By the Numbers: What Americans Really Think About the Media
Sullivan: Good morning. I’m Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media columnist. Our first discussion today will focus on the findings and implications of a recent Gallup Knight Foundation survey examining Americans’ views about the media. I’m pleased to welcome Frank Newport, Editor-in-Chief at Gallup, and Jennifer Preston, Vice President for Journalism at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Thank you both for joining us.
So, our time is short. In this segment it’s only 15 minutes, so we’re going to move expeditiously, and I’ll start with Frank and ask him to take us through quickly some of the highlights of the survey, and I thought there was good news and bad news here. Would you take us through it?
Newport: Yeah, be happy to do it. Thank you very much, Margaret. It’s hard to—this is a major study. It was done by mail, which means that we were able to ask a number of questions, which is one advantage of the mail format, which means there’s a lot of fascinating. Which means it’s very difficult to hit all the high points in a very brief period of time, but I’ll do that in just a couple of minutes here.
I think we had a slide—first slide—which was kind of the core of the study, which exemplifies your good news/bad news that you just mentioned just a moment ago. The public—this is the American public—does believe that the news media—that’s how we defined it—is important for democracy. That’s what’s on the left there. You can see the criticals are actually fairly big, and if you put the critical and very important together—
Sullivan: Actually, it’s not showing up here, so—
Newport: Oh, I’m seeing it here. So, I’m sorry.
Sullivan: Oh, there we go.
Newport: I thought everybody was seeing what I’m seeing.
Sullivan: It’s there and there, so I guess we’re okay.
Newport: All right. Great. At any rate, the ring of fire here, so to speak, shows that when you put critical and very important together, Americans do, in fact, believe that the news media are important for democracy. Which is very important. You know, it’s part of the core of our free press, of our country, but nevertheless, it’s encouraging to know that the American public still buys into the fact that we do need news media to keep the democracy going.
The not-so-good news is what’s on the other side, and this is not necessarily new news, and this—so to speak—but this percolates throughout the whole report. And this is when we asked Americans about the news media today, you can see a significantly more negative response, where the modal response more than any other response was poorly when we asked people how the news media were doing in supporting the democracy. And we have less than 30% who say that it does very well.
So you juxtapose these two together, you have a public which believes in the news media, believes in its importance, but says that it has problems today in terms of supporting the democracy. There’s a number of other findings in the study that support this same basic idea, that Americans are skeptical/critical/worried about the news media today.
One of the reasons for this—and this is one of the more fascinating phenomenon that we’ve measured in all of American public opinion recently—is the partisan gap, and I think we have that on the next slide here. That, for a variety of reasons—that would be a whole other session where we could spend hours and house going through it. We have a significant, startling divide between the way that those who identify as Republicans and to some degree Independents, and those who identify as Democrats today view the news media, and you can see the numbers here which are fairly dramatic.
You’ve got almost 7 in 10 Republicans who will put themselves in the poor job category when we asked them to assess the news media, and you’ve got Independents who tilt that way, and then Democrats, the mirror opposite—not quite as high—you don’t find 7 out of 10 Democrats saying it, but clearly, it’s more in the positive line.
This phenomenon we have found in a number of different measures. We find polarization when we ask about the president—it’s much polarized than it has been historically. We and other research firms have looked at a variety of issues over the last years, and when we ask them almost anything, people are more partisan now than they used to be.
When we asked people how’s the economy doing, nothing to do with politics, we find a growing divide, where Democrats today simply cannot say it’s doing well with a Republican president. A year ago, Republicans didn’t say it was going well. So, this is part of that same phenomenon. I think it’s one of the most important things that we’ll be dealing with here, is the fact that you’ve got the right side of America, so to speak—and I mean that ideologically—in a very critical mode when we or other pollsters asked them about the news media, again, for a variety of reasons.
One final point I would make out of all of this report is a fairly negative review of the internet. Surprisingly, or interestingly, Americans are fairly positive about television news. They claim they actually get news from television news more than anywhere else, but when we ask them about the internet, when we ask about social media in particular, we get negative responses back from the American public. And in particular we get negative responses when we ask about something like social media, which enables you to get a newsfeed which gives you the types of news based on your history that you enjoy seeing or reading about. The public actually says that’s not good. They think it’s not appropriate, not good, to get a diet that’s just what they’re interested in. the good news there, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg and others are beginning to realize this, and there’s a lot going on on that chain. But I think that’s very significant, given that the internet is the dominant source of news for people who are younger, in particular, in our survey.
One final point. Most Americans claim they are not ideologically in a vacuum when they get news—that is, even though we may think it’s the case that conservatives only watch conservative media and liberals only watch liberal. When we ask Americans, the vast majority of them, the big majority of them, say they actually get news from both conservative and liberal sides of the spectrum. So, Americans claim to us that they’re getting news from both sides of the spectrum, which is good, as well.
Sullivan: Very good. Thank you. Jennifer, tell us how Knight expects to respond to the findings of this survey.
Preston: Well, first, it was very important to contribute to the national conversation by supporting this very comprehensive effort by Gallup to understand what are Americans’ attitudes towards the news media. The Knight Foundation has been long involved in journalism, and our mission are informed and engaged communities, and because we believe that an informed community helps support a thriving democracy.
So, last year—and the poll is part of this effort—we began a multi-million-dollar plan to help address these concerns in multiple ways. One, with the poll. Two, last fall we launched with the Aspen Institute a new commission called the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, that’s made up of business leaders, technologists, journalists, to help address some of these concerns over the coming months.
And at the same time, we’ve made millions of dollars of investments in people and projects who are committed to finding solutions to improve the flow of accurate information through machine learning and increasing news literacy with new approaches. So, we don’t know what the solutions are. So what we’re going is exploring many, many different ways to see if we can all together address these very, very major concerns.
The good news is that Americans believe that journalism and the news media is critical, is very important to the role of democracy. So, all of us have a responsibility, whether we’re journalists, major technology companies, and all of us here in the room, to help make sure that at a time when the way that we’re consuming news and information in changing, that we are finding ways to address—
Sullivan: You know, what’s interesting about this, too, is that these numbers come up in a setting in which institutions—all kinds of institutions—are less trusted in America. And I also think it’s interesting to think about what are people responding to when we ask them about the media. Is the media the Washington Post? Is it Fox News? Is it your Facebook feed? What exactly are we talking about?
Preston: That’s one of the key challenges, and one thing that we do know is that many people have a higher level of trust in their local news organization, so a big part of our effort at Knight Foundation is building on our investments in local media. Just this last December, working with other foundations—the Democracy Fund, the MacArthur Foundation—and we launched News Match. It was a matching gifts program to support local not-for-profit news organizations and national not-profit news organizations across the country. Because one opportunity that we do have to build trust back in journalist is to build it one community at a time with our local news organizations.
Sullivan: Do you think that local journalism—do you think it’s under siege? Do you find that it’s—is it a worry for you? I think it’s one of the worst problems we have in the news business right now, is sort of the decline and really the future of local journalism. Do you agree?
Preston: Margaret, we are all familiar with just huge cuts that have been made in local newsrooms across America. And one of the other things that we’re trying very hard to do at night is to help support the acceleration of major metro newspapers across the country to the digital age. And those investments have been paying off in one city after another.
