support” in reference to Pence and Rubio, Ramos interjects “absolutely not” and goes on to explain that he is an “independent journalist,” and will “ask all the politicians the tough questions.”

This necessary context didn’t make it into the text of Blumenthal’s tweet. A glaring omission, especially given the fact that said tweet now has thousands of likes and retweets.

The exchange between Blumenthal and Ramos was quickly picked up by Alexander Rubinstein of the controversial MintPress News, a website with a murky history.  Rubinstein makes sure to point out that Israeli-American Haim Saban is on Univision’s board of directors. This irrelevant, sly suggestion of undue influence without evidence is innuendo more befitting a YouTube comments section than a journalistic piece.

He goes on to write that, “Ramos openly admits in the New York Times that his colleague, María Martínez, called Univision News’ president, Daniel Coronel, who called the State Department and ‘many news organizations.’ Despite having backers like the U.S. State Department — which, in the event of the abuse of a journalist like Ramos, may presumably make a phone call to the CIA or Defense Department — Ramos tells us he was ‘concerned’ about being taken to ‘a detention center or an even darker place.’”

Here Rubinstein once again brings the CIA into the equation without proof of their involvement. He has no evidence that the State Department contacted the CIA and the use of weasel words like “may presumably” are meant to suggest something without taking responsibility.

Ramos is accurately quoted as having thanked the State Department for helping ensure his safety. This is not suspicious. The State Department and Pence have denounced the detention of journalists before. A good example of this is the case of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in Myanmar. It does not imply some kind of underhand relationship between the reporters and the United States Government.

“Miraculously, and conveniently for Ramos’ story, the footage that allegedly enraged Maduro survived,” Rubinstein wrote.

This is in reference to a tweet by journalist Kevin Rincon purporting to show the footage that Ramos played for Maduro during their interview. Rubinstein is inferring that this casts doubt on Ramos’ version of events. It does not. Ramos could have easily emailed the footage beforehand or saved it with cloud computing. The idea that the footage is still available is weak evidence that Ramos is lying. If Rubinstein wishes to call a distinguished reporter a liar the onus is on him to prove it.

When Rubinstein directly references Blumenthal’s exchange with Ramos he wrongly accuses Ramos of “mischaracterizing himself as an ‘independent journalist.’”

Ramos was clearly referencing the fact that he is not acting on behalf of a state or politicians, not that he is independent of any journalism outfit. This is not a mischaracterization and is another distortion from Rubinstein.

Ramos’ credentials as a probing journalist are readily apparent. He has asked former CIA director John Brennan tough questions on drones and also grilled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Hardly the actions of some dupe of the CIA. But accuracy and fairness are not something that Rubinstein is after.

Rubinstein deliberately invokes the CIA’s past involvement with journalists to suggest that Ramos must be similarly implicated. The fact that some worked for the agency is no secret. It was exposed by Carl Bernstein in a 1977 Rolling Stone article. This is another shady attempt at suggestion that has no relationship to the facts of Ramos’ situation.

Still Rubinstein writes, “While Ramos’ true relationship with empire remains unclear, his admission continues a legacy of the U.S. government working ‘reporters’ as useful stooges…”

This type of thinking is reminiscent of the Pizzagate lunacy the right-wing engaged in some time ago. The scare quotes around “reporters” is an attempt to delegitimize Ramos. What is clear is that there is not one iota of proof that Ramos’ is of compromised integrity.

Rubinstein writes, “Blumenthal told MintPress News that Ramos owned up to not being ‘such an independent journalist after all’ and, in fact, ‘actually a proxy of the U.S. regime-change machine,’ in Blumenthal’s estimation.”

This is not Blumenthal’s only audacious quote. He is also quoted as saying of Ramos, “He was clearly proud of acting as a proxy of Rubio and Pence, but sought to flash his adversarial creds by invoking his stunt with Trump.”

This entire piece, including Blumenthal’s quotes, is nothing short of the most reprehensible propaganda.

In writing this piece I’m sure that I will be called a lackey, proxy, stooge or any number of other baseless slurs. For the record: I oppose any U.S. meddling aimed at regime change in Venezuela. I am very aware of the shameful history of U.S. interventions in Latin America. One need look no further than Chile, El Salvador, or The Dominican Republic to see how they have devastated the region and its people. I see a U.S. intervention in Venezuela as self-interested, Machiavellian, and harmful. I believe it would bring more death and suffering to an already beleaguered country. This should not, must not lead us to excuse Maduro’s authoritarian regime.

Journalist Mehdi R. Hasan put it well.

“Anyone on the left who reads this piece by @jorgeramosnews and still thinks Maduro is democratic or all the criticisms of him are just ‘imperialist’ lies or smears needs their head examined. I interview political leaders for a living and what happened here is just outrageous,”

He added:

“Sadly, I now have to add this disclaimer to the above tweet for all the thickos and smear merchants on Twitter: me being critical of Maduro does *not* mean I support US intervention in Venezuela or regime change polices etc. You can be critical without supporting Bolton and co.”

Blumenthal and Rubinstein have destroyed their own credibility and severely damaged that of their outlets. Their wild claims are more befitting a bottom feeder like Alex Jones than reliable reporters.

This attack on Ramos is not just idiotic, it’s downright dangerous. Such distortions can make reporting from war zones more difficult. Blumenthal and Rubinstein’s outrageous conduct cannot be written off as mere conspiracy mongering or trolling.

A retraction is not enough. Dangerous lies and fake news cannot be allowed to run amok. The likely reason people feel entitled to spread this kind of trash is they know they will probably face no consequences. This has to change.

At base what journalists are after is the truth, presented accurately, fairly, and in context. To allow lies and smears to flourish would be a betrayal of this mission. Blumenthal and Rubinstein have smeared a good journalist in the most disgraceful way. It’s time for the rest of us to push back.

  • Mathew Foresta is a journalist and photographer who has written for VICE, The Ventura County Reporter, and San Diego CityBeat amongst others. His photos have appeared in OC Weekly and he was formerly the opinion editor of his community college newspaper The Mountaineer.

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