Newsweek Poker Face Cover

Bad Journalism: The Newsweek Online Gambling Propaganda

Today’s publication of a strongly anti-online gambling feature story by conservative newsmagazine Newsweek illustrates again that the fight over regulated access to online poker for American players has many hurdles to overcome.  The Newsweek online gambling piece is notable for being an exceptionally stylistic example of agenda-driven propaganda that masquerades as legitimate news reporting.

newsweek-poker-face-coverThe story, “Poker Face” (cover at right), appears set to be the title feature of the magazine’s August 22, 2014 issue.  It’s just been released online, and the print version of the magazine will hit newsstands in a couple of days.  The piece is authored by Leah McGrath Goodman, an irregular feature contributor who’s no stranger to editorial controversy.  McGrath Goodman, back in March, wrote a story on presumed Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto that was so rife with errors that Newsweek was forced to first issue a statement, then later append a communication from Nakamoto’s lawyer to the story.  (FlushDraw thanks former contributor Dave “Ftrain” Behr for the heads-up regarding the earlier piece.)

In “Poker Face,” McGrath Goodman again plays fast and loose with the facts to serve the greater anti-gambling agenda on display — despite the inevitable Newsweek disclaimer sure to appear within days that there’s no agenda in play here at all.  The story itself suggests otherwise.

For a good start on what’s wrong here, we recommend Chris Grove’s rant over at OnlinePokerReport this morning.  Grove catches most of the major errors and intentional literary misdirections, and remember, Grove is a writer who not long before the late-2011 reinterpretation of the 1961 Wire Act made his own declaration that he believed playing online poker in the US was illegal.  (He was wrong, but then again, no one’s perfect.)  Grove’s own recalculated position at least shows that he’s open to reexamining the core facts, which can’t be said for McGrath Goodman, NewsWeek, or the suspected puppetmasters behind this piece.

As to the why of it all, we’ll save that for later.  It’s important for those of us with the knowledge of the gaming industry and the ability to dissect slickly packaged crap such as this NewsWeek offering to do just that, because the whole point of propaganda is to con the unknowing.

First, that disgusting cover image, supported by a couple of similar airbrushed shots within the story.  One pro-poker Twitter commenter has described it as clickbait, and that’s not a horrible description, if not quite exact.  This is something older, a propaganda classic: Scaremongering.

Wikipedia likes the phrase “fear mongering” as well, and here’s its definition:

Fear mongering (or scaremongering or scare tactics) is the use of fear to influence the opinions and actions of others towards some specific end. The feared object or subject is sometimes exaggerated, and the pattern of fear mongering is usually one of repetition, in order to continuously reinforce the intended effects of this tactic, sometimes in the form of a vicious circle.

Introducing Leah McGrath Goodman, scaremongerer.

Raising untoward fears about one’s children is, of course, a time-honored scaremongering tradition.  It’s also been the tactic of choice for online gambling’s most rabid foes.  This whole NewsWeek piece carries that as its not-so-hidden moral agenda, but when one examines the actual evidence in the story, the proof is strangely lacking.

First, McGrath Goodman serves up an apocryphal tale offered by Canadian children’s addictive-behavior specialist Jeffrey Derevensky.  Derevensky relayed the following quote:

“Once they’re addicted, these kids will take their parents’ credit cards, gas cards, anything they can find to gamble with,” he told McGrath Goodman. “I had one kid, being raised by a single mother, who stole two of her credit cards and lost $20,000 on PokerStars in one month.”

Just a paragraph before that, Derevensky is talking about “kids”… who really aren’t.  “Online and mobile gambling is going to be a big thing, and those aged 18 to 25 have the highest prevalence of gambling-related problems among adults,” Derevensky is quoted in the NewsWeek story.

