The Union embarrasses itself further writing about “fake news” seminar

“Brooke Binkowski, with Snopes, sat next to a monitor that displayed the image of a swimming fish in the Multipurpose Center on the campus of Sierra College in Grass Valley. The fish represented the publisher of the Nevada County Scooper, who calls himself Randall Finkelstein.

“Together, woman and fish, they formed a Tuesday night panel on fake news.”

“I’m utterly entranced by this fish,’ Binkowski said at one point.

And to The Union publisher Don Rogers, its editor Brian Hamilton and its city editor this is “news.” Podunk.

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

42 thoughts on “The Union embarrasses itself further writing about “fake news” seminar”

  1. I’m sorry to disagree with you, Jeff, but I thought the program was excellent and that Binkowski was smart and delightful. There were many people I knew attending who enjoyed and learned from it. I didn’t see massive numbers of people leaving as earlier reported. Were you there?

    1. Shanti,
      You’re kidding right? A computer monitor with a muffled voice taking the stage with a real person to “enlighten” us? I’ve lost respect for you, along with the League of Women Voters. Sorry.

  2. Meanwhile, Barry Pruett has become unhinged. He writes on Todd’s blog: “He also won’t allow positive comments about me in his blog. Lots of folks try to stand up for me by commenting on his blog, but he won’t publish them.” WTF?
    No, Barry. No one has made any positive comments about you on my blog in recent years. When you were running for clerk-recorder, your mother came here to defend you, though — a real hoot!

    Between the League of Women Voters sponsoring a “conversation” with a “fish in a fish bowl” and the local newspaper reporting about it, and Barry Pruett claiming that I somehow censor “lots of positive comments” about him on Todd’s blog, I think I’m living in Brigadoon!

    I better get back to work! Have a good day everyone!

  3. From….Even a distance, the far right clown show in Nevada County goes on. So sad. Dying towns are no fun for anyone. Especially when folks are apparently out to kill it, words, deeds, whatever. Oh, they call it TAKING OUR COUNTRY BACK!?! Best thing going in NORCAL (not just Nevada County) is saying goodbye to the FREAKSHOW RIGHT WING DANGER TO USA Sheriff who can join the other pathetic far right cops who are soon to be without Trump and ilk. Toast?

    1. The way Pruett demonized Greg Diaz in the clerk-recorder’s race was what prompted me to donate $500 to Greg’s campaign. I have never made a contribution before or since to any local candidate. That speaks volumes.

      1. You are a good man, Jeff. I Remember it all too well. Your BLOG is still dear to me. Not sure what Nevada Country would become without your fine and frankly…FAIR blog. All the best. Local Pulitzer type even (need new category) with lower nomination fee. 🤔🤔😎

  4. Let’s see. Small town, local group event attended by well over 100 people, and generating more intelligent questions than there was time to answer. The local paper writes a short summary of what happened, accurately reporting some of the content and including “color” quotes about the event for interest. That’s news, in my book, and reasonably well covered. (I was there. It is unclear whether Mr. Pelline was there or not.)

    I’m curious why covering well-attended local events on important topics isn’t news, or how cherry-picking part of an article illustrating that this was a light-hearted approach to an important topic justifies the judgment “Podunk”. I’m open to serious commentary, but this critique strikes me simply as shallow and mean spirited.

    1. Are you serious Bob? A monitor that displays the image of a fish hiding behind voice modifying software as one of the “panelists” in a fake news discussion. That is not a robust panel discussion and it is not “news.” In this case locals Reinette Senum and George Rebane (two polar opposites politically) came up with legitimate descriptions: “sophomoric,” “no one knew what they were talking about” (AKA not the best “experts” on this subject), “we still don’t have any idea why Mr. Finkelstein was invited to participate” (he was not even there in person for goodness sake), “no hard questions” (cowardly writers who hide behind their pseudonyms to personally attack people, like internet trolls — or why the Snoops panelist said Scooper wasn’t “fake news,” even though Snoops LISTED Scooper as a “fake news” site. As Reinette pointed out: “Fink even said, ‘we could not write what we write using our real names.’ Duh! Exactly… that’s the point. You would never write what you write if you had to attach your name to your words. Don’t you people get it?” No questions about that).