And one other thing that I would just like to add is, I had the privilege over the weekend of reading investigative stories from around the country, because I’m a judge in the Goldsmith Awards, which is administered by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard. So, it was just an extraordinary collection of strong local reporting, of journalists protecting the most vulnerable people in our society through reporting—families who are just like caught up in child welfare snafus, and our most vulnerable elderly, fragile populations in nursing homes. There was just like one entry after another about what’s happening in nursing homes and in our schools.
So I would say that there is tremendous, very important, strong investigative reporting, enterprise reporting that is taking place in cities across America. And what we need to do to battle misinformation is to improve the flow of accurate information, and strong reporting. Because it is there, and we must support it, because one story after another just showed how journalists were making a difference in their communities, and for our most fragile and vulnerable populations.
Sullivan: Do you think education plays a role in this? Do we need to be better about teaching civics and news literacy? Is that part of the equation here?
Preston: That is absolutely part of the equation. And it’s helping young people. Look [HOLDS UP CELL PHONE]. This is where they’re getting their news and information. In addition, young people are also creating content. So, how might we help young people not only be smarter about what they’re consuming, but also be smarter about what they’re creating, and how might young people be part of the whole solution of making sure that communities are property informed and engaged?
And so, absolutely, education is key, and it’s one of the recurring themes that our news Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy is finding and exploring. And of course, the role of technology companies—terrific story on the front page today of The Washington Post follows an extraordinary admission by a senior executive at Facebook about the role of Facebook and social media in the 2016 election. So, there are multiple challenges. The scale of the problem is immense. And at Knight Foundation we know that we can’t do it without partners, so we are working with Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, Hewlett, MacArthur, McCormick, with universities, with scholars, and with business leaders, to really help take on this very important challenge of informed and engaged communities. Because the one finding that I think inspired all of us is that Americans believe that the news media is critical and important to an informed and engaged community.
Sullivan: How much does the partisan divide bother you? And do you think that journalists should be addressing that in some sort of direct way?
Preston: I think that one of the most distressing findings of the poll, but it was a finding that did not come as a surprise to many journalists, and that is the role that polarization is playing in our political discourse and in our civic engagement. And that heightens the responsibilities of journalists to build trust in their communities. And we’re trying to do that by exploring different ways that journalists can do a better job listening.
So today, with Democracy Fund, the Lenfest Institute, we are announcing a $650,000 fund to help newsrooms adopt tools to help better listen and engage with their communities, because we have not just a supply problem here; we have a demand problem. If there isn’t a demand for quality journalism; if there isn’t a demand for fact-checking; if there isn’t a demand for accurate information, then that’s a bigger problem that we must stress.
Sullivan: Absolutely. What are the tools for listening to the community? Is there something new there that we haven’t done before?
Preston: Well, there’s—when we were together at The New York Times, and I was in a role as the first social media editor, one of my most important findings—and Margaret, we would discuss this—is the most job of a journalist is not to broadcast in social media, but to use it to listen. So yes, there are new tools out there for journalists to listen and to be more closely engaged with their communities, because, again, if journalists are not reflecting the real concerns, if we’re not getting out of Washington, if we’re not getting out of New York, and in the West Coast, if we are not in the cities and in the communities and the small towns listening to people, then we’re not going to be able to produce the reporting that counts. We’re not going to be able to rebuild trust, not only in journalist, but in all of the other institutions—democratic institutions that have fallen to an all-time low on the trust indicators.
Sullivan: Does this mean that journalists have to go to even more diners than they’ve been to? [LAUGHTER]
Preston: Hey, I’m a former state house bureau chief in New Jersey. You want to talk about diners? I got recommendations for you. I’ve spent a lot of time in diners.
Sullivan: I’m sure you have good qualifications there, no doubt. Very good. Great. So, I hope you’ll all have a chance to really delve into the survey itself. It’s very interesting. There are aspects of it that I know Frank would have talked about, one of which has to do with skepticism and inattentiveness on the part of the people answering the survey, which is really a fascinating issue. So, I hope you’ll get a chance to read it and spend some time with it.
And we’re pretty much out of time for this segment. So, thank you very much, Jennifer, and I think Frank Newport as well. And I’d like to now hand things off to my colleague, Dan Balz, who will moderate our next discussion. And thanks for being here.
Behind the Camera: Bret Baier and Judy Woodruff on Reporting in an Era of Political Polarization
Balz: Welcome. Good morning, everyone. Thank you for being here. I’m Dan Balz. I’m political reporter here at The Washington Post. I’m very pleased that we’re joined today by Judy Woodruff and Bret Baier, two of the most serious and recognizable figures in our business. It’s a pleasure to have you both. Judy is the anchor and managing editor of the PBS News Hour. Bret is the chief political anchor at Fox News and host of Special Report with Bret Baier. We’re going to talk this morning about journalism in an era of polarization, and these two people understand this probably better than almost anybody else in our business.
There’s a reminder to everybody in the audience that—and those watching online, you can tweet your questions using the hashtag #PostLive. Some of these will show up on my iPad and I will try to pose some of those to Judy and Bret as we go along. I want to start with this report that we just heard about, and sort of the state of American media, at this time in our history. The encouraging thing is that an overwhelming majority of people see the role of the press as vital to the functioning of a democracy, and yet, they think we are falling short. Why do you think that there is the level of distrust today? Judy, we’ll start with you, and then Bret.
Woodruff: First of all, thank you, Dan. It’s great to be here with you, with Bret. It’s great to be at The Washington Post. Thank you for the invitation. I’m so glad you’re doing this look at the media. I think it’s a complicated question. A lot of people have looked at it. I think it has so much to do with what you’ve been talking about; the polarization in the country, and the fact that people are now migrating into their own areas where they pretty much like to take in news that fits their own opinion. I did hear in the previous conversation that people say they do take in news from all sides of the spectrum, but I think so much of what’s going on today is a gravitating towards news that reinforces your own views.
I don’t think that’s everybody, but I think that’s happening more and more. And when that happens, there’s less trust, because if you don’t hear something that resonates with what you already think, then you think, do I really believe that? Where did that come from? So, I think it partly comes from that. I think, frankly, it’s partly the technology; the fact that there’s so much news coming from so many places. We swim in a sea of news. We are surrounded by news, and it is hard. I have sympathy for American citizens who are trying to understand everything that’s going on, trying to take it all in, make sense of it, figure out what’s right, what’s wrong, what adds up, what’s reinforced, what isn’t.
And so, technology, for all the good that it’s brought us, it’s also, I think, made it harder to figure out what’s important, and what do I believe. And so, it’s not surprising to me that there’s more skepticism.
Balz: Bret, follow up on that, but also just the question of what if anything can the press do to try to regain trust in this environment?
Baier: Yeah, first of all, thanks for having me. It’s great to be with Judy and you. I want to start off by saying that, from the previous panel, I am pro-diner. I am pro-listening at those spots that you often see, and I actually think that that’s the solution.
Balz: Are you pro-diner food?
Baier: Well, obviously. Look at me. I think listening to all sides is a big part of reporting, and I think the best interviewers are the ones who listen to the answers, rather than having staid questions. I agree with you, Judy, that social media has changed the landscape, and it is immediate; it’s fast, everybody is absorbing it, you don’t know what’s true and not true, and people want—they hunger for the fact. Where is the fact in all of this? And let’s not sugar-coat it; the president has obviously used Twitter and some of the things he’s said about the press, and that’s affected the polls about how the press is perceived.
