Part V: We Need to Fix the News Media, Not Just Social Media—Part 1

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This is the fifth blog post in a series on regulating digital platforms. You can view the full series here.

Focusing blame Google and Facebook for the decline of in-depth news reporting and print journalism ignores the real and long-standing problems that lie at the heart of our troubled relationship with corporate media. Insisting that these companies should fund existing corporate media, or that we should solve the problem by allowing even more consolidation, would be a disaster for democracy.

Almost 20 years ago, I left private practice to work for a nonprofit law firm called Media Access Project (MAP). MAP focused on promoting policies designed to encourage the production of diverse news and views in the electronic media. When I joined MAP in July of 1999, we were facing a crisis of consolidation in the news industry, the rise of polarization, and the dissemination of “fake news” for both commercial and political purposes. Academics and pundits lamented the death of serious journalism, the tyranny of the ever faster news cycle, and the poisoning public discourse with increasingly coarse, angry, and vile commentary that pandered to people’s worst instincts. A new class of wildly popular and increasingly influential pundits sowed distrust for the “MSM” (“mainstream media”) and denounced anyone who disagreed with them as enemies of freedom. Meanwhile, the increasingly vertically and horizontally concentrated news industry cut costs by dramatically cutting reporting staff and reporting resources, and chased “synergies” by using the news to shamelessly cross-promote their entertainment and publishing products. News coverage was increasingly turning into “infotainment” (or, more politely, “soft news”). To the extent political coverage existed outside the polarized world of political punditry, it was reduced from genuine analysis to “horse race” coverage. No one in the news, it seemed, wanted to discuss actual substance – only which political party or politician was “winning” or “losing.” Even worse, a new cottage industry emerged to create and promote “fake news” in the form of Video News Releases and national syndicated broadcasts designed to appear both local and live.

Small wonder that audiences for news increasingly declined, and distrust of the media reached historic levels. To make matters even worse, the “cure” proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was to relax the remaining broadcast ownership rules, inviting further consolidation. Only by increasing consolidation, the industry argued, could the news industry survive in the face of fragmenting audiences, emerging competition from the internet, and declining newspaper revenues.

That was back in the late 1990s and early 00s. To quote Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again.” Except this time, instead of blaming “the internet” and the public’s supposed lack of interest in real news, people now blame Google and Facebook. Why? Because they are big. Because they derive their revenue from digital advertising at a time when print journalism has seen revenue from classified advertising drop precipitously low. Because “Google and Facebook, we hates it precious!,” and one should never miss an opportunity to link a problem to Google and Facebook and proclaim “delenda est!” Likewise, the proposed remedies have a very familiar feel. Allow the news media to consolidate further by relaxing the FCC ownership rules and creating exemptions to existing antitrust law, and/or preserve their historic revenue stream from classified ads (either by destroying Google and Facebook or making them pay tribute to existing media companies). These solutions have particular appeal to incumbent publishers, as they simultaneously absolve the existing media of any responsibility for the current state of journalism and cement the dominance of the existing corporate media giants.

It is precisely because the stakes are so high, however, that we need to look with extreme skepticism at proposals primarily designed to prop up the current consolidated and dysfunctional media landscape. If we want to address the very real problems created by a dysfunctional media, we need to separate which of these problems can properly be attributed to dominant platforms and which to structural problems in the traditional news industry. Additionally, legitimate fears of the ability of dominant platforms to act as gatekeepers, or concerns about their outsized influence on the economics of news production and dissemination, should not justify solutions that destroy the extremely important role these platforms have played – and continue to play – in civic engagement and enhancing the creation of new and independent outlets for news.

Distinguishing Between General Problems Caused by Dominance of Certain Digital Platforms, and the Crisis in Media That Has Been Building for 25 Years.

To be clear, Google and Facebook (and other social media) do create many serious concerns about the future of journalism and civic discourse. As I’ve written extensively over the last few weeks (and will continue to expand upon), digital platforms have become central to our lives. A handful of companies have outsized influence over our economy and the most basic ways we communicate and relate to each other. We need to take concrete steps to curb that power by imposing requirements of transparency and due process. We need to impose serious privacy regulations and create a pro-competitive framework. In the coming months, we at Public Knowledge expect to outline in greater detail specific recommendations for promoting competition, as well as examining how to deal with the challenges of content moderation and platform liability.

