- Screenshot / Palmer Report
Last Wednesday, Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts appeared on CNN and made a seemingly startling claim.
“Subpoenas have now been issued in northern Virginia with regard to Flynn and Gen. Flynn’s associates,” Markey said, referring to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. “A grand jury has been impaneled up in New York.”
One of those things was mostly true. CNN reported Tuesday that federal prosecutors out of the US attorney’s office in Alexandria, Virginia, had issued subpoenas to associates of Flynn as part of the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But his assertion about a grand jury being impaneled in New York puzzled one reporter who was watching.
Matt Ford, a criminal-justice reporter for The Atlantic, tweeted, with a link to the CNN clip: “Markey’s claim at ~1:45ish is the first I’ve heard of a grand jury being impaneled in New York.”
Slip of the tongue? Wrong US attorney’s office?
Not quite. Amid the confusion, a Markey aide pointed to the website the Palmer Report as one of Markey’s sources for the grand-jury claim.
Bill Palmer, the founder of the site, posted a triumphant story later that day, blaring that Markey had “confirmed” his reporting.
“For weeks, Palmer Report has been bringing you the story of multiple federal grand juries already underway in eastern Virginia in Donald Trump’s Russia scandal, a fact which was finally acknowledged by CNN last night,” Palmer wrote. “We’ve also been bringing you the story of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s own case against Trump – and now a US senator has confirmed that a grand jury is also underway in that New York case.”
But there is no grand jury, as far as anyone has conclusively established or publicly confirmed.
Markey’s spokeswoman, Giselle Barry, quickly walked back the senator’s comments when contacted by Business Insider.
“This morning, Senator Markey erroneously reported that a grand jury has been impaneled in New York related to the wider inquiry of possible Trump campaign and administration ties to Russia,” Barry said. “Senator Markey does not have direct intelligence that is the case, and the information he was provided during a briefing is not substantiated. … Senator Markey apologizes for the confusion.”
- Mario Tama/Getty Images
For years under President Barack Obama, far-right news sites came under the microscope for pushing misleading, slanted, and often factually inaccurate information. Their popularity and often unchecked spread on social media helped lead to the rise of figures like President Donald Trump. The pervasiveness of so-called fake news was a major reckoning point for Facebook and other outlets and companies after the 2016 election.
Now, Trump’s election has made clear the left has a credulity problem of its own.
In the past week or so, for instance, the fact-checking website Snopes has had to address false or misleading viral reports that former FBI Director James Comey tweeted about a salacious claim involving Trump after he was fired; that Trump said Americans had “no right” to protest him; and that the late-show host Stephen Colbert was fired after a phone call from Trump.
“People want it to be true because people hate Trump,” said Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor of Snopes. “But how does that make anybody any better than people who hated Obama and would seize on anything to discredit him?”
Last weekend, two Trump critics – Louise Mensch, a former member of the British Parliament, and Claude Taylor, a former Clinton White House official – cited anonymous sources in claiming there was a “sealed indictment” against Trump. (Taylor is listed as a writer for the Palmer Report.) Their report gained traction on Twitter, where it was seized on by fellow critics of the president and mocked by many legal experts who questioned its comprehension of the Constitution.
As it often is, the pair’s reporting was picked up by the Palmer Report, a left-leaning website that has been gaining influence online as prominent figures in politics and media share and cite its stories and information.
The “about” page of the Palmer Report thanks numerous people for sharing its articles, including several MSNBC figures; Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe; two former governors; Rep. Ted Lieu of California; and celebrities like Patricia Arquette, Mark Ruffalo, and Debra Messing.
The site has also caught the attention of former Obama administration officials.
Ned Price, who was a spokesman for the National Security Council and had worked for the CIA, recently shared a Palmer Report article on Twitter, to which Eric Schultz, who was a senior adviser to Obama, replied, “Too bad nobody flagged this earlier.”
When journalists – including Business Insider Executive Editor Brett LoGiurato – asked Price about sharing the Palmer Report story, Price said that “every once in a blue moon, the tin hat can fit.”
Price’s response speaks to what has helped the Palmer Report and others like it take off. With at times dubious or incomplete sourcing, these Trump critics’ reporting is wish-fulfillment for people appalled by Trump’s shock victory in November, convinced he is an illegitimate president, and hopeful that he might one day be impeached.