And I think that there are some instances where the administration has a case to make about reporters going over their skis on certain stories. But broadly, by attacking the press relentlessly, it has an effect on all of us, and overall, that’s probably not a great thing for the country.
Balz: So, let’s go to the question that I think occupies all of us these days. We’ve been saying this for two and a half years now; we’ve never seen anything quite like it. We’ve never seen a candidate quite like Donald Trump when he was a candidate; we’ve never seen a president quite like him. But as you guys both have a fairly long history of covering administrations, what’s the difference between covering this administration, and the ones you’ve covered in the past. Start with Bret, and then to Judy.
Baier: Night and day. I think that we used to have one big story, one giant story of the day; now, we have six. And each day in this past year has felt like there are so many things going on that it is like drinking from a fire hose. I was talking to somebody the other day, it was one year in, it felt like dog years because we’ve been covering this in a non-stop cycle. And I think the challenge is for reporters and new shows to get to 30,000 feet, to look at what else is happening, to be able to paint a picture that says, “You decide what’s right and what’s wrong, but let’s not get mired in the tweet of the moment,” because it’s like a fishing hook and we’re all fish, and suddenly the hook goes in and we chase it for part of the day.
Well, there are about seven hooks through the day, and I think that that’s the challenge for the news media, is to be able to give perspective on stories that people care about.
Woodruff: He’s a news-making machine. I mean, we’re used to covering president’s who make news from time to time. Donald Trump—President Trump makes news all day long, all night long sometimes. We have to be on our toes all the time. The question is, as Bret is getting to, is what do we pay attention to? That’s the real challenge, I think, for reporters in this administration. Yes, it’s fact checking, it’s reporting, it’s what you always do in any administration, but it’s the fact that there is a blizzard of news, information. There’s palace intrigue, there’s who did this to whom, who’s going to get fired, what did the president tweet, what are they going to announce?
It is just a daily—you’re washed over with news every day, and how do you decide? We are—
Balz: But how do you decide? In this kind of environment, how much more difficult is to put together an hour-long news cast, which both of you have to do every day? How do you sort out what—how do you ignore the tweets but not ignore the tweets? How do you make those decisions, and how much different is it today?
Woodruff: It is completely different. It’s night and day, because before—we meet every morning at 9:30. We spend 45 minutes to an hour talking about what do we have on the program? What are we likely to want to lead with? What’s second, third, fourth, fifth? What are our main segments? For the past year, we have changed the lineup of the show several times a day, including on a number of occasions, right up until we’re on the air. We’re changing the lineup, we’re changing what we cover, we’re changing what guests we’re going after, what stories we’re putting in, because the news is changing.
At the same time, Dan, to get to your question, we’re trying not to be slaves to, again, this news-making machine. We need to pay attention to the president. He is one of the—if not the most powerful person on the planet. His administration can move mountains, figuratively, so we have to pay attention, but we also need to pay attention to things that the administration isn’t paying attention to, and that’s part of our job.
Baier: Judy’s meeting is 30 minutes before my meeting, and we have the same 45-minute discussion, and the thing changes four or five times every day about what our rundown looks like, what is news; it’s always shifting, and it has made our staffs—I’m speaking for you—a lot more nimble, to be able to shift things around at the last minute. But that is the essence of breaking news. For all of the folks who have been fighting in the press, and I’m one of them, for transparency from administrations, this is about as transparent as you can get with a president who essentially tells us what he’s thinking most times through the day.
There are things that we need to know. There are other things that we want to know, but we have never seen a president who has given us his thoughts about everything from—I don’t know—
Woodruff: Go ahead, sir.
Balz: Don’t go there.
Baier: Runs the gamut.
Balz: But here’s a related question. The president obviously is a news-creating machine. And sometimes he does it accidentally, but often it’s for strategic purposes. What’s being left out by so much concentration on the president? What are you—at the end of a week, what do you say, “I wish we had been able to do something that we haven’t been able to do?” How much are important things not related to the president not getting covered these days?
Woodruff: Well, we make a point on The News Hour of every week having a specific segment where we focus on the economy, broadly speaking, and that can be on how a shopkeeper in Omaha is doing, and how that relates, say, to the tax bill. And then we deliberately have a science segment, and an education segment, so we’re always thinking about other layers of our lives in this country, and the world that we’re trying to cover—international coverage at the same time.
So, we’re not completely ball and chain connected to the White House. But we have to make that judgment call every day. How much space, how many minutes are we going to devote to what the president said, or what the White House said, and how much else? It puts a lot on our shoulders. We’re prepared to handle that; that’s what we do as journalists, but it means we can’t ever take our eye off the ball. We have to be constantly watching, but you asked what stories are we—regulatory changes, they are coming thick and fast right now. We need to be paying more attention to that. Environmental stories, people’s lives—people go about their lives in this country all day long, all week long without paying a whole lot of attention to Donald Trump and Washington.
Baier: And we have the same—
Woodruff: And we have to pay attention to them.
Baier: We have the same kind of theory, in that protecting certain elements of the show—the economy is always a driving factor. We have a segment now once a week called “Whatever Happened To.” Whatever happened to X, Y, Z. People write in and we do a piece based on stories that, since in America, we seem to cover things in chapters, and that chapter is closed, and we move on, we go back to the chapter and say, “Whatever happened to this story?”
So, I think you’re right about protecting that time to make sure we cover other things, and just to give you an example, remember the weekend where the president was down—he was campaigning for Luther Strange, and clearly, Strange was going to lose. The dynamic had shifted, and over that weekend, he used the NFL kneeling—he just can’t—in the speech, and then he tweeted about it. Well, that sucked up so much oxygen in the news bubble that we didn’t cover the fact that he lost, Roy Moore won, North Korea was not in a good place. There were a bunch of negative things happening, but you wouldn’t have really gotten a sense of everything completely because the domination was of the kneeling tweets and the focus.
Balz: Judy, you said something recently I want to read to people, that said, “You shouldn’t go into journalism if you want to win a popularity contest. If you’re doing your job, there are always going to be people who criticize your reporting, but we’ve never been at a place like we are today where there’s practically an entire industry around criticizing the media and holding the mainstream media up as suspect. I think the term ‘fake news’ has done a lot of damage to the media.” Describe the damage.
Woodruff: The damage is in the minds and the eyes of people who are our consumers, all across the country, and you see it in the polls, where people—you saw it—see it in this poll. The lessening of trust in the news media—I believe, it sounds corny, but I believe so passionately that a free press, free media, the roll that we play—news media—in our democracy is part of what holds our democracy together. And if enough Americans start—people in this country start thinking the press is not to be believed, that we are to be shoved to the side, regulated, or treated, controlled in some way, then I think we’ve got real problems.
Or even if it doesn’t get to that point, and they just don’t believe what we’re doing, then I think our democracy is weakened by that, and I think that’s what happened.
Balz: But do you—related to that—do you think that because of what Judy’s describing, and that fracturization that we’ve seen going on, that there is a genuine threat to the First Amendment? The president has attacked the press in ways that has delegitimized, in a sense, serious reporting, or an attempt to. How much do you see that as a threat, or do you see it simply as part of our politics today, and not really a threat to the First Amendment, or to press freedoms?