At the same time, as I and my colleague Gus Rossi have written extensively, we need to be very cognizant of the dangers of applying the wrong remedies. As I explain further below, creating antitrust exemptions or relaxing FCC ownership rules to permit further consolidation is one of the primary causes of the current crisis in media. But relying entirely on antitrust to solve the problem by calling for the breakup Google and Facebook is an equally dangerous mistake. In the first place, as I argue below, breaking up Google and Facebook does absolutely nothing to solve the overall structural problems in the news industry that actually created the current crisis in journalism. Claiming that a breakup of Google and Facebook will make everything better absolves the news industry of its own culpability and distracts from getting at the true source of the problem. At the same time, it would disrupt the positive effects that social media platforms have had on journalism, as evidenced by the way in which professional and citizen journalists used these platforms to cover events like the 2014 Ferguson Protests well before traditional media took interest.

But even if breaking up Google and Facebook were part of the answer to the current crisis in journalism, engineering the breakup of major companies takes years, when it happens at all. The proposal to break up Microsoft into “Baby Bills” back in 2000 was the result of multiple antitrust lawsuits that covered nearly a decade of litigation, and was ultimately reversed by the D.C. Circuit sitting en banc. The antitrust litigation against IBM that absorbed the Department of Justice (DOJ) for most of the 1970s ended in failure when DOJ finally dropped its antitrust challenge in 1982. The AT&T breakup, arguably one of the most successful antitrust breakups ever, took over 12 years of litigation, including an interim judgment and a modified final judgement that built an excruciatingly detailed roadmap of how to disassemble AT&T into functioning component parts that simultaneously made real competition in multiple sectors of the telecommunications industry possible while maintaining the stability of the telephone network.

Certainly for anyone serious about breaking up Google and Facebook, the time to begin this process is here. But not only is it extremely unlikely to succeed, but proponents should acknowledge that this is not something that will happen fast enough to address the ongoing crisis of journalism. Breaking up the Silicon Valley tech giants may ultimately prove to be a wise policy decision. But as a solution to the crisis of journalism undermining democracy today, it is about as practical as proposing to fund alternative media with weekly gambling trips to Vegas.

Focus on Fixing Existing Media and Repairing Trust Rather Than Doubling Down on Our Dysfunctional Media Industry.

As someone who can recall how traditional “real” journalism marginalized dissent in the run-up to the Iraq War, how media giants like Clear Channel used their enormous market power to banish opponents of the Iraq War like the Dixie Chicks from the airwaves, and how platforms made the production and distribution of competing alternative media possible, I find the current nostalgia for a mythical golden age of trusted journalism that is being strangled by Google and Facebook to be as damaging and counterfactual as any conspiracy theory bred on 4Chan. Nor does recent history inspire further confidence. Setting aside the new pace of consolidation with such mega-deals as Sinclair/Tribune (still pending as of this writing) and Raycom Media/Gray TV, Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Policy published four reports meticulously documenting precisely how the news industry failed the American people during the 2016 election. As the fourth report “How the Press Failed the Voters” documents, political coverage for the last 30 years has been unrelentingly negative, cynical, and increasingly focused purely on “horse race” coverage of who has the advantage at any given moment rather than providing Americans with the in-depth coverage needed to sustain democracy.

That starts with honestly acknowledging the longstanding problems with the media and that the current crisis is not simply a result of the emergence of a handful of dominant online platforms or even changes in technology. As media activist and scholar Victor Pickard has observed, it is the extreme commercialism of the news industry which creates the inherent problem of how to ensure quality journalism rather than simply what sells – or what an increasingly smaller number of vertically integrated media moguls believe will maximize their overall profits. Donald Trump proved expert at hacking both the traditional news media and social media because he understood that whether it is traditional media chasing ratings, online media chasing clicks, or social media chasing “engagement,” a steady stream of controversial content would attract and hold viewers’ attention to the exclusion of his rivals and the detriment of any serious analysis.