Media observers have cast doubt on the Palmer Report’s credibility. Its founder is a mysterious figure who is behind several shuttered publications and has made enemies online as he threatens and intimidates those who question his reporting.
He declined to comment for this story.
‘There’s nothing controversial about my reporting’
- Twitter / Palmer Report
Skeptics of the Palmer Report, along with people unfamiliar with Palmer or his work, have questioned his reporting methods, saying his stories are often thinly sourced.
On his site, Palmer has defended himself, explained his commitment to accuracy, and touted high-profile mentions of his work.
“Anyone unfamiliar with my work shouldn’t just take my word, or anyone else’s word, on its validity,” he wrote last year. “My articles include supporting source links which allow readers to easily verify the facts in question, meaning there’s nothing controversial about my reporting.”
But Palmer has taken a more aggressive approach on social media, lashing out on Facebook and Twitter at people who have questioned him, threatening and insulting them in both public comments and private messages. (Palmer also published a story attacking me as I was reporting this story.)
In one recent case, Scott Dworkin, the cofounder of the Democratic Coalition Against Trump, tweeted, “Hill Sources: White House contacted multiple GOP Senators TODAY asking them to cancel Yates hearing.” He was referring to former acting Attorney General Sally Yates’ planned testimony before a Senate subcommittee last week, where she testified that she had warned the White House that Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
Dworkin didn’t say whether the sources gave him this information directly or how they were in a position to know. The claims were not corroborated by other mainstream outlets.
But his tweet was retweeted nearly 13,000 times, and it ended up being the basis of a Palmer Report story with an authoritative-sounding headline: “Donald Trump privately asked GOP senators at last minute to cancel today’s Sally Yates testimony.”
Palmer cited Dworkin in the second paragraph of his story, saying “his sources on Capitol Hill told him” that the White House was trying to persuade Senate Republicans to cancel the hearing. The story cited no other sources and added no information.
The Palmer Report story was shared thousands of times on social media. People then started questioning where Palmer and Dworkin got their information.
Jeffrey Guterman, a mental-health counselor and author who has more than 225,000 Twitter followers, tweeted in response to the Palmer Report: “You refer to [Dworkin’s] tweet citing ‘Hill Sources’ as seeming confirmation for this potential bombshell story. We need better confirmation.”
Guterman then tweeted a screenshot of a Twitter direct message from Palmer.
“Hi Jeffrey, I’m not sure what your beef is, but you’re making yourself look really bad by inventing absurdly invalid reasons to cast imaginary doubt on our reporting,” the message read. “You might want to quit while you’re behind.”
— Jeffrey Guterman (@JeffreyGuterman) May 9, 2017
Palmer’s ire isn’t reserved only for those in politics and media who question his reporting. In December, his target was a knitting blogger.
He headlined a post “Palmer Report inaccurately attacked by random woman on her knitting blog.”
Jennifer Russell, who writes a craft blog under the banner Jen’s a Little Loopy, published a post early in December titled “Palmer Report is not a credible source of information.”
“I’ve been fighting back against fake and clickbait news sites on social media this entire election cycle,” Russell wrote. “They are a scourge and played a large role in my having to utter the words ‘President Trump.'”
Russell told Business Insider that she became aware of the Palmer Report through a Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation, which supported Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee. Russell said she saw Palmer Report articles being shared, tried vetting them, and found that they “didn’t check out” and were often based on hearsay and rumors.
Before she published the blog post, she emailed Palmer to ask him some questions about his journalistic background. Their correspondence was friendly. Palmer thanked Russell for contacting him directly “rather than merely working off assumptions.”
Palmer told her he was a math major in college and worked as a schoolteacher before getting into journalism.
“None of this paints me as having a background in political journalism, of course,” Palmer wrote.
He then pointed to the influential people and politicians who have shared his articles.
“I’m sure they each did their proper vetting of my articles before posting them,” Palmer wrote.
Russell went ahead with the blog post. She noted the lack of information about Palmer’s background online and pointed to a November story from his site that claimed that three precincts in Wisconsin revised their vote totals after they were “caught padding Donald Trump’s numbers.”