      This was podunk at its finest! Who on earth cajoled the local League of Women Voters to go along with such nonsense. The Center for the Arts has had some good speaker series (mountain climber Melissa Arnot or tonight, farm-to-table pioneer Alice Waters), KVMR has hosted some good panel discussions, and the League has as well. This was not. I am a longtime member of the Commonwealth Club ( Would you like to be my guest at one of the discussions and compare? Not regional enough? Folsom Lake College also has an excellent speaker series:

      Let’s raise the bar around here PLEASE!

      1. BTW, I also enjoy the Squaw Valley Institute programs. In fact, it’s all around us. The local League should reach out to some/all of these groups when it ventures outside the narrow realm of local politics. There’s an art to this kind of programming that needs to be respected and appreciated. Experience counts.

      2. Jeff–
        I’d love to have a constructive conversation with you about this. As it happens, I agree with you on several points. But, my time is valuable and I don’t feel it would be constructive if we were coming at this with unequal knowledge about the event. In short, let me ask directly: Were you there?

  5. Bob,

    What commentary about this three-ring circus masquerading as an informative LWV event and formed the basis of this post is missing or incorrect? I’m just one person, but we’ve heard from four different sources — all reported here in excruciating detail.

    1. We’ve heard from Reinette that “opening statements by the ‘respected’ Brooke Binkowski, Managing Editor of (the go-to Fact-verifying website), completely verified she doesn’t even know her own Snopes-verified-facts.” In fact, Snopes officially claimed NC Scooper as one of the top 20 FAKE websites in 2016.

    2. “We’ve heard from George Rebane, a regular at these events that he “never attended a more lame, information free, and sophomoric presentation.” In fact, he walked out, so did Reinette. As George noted, it was “people on the left and people on the right.”

    3. We’ve heard from The Union that ““Brooke Binkowski, with Snopes, sat next to a monitor that displayed the image of a swimming fish” — and that supposedly was one of then panelists. What’s more, we’ve heard from Reinette that he was attempting to speak in a modified voice so as not to give himself away to the audience.

    4. We’ve even heard an audio clip from “Fink” (posted here) where he brags “Fink even said, ‘we could not write what we write using our real names.’ “Wow, that’s quite an admission. And we’ve also heard Fink was attempting to speak in a modified voice so as not to give himself away to the audience.

    5. On top of all this, we’ve heard independently from Reinette that she received dozens of death threats after the Scooper exaggerated a remark she made and apologized for with a headline “City Councilwoman: Dallas police got what they deserved.” Death threats, Bob. Because people didn’t understand that the headline was “satire.” Yet we heard nobody asked the panelists any “hard questions” about fake news.

    So there you have it Bob. I have included reporting from four different and politically diverse sources. How about you? I have yet to hear what exactly made this event compelling and newsworthy for you. Your account is shallow and one-sided without any facts to back up your opinions. Sure, this is an “important topic,” but it fell short on a number of counts. It was an “F,” not for fake news but for execution.

  6. Jeff–
    I’ll take this as a rather lengthy “no” to my question.

    I wouldn’t want to have a discussion about a book with someone whose knowledge of the book came from reviews based on partial readings of the book or from the Cliff Notes. It would be better to discuss the book with someone who had actually read the book. Similarly, it would be better to discuss the Fake News discussion with someone who was actually there.

    As I said above, my time is valuable. So, I don’t want to spend my time telling you what your sources missed by leaving early, since several of the concerns you expressed were actually points discussed by the two panelists. Best wishes.


    1. Bob, I hope you got your money’s worth for $3. My time is valuable too, and I have yet to hear a single detail that you found informative or useful. And you were there!

    2. Bob, your time is valuable. My time is valuable. Everyone’s time is valuable. Why is your time so special? That is a classic “cop-out”.

