What is one to make of a scenario whereby a journalist on the “fake news” beat of a highly-capitalized upstart media empire posts material which is not only factually-challenged but actually proposes the family of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King have been motivated by selfish money interests and are easily led? Well, anyone who is unfortunate to encounter the VICE News article “A History of the King Family’s Attempt to Clear the Name of James Earl Ray”, from January 2016, can read it for themselves and discover what to make of it on their own.1 This review will offer a contextual response.
VICE News is a subsection of VICE Media, which in turn was an outgrowth of VICE Magazine. VICE Magazine built a cachet in the 2000s as it was distributed free of charge and available in various bars, eateries, video stores, record stores, and the like which catered to a younger hipper clientele. The magazine was glossy, slick, full-color, and relatively substantial, with most editions averaging about 100 pages. Most notably, VICE’s content specialized in an edgy cynical amorality, veering at times into exploitation, which was somehow appealing and seemingly appropriate during the dark days of the W. Bush administration.
From modest beginnings in the 1990s, VICE Media has since become a global presence with thousands of employees, a virtual network with numerous online platforms and streaming entities largely focused on its cultivated younger demographic. VICE News was launched in 2014 as a multi-platform news and information service, partnered with HBO and enjoying a wide international presence both in content and reach. However, despite claims that VICE’s news department would apply critical scrutiny to the state of the world, at a “certain level of seriousness”,2 VICE News has received criticism for biased coverage by its reporters in Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, and other geopolitical hotspots,3 and also has been criticized for adopting tabloid-style simplifications of complex subjects, relying on “exaggerated characters that create an extreme view of reality.”4
A brief examination of a recent VICE News story may help identify some of the worst tendencies of this brand’s take on journalism, and also help put the article of concern in due context. A May 4, 2018 posting was titled “Trump Just Pulled Funding for Syria’s ‘White Helmets’ Rescue Group”.5 In reporting an unexpected cut in funding shortly after the White Helmets participated directly in the aftermath of a disputed “gas attack” in Syria’s Douma region, the author lists a number of familiar talking points concerning the integrity of the controversial organization, leading him to state: “Though their work has largely gained them international recognition as brave rescue workers, they’ve come under attack from a propaganda campaign pushed by Russian state media to discredit their work.”
This assertion of a Russian state media propaganda campaign gets sourced to a December 2017 opinion article from The Guardian: “How Syria’s White Helmets Became Victims of an Online Propaganda Campaign”, written by Olivia Solon.6 Solon claims that negative publicity attached to the White Helmets is simply a collection of “half-truths” and “conspiracy theories” propagated by Russian state media and repeated uncritically by a motley group of anti-imperialists, alt-right bloggers, and malicious “Twitter bots”. Evidence of the alleged “Russian influence campaign” amounts to a review of clusters and patterns of online activity, which appears to resemble the clusters and patterns of effectively all online activity featuring breaking news and analysis. In effect, Solon herself spins a conspiracy theory, which is repeated uncritically by the VICE News writer.
More accurately, the single article which did the most to establish awareness of the controversial aspects of the White Helmets appeared on the Alternet site in October 2016, written by Max Blumenthal.7 Blumenthal, in the guise of an actual journalist, traced the funding streams, identified the myriad organizations which directly connect to the group, and made the case that, rather than simply a neutral volunteer rescue agency, the White Helmets have a second primary task producing audio-visual evidence of presumed Syrian government atrocities, which integrates seamlessly into a larger coordinated apparatus used to shape public opinion towards a regime-change policy in Syria. The White Helmets, therefore, could be accurately described as a propaganda operation. Blumenthal noted the group operated exclusively in “rebel” zones, including areas held by UN-designated terrorist groups out-of-bounds to other NGO personnel and journalists. Blumenthal’s article was widely shared at the time and the information he presented has not been disputed. Therefore, the focus on an alleged “Russian” propaganda effort can be seen as a dubious misdirection. The VICE News author disagrees, referring to his own attempt to investigate: “The first three results for a ‘White Helmets’ search on YouTube are videos posted by RT, Russia’s state news agency.” Case closed.