(Though it didn’t refer to the Palmer Report stories, Snopes clarified that no county in Wisconsin admitted to fraud and that an irregularity in one county’s numbers “appears to have been human error in tallying the unofficial results, an issue that was corrected with the official count.”)
After Russell published her post, Palmer wrote one belittling her.
He started by mentioning the “widespread praise” the Palmer Report had received “for its timely and detailed coverage of shifting vote totals and recount efforts across various states” and again noted the prominent people who had shared its articles.
“In this age of tabloid political reporting by so many major news outlets, serious people are hungry for serious political journalism,” Palmer wrote. “And yet now we’re suddenly facing supposed controversy because of some random individual on a knitting blog.”
Russell said she was “taken aback by how nasty the comments were” online after she published her post. In one tweet about Russell’s blog, Palmer called her a “bottom feeding lying sociopath.” In earlier tweets in the thread, he called a person who shared her post a “lying jacka–” and told him to “shut the hell up.”
Russell said she had seen screenshots from other people who had interacted with Palmer that she believed were threatening.
In one screenshot provided to Business Insider, someone on Facebook commented they were friends with Russell on the platform, to which Palmer responded: “I’m jealous. That means you know her last name and I don’t ;).”
‘A total cipher’
- Bill Palmer / Google +
Online commenters and bloggers – as well as more than half a dozen sources who spoke to Business Insider for this story – have portrayed Palmer as a mysterious figure whose full history is unknown.
“What characterizes him most of all is that there isn’t really anything at all we can find about him,” Binkowski said. “He’s a total cipher.”
Palmer declined to be interviewed, but he has a digital trail that stretches back several years. After working at a school in Florida, he appears to have launched nearly a dozen music- and technology-related websites before switching to political blogging.
Palmer’s personal website and the subsequent sites seem to be the earliest instances of his blogging.
On MacUsingEducators.com, Palmer hinted at his desire for purpose after leaving his job at an elementary school.
On his personal website, BillPalmer.net, Palmer wrote of his transition to journalism: “Why do this? Why start this website? I’m not an educator anymore, so why should I care? Because my five years of building an elementary school technology program represent the most important thing I’ve ever done, in terms of human impact, that’s why.
“And while my days of trying to run a school tech program full-time are behind me, I’m not done yet when it comes to thinking that I have something to contribute to educational technology. In fact, in one sense, I think I’m just getting started.”
From there, Palmer launched a tech-focused magazine called iProng. While running iProng, Palmer moved to Los Angeles and started hanging out with a group of podcasters.
People who knew him during this period of his career described him as kind, extremely hardworking, and focused.
“It was a very rag-tag early group of people in podcasting,” said one podcaster who knew Palmer in 2007, when he was in Los Angeles, and wished to remain anonymous. “It was LA. It was all sorts of creative types.”
Dan Klass, a podcaster who knew Palmer around the time, also characterized him as hardworking and passionate.
Klass said Palmer published his online magazine once a month “for a very long time.”
“It had to have been a tremendous number of man hours,” he said.
Palmer often wrote about the long hours he was working to prepare for the tech trade show – the relentless work ethic that readers of the Palmer Report now marvel at. And even in his early days of blogging, Palmer disregarded the mainstream media and espoused the merits of being an independent journalist.
“You think about the fact that your counterparts at the mainstream publications don’t have to do any of this,” he wrote. “They fly in the night before the keynote and fly out an hour after it’s over. They all file the exact same vanilla report about the keynote and move on to the next city. You scoff at the fact that they end up missing out on all the good stuff.
“You think about the fact that the other ninety-nine percent of the world goes home at five o’clock each day and doesn’t even think about their job until the next day,” Palmer wrote. “But you wouldn’t trade this for anything.”
iProng eventually morphed into Beatweek, another online magazine that focused more on the music industry than tech. PDFs of the magazine feature interviews with well-known artists like Weezer, OneRepublic, and Katy Perry.
Neither Klass nor the other podcaster was aware of Palmer’s interest in politics. Klass was surprised to hear that Palmer and his latest site were associated with questions about their reporting.
