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In this week’s newsletter, another way the news business and AI are integrating, an email chat with ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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March 12, 2023


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we break the news behind the news.

There’s so much in the Fox News disclosures that makes you want to take a shower, but the word that sticks with me is “respect.” Throughout the emails and texts disclosed in the voting machine company Dominion’s lawsuit, network president Suzanne Scott, host Sean Hannity and others talk about the need to “respect” their audience by telling them what they want to hear, even when it’s false. Many in media feel the pressure to pander. Few justify it to themselves quite that smarmily.

But I find it hard to gloat about the Dominion case, which has revealed more or less what any viewer of the politicized coverage and lunatic reaction to the 2020 election would expect. The eminent media lawyer Stuart Karle, who is an adviser to Semafor, told me he’s worried that if Dominion wins, “the real losers might be media other than Fox.” He writes that “a huge judgment against Fox would be catnip for claimants upset with coverage and newly incentivized lawyers hoping for contingency fees in suddenly lucrative libel cases to file claims against other media as well.”

In the worst case, Karle told me, “what Fox News can afford to pay, others simply cannot. Difficult stories wouldn’t be defended, if they are published at all.”

Also today: Reed Albergotti and I have the scoop on how the new Bing chat has been leaning on NewsGuard to deliver something approximating … the truth.

ALSO: Liz Cheney’s got a new book, Chris Licht has a new friend, and Max Tani has struck up an unlikely penpalship with one Rupert Murdoch.

Reed Albergotti has been tearing it up on the AI beat, and it was a joy to share a byline with him today. You can sign up for the AI-centric Semafor Tech to read him and Louise Matsakis twice a week here.

Box Score

Hollywood: As the Oscars kick off, Everything Everywhere All at Once has secured A24’s dominance in the independent film business. — Bloomberg

Silicon Valley: How a bank run happens in a hyper-connected tech industry: “Slack and WhatsApp groups lit up…” — WSJ

Austin: Generative AI is the subject packing conference rooms at the South by Southwest media and marketing fest in Austin. I interviewed BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, who debuted a chat bot called Under the Influencer. (I played, and was told: “You got cancelled. Enjoy moving into your apartment with 7 roommates.”

Ben Smith

Can journalists teach AI to tell the truth?

Nikolas Kokovlis/NurPhoto via Getty Images


Early last month, the former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, Gordon Crovitz, was quoted on the front page of the New York Times calling ChatGPT “the most powerful tool for spreading misinformation that has ever been on the internet.”

Later that day, perhaps by confidence, Crovitz got off the waitlist for the new Bing, which is powered by the same AI software as ChatGPT, He put in a query primed for mischief and propaganda: “NATO soldiers fighting in Ukraine.”

To his surprise, what came back was a nuanced analysis. The question was “a controversial and disputed one,” with the BBC saying there aren’t NATO troops in the country, while a site called “Euro News Weekly” claimed there are.

What blew Crovitz’s mind was the next paragraph. It relied on research by the company he co-founded in 2018, NewsGuard, which employs about 45 journalists to rate 30,000 news sources according to nine criteria reflecting journalistic standards like correcting errors and separating news from opinion.

“Newsguard, a tool that shows trust ratings for news and information websites, has rated the BBC as a trustworthy source,” Bing said, noting that the alternative view came from what Newsguard had labeled. “unreliable sources.”

“When we started NewsGuard our vision was that the work we do separating legitimate journalism from the opposite would somehow be scaled globally,” Crovitz’s partner Steven Brill told Semafor in an email. “The prospect that through Microsoft hundreds of millions may be given the information they need to decide for themselves what to trust, and that other search bots we are talking to may soon do the same, is really heartening. Who knows? Maybe journalism and human intelligence are not dead yet.”


When they founded the company, Brill and Crovitz planned to sell NewsGuard’s ratings to social platforms, but Facebook — hesitant about the political consequences of calling balls and strikes, and at the metaphysical question of being the “arbiter of truth” — never bit. NewsGuard’s talks with Twitter ended when Elon Musk took over, Brill said. Their business, meanwhile, has migrated in other directions. Their biggest revenue line, Brill said, comes from marketers looking to make sure advertisements appear on legitimate, “brand safe” websites.

One tech company did buy a license to NewsGuard’s work: Microsoft.  NewsGuard’s executives say Microsoft hasn’t told them exactly how the new Bing is using their work, but a spokesman for Microsoft said NewsGuard is used as one “important signal” used by Bing to help surface more reliable results.

Behind the Bing Chat curtain is “Prometheus,” the name Microsoft has given to its version of OpenAI’s AI model known as GPT.

And Prometheus itself factors in data from Bing search — not to be confused with Bing Chat — results. “We use Bing results to ground the model in Prometheus, and hence the Bing Chat mode inherits the NewsGuard data as part of the grounding technique.”


NewsGuard’s literal-minded approach to its work, and to the work of journalists, lacks the ambition and sex appeal of sweeping claims about misinformation. It won’t tell you whether Fox News’s website, for instance, is good or bad for the world. It’ll just tell you that it’s “​​credible with exceptions” and earned a rating of 69.5 out of 100. (MSNBC’s website gets a 57, and is tagged “unreliable,” for sins including, in NewsGuard’s view, failing to differentiate between news and opinion.)