Examining this brief VICE News article, the following pattern or tendency is suggested: the journalist appears unaware of the history and context of his subject; in place of history or context, the journalist echoes an objectively biased mainstream or establishment source; the journalist is lazy and content with one side or position to a story; in the face of controversy, the journalist will employ the term “conspiracy theorist”; the journalist will refer to results from unsophisticated Google searches or cite unscientific statistical data of his own making.
Unsurprisingly, these tendencies are also on display in the 2016 article on the King family and the civil trial. The author is Mike Pearl, whose byline is lately associated with a VICE News subject header called Can’t Handle The Truth, which often is concerned with debunking the distribution and dissemination of false information (aka “fake news”). Many of his numerous stories are innocuous renderings of current trending information, presented in the irreverent VICE style, with often snappy enticing headlines. Chronologically, the King article appeared a few days after Pearl posted his “The Ted Cruz Birther Question Just Became a Central Issue in the 2016 Campaign”, and the day before Pearl posted “Has This Microbiologist Found the Answer to Antibiotic Resistance?”. The story presumes a “stranger than fiction” approach with the tag “Martin Luther King’s son and convicted killer were on friendly terms.”
That the author probably doesn’t know much at all about this particular story is revealed in the second sentence of the article: “(Ray) was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport of all places …” (emphasis added). While yes, that might seem unlikely, other details of Ray’s flight are even more so, particularly the mystery of how he found the resources for his international travel and how he managed to secure the false identity he was travelling with. The author does not seem aware of either of those two pertinent issues, which factor directly in an appraisal of Ray’s position and therefore directly to the “surprising” fact the King family “briefly devoted their lives to his cause.” According to the public statements of the King family, they devoted that time in hopes of establishing a true record of the death of their husband and father (and part of that effort might, yes, “clear the name” of the designated assassin). The author assumes a more limited view—that the family “allied themselves with the legal team hell bent on freeing Ray” and were “utterly sold on the most daring claim made by any of the King conspiracy theorists: not just that Ray hadn’t acted alone, but that he wasn’t even involved.” That this “daring claim” was articulated by close associates of King in the 1970s, and was a focus of the work by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in those same years, seems to be something the author is not aware of.
This is not surprising, as can be quickly discerned by examining the author’s sources, which appear as links dispersed across the body of the story. The first link, apparently the source of the initial paragraphs, arrives at a BBC News “On This Day” story which reprints coverage from Ray’s conviction on March 10, 19698. An “In Context” sidebar attached to the story notes that “federal authorities insisted there was no evidence of a cover-up” (which is technically true, although information from the FBI and Memphis police compiled by others seems to provide exactly such evidence), that Ray had “a fanatical hatred of black people” (strongly denied by those who knew him), and that forensic tests in 1997 on the rifle “proved inconclusive” (not exactly correct, as the testing was in fact curtailed to prevent any conclusions). So, here too is the BBC contributing its own half-truth fake news on this controversial topic.9
The author then turns his attention to the aforementioned “hell bent legal team”, namely attorney William Pepper, with one of the most egregious slurs since Vincent Bugliosi: “Pepper, who has in recent years devoted himself to the 9/11/ truther movement …” Most anyone aware of Pepper knows that recent years had seen him finish the third of his books on the King case, represent Sirhan Sirhan in a series of extensive court challenges, and research a proposed book on political assassinations through history. Not aware of this, the author instead consults a YouTube search of his own, which discovered a talk by Pepper from 2006 as the keynote speaker at a conference titled “9-11: Revealing The Truth, Reclaiming Our Future,” where he discussed his direct experience with a government cover-up and conspiracy in the King case.10 To claim that someone is “devoted” means to “give all or most of one’s time or resources”, a standard to which a single keynote address does not apply. The author apparently does not have a dictionary, or is simply careless with language, a poor trait for a journalist. William Pepper’s own website might have served as a better indicator of what he was up to, but perhaps the YouTube searches are what VICE’s editors believe their young demographic want. Still, even on YouTube, there are many more relevant examples of Pepper’s work.11