      Answer the points/questions posted.
      best wishes

      1. I spoke with the local president of the LWV this afternoon. She returned a call from earlier in the week. It was a more contentious conversation than I thought it should have been, because we have been big supporters of the group in the past. I never got a straight answer about who would organize a panel discussion where one of the “panelists” was a computer monitor that showed the image of swimming fish. Or the ethics of hiding behind a “fake name” while firing off personal attacks; that’s not being accountable. Or the pitfalls when people don’t understand that Scooper headlines like “Councilwoman: Dallas Police got what they deserved” or “Dan Miller Coached Illegal Fight Club” are “satire.” Both “stories” are indexed on Google, so a search for Dan Miller or Reinette Senum on Google shows these articles right along with “real” ones — high in the search results, no less. The president said she would discuss this with the board. I hope it leads to some more responsible planning in the future. Some due diligence on the League’s and The Union’s part also would have turned up some findings that has another website called It’s mysterious, to be sure. It also includes some mean-spirited political satire (“John McCain Found Disoriented Yelling at Himself to Get Off The Lawn”), which the League — which is supposed to be “neutral” — might have questioned. So in a nutshell, this was a “Podunk” program, raising more issues than it addressed.

  7. Jeff, I haven’t provided details about the event because this thread wasn’t about the event. It was about The Union’s coverage of the event. I was simply staying on-topic. Unfortunately, you never addressed the points I raised about your critique of their coverage.

    1. Bob,
      The thread was about the event and whether it merited coverage in The Union.
      While the topic was “important,” I’ve spent considerable time elaborating and detailing what was deeply flawed with the event (according to multiple sources), making it decidedly un-newsworthy. To begin with, one of the “panelists” was a monitor that displayed the image of a swimming fish!
      You have still failed to provide a single detail supporting your view.

  8. “Arguing with an idiot is like playing chess with a pigeon. It’ll just knock over all the pieces, sh*t on the board, and strut about like it’s won anyway.” – Anonymous

  9. Jeff I am trying to figure out if your objection is based on the substance of the conversation at the LWV event (which I gather you did not attend but are critiquing based on the observations of other paragons of reason in our community) or if you are stuck on the absurdity of the use of the swimming goldfish image as a proxy for presence?

    I am sure Alice Waters would never show up in such as guise.

    Do you really find it unreasonable that someone running a site that parodies the very community they apparently live in would seek anonymity to do so? If you do not agree with anonymity nor choose to host anonymity on your own site that is your right because you own its content. You get to choose what is on your site.

    I am asking these questions because I see that antipathy of the Scooper by at least one public official has led to the internet publication of a wanted poster and financial reward for unmasking or outing the identity of the author Randall Finklestein, allegedly initiated by an elected public official.

    While we are talking about ‘lines’ or good behavior, I have to ask, what possible motivation could a public official have for wanting to unmask the identity of an author who has made them an object of satire? To give them a big kiss? What kind of pressure would come to the author from the friends of said official? Would there be consequences to their business, their family, their livelihoods?

    Is it acceptable behavior for an elected official to be seeking to unmask an anonymous author?

    I suspect that such behavior is only likely to create a run on Randall Finklestein Saprticii.

    1. This question is particularly topical when anonymous parody and satire becomes an effective method of criticism.

  10. Steve,
    You need to distinguish between stupid headlines/articles like “City Councilwoman: The Dallas Police Got What They Deserved” or “Nevada County Supervisor Dan Miller Coached Illegal High School Fight Club” from artful or at least effective satire and humor.

    Twitter is not seeking to block the masking of an account that crosses a line like that. This is “bad theater,” tasteless, hateful and harmful. And at least one case, it made a bad situation worse, leading to “death threats” and “fake” Yelp reviews that sought to crush a local business. In fact, Twitter has cracked down on fake news:

    I also think it’s abominable to launch personal attacks while hiding behind “fake names”; there’s no accountability. I can understand why Reinette would like to explore who attacked her like that. The Secret Service also is serious about “death threats.”

    You can mock our local “paragons of reason” but at some point it’s worth asking this: When polar opposites agree on topics, perhaps there’s some merit to it.

    As for the substance of the “bad theater” earlier this week, the use. of a monitor that displayed the image of a swimming fish does epitomize how ridiculous this program was. No wonder it was called “sophomoric.” And it also condoned the practice of hiding behind “fake names.” Though it was an important topic, this program was a farce for all the reasons stated — and restated.