“I had never read anything that Bill had written that wasn’t meticulously annotated,” Klass said. “It was always very partisan and slanted, but not to the point of being untrue.”
Origins in politics reporting
- Stabley Times
Several years after being a music and tech writer in Los Angeles, Palmer contacted Klass and told him about a new publication he was launching – under a different name.
It was called the Stabley Times, and archived versions say it was run by a Will Stabley.
“People know where they can go for straight news or for a predictable slant,” Palmer wrote in a Facebook message in November 2012, according to Klass. “The selling point here will be the unique combination of contributors and viewpoints.”
Klass wrote one article for the site. He said he didn’t have time to contribute more.
The Stabley Times, along with the websites for Palmer’s other early publications, has been taken down. But archived pages show that the site covered Palmer’s early passions – tech and entertainment – with two new additions: sports and politics.
The Stabley Times is registered privately, unlike Palmer’s earlier sites, which have his name, email address, and phone number attached to them. But the site’s Twitter account had four tweets published as of this writing, all of which are links to the Daily News Bin, a subsequent Palmer publication. The account’s older tweets appear to have been deleted.
The Stabley Times appears to have launched in 2013. While the site was actively publishing stories, it was cited in several mainstream media outlets, including Politico, The Week, PC Mag, Mic, and Design & Trend.
The Stabley Times’ “about” page lists dozens of writers, but it’s unclear whether it had paid staff. Many of Palmer’s sites have long lists of writers, some of whom have written only one or a few articles for Palmer.
Only one person who is listed as a writer for the Palmer Report agreed to an interview. Others sent short statements.
Olga Lautman, who is listed as a political writer on the Palmer Report’s “about” page, said she was asked to write an article for the site because she often tweets about her work investigating Trump’s ties to Russia. She said she wasn’t aware she was listed as a writer on the site.
She said she became aware of Palmer through chat groups on Twitter.
“I constantly have people who throw Palmer’s articles into the group,” she said.
Palmer became known in some political media circles before he started the Palmer Report – the Daily News Bin, his site that covered politics and was slanted toward Hillary Clinton, made some waves online.
- Daily News Bin
Binkowski said Palmer wasn’t on her radar until last year, when she started noticing content from the Daily News Bin.
“We debunked a couple things. I didn’t really think much of it,” she said. “I thought he was just some random with a blog.”
Despite the Palmer Report’s long list of writers, Palmer seems to write much of the content himself. On May 10, the day after Trump fired Comey, Palmer wrote 17 posts.
With the exception of Kevin Orr and Kevin Spann, every other writer listed on Palmer’s site has written only one article – Orr has written more than a dozen, and Spann has written three. The “articles” pages for three of the authors lead to error messages.
While it’s unclear whether Palmer pays any of his writers, he has several GoFundMe campaigns set up for his publication. His articles include a blurb at the bottom that says, “If you appreciate the investigative reporting of Palmer Report, consider making a contribution,” with a link to PayPal.
It’s also unclear how much money Palmer has raised, because the links on his site lead to a PayPal donation page rather than GoFundMe pages.
But one GoFundMe campaign Palmer operated under the title “$1 Million to Impeach Donald Trump” raised $26,532. The page said the $1 million would go toward the Palmer Report’s editorial budget. The campaign was listed as “complete and no longer active” as of this week.
Clashes with liberal groups online
“I can’t stress enough times that my biggest detractors are bottom feeders on the LEFT,” Palmer wrote in one Facebook post, according to a screenshot provided to Business Insider. “The right doesn’t even know I exist.”
Part of what defines Palmer’s internet history and reputation online are his clashes with other liberal groups who have questioned or otherwise rebuffed him.
Palmer runs a Facebook group called Donald Trump Is Not My President, which was rebranded from a group in support of Clinton. The group has nearly 200,000 members.
But Pantsuit Nation, the pro-Clinton Facebook group, received widespread news coverage during the election. The group encouraged people to post photos of themselves wearing pantsuits on Election Day in honor of Clinton. The group amassed 2.5 million members in weeks, according to The New York Times, and its founder, Libby Chamberlain, got a book deal out of it.
Palmer reported the group to Facebook, according to screenshots obtained by Business Insider. And he encouraged members of his Facebook group to remove themselves from Pantsuit Nation.