This is followed by the author presuming motive in a scenario he seems to know little about, influenced presumably by an opinionated news story which appeared in the Washington Post in January 1995 concerning the then current dispute between the King family and representatives of the local Park Service over the future of the King Historic District in Atlanta.12 Written by veteran Post reporter Ken Ringle, the piece takes every opportunity to question the judgment and ability of the King family while portraying their opponents as model citizens with the best intentions. The information in the article presents the viewpoints from only one side in the dispute, which should raise red flags to a trained journalist considering using it as a source. Instead, the author accepts the article’s portrayal of King family members at face value and then proceeds to sketch out his own conspiracy theory postulating that Dexter King had become focused on “ways to derive revenue from the work and likeness of his father,” and this may have motivated his interest in Pepper’s work. The author appears unaware that Pepper was friends with Martin Luther King in 1967-68, that Pepper worked directly with King on a possible third-party political campaign in late 1967, that Pepper’s work as a journalist in Vietnam in 1966 had directly influenced King’s policy of opposition to the Vietnam War, and, again, Pepper’s own interest in the conspiracy aspects of King’s death were generated by close associates of the King family in the 1970s.13
The author proceeds with a brief summary of the 1999 civil trial in which he complains that some information presented to the court “flies wildly in the face of accepted wisdom”, wisdom which he associates with the opinions of author Hampton Sides.14 The author makes light of the civil trial verdict, and stresses the Justice Department conducted its own probe which found “no conspiracy at all”, allowing him to cue the applause line: “unsurprisingly, (this) doesn’t impress conspiracy theorists much.” The Justice Department refused to test the “weight of all relevant information” in an adversarial courtroom at the King civil trial, which belies the confidence expressed by its report.
This is simply a terrible article, although it is not apparent that the author holds specific animosity towards the King family or William Pepper, and might instead be reflecting a personal attitude towards “conspiracy theorists” assisted by his limited grasp of the historical record. More recently, Pearl wrote about the mandated JFK document release acknowledging there is “still quite a lot of unexamined and important history there,” even as he insists there is “zero proof” Oswald was in fact a patsy.15 Nevertheless, he maintains—in a VICE kind of way—the newly released information provides a “good example of deep-state shit the public has an interest in knowing.” Which is true, but the VICE News quasi-journalist crew are not really going to be the best sources to consult.
If there are conclusions to be reached, I would suggest they rest less with the inadequacies of the author’s journalistic practice, and more with the core function of VICE News itself. It is part of a capitalized company whose core business is to exploit the value of its consumers: a lucrative hard-to-get young demographic. VICE Media is worth an estimated $6 billion based largely on the appeal of its “brand”. It has received capitalization from Hearst, Murdoch, A&E Network, and recently $400 million from Disney and $450 million from private equity firm TPG Capital. VICE (despite its origins in Montreal) is a version of a classic American business story: the upstart winner which, when examined up close, is much less than the sum of its marketing strategies. If the journalism does not meet professional standards, it is because journalism is not the actual product VICE News is peddling.
6 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/18/syria-white-helmets-conspiracy-theories. The Guardian has an established partnership with VICE Media.
9 According to The Guardian’s Olivia Solon, two half-truths and an incorrect assertion is certain proof of a Russian disinformation campaign.
10 https://youtu.be/bXgPnaQKcyw?t=2703. The term “9/11 Truther” is just the latest in a long series of “conspiracy theorist” smears, often employed as a form of ridicule. That the 9/11 events were subject to a massive cover-up and that strong evidence of what might constitute a high level conspiracy—including the failure of America’s air defense systems and the CIA’s deliberate withholding of information ahead of the attacks—has been hiding in plain sight since that day.
11 Another poor trait for a journalist is bad reading comprehension, which the author displays as he misattributes the name of Ray’s handler Raoul to the civilian shooter in back of Jim’s Grill as he summarizes Pepper’s book Orders To Kill.
14 Hampton Sides is described as an “enemy of conspiracy theorists everywhere,” and the author links to a Newsweek article by Sides which serves as a source for many of the James Earl Ray references in his VICE News article. Sides’ 2010 book Hellhound On His Trail is reviewed here.