    In these discussions, I’ve noticed that you tend to look at them from then vantage point of a U.S. Supreme Court judge; I suggest you first look at them at least from the trial court level — or better yet, neighbor-to-neighbor level. Here’s one of the cases we are discussing: In this case, it seems the “punishment did not fit the crime.” Time to move on.

    1. “Most people still do not know this is a satirical piece — shared throughout social media as real — though I consider it more malicious and intentional misinterpretation of my post than anything,” Senum wrote. “In this spoof it stated that I said the police ‘got what they deserved.’ Again, this was a drummed up story penned by an anonymous writer. This begs me to ask, who is this person and what is their motive?”

      1. So what ‘remedy’ are you proposing Jeff?

        Most people didn’t know that Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal was satire, or that Candide was satire. Rights are not constrained by the ignorance of the audience of a particular communication.

        Once again, you are free to ask who is this person is, but that line is crossed when a government official asks who this person is and unless a specific law or statute has been violated through the speech, and a court order obtained to secure the material, attempts to identify the authors are nothing but naked intimidation, which is as reprehensible a practice as naked threats to an individual.

        I don;t know about you, but my Mama taught me that two wrongs do not make a right.

    2. Jeff, I think you need to distinguish the difference between what you believe is in bad taste and what others in society believe is bad taste. I have no objection to you critiquing what you believe to be in bad taste. The question I asked is whether or not an elected public official should be participating in placing a bounty on the identity of an anonymous critic. These are two entirely different issues.

  11. The Scooper is not Jonathan Swift! This LWV program glorified a sophomoric “fake news” website at the same time is was supposed to be examining the topic. The unintended (or intended) consequences of that irresponsible headline were death threats and crushing a local business. It was a “stoning.”

    For whatever reason, this website had some champions that promoted it to the LWV from the inside. And now then LWV has some “clean up” to do. Also an unintended consequence, I suppose.

    You also asked “whether or not an elected public official should be participating in placing a bounty on the identity of an anonymous critic.” That’s up to her. Given the damage that this “fake” news caused — making a bad situation much worse — I can understand it.

    She also is a human being, which is what’s missing from this whole discussion.

    1. I never conflated this argument with her humanity. I think I posted here quite strongly against the attacks on her by members of the public. Your conflation of the two implies support for free speech is support for online threats and harassment. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    2. You can think that The Scooper is not Jonathan Swift and say it, but when one crosses the line to countenancing putting a bounty on their identities, or support it by not condemning it, that is a direct attack on free speech. As a journalist, I think you should see the danger in that. Frankly, saying, “That is up to her,” is a cop out.

      1. I don’t think Reinette is putting a “bounty” on their identities. I do not support malicious attacks using fake names, no different than an internet troll. And I’m glad she’s standing up to it. I’m also unwilling to pass judgment on how she decides to respond. For openers, I hope she reported the “death threats” to legal authorities.

    1. Steve, How is that more outrageous than the Scooper? Or unleashing cruel personal attacks using a fake name, where the fallout is death threats or crushing a local business. Perhaps this is just “satire” or humor that you didn’t find humorous. The Scooper set the tone. Now the “fed up friends” are responding. And guess what, I think these friends are “fed up.” Capiche?

      1. Then there is the issue that one until actually challenged legally and found not to be, is protected free speech and the other is an attempt to restrict free speech by a public official.

        The question I asked is whether or not an elected public official should be participating in placing a bounty on the identity of an anonymous critic?

  12. Steve,
    The two acts are not comparable. Writing a headline “City Councilwoman: The Dallas Police Got What They Deserved” using a fake name, where the fallout is death threats or crushing a local business, is far more malicious than being an “anonymous critic.” I can understand why she would want to find out who the perpetrator is — using the same “satire” as a tool.

    1. I am not the one comparing the two, you are. I am the one asking is it a violation of free speech to place a bounty on the identity of someone engaging in protected free speech.