Baier: Listen, there are things that are really concerning for the press. If someone gets boxed out of something; if access is denied, I do think, as I said, that constantly talking down to the press broadly, in broad strokes, hurts. But I think people forget that we have a checks and balances system, where you do have the president, and whatever he’s doing, the administration, you have Congress and you have the U.S. Supreme Court. And I think that when push comes to shove, the First Amendment is going to be defended. There’s not a risk that suddenly this is going to become a banana republic, and we’re all going to be going to Gitmo because we did a bad story.
I think that some of that needs to just be put in perspective, but at the same time, pushed back and make sure that we’re covering it fairly.
Balz: Bret, the president clearly favors Fox News at this point; he didn’t as a candidate. He seemed to favor other networks, but since he’s been president, he seems to favor Fox News. So, I think that most people in this audience would assume that Fox News has sort of most favored nation’s status at the White House, and yet, in an interview a few months ago, you said this: “We’re in the same boat as every other news network when it comes to trying to get interview.” Am I correct in saying that you—
Baier: That’s an accurate quote because I’m talking about the news side of Fox News. The opinion side of Fox News does not have a problem getting interviews, but my request, Chris Wallace’s request for an interview with the president has not been answered, and I last interviewed candidate Trump almost 500 days ago. And have asked every week since for an interview, sometimes twice a week, and have—I’ve seen him off the record a couple of times at engagements, and he’s said, “It’s going to happen very soon.”
Balz: Like so many things.
Baier: “Guaranteed. It’ll be huge.” I don’t get to do that much on the show.
Balz: You all should get the opportunity to see Bret do a Bill Clinton impersonation as well. He’s quite good at that.
Baier: But I think that—so, there’s a difference, and when I’m talking about that in every other network, I’m talking about the news side of Fox, and our requests are the same as other networks. In fact, Lester Holt was the last news interview—broadcast news interview that he’s done. Now, he’s talked to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and Reuters, I guess, but he hasn’t done a broadcast interview since Lester Holt.
Woodruff: And we’re trying constantly to get an interview with him, as well. But they did have that lunch—that casual lunch with The New York Times the other day.
Baier: Yes, on the grill.
Balz: Yes, which—how do you, as journalists and as news anchors who are responsible for putting newscasts together, deal with the fact that this is a president who has often dealt in false information? The litany is pretty well known, but what’s the press’ responsibility to call out those inaccuracies? And just as important, what are the boundaries that you have internally at news organizations, in how you deal with that? The use of the word ‘lie,’ for example, is something that I think every news organization has grappled with. What do you, or do you ever talk about things as lies, as opposed to falsehoods? What are the ways in which you deal with that, and what are the boundaries?
Woodruff: Well, my thinking, and I think our thinking on this has evolved, because we didn’t come into this administration expecting a president or an administration not to tell the truth, or not to share facts. So, once we realized that this was going to happen every once in a while, they were going to be statements made by the president or other people in the White House that could not be borne out by any evidence, we had to come up with a way to talk about it, to deal with it. To me, the word ‘lie’ is different from saying ‘isn’t factual.’ You can say something isn’t factual because it isn’t borne out. To lie is to say somebody deliberately is saying whatever they’re saying, that there’s a motive or intent. We don’t know what’s in the president’s mind or in the mind of some of the people around him, but we’ve had to come up with a way to talk about it.
We absolutely feel it’s our obligation to talk about it. If the president or if someone around him says something that cannot be borne out, we feel it’s our responsibility to say so, and it’s a judgment call as to how many of these things we point out. If there are ten of them in a day, we’re not going to go through all ten. We’ll pick out the one or two that we think are the most important at that moment, but yes, we have had to come up with a way to deal with it.
Baier: And I agree 100%. I don’t think—some networks choose to, as the president is speaking, put a lower third on the screen that says, “That’s not true.” That’s not what we do, but we do do stories where we point out the factual inaccuracies, what’s true, what’s not about what’s being said, and I agree with your assessment of the word lie. It has a motivation to it, and that’s where there is this line of being fair, fact-checking, but making sure that you let the administration tell the story behind why that was said, what was happening, what was the motivation behind saying that.
There are a lot of them. And you could use your entire newscast dealing with kind of this fact-check thing. And there’s a lot of other stuff happening.
Balz: President Obama said recently the following: “If you are watching Fox News, you are living on a different planet than if you are listening to NPR.” So, put aside for a minute whether Mars or Venus is planet reality; there’s no question that different networks present the news differently, and that consumers, as we’ve already talked about, are somewhat in silos. So, my question is, how concerned are both of you about kind of the bifurcated nature of the way news is both presented and consumed? But more important, how cognizant are you of your own audiences and to what extent does that shape the way you put a program together?
Woodruff: Well, that’s a big question, in terms of how do we think about the audience, and then how do we shape our program? We don’t go into our morning meeting every day thinking, okay, we’ve got this percentage of people watching. We are aware of ratings, but we don’t—at Public Broadcasting, that’s not our highest calling. Yes, we want people to watch; we don’t want people to stop watching—please watch, and follow us online, and on Twitter, and all the rest of it. But sure, what we want to do is constantly engage with people across the spectrum.
We want people to watch us and read us online, no matter what their political views are, and we think the we do that is by adding light to whatever story it is, whether it’s the environment, the budget, the government shut down, Turkey, Syria. If we can add information, if we can add understanding and depth of understanding, then we think we’ve done something, we’ve added something. But we’re not there just to put on a show, just to put on a fight every night. That’s not what we do. We have people who disagree; that’s part of what happens, and it’s healthy in our democracy. People disagree, yes. But it’s not the end all and be all of what we’re doing on The News Hour. We feel very strongly that our main purpose is to enlighten, to try to bring light to a story and help people understand it, and to do it in the most interesting way possible.
Baier: So, I recommend watching and DVRing either Special Report or The News Hour, and then you can see both, at the same time. No, listen, I think people do get their news from a lot of different places. Again, what President Obama references, we had our challenges with the Obama administration, covering the Obama White House, both even in the darkest hours, where they were coming after Fox News a bit, I was still getting answers. Jay Carney was taking my calls. Robert Gibbs was, our White House correspondent was covering the administration, and when we were denied access to an interview that the press pool was being put out at the White House, other organizations stood up for us, and that meant a lot to the news organization of Fox.
The problem, sometimes, is that Fox gets painted with a broad brush, and Sean Hannity’s show is not special report. I think Sean Hannity, for what he—his opinion, he does an amazing job with his bringing forward his thoughts on things, similar to an opinion page of a newspaper that has their opinions, but you know what you’re watching. You know what you’re reading, so the difference between those two shows is pretty stark. I think sometimes President Obama when he talked about Fox News would talk broadly. Do we do stories that other shows don’t? Yes, but there’s a lot of stories that just by the selecting the story doesn’t mean that it is not news.
We are also breaking stories about lack of funding for the military and how it’s affecting flying. We’re breaking stories in the Justice Department in investigations. So, I think that you have to watch my show, the news side, three times, and then let me know if we cover it fairly.
Balz: Your point about the difference between an opinion page or an opinion part of a news organization and the news side, there’s a question from Helena on Twitter. She asks both of you, what does it mean to be a journalist today, versus when you first started in this business? She says, it seems like the lines now are blurred by what it means to be a journalist versus a writer or commentator.
Woodruff: Well, I’ll tell you one difference. When I started out as a reporter, many years ago in Atlanta, working for a television station covering the state capitol and city hall, I was told, “Nobody wanted to know what Judy Woodruff thought about anything.” I was to keep my views out of my writing, and out of my work. Go out, report, take notes, come back, pull it together, and tell us what’s going on in the city or in the state capitol. We don’t want to know what you think.