It is important to note that Pickard does not spare Google and Facebook from his criticism nor from his list of remedies. But his proposal to regulate these platforms as distribution monopolies and to levy a public interest tax to fund independent media are not simply proposals to prop up the existing commercial media. They are part and parcel of a much more daring and audacious package to abolish (or sharply limit) the continuing existence of commercial news media and replace it with a more publicly funded and publicly accountable alternative. Whether one agrees with all of Pickard’s proposals or not, they acknowledge that the future of journalism depends on fixing the very real problems with legacy media and the existing structure of the news industry.

What Do Declining Audiences and Falling Revenues Have to Do With Google or Facebook? Not Much.

First, we should recognize that when most people talk about the “end of journalism,” they primarily mean traditional print journalism such as daily newspapers and periodicals. Television, particularly local television, has been doing quite well. Newspapers have traditionally relied on revenue from classified advertising as their primary revenue stream. As this revenue stream has declined, these outlets have become increasingly less profitable, forcing some to close and others to lay off staff. (The Pew Research Center has a number of good fact sheets on the state of the news industry here.)

The case against Google and Facebook rests on the idea that (a) the rise of digital advertising has caused advertising (at least for print newspapers) to decline; (b) Google and Facebook earn the bulk of online digital advertising revenue; therefore (c) Google and Facebook are responsible for the decline of the news media – particularly newspapers. This is usually accompanied by an accusation that Google (through its search and news aggregator) and Facebook (through its newsfeed) profit from the news industry’s content by attracting “eyeballs,” thus further capturing advertising revenue that would (possibly) otherwise go to newspapers.

This argument is largely based on a combination of the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (because X occurs after Y, Y must have caused X), combined with the “Google, we hates it precious!!” mindset stated earlier. An examination of the historic data (available through Pew going back to 1998), as well as a review of the criticism of media consolidation and the decline of the media and localism at the birth of the media reform movement in the early 00s well before Google or Facebook accounted for significant advertising revenue, seriously undermine this allegation. Anyone seriously interested in the history of newsroom layoffs and the underlying decline of the news industry should start with Eric Klinenberg’s 2007 book Fighting for Air which describes in detail how the process of corporate consolidation of newspapers (including alt-weekly papers) both horizontally and vertically with broadcast and publishing outlets created a cycle of newsroom downsizing and massive corporate debt. As far back as 2003, Cheryl Leanza and I were warning that the news industry was already experiencing increasing market failure as measured by reporter layoffs, decline in substantive analysis, and increasing “tie-ins” by vertically integrated media giants warping news coverage. Indeed, the media industry itself constantly invoked the supposedly perilous state of news economics and changing markets to justify even more consolidation – just as they do today.

Similarly, the decline of audiences and dissatisfaction with the media for its increasing focus on “infotainment” (a term coined almost 20 years before Google was even invented) go back to the massive consolidation in the media and the failure of the industry to adapt. This Pew Report from 1999, for example, documents the increasing trend toward “soft news” over 20 years. An accompanying survey of journalists found that most agreed with criticism that the media was no longer providing substantive news, and that concerns about the financial interests of their corporate parent caused reporters to self-censor and generally influenced news coverage. Many reporters expressed concern that as a result of these trends, the news media was losing the trust of the American people.

That was 20 years ago. The response of the media to these concerns was to increase consolidation and accelerate every single trend that was leaving Americans increasingly dissatisfied and eroding trust in journalism. That includes all the warning signs that the classified ads gravy train was coming to an end. As noted by Pew, print media websites and local news initially enjoyed a huge advantage in attracting readers online, with concomitant advantage in advertising revenue. But somehow, the commercial news industry managed to spend 15 years squandering this advantage and making no other plans for how to deal with shifting economics of news production beyond “keep cutting costs by firing reporters and closing newsrooms.”