Besides the obvious canard regarding those photos accompanying the story showing a supposed player that’s a wee bit younger than an 18- to 25-year-old, the story as we’re fed it offers no secondary information.  The story may be technically possible, but there are a whole lot of elements that appear to be intentionally omitted, if indeed the story happened at all:

  • Was this really a “kid” in the classical sense, or was it a college student with a gambling addiction?
  • It seems unlikely that this could have happened on PokerStars, since the site has had daily and weekly deposit limits in place for many years.  Did McGrath Goodman do any fact-checking to verify if the story as told was even technically possible?
  • Were the credit cards at the core of the story really “stolen,” or could this be the flip side of one of those chargeback fictions created in an attempt to freeroll and not pay for legitimate gambling losses?
  • How could credit cards in her name be used on anything other than a PokerStars account that was also in that same name, hers?
  • How would this mother not receive statements or updates that excessive charges were being made against her credit cards?  And on that note, how would her PokerStars account (assuming it was hers, in light of the previous point) not be generating automatic e-mails as cross-check notifications on the deposits?  I’ve played online poker off and on since 2001, on many different sites, and I can’t remember ever -not- receiving a deposit verification, even on the tiniest and shadiest of sites.
  • Whose credit cards could be used for $20,000 of deposits to a gambling site without tripping red flags?  It’s probably been a decade since such open deposit options were readily available to Americans.  Derevensky, however, is Canadian, where different banking rules apply….


There are other questions that could be asked as well, but the larger point is this: The story as presented Does Not Make Sense.

However, the story had to be told that way by NewsWeek in order to serve the greater agenda.  That’s why the scaremongering and fear of harm to children that online poker’s foes have ceased upon as a tactic isn’t ever going to end.  It’s a giant lie, but it’s the lie most likely to succeed among those who simply don’t know (or refuse to learn) the real truth.

It’s amusing, then, to see Grove over at OPR write something such as, “Seriously, stop conflating regulated and unregulated online gambling.”  The foes of regulated online poker have no choice but to exactly that, because, despite what buffoons such as Utah US Representative Jason Chaffetz claim, the combination of several different geolocation methods (triangulation isn’t the only method), -plus- effective and layered player-ID algorithms make fraudulent play nearly impossible.  The only real way a kid can play is if that kid’s parents allow him to, and that just isn’t the poker sites’ fault.

One could go on and on with the factual inaccuracies.  McGrath Goodman makes the case that the late-2011 Wire Act reinterpretation might be just a case of re-reading punctuation — in this case, a comma in the relevant clause — but that’s clearly garbage: The presence of the word “or” in the same clause is far more important, distinctive and indicative of the original law’s intent.

Similarly, the NewsWeek piece misconstrues any number of historical and legal facts, such as that playing online poker was illegal.  Nope, it never was.  That goes hand in hand with the false claim made that the courts long upheld the FBI’s position regarding online gambling.  That never happened either, and it’s pure NewsWeek fiction to say otherwise.

The feds never prosecuted a single online player despite over a decade of ample evidence against many players we’d recognize today as poker’s most famous names.  They didn’t bring a single case against a player, anywhere, because they didn’t want their claims regarding online poker’s supposed illegality to play ever being challenged in court.

As to the why behind this piece, that’s still partly in shadows.  It’s interesting to note that NewsWeek’s print edition has only recently reappeared after a 15-month hiatus due to poor sales, and it’s clear that this once-mighty mag is struggling.  Did NewsWeek sell out its feature slot for a hefty infusion of cash, likely from Sheldon Adelson and his Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling (CSIG) group?  That’s what the social-media rumor mill wants to believe, but it’s still too soon to say that for sure.

What is known, however, is that McGrath Goodman found a way to cast Adelson’s own massive political spending and anti-internet gambling jihad in a jumbled light, without identifying Adelson himself as part of the problem.  McGrath Goodman deftly managed to bury within an anti-Barack Obama screed the fact that of the $72 million spent by pro-gambling interests in the 2012 election cycle, $50 million came from Adelson alone.

This was stylish sleight of pen, but no less dishonest than the rest of the piece.

Whatever the funding, and in light of the blatant agenda on display, NewsWeek’s publishers should have been embarrassed to publish this at all, much less as a cover story.  It’s unlikely, however, that they will be.


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