Flash forward to today, a lot of people are constantly asking on Twitter, online, and in person, “Well, what do you really think? I can tell by the way you raised your eyebrow that you are skeptical of the person you were talking to.” And it’s just a different—it is a completely different world that we live in, in terms of what we’re expected. Having said that, Dan, I think we need to stick to our knitting. We need to continue to do what we’ve always done as reporters, which is collect information, write about it, report, and let people make up their own minds. Let them decide what they want to do.
Yes, there’s a role for opinion, but we need to be very clear, and by the way, we should be more transparent about that, about when is there opinion in what we’re presenting, and when is it reporting, so that people can understand it better.
Baier: That’s great. My mentor and friend Brit Hume, when I took over for him, said, “Here’s one thing: it’s not about you. It’s about the news, it’s about what generates from the correspondents, it’s not about you.” And that’s what I really tried to take to the newscast, is it’s not about me. When I started in small market TV, covering loggerhead sea turtle nesting, and town council meetings, you’re digging, you’re digging, and I tried to take that through to the Pentagon and the White House, and what we do every day, but there are people, because of our culture and because of social media that are asking all the time, how do you feel? What do you think? And it’s a challenge to be able to say, “Listen, you decide; we report.”
Balz: How much do you hear from your audience? And do they expect you, in a sense, to take sides in these battles? I know I get a lot of emails from things I write, and there are people on one side who want you to do a certain thing; people on another side—but you obviously have specific kinds of audiences. What do they expect of you, and how do you respond to that?
Woodruff: There’s no one audience. It’s—there are people out there, I think, who understand—who’ve watched the program for a long time, follow us online, follow what we do in social media. They understand who we are, and what we do. There are others who come to us with strong views on—the folks who watch us consistently are on the left and on the right. There are some folks who may watch, and they haven’t seen the program before, who will say, “Well, wait a minute, why aren’t you expressing your view?”
There is no one description for everybody who watches it. By the way, Dan, there is an audience out there. Yes, there is this strong view on the left and on the right; we know that’s there. But I know there is a sizable constituency of folks out there who want straight news. They want it given to them as straight as we can do it. We’re not perfect. No such thing as objectivity, but our audience—I just said earlier, we don’t care about ratings, but the fact is, our audience numbers are up, and I think it’s because people do want straight reporting. They want to know what’s going on in the world.
Baier: I totally agree, and I’ll get emails from people who say, “You are totally in the tank for Trump.” And the next email will say, “You are such a never-Trumper. I can’t believe how you leaned right when you asked that question, and the tone in which you used,” so then I’ll send those emails to each other and say, “Bob, this is John. John, this is Bob, why don’t you guys work it out and get back to me.” But—
Woodruff: That’s a great idea. I hadn’t thought about that.
Baier: I think that there is a hunger for just—listen, there is this; this is what they say, this is what they say, here’s what we know. That’s it. And you can have analysts on to talk about different sides of it, and that’s what we try to do, but I agree with you, Judy. There’s a big audience out there, that’s not either side, that really wants news.
Balz: Frank Newport in the previous panel talked about the degree to which there is a greater skepticism on the right towards the news media today than—and they’ve—Gallup has asked, for many years, a question about accuracy in media. And I went back and looked at this the other day. In 1998, 52% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans said the media were generally accurate. Today, in the most recent iteration of that question, 62% of Democrats say the media are generally accurate, 14% of Republicans agree with this. Here’s a question to cut across the ideological spectrum, in a sense. To what extent does prime time cable contribute to this kind of polarization that we see in our politics? Is it a reflection of our politics? Or does it, in fact, feed that polarization?
Woodruff: I think it’s both. I think it reflects the polarization that’s there, but I think it exacerbates it and feeds on it. Not everybody is out there watching prime time cable every day, every night, but it’s there, and it contributes, but I think it’s much more complex than that. It’s the role of the press in all of this; it’s the role our political leaders play. But I think we all need to take a hard look at every aspect of the news media in this country, and think about what we’re doing. Are we contributing to not just this sort of nebulous idea of bringing the country together? What does that mean? But are we contributing to people getting a better understanding of what’s really going on, making the right decisions for themselves, for their families, and how to go forward? That’s really what, to me, what the press needs to be doing, whether it’s opinion or news coverage. And I think we need to be asking those hard questions.
Baier: I agree. I mean, listen. Some of those opinion programs are very pointed. They have a huge following, and as I said before, they’re good at what they do, but they do what they do. And it’s clear, I think, for somebody watching, that—wait, this is not a news cast. I think that that’s clear. Do I think it contributes? I’m not going to talk about whether it’s good for society, but there are two sides to every story, and I do think that in the middle of the country, especially, there is this frustration that they went through an election where everybody was telling them that Donald Trump was going to lose, that Hillary Clinton was going to win, that there was no way it was going to happen; that even after the Access Hollywood tape that essentially there was no chance, and then he won.
There was a disconnect there that was never really—the circle was never closed. So, the distrust kind of—it built on itself, and obviously, some shows take advantage of that.
Balz: Good. We are out of time, so we have to end. I want to thank Judy and Bret for a very good discussion.
Woodruff: Thank you, Dan.
Balz: Terrific—we could probably do this for another hour, but we don’t have the time to do it. So, thank you all. I’m now going to hand off to my colleague Libby Casey who will lead the next discussion. Thank you all.
Woodruff: Thank you.
Bridging the Gap – Journalists, Experts Discuss Rebuilding Trust in Media
Casey: Good morning, everyone. Thank you so much for being here. I’m Libby Casey. I’m the on-air politics and accountability reporter here at The Washington Post and I’m joined today by Stephen Hays, editor-in-chief of The Weekly Standard and a Fox News contributor. Thank you so much for being here.
Hayes: Thanks for having me.
Casey: Indira Lakshmanan, the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute and a columnist for The Boston Globe. Thank you, Indira, and April Ryan. [APPLAUSE] [LAUGHTER] We have a lot of April Ryan fans. Fantastic.
Ryan: Why thank you.
Casey: White House correspondent, Washington bureau chief for the American Urban Radio Network, and she’s also a CNN political analyst.
Casey: I’d like to remind you here in our audience and those watching online that you can send us questions on Twitter. Just use the #PostLive. And we really want to look and talk about in this segment how we build trust and solutions. I don’t even know if we should use the word “rebuild trust”. We can talk about how we got here, but I really want to hear from the three of you how we go forward. So Indira, let me start with you because obviously, Poynter has been digging into this question as well. Where do you begin?
Lakshmanan: Well, I think we do need to set the table a little bit about talking how we got here in the first place and it is true as the other panelists have been discussing, that trust in the news media has been falling. Gallup has been looking at this since the early ‘70s. It began falling around 1977 and has been falling pretty much since then. What I thought was really interesting was that this year we’re actually up from where we were at the all-time low in September 2016 right before the election. So trust in journalism is going up. There was a very interesting Edelman Trust Barometer annual survey that came out yesterday that broke it down with one graph that looked at trust in media versus trust in journalism. And I have never seen in all of the studies that have been done, I haven’t seen it broken out in that way and I thought that was really interesting.