NewsGuard also lacks the futuristic vision of the idea that AI or other algorithms could detect or research truth for you.

But it matches the reality of the news business, a deeply human venture that is more closely rooted in facts and details than in sweeping claims about the nature of truth. The company’s nutritional labels are not going to stop the spread of noxious political ideas, or reverse the course of a populist historical period — but the notion that the news media could ever do those things was overstated.

And the transparent, clear Bing results on the NATO troops example represent a true balance between transparency and authority, a kind of truce between the demand that platforms serve as gatekeepers and block unreliable sources, and that they exercise no judgment at all.

When we did the same search with Google, incidentally, the results were distinctly unintelligent: A “snippet” from a NATO press release appeared at the top of the page, with the words “Over 40,000 troops, along with significant air and naval assets, are now under direct NATO command in the eastern part of the Alliance.” Only a very careful reader would realize that this wasn’t an affirmative answer to the question.


Not everyone thinks humans need to be involved in the search for reliable journalism. An engineer involved in researching safety at OpenAI, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and said he wasn’t directly familiar with Bing’s use of the technology, said he saw the manual NewsGuard rankings as a useful stepping stone toward the dream of AI systems that can determine reliability better than any manual process. But while Newsguard employs humans to do manual checks on news sources, the OpenAI researcher envisions AI algorithms with the ability to check actual facts in real time, using signals like Newsguard as a guide.

“That actually might be easier with AI systems rather than humans. It can run much faster,” he said.

He said OpenAI is already beginning to think about teaching the AI to better discern accurate information on the internet. The current models were “trained” by humans who rated the algorithm’s responses on how convincing and accurate they sounded. But unless the trainer had the knowledge necessary to determine the answer’s accuracy, the response might have also been wrong. In future rounds of training, OpenAI is considering giving trainers tools to more reliably check the accuracy of responses.

The idea is not to teach the AI the right answer to every question — an impossible feat. The goal would be to teach it to identify patterns in the petabytes of internet content that are associated with accuracy and inaccuracy.


Newsguard’s focus on transparency and professional standards, rather than movements and ideologies, has kept it out of much of the polarized debate over misinformation, in which Twitter made high-profile mistakes in banning true or debatable claims by right-wing voices.

But some outlets to which the company has given low ratings have cast NewsGuard as the tip of a conspiratorial spear. The conservative non-profit PragerU launched a petition describing the company as “the political elite’s tool for censorship” after receiving a rating of 57, which carries the admonition “proceed with caution.”

In an email exchange PragerU posted, much of the debate focused on the fact that PragerU doesn’t respond to errors in a way that meets NewsGuard’s standards.

“We don’t issue corrections, as we are not a news site. In the rare event we get something wrong, we will remove it,” an explanation that did not appear to impress NewsGuard.

The right has already criticized ChatGPT for allegedly “woke” responses. What really seems to irk conservatives, though, is when the algorithms seem to synthesize internet data and come to a final conclusion. For instance, it has said “it is generally better to be for affirmative action.” Why this happens isn’t fully understood, even by AI researchers. If newer and more powerful models can detect when there are multiple prevailing views on a subject and present both of them, citing source material, it may quell the criticism.


  • When NewsGuard launched in 2019, “Mr. Brill and Mr. Crovitz anticipate that some kind of ratings service will eventually be adopted across the web,” Ed Lee wrote in the New York Times.
  • The linguist Noam Chomsky doesn’t think ChatGPT can fulfill the promises made by some of its promoters. With brute statistical force replacing the elegance of human cognition, “the predictions of machine learning systems will always be superficial and dubious.”
  • And ChatGPT-style tech is emerging in another environment where it’s important to get things right: Cars.
A Few Good Emails

Journalists covering the Dominion lawsuit noticed that lawyers forgot to redact a nondescript email address associated with one company employee: Rupert Murdoch.

The 92-year-old billionaire chairman of Fox doesn’t talk much to the press. But he emerged in the documents as a frequent, informal emailer. So I fired off a casual inquiry about Succession, which I have been rewatching in the leadup to the new season.



Liz Cheney is working on a new book as she continues to mull a potential 2024 presidential run. Two sources with knowledge of Cheney’s plans told Semafor that the former congresswoman, who is represented by longtime literary power agent Bob Barnett, recently sold a book to Little, Brown.

One of Puck News’s favorite subjects, CNN President Chris Licht, was a surprise guest at Puck’s party in Washington Wednesday, where guests were treated to a semi-public debate between the executive and his Boswell, Puck’s Dylan Byers. The two had it out in a tense but respectful exchange, we’re told, in which the president aired his grievances, including the sheer number of posts Byers has dedicated to the network head (dozens over the last year, by Licht’s count, but who’s counting?). Another person at the party said that Byers, for his part, repeatedly pressed Licht on why he had “not done more to signal a reversal of fortunes for the network.”


I talked to my old colleague Alex Kantrowitz about this weird moment for news on the internet and about what we’re doing at Semafor for his excellent Big Technology podcast. You can listen and subscribe on Apple & Spotify.

Correction: In writing about how offensive early Politico was to the Washington Establishment, I misspelled the late Katharine Graham’s first name; typical barbarian behavior.


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— Ben