Columbia Journalism Review

How Mark Zuckerberg could really fix journalism

[Commentary] What independent journalism needs more than ever from Silicon Valley is a significant transfer of wealth. Publishers agree with this notion, although the loudest proponents are often those who would benefit the most from it. It is not necessarily enough just to re-energize existing institutions (although the involvement of Jeff Bezos and his money at The Washington Post has been, from a civic and journalistic point of view, wholly beneficial). Mark Zuckerberg has a taste for grand gestures and “moon shots,” in Valley parlance.Now, he has a chance to make a generational intervention which will dramatically improve the health of America’s journalism.

Remaking independent journalism requires funding that is independent of individuals or corporations, has a longtime horizon built into it, and offers complete independence and as much stability as possible.

[Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.]

What does Trump have in common with Hugo Chavez? A media strategy.

President Trump is an avowed admirer of Vladimir Putin, and his administration is under investigation for its ties to Russia. But Trump’s governing style in the first few weeks has more in common with the Latin American populists who have risen to power in the last several decades. In particular, Trump’s unrelenting attacks on the media and attempts to undermine its credibility and paint it as an opposition force are straight out the Latin American populists’ playbook. Feb 16’s press conference, in which he railed against “very fake news,” was a case in point.

Flynn resignation shows leaks under Trump are working. Keep ‘em coming.

[Commentary] National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign Feb 13—just three weeks into the job—following the revelation that he lied to both the Trump administration and the public when he said he did not discuss outgoing President Obama’s sanctions on Russia with that country’s US ambassador just after the election. But here’s the important part: It turns out it wasn’t the lying that got him fired; it’s that his lying leaked to the press.

The Washington Post reported that the acting attorney general told the White House weeks ago that transcripts showed Flynn likely misled administration officials. It wasn’t until the public found out he lied—based on a torrent of leaks from inside the administration in the past week—that Flynn was forced out. Speaking to the press about confidential and classified material is a risky and often courageous move. Many people, especially those close to the Obama administration, were highly critical of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden in the past. But it’s now more clear than ever that we will need more people like them in the next few years if we really want to hold the Trump administration accountable.

[Trevor Timm is the executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation]

Journalists see Trump as a threat to their careers, and calling

[Commentary] Seen through their own eyes, journalists in these times believe they are doing what they have always done, which is to uncover and report the truth. Seeing themselves through the eyes of their increasingly powerful and influential detractors in the White House, though, they are on edge: They must tread carefully so as not to make a mistake; they must triple, quadruple, quintuple check their facts against the facts; check their conclusions against their opinions; check their opinions at the door; suppress themselves on social media; avoid demonstrations and other public forums; show solidarity with other journalists; be quick to condemn the mistakes or errors of judgment of other journalists; be more intrepid than ever lest they allow this new regime to erode social and political norms; be more careful than ever lest they be exposed and disgraced by a “sting” operation; concede their profession’s shortcomings; defend their profession; be certain not to allow their defensiveness and injured pride to interfere with their jobs. Given this new mental atmosphere, all of the frightened tremors shooting through journalism now are not, to my mind, the result of an authentic fear that Trump will suspend the Constitution, declare martial law and, among other authoritarian acts, repress free speech and abolish the press. The fear of such events is really the displacement of a much deeper anxiety.

[Lee Siegel is the author of five books and the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. ]

Facebook and the press: The transfer of power

[Commentary] Journalism's business crisis is well known, but in the wake of the US presidential election it is increasingly obvious that the true existential crisis for journalism is its lack of influence. Fake news, a decline in trust, and plunging revenues are all proxies for a loss of influence and impact over public opinion and policy. But influence, like energy, is only ever transferred, never destroyed. And the reluctant recipients of the displaced influence once enjoyed by the press are technology companies, which now command not just the dollars but the attention of the global audiences they serve.

Without Twitter and Facebook to amplify the diminished messages of news outlets and individual journalists, most published news would feel very much like shouting into the wind. Facebook in particular, which is currently the exoskeleton of the news industry, has recently made minor adjustments to its policy in regard to journalism that nevertheless represent an enormous philosophical shift for the company. Exercising economic power for Facebook is second nature, but in terms of how it exercises influence, the company is still in the novitiate.