We did our own—this Knight/Gallup poll is a fantastic, really deep and thorough survey and I encourage all of you, now that they’ve given you copies, to go home and read it. It’s really interesting and delves deep. We a month ago did a Poynter Media Trust Survey where we specifically looked at polarization and political views and what people thought about the media. What I thought was interesting about the Edelman survey is that it showed that if you look at platforms, people’s trust in social media platforms like Facebook is absolutely plummeting, whereas their trust in news journalism as distinguished from that is actually on the rise, and I thought that was some little bit of encouraging news. We all need encouraging news. And we can have a long conversation about how we start rebuilding it, but the important thing is I think one of the things that has fed it is the rise of partisan media, particularly through cable; the sort of explosion of cable since the end of the Fairness Doctrine under the Reagan Administration and the sort of proliferation in cable news and talk radio, which have allowed sort of partisan viewpoints.
So whoever on an earlier panel said if you’re listening to NPR, if you’re listening to Fox, you’re in two different universes. That’s right. You can completely go down one rabbit hole, whether it’s digital, whether it’s cable, whether it’s radio and listen to Rush Limbaugh or listen to Democracy Now and you’re going to have a completely different view of the world. That, I think, is problematic and I wish that instead of increasing the filter bubbles by social media, sort of encouraging us to look at more of the same things, I wish that instead, we were encouraged to get out of that filter bubble and listen more. And I love the idea that Margaret Sullivan was saying on the first panel about the most important use of social media for journalists is not for us to broadcast out all of our ideas, but rather to listen to the public and hear what you all think.
So that, I think, is something we should all be keeping in mind. Listening is my main objective for this year. I’m planning on doing some trust townhalls throughout the country, bringing journalists like these two beside me, who I’m going to recruit for this. Taking them all throughout the heartland of America and listening to people, hearing what they have to say and what is it that they want to be fixed. So that’s where I want to begin the conversation. We can get back to it. I think there are certain things that we already know we can do, but I think it begins with listening.
Casey: Bret Baier was also speaking about listening and how it’s such an important job of the journalist and as I’ve been talking to journalists in The Washington Post newsroom, as they go out and report, people are surprised that journalists feel like one of their jobs is truly to listen. Not so much talking, not so much punditry. April, how do you show viewers, though? How do you show your audience and show your radio listeners that you are listening?
Ryan: You hit the nail squarely on the head. I have a Twitter app, the Twitter Q&A and I like to throw out questions maybe once a week to get an unofficial, unscientific poll for myself to see what people are saying. Sometimes, I have those who are on the left and sometimes, I have those who are on the right, but I like hearing from everyone. Because I want to get the sense of what’s happening out there because we are in this crazy bubble and of course, you’re going to hear the spin but I want to listen to what America has to say, be it Trumpland, be it Hillaryland, be it Yourland. Whatever land it is and I think it’s very important that listening is one of the primary pieces and we also understand that it’s not just two sides of the story anymore; it’s all sides of the story. And I find myself really now being more so aggressive about getting the truth and putting the truth out versus opinion.
I’m clear when I’m no the air, “Well, so-and-so says this”, to give it attribution because the problem is the line has been obscured between fact and opinion now and people do not know what to think and they’re like, “Well, wait a minute.” And understanding the times that we’re in and there is this piece in social media that’s not real and some of the headlines are sensationalized and I’m caught as well, like, “Oh, wow.” And I look at the byline and I say, “Oh, this isn’t real.” And so it’s incumbent upon us as journalists to really make sure we’re putting fact and make sure when we give the opinion of someone, that they know that it’s opinion because the stakes are too high right now. The stakes are very high to be playing these games like being ambivalent about what you say. No, you have to give fact because I’m telling you, just this weekend alone, I had to knock down a lot of stereotypes and a lot of feeling. I said, “Let’s give fact.” Because people need the facts because again, the stakes are very high right now.
Casey: Stephen, you’ve talked about how you want to grow your audience at The Weekly Standard. You don’t just want readers who already agree with a conservative perspective. How do you reach across aisles to build trust and gain a readership that might not agree with your starting point?
Hayes: Well, we’re perfectly happy to have more conservatives, too. We just want to grow our audience. Look, we see our role in a pretty specific way. We think it’s important, particularly in light of the kinds of things that we’re discussing now for people to be able to go somewhere; conservative, liberal, center-of-the-road, what have you, and learn new things. Be presented with information that might challenge some of their deeply held views and we’re doing that on a regular basis. We’re reporting things I think that my liberal friends wouldn’t like. We had an editorial, a reported editorial a couple of weeks ago embracing President Trump’s change of view on Pakistan policies. I think it was time for this kind of a change.
At the same time, we’re challenging our conservative readers on a regular basis and Indira and I have talked about this before. The way I’ve described it is what we’re trying to do is provide information, not affirmation. We don’t want people to come to The Weekly Standard only because they want to nod their head along with us and agree with everything we’re saying. We hope that they’re challenged because it’s through being challenged from other views that you’re going to learn more.
Casey: And one of the aspects that this Knight study looks at is are people sharing on social media for that affirmation to solicit agreement or are they also posting things online to challenge other people’s views and try to win people over.
Hayes: Yeah, and to pick up on the points that were made here; look, if we leave here and journalists in the media industry, media academics, do what you two are suggesting now to do, which is much more listening, we will have made tremendous progress. One of my frustrations as a lifelong conservative or libertarian, depending on how you’d want to describe me, is that conservatives have been complaining about a lack of objectivity in the media for literally decades. I think the inclination from a lot of my colleagues in the mainstream media and certainly, people I went to school with at Columbia, where I did some graduate school work, was just to dismiss that and say, “Oh, gosh. There go those whiny conservatives complaining again.”
I think there’s a reason that conservatives have been frustrated with the mainstream media for all of these years and the best thing that journalists can do is listen to that and take that into account and stop and if you’re inclined to say, “There are those whiny conservatives complaining about the media again”, to stop and say, “Well, wait a second. Why are they complaining about this? Is this just a political move? Are they just trying to discredit the mainstream media?” And I think that would be healthy for everybody because I do think that that’s a problem. I think it’s contributed to where we are right now and it’s one of the reasons that conservatives across the country are so willing to believe President Trump when he says, “Oh, fake news. They’re all fake news.” And it’s unhealthy.
Casey: I’d like Indira to respond, though, because there is a question of—there’s certainly a big area between outright dismissal and saying, “That’s ridiculous. That’s absurd.” And saying, “Oh, oh, you’re right.” How do you respond as a newsroom or as a journalist to accusations like that? Some of which may be valid and some of which may just be political in nature.
Lakshmanan: Right, Steve is absolutely right. He didn’t quite say this, but I will say, Donald Trump did not create this problem. Donald Trump has capitalized the existing distrust of the media in order to say “fake news” and try to discredit the entire media ecosystem. The objective is clear. He’s doing it in order to say, “I’m the only one you can trust.” He wants to say, “You can only believe me. You can’t believe any of these other people.” So that it discredits any negative news that’s reported about him because he’s discrediting the givers of that news. That predated him. It’s incredibly dangerous to do that, as you say, to dismiss the entire news media ecosystem and say, “No, you’re all fake news”, and that really troubles me. It’s dangerous not only for American democracy. It’s dangerous for governments and systems around the entire world and we’ve seen a lot of autocrats around the world taking a page from Donald Trump, using the term “fake news”. Duterte in the Philippines has done it. Maduro in Venezuela was doing it even before Donald Trump, giving out fake news awards. This is terrible and really corrosive to democracy and government, but I will say, in terms of us acknowledging that yes, people have a problem with us, particularly people on the right.