“It’s only ten days old and it comically claims to have some huge amount of members but most of them are fake, and it’s full of hostile comment trolls,” Palmer wrote in one message posted on his Facebook group, according to a screenshot sent to Business Insider.
Palmer called the group’s administrator a “vicious piece of work” and said he’d reported the group to Facebook for being fraudulent.
It’s unclear what spurred Palmer’s abrasiveness toward Pantsuit Nation, but Chamberlain posted some screenshots of messages she says he sent to her. She also said in Facebook comments that Palmer became angry after he asked to be an administrator of the group and she declined.
“Pantsuiters. Just a heads up that Bill Palmer, publisher of Daily News Bin, is super mad at us,” Chamberlain wrote in a message posted on Pantsuit Nation on October 30. “I’m not sure why, but here’s a snippet of what he had to say to me this afternoon.”
- Screenshot provided
In the messages, Palmer claimed that Pantsuit Nation comprised thousands of fake members.
“Now I get to go tell my millions of readers to leave your group if they’ve been added to it,” Palmer wrote, according to a screenshot sent to Business Insider. “Not because I want to, but because the founder of the group appears to be a troll herself.”
“You’ve got your focus and I have mine,” she wrote back, according to the screenshot. “I think it makes perfect sense for us to part ways.”
Palmer then called her a “con artist” and said her “stunt” was “harming” Clinton.
A member of the group told Business Insider that the drama started when Palmer posted a link in Pantsuit Nation and another member called it click bait. He was said to have then started blocking and attacking members of the group.
Goldie Portolos Nam, a woman who was a member of Palmer’s Facebook group and had conversations with him online said he started going “off the deep end” when people would talk about Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, even after Clinton had edged him out.
Palmer’s demeanor changed “right around when Hillary won the primary and people kept talking about Bernie Sanders,” Nam said, adding that Palmer “kept saying that we have to come together.”
Around this time, people in the group started questioning Palmer’s credentials, Nam said, and he started blocking people and deleting their comments. Eventually, some of those people started a Facebook group called Democrats United.
Still, Palmer has plenty of defenders who emerge when people question him online.
“He has Palmerbots,” Nam said, “people who can’t stay away, and defend him to no end.”
- REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
‘They provide hope’
Online, Palmer defends his reporting fiercely and often against accusations that his site isn’t credible.
But some of his more damning and inflammatory stories, which are shared widely on social media, weren’t borne out.
Some of his stories are sourced by single tweets. Others with headlines like “Rigged election: Hillary Clinton’s early-voting lead in Florida was mathematically insurmountable” are filed under “opinion.”
“In yet another piece of evidence that the voting tallies may have been rigged, a closer examination of the early-voting numbers suggests that Trump’s victory in Florida wasn’t just unlikely – it was mathematically insurmountable,” Palmer wrote in that post.
The post gained some traction, and Slate debunked his claim.
In the months since the election, journalists have publicly discouraged people from sharing Palmer Report articles, fact-checkers have cast doubt on some of Palmer’s reporting, and skeptics on social media have wondered about his background.
Binkowski cautioned against trusting sites like the Palmer Report, saying that while Palmer’s stories likely aren’t created out of thin air, “anybody could claim anything,” and readers could think the site adheres to journalistic standards.
“You’re getting all this misinformation from both sides now, including the left,” Binkowski said. “They’re supposed to be, according to them, the intellectual side of the political continuum, and they’re being made fools of. And that’s ultimately going to be a major, major problem.”
Binkowski theorized about why Palmer’s articles were so widely shared online. And Russell made a similar assessment in her post about the site.
“Bill Palmer comes off as a liberal savior because he writes what we all want to hear,” Russell wrote. “Of course his articles get shared – they provide hope.”
Those comments are echoed by people who donated to Palmer’s GoFundMe campaigns.
“I read everything you write and share the articles that shock me the most,” wrote Annette Thor, who donated $100. “Thank you so much for being a point of clarity in all this confusion.”
Pamela Deering, who donated $20, said she wished she could donate more.
“I now read Palmer Report first every day and check back frequently,” she wrote. “Your reporting has been the only thing that gave me real hope. Thank you.”