In short, Google and Facebook did not “destroy journalism” by sucking up their advertising revenue. The firing of reporters and closing of newsrooms began long before advertising dollars began to shift in earnest from print media to online services. The problem is not newspapers and broadcasters who used to produce quality journalism no longer being able to afford to do so. The problem has been corporate consolidation into the hands of a few giant owners completely out of touch with the public’s thirst for real news and indifferent to changing trends in how people access news. Breaking up Google and Facebook, or forcing them to pay some sort of journalism tax, will not magically reverse these problems. To the contrary, propping up the existing media without changing the industry structure, and especially allowing further consolidation by relaxing the few remaining FCC ownership limits, will simply subsidize the existing dysfunctional news ecosystem.

Broadcasting Giants Such as Clear Channel and Sinclair Pioneered Fake News.

The second gravamen against Google and Facebook is that they have destroyed faith in journalism by propagating false news stories so that the public can no longer distinguish between real investigative reporting, opinion pieces, and outright hoaxes and dangerous conspiracy theories. Additionally, these and other news aggregators allow people to create their own partisan bubbles and echo chambers, destroying the demand for quality journalism and replacing it with a market that favors production of hyperbolic and hysterical stories cranked out as quickly as possible.

There is some justice in this criticism, and any serious effort to address the crisis in journalism and the civic engagement needs to address these issues. But again, this has nothing to do with propping up existing news media. To the contrary, the existing news media pioneered not only the highly partisan style of journalism and encouraged the creation of partisan bubbles, it also pioneered the development of fake news that undermines confidence in journalism. Clear Channel and Sinclair pioneered in the early 00s a technology called “centralcasting.” This technology allowed these media giants to use centralized production of programming and inject local station names, video clips of local landmarks, and other automated means to create the illusion that this centrally manufactured content was created locally.

Additionally, television and cable news providers increasingly began to use “video news releases” (“VNRs”) in the 00s. VNRs are advertisements (either for products or political advertisements) designed to look like news segments. The advertisers then provide these free to news providers as press releases. As companies continued to cut resources and fire reporters to save costs, they increasingly turned to VNRs as a source of “news.” As the FCC uncovered in an investigation into “fake news” in 2006-07 (yes, they called it “fake news”), many news shows disguised these commercials as the product of their own reporting rather than as press releases from interested parties.

Combined with the utter failure of the news to critically examine the Bush administration’s claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq until well after the invasion, public trust in the media increasingly eroded well before Russians exploited social media platforms in 2016. As this chart from Pew shows, public distrust of traditional print journalism (and journalism generally) was already well advanced and rising as early as 2006. And one can find cynicism about the rise of big media and the concomitant death of real journalism manifesting in the popular culture even earlier. The movie Broadcast News, following William Hurt as a fictional anchor who keeps being promoted for looking good and is increasingly frustrated with his inability to cover real news (and rivalry with the jealous news producer Albert Brooks, who is ultimately downsized as part of a general cost-cutting effort by the network), was made in 1987. Network, the Academy Award-winning classic about the degeneration of broadcast news to infotainment, was made in 1976.

Breaking up Google and Facebook is not going to magically restore Americans’ trust in the media. The news industry managed to destroy public faith in journalism well before the Russians took an interest in manipulating social media. Our current crisis of journalism has been building for over 20 years, endlessly debated by journalism schools and concerned professionals (this highly prescient 2004 Pew report on the State of the News Media is just one example). Social media – and the internet generally – certainly create challenges for journalism and civic engagement that need to be addressed. But the idea that Google and/or Facebook are responsible for “strangling” journalism or degrading democracy is simply wrong. Addressing the real problems of news reporting and distrust of journalism requires a real understanding of what got us to this juncture in the first place. Solutions based on the simplistic and unsupported narrative of evil Google and Facebook starving the noble news industry of revenue, and that either destroying or taming these monsters will restore journalism’s golden age, are more than unhelpful. Such proposals threaten to destroy the positive way social media platforms enhance journalism and civic engagement while doing nothing to cure the real cause of the current crisis in journalism.

Which naturally brings us to the question, what are the possible solutions to the underlying problems in journalism? How do we repair journalism? Equally important, how do we repair the public’s trust in journalism? I tackle these important questions in my next post.

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