Is ‘fake news’ a fake problem?

[Commentary] Since the Presidential election, “fake news” has become a buzzword leveraged by both sides of the political aisle, with many organizations directing resources toward understanding and fighting it. What’s been missing from the conversation is a calculated look at fake news’s reach. We know little about the amount of fake news an average citizen consumes, or how it fits into their overall news diet. In fact, we don’t know much about the fake news audience, period.

Without examining the audience, it’s impossible to know the scope of the problem. As a PhD candidate researching journalism at Northwestern University’s Media, Technology, and Society program, I have spent the past few years using online audience data to better understand news consumption habits. Working with Northwestern Communication Studies Professor James G. Webster this fall, I used these data to take a closer look at the fake news audience. What we found calls into question the severity of the fake news crisis.

[Jacob L. Nelson is a PhD candidate at Northwestern University]

Five ways the media bungled the election

[Commentary] Whether you think the election of Donald Trump is the nadir of modern American politics and the end of America as we know it, or a revolt of the masses that was long overdue, just about everyone agrees that the media’s election coverage failed staggeringly. Reform begins by examining some of the major transgressions the media committed. And, futile or not, there are some potential correctives should they be so inclined to perform more responsibly in 2020.
1) They turned the election into a sporting event.
2) They blew the numbers.
3) They cast a pall of negativity over the entire campaign.
4) The neglected policy.
5) They failed to discriminate between the values of the candidates.

Most Americans, rightfully I think, feel the press has failed them. It can only make amends by reforming itself, and it can only reform itself by rethinking itself. Its survival may be at stake, but, to the extent that a vital press is essential to a vigorous society, so may be the survival of our democracy.

[Neal Gabler is a Senior Fellow at the Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society at USC]

Axios aims to speak the language of the swamp

A decade after co-founding Politico, Jim VandeHei is back in startup mode. The mastermind behind Politico’s rapid expansion, who wakes up around 3:30 am nowadays, decamped along with newsletter-extraordinaire Mike Allen and money man Roy Schwartz, setting up their own shop, just two Metro stops away, that aims to cover collision points between politics, tech, media, and business. “Collectively, we’ve all made a mess of media,” VandeHei says, chastising cheap ads and clickbait content. “So if you can fix that, you can create an addiction.” The man certainly proved to be an effective pusher in his past life, despite Politico’s skeptics. The news organization grew into a Washington juggernaut by moving product that political and industry insiders didn’t know they were previously craving. Axios aims to similarly capitalize on white-shoe Washington and other small, but elite, groups of news consumers.

Trump’s disdain for the press has a silver lining

[Commentary] Not once in the eight years that George W. Bush was president did he handle the press with the derision and contempt President Donald Trump displayed in his first week. Instead, the media in the Bush era relied on access and sources to assimilate the most catastrophic lie in American history. Compared to President Bush and Vice President Cheney’s smooth, respectful manipulation and subjugation of the media, President Trump and his regime’s snarling hostility and barefaced lying to the press—ie, their openness about their motives—are a gift to the republic.

[Lee Siegel is the author of five books and the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. ]

Why journalists should be able to join the Women’s March

[Commentary] This week, countless American Journalists have been weighing the costs of joining the Women’s March in Washington (DC) or one of the many sister demonstrations being held on January 21. Staffers coast to coast, from The San Francisco Chronicle to The New York Times, have received specific edicts against attending.

Others likely know the tried-and-true rule, handed down from standard-setting organizations like The Associated Press: Journalists are not allowed to join protests or demonstrations, in order to avoid appearance of bias. According to the AP’s guidelines, staffers “must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum…and must not take part in demonstrations in support of causes or movements.” The longstanding and rarely questioned rule was designed to protect the credibility of reporters and their news organizations, and to many, it looks like common sense. But it has arguably become just another barrier to entry in an industry already struggling with a pronounced lack of diversity.

[Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is a (recently laid-off) journalist in Los Angeles. ]