CNBC, Fox News and the Washington Post all cited a self-described journalist to support their stories on student loans, but failed to check if the “expert” was actually a real person, bringing trust in media sources into question.
Drew Cloud, described as the founder of the Student Loan Report and a journalist who “wanted to funnel his creative energy into an independent, authoritative news outlet,” has been quoted in stories that appeared on CNBC, Fox News, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and in other media.
Recently, Cloud “authored” an article describing a survey that asked whether students “used financial aid money to fund a cryptocurrency investment.” American financial author and wealth manager David Bach was apparently responding to the report when he urged millennials to stop investing money borrowed for education expenses into cryptocurrencies in a recent interview.
However, there were journalists that were suspicious of the claim that 21 percent of students used loans to buy cryptocurrencies. The Chronicle of Higher Education tried reaching out to Cloud to find out more.
What they found out next certainly didn’t add more credit to the Student Loan Report, but also brought into question all the media outlets citing the “expert” directly. On Tuesday, the Chronicle published a damning report that finally revealed Cloud was “a fiction, the invention of a student-loan refinancing company” all along. It also pointed out that the fictional character “had corresponded at length with many journalists, pitching them stories and offering email interviews, many of which were published.”
The Chronicle’s determination to reach Cloud eventually forced the Student Loan Report to issue a clarification statement. Nate Matherson, the CEO of LendEDU, the company that runs the student loan debt web page, confirmed that the “character of ‘Drew Cloud'” was used as a “shared pen name” of the website team.
However, not only the name but a background was also created so the opinion and articles “felt personified.” The person even had a real photo of “a friend of ours from college” and used it with his permission.
“There were also other pen names used to publish content on the site,” Matherson admitted. While he offered an apology for the deception, he still failed to disclose who authored the posts under Cloud’s name. On the website, his byline was replaced with ‘SLR Editor.’
Meanwhile, the array of mainstream media websites that never attempted to verify the fake identity of the “journalist,” had to go into damage control mode, leaving long editorial notes. Some, like the Washington Post, wiped out references of the Student Loan Report altogether, while the others offered long-winded corrections that finally included much-needed insight into the source they were citing. Fox Business has not altered the references to Drew Cloud at the moment.
The flop has already been used by some of the unaffected outlets to attack the credibility of media narratives altogether. “It appears Drew Cloud’s stories on student debt were as truthful as the Russian dossier and Russian collusion story itself,” conservative outlet American Thinker wrote.
With the highly-cited Mr. Cloud turning out to be a ruse, one can only wonder how many of the anonymous media sources with “close knowledge of the matter” are actually real.