  13. Steve,
    You wrote “two outrageous acts.” You did compare them. You keep framing this as a “free speech” issue. I am describing it as a reaction to a outright lie that was published anonymously online (City Councilwoman: The Dallas Police Got What They Deserved) that snowballed in social media and led to death threats and helped crush a business with a barrage of fake “Yelp” reviews. Like many others, I have a problem with that. And the reaction (AKA the poster) depended on the same “satire” used against her — albeit in a more lighthearted way than “police got what they deserved.” I can understand why she wants to find out the perpetrators. It might wind up being a pretty big dragnet too.

    1. I was paraphrasing your mind set about this Jeff when I said “two outrageous acts.”

      Here is the problem, the statement by the Scooper was not an outright lie.

      The headline was sensational, which is not exactly good journalism in my book as I said at the time, yes, but the content of the article precisely quoted the person in question and was consistent with their satire motif. The art in what the Scooper did was that they parodied sensational journalism, at the same time they parodied an outrageous comment by quoting it exactly.

      Plus, respectfully, you are revising the history of the event itself. I was watching that week…the story was already trending on both social media and mainstream media BEFORE the Scooper published its story. To say that they “caused” the reaction is ridiculous, the statement itself caused the reaction, and the 36 hours roughly it took for the individual in question to respond with a mea culpa and retraction (which was a weak retraction at best) allowed the response to snowball.

      Finally, this is a free speech issue because the individual in question is an elected official. Free speech protections do apply to critiques of public officials.

      Consider this from the Electronic Frontier Foundation…

      “Anonymous communications have an important place in our political and social discourse. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment. A frequently cited 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission reads: “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.”

      “The tradition of anonymous speech is older than the United States. Founders Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym “Publius ” and “the Federal Farmer” spoke up in rebuttal. The US Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized rights to speak anonymously derived from the First Amendment.

      The right to anonymous speech is also protected well beyond the printed page. Thus in 2002 the Supreme Court struck down a law requiring proselytizers to register their true names with the Mayor’s office before going door-to-door.

      These long-standing rights to anonymity and the protections it affords are critically important for the Internet. As the Supreme Court has recognized the Internet offers a new and powerful democratic forum in which anyone can become a “pamphleteer” or “a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.”

      The Scooper is nothing but an online pamphleteer.

      Finally, I love that last sentence, “It might be a pretty big dragnet too.”

      By placing a bounty on discovering the identity of an anonymous online pamphleteer. which could easily be interpreted as an attempt at intimidation, and if succesfull could have financial repurcutions, the individual in question, who is an elected offical, is placing not only herself but the jurisdiction she represents at risk of legal action.

      What is the intent of outing an individual? When we say “create accountability” what are we really saying? The Scoopers business model depends at least to some degree on anonymity. If there is damage to their business who is going to pay a remedy? Who pays a remedy if the individual in question does not have the reosurces to pay?

      Just to be clear, the individual who was the target of the infamous Scooper story has a legal remedy and the Scooper has a legal defense, a discussion fo which can be found here:

      Clearly I find this issue fascinating, not because of the parteis, but because of the principles.

  14. Steve,

    There was no “art” in what the Scooper did. The headline was more than exaggeration — it was a lie. And the lie was indexed on Google under her name, along with all the real stories. I was “watching” too, and the Scooper article exacerbated the barrage of hateful responses in social media (I never claimed it was a “cause”). That’s when the death threats and the “fake” Yelp reviews of Reinette’s restaurant showed up, damaging her business. The perpetrators used the “fake” article as a stick to beat Reinette after she had apologized. I can understand how Reinette would want to ID the perpetrators (plural). She wants to see who’s in that dragnet. Hiding behind a fake name and launching hateful personal attacks is not a “business model”; it is a dark culture. It flies in the face of values such as transparency and accountability. It also flies in the face of journalism values and the LWV values, for that matter. As for Reinette’s response, it was far more lighthearted use of satire than the Scooper’s. I’m noticing that more of the comments on social media are pointing to its dark side, personal attacks using fake names. There’s an “awakening.”

  15. Jeff,

    I recall hearing mention of, “perpetrators” in plural, some time back.
    This is worrisome.
    If you know who they are please let the public know.

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