We have to and the science shows this, the surveys show this. Our poll showed that something like 77% of Republicans don’t trust the news media, whereas it’s almost flipped for Democrats. That is a real problem. So how do we address that? Steve is already doing something at The Weekly Standard with joining the International Factchecking Network, which is housed at Poynter. They’re doing their own fact checks when he has said, “Well, conservatives have a problem with fact-checks. They feel it’s like, “What do you choose to fact-check, right?” So now, he can say, “Okay, we’re going to fact-check the things we want to fact-check.” As long as you’re smothering every story in facts, that is what’s important. As long as you’re saying, “Here are the facts. You can fact-check this person or that person. It doesn’t matter. Make sure that facts are everywhere in that.” And we need to be transparent. We need to not just listen to readers and viewers and listeners. We need to make clear that we have heard them and one way to do that is—people criticize this, but The New York Times the other day turned over its editorial pages to Trump voters and made all letters to the editor from Trump voters.
That’s a way of saying, “We’re listening to you. We’re hearing you and here are your views”. And showing them. That’s one way to do it. The Washington Post has done some tremendous stuff with being really transparent about how you do your work. Whether it’s annotating stories, whether it’s your series, How to be a Journalist, where you interview people in the newsroom about how they got their stories. That kind of transparency, labeling what’s opinion, what’s news, and making it clear and obvious so that I don’t get angry readers saying, “You are a biased news reporter.” And say, “Wait a second. I’m a columnist. Bias is a feature, not a bug.” It’s supposed to be. But that is the point; making it clear to people and showing back to them that you are listening and this is how we do our job.
Casey: April, you’re really responding to the term “fake news.”
Ryan: Yeah. [LAUGHS] Indira, you’re right about a couple pieces. But I have two points. One, when you say, “fake news” and it’s targeted at people, it’s putting a target on their heads and I say this from the knowledge of being a target. I said this recently and it’s true: I’ve gotten death threats. These people have taken it too far and we’re so tribal now. It’s like, just because you ask questions of a president and I have the utmost respect for the office and this president and I want to interview this president. I want a one-on-one interview. But people are looking at it like I hate him or I’m trying to do something. I’m reporting to you things you may not like, but they’re fact.
And then when you try to suppress the press, it’s not about suppressing us, it’s about suppressing the information that you need. So people need to stop saying, “Fake news, fake news”, and understand, it’s deeper than that. It’s about suppressing information and fact that you need to understand to be able to formulate your own opinion on who to vote for, on a situation in your community, what have you. So this is bigger than just this moment in time but it’s getting very dangerous.
Casey: April, I want to share one item that came out of this Gallup/Knight survey that just fascinated me. Four in 10 Republican respondents said, “Accurate news stories that show a politician or political group in a negative light are always fake news.” So we’re talking about not sort of truth and falsehood, but agreement. I’d love to hear what you do with that, April, Stephen. Stephen, let’s start with you. What do you do with that information?
Ryan: Look at Stephen pondering hard.
Hayes: Look, it’s a real problem. We get this at The Weekly Standard. I get it with some of the things that I say on Fox when I challenge the president or when I point out the things that he said that are not true, which happens, as the previous panel discussed, with far too great frequency. And people don’t want to hear it. You can show them a video—literally, I’ve had occasions where I’ve shown people videos of President Trump saying something. It’s a video. He said these things. [LAUGHTER] And they will deny that it happened and say, “Oh, it had to have been doctored. Fake news. You got that from the mainstream media. I can’t believe you’re one of them now. I liked you better when you liked the Tea Party.” And it’s a huge problem.
I think this is why the answer—I’m going to go back to your original question in terms of a solution is—your phrasing on the solution is great: smother people in facts again and again and again. Be relentless about smothering people in facts. That’s not to say you can’t make—we’re an opinion magazine. We call ourselves a “conservative journal of opinion”. It’s not to say that you can’t also make arguments that have an opinion, but when you’re making a fact-based case you have to put the facts first.
Casey: April, what do you do with that information? This definition of fake news that is so malleable, depending on who you talk to.
Ryan: What do I do with it? What do I do with it? [LAUGHTER] I think back about something my mother said—my late mother used to tell me that came from Dr. Martin Luther King: “It’s not that they call you, but what you answer to”. I don’t answer to that. I’ve been at the White House for 21 years this year. I’ve been in this business for 30 years and I’m not fake. Again, when I give information, and especially in that briefing room, I try to support it with so-and-so said this, so it is not as if I’m giving my opinion or I’m throwing darts. I’m not fake. I’m a news person. I’m a journalist. Journalism 101 has been out the window. There are so many citizen journalists now who feel that they can come to the White House, who can just put up on a blog, and this is what I saw.
But it’s deeper than just the moment in the briefing room. There’s other digging you have to do inside of that White House outside of the White House. To hear the word fake; it’s ugly and for many of us who are in that room who are seasoned journalists and Steve, I’m sure you’ll say the same thing: We’re not fake.
Ryan: The vast majority of us are not fake and I do not embrace that at all.
Hayes: Look, the president has—he deserves some of the blame here. The president has elevated—
Ryan: You’re going to get in trouble for that.
Hayes: Fake news. [LAUGHTER] It won’t be the first time. The president has elevated some fake news outlets, given them seats in the White House briefing room.
Ryan: Oh, yes. First question, second question.
Hayes: That’s a problem. He shouldn’t do it. Yeah, it’s a huge problem. The other point, just to jump in—
Lakshmanan: By which you mean conspiracy theorists—
Lakshmanan: Posing as news sites who are not doing actual reporting; they’re just making stuff up, putting hoaxes out.
Lakshmanan: People who—
Hayes: We should name them. Gateway Pundit is one of them. Gateway Pundit is one of them.
Ryan: You said it, I didn’t.
Hayes: I did. It will be featured on their blog and it will rile people up.
Ryan: I’m the poster child for—
Hayes: We should name them.
Ryan: Stuff like that, for organizations like that. So you said it, not me [00:18:00 ph].
Casey: And InfoWars is another organization that puts out false information. We should stick with the original meaning. The original meaning of fake news and on one of the panels that’s coming up is Craig Silverman from Buzzfeed, who was one of the people who pioneered this term, but it was really meant to refer to conspiracy theories and the fact that CNN did a count and found that in his first year in office, Donald Trump used the word “fake” more than 400 times.
Lakshmanan: That means more than once a day, he was calling something he didn’t like “fake”, whether it was fake news or fake polls or fake people. It’s like anyone he doesn’t like, it’s fake. That is just so wrong. It’s become so politicized. What he’s done is he’s appropriated the term and changed the meaning to mean something else. It’s robbed of its original meaning.
Ryan: Right, and this White House—and I’m not going to just say this White House. Other White Houses are very aware of what reporters have leaned to whatever that administration is for or if they agree with certain policy items or agenda items. They are very well aware of that room. They know who is in that room, who is for them, regardless. They can say, “The sky orange”, and they’ll believe it and they write that the president said the sky is orange and the sky is clearly blue. But it’s a very interesting dynamic in that room. It’s interesting when they know that they’re going to get pushback on certain issues, there are certain reporters that they won’t call on. [LAUGHTER] When they feel like they could win something, they’ll do more conservative journalists that day or more people who, I guess, would say, supported the president.
Just look at the Christmas party and I wasn’t invited and I wasn’t going to go anyway. [LAUGHTER] But those who came to the Christmas party were a lot of those who espoused a lot of the policies and theories and ideologies of this president to the Republican Party. So it’s sad. It’s a sad day when it’s us versus them instead of all of us really just trying to get to the heart of the issue.
Lakshmanan: This is so disappointing because the whole point of—in the past, you can say whether the White House Christmas party or White House Correspondent’s Association Dinner, whether those things are silly or not [00:20:03 ph]. That’s another conversation. But the point of it has been a way to have casual time with sources who we work with every day.
Lakshmanan: So I spent eight years covering the State Department and the State Department Christmas party, it doesn’t mean you’re schmoozing up Hillary Clinton and John Kerry; it means you’re there to talk to your sources. It’s a casual moment and the idea—
Ryan: Build on the relationship.
Lakshmanan: Right, and the problem is once it becomes something where it’s seen as political to either attend or not attend something where you’re source-building, that’s bad.
Ryan: It is very bad.
Lakshmanan: The whole point of this is we’re supposed to be reporting. I have to give credit to my friend, Sudeep Reddy at POLITICO for that term “smothering a story in fact”, but that is what we’re supposed to be doing; that’s our job and bringing information and the more that people question the underlying information and corresponding with that, the more that we have people who are Trump supporters and Republicans saying that there should be limits on press freedom.
We had one-quarter of the people in our survey saying that there should be limits on the First Amendment. That’s terrible. We’re going down an incredibly dangerous path if there are a quarter of Americans who think that.
Casey: What is the responsibility of news organizations versus journalists themselves to show some of this accountability and transparency to rebuild this trust? And I’d love to hear how you, as individuals, how do you build trust on a personal level? Not just as journalists, but as people. It’s a question that we can all ask ourselves. How do I learn to trust Indira? I check you out, I look at you online, I get a sense of your perspective. I look for common ground, ways I can relate to you. So how do we build trust?
Ryan: Everyone’s looking at me. Okay. [LAUGHTER]
Casey: We all just kept turning—
Ryan: I tell a lot of my sources—my Republican sources as well as my Democratic sources and independent sources: I believe in building bridges and not burning them. For instance, I don’t have to say anything and I’m sure, Steve, you have the same situation. Sometimes stories just fall in your lap because they know; they’ve watched you and they know that you’re accountable, that your journalistic integrity is there. Sometimes, I don’t have to ask anything. For instance, I’m going to give you two examples from different administrations. Through the Obama years, how in the world this journalist from American Urban Radio Networks—I had my own Deep Throat with the ACA numbers and the White House was like, “Where did you get those numbers from?” I said, “Where did you get yours from?” And I was beating them every time. I knew when the president called in. I knew when Denis McDonough was there. And they were like, “How are you finding out?” So if you really work with integrity and you’re accountable and you work for fact, people will find that out.
And then in this administration, I’m not going to say the name. I was on the air until 2:00 in the morning on Don Lemon’s show. We were doing the election coverage when Doug Jones won December 12th. Well, apparently, that night was night also election night, but it was a pretty hot night at the White House because at 6:00 a.m., my text messages were blowing up. I didn’t get any sleep and after you get about five people from different areas telling you, “Something happened. So-and-so was fired. There was high drama”, you’ve got to pay attention. So if you’re a journalist worth your salt, worth your pen and your pad, you have earned the right for people to call you with information. Sometimes, you just sit there. You don’t have to dig; it comes to you.
Casey: So that’s developing trust with sources and showing that you are open to all sides.
Casey: But how do we build trust with an audience and, Stephen, do you see it as more a personal agenda for you? Do you something The Weekly Standard has to do as an organization? What’s a roadmap?
Hayes: Yeah, I think by sort of telling people what we aim to do by talking about, adhering to facts and putting facts first, we’re giving people some context for our reporting and for the opinion journalism that we do. I have to say, one of the other ways is simply to avoid doing more harm and this is a place where I’ve been very critical of the mainstream media. I think a lot of times what you’re seeing is people who go into the White House briefing room and are using it as a show and the questions are not healthy-skeptical questions; it’s antagonism and hostility. And I think we see this all over the place; it’s not about you. It’s about the stories you’re reporting. It’s about conveying facts to your readers or your viewers and to the extent that people position themselves as hostile to the White House, I think it does great damage.
Now, that’s not to say—there’s a lot of talk about calling balls and strikes. We’re calling balls and strikes. We think it’s important also to talk about how this new political and the media environment is also distorting the game itself. It’s important to put that into context. So you could do more than calling balls and strikes, but you don’t make yourself the story. Don’t make yourself antagonistic to the president and the White House. I’ll just say since I named a name earlier on. I’ll name another name. I was listening on the drive in to Chris Cuomo interviewing OMB director Mick Mulvaney this morning.
He started out with a couple of fact-based questions about the shutdown and conversation very quickly veered off into Chris Cuomo’s opinion about DACA and the dreamers versus Mick Mulvaney’s opinion about DACA and the dreamers. Now, I happen to be more sympathetic, probably where Chris Cuomo comes from than I am where the president is on this or sometimes is on this. [LAUGHTER]
Ryan: You’re going to get in trouble.
Hayes: Speaking of not taking shots. But it devolved into this sort of semi-shouting match of just opinion versus opinion. Conservatives who are watching that are going to look at that interview and say, “This does not work for me. I’m not watching this guy yell at this administration guy.”
Lakshmanan: But Steve, the same thing is true—MSNBC, you see a lot of hosts who have a liberal point of view. On Fox, you see a lot of hosts who have a conservative point of view. So the same thing can be said about both, that when you have cable news hosts who are inserting their opinion—now, that’s the format of the show. I think you come to it as a viewer knowing that’s what you signed up for. You turn on the TV—assuming you haven’t landed on Mars, you know you that you turn on a certain cable network and you’re going to get opinion journalism laced in from the host.
Casey: But Indira, I do want to point out that as I was interviewing Stephanie McCrummen, one of the reporters who broke the Roy Moore allegation story, she was going down and knocking on doors in Alabama, the state where she is from. She was going down there, knocking on people’s doors, asking questions and she said people were so surprised to see a reporter at their door with a notebook and a pen and ears who just wanted to ask questions and get information, who wasn’t coming to prejudge. Because what they were picturing was—
Casey: Punditry on television. They weren’t picturing a reporter as doing that sort of shoe leather stuff and it ties me to something that one of our followers, Patrick, on Twitter says: “Doesn’t spin drive better audience numbers? And if so, is that at odds with providing more trustworthy news and doing some of this very basic nuts-and-bolts reporting?”
Lakshmanan: I personally believe that we should be doing much more of the straight journalism. I have no problem with opinion journalism. I have no problem with opinion-hosted shows, but I think just know that that’s what it is; be transparent about what it is. And that is, again, where I think websites need to be clear about the about thing. Stephen, on The Weekly Standard, it’s very clear. You come to The Weekly Standard site. You click it. You can read about us and you know exactly what it is. Like I said, The Washington Post is a great example of clicking—you hover with your mouse over any story and you can immediately see, that’s analysis. That is opinion, that is news. You can see what it is. So as long as you’re transparent and clear and honest about what it is you’re presenting—some of it is also on the audience to educate themselves.
We need to help them help themselves in terms of news literacy. We need to make it easy to say, “This is why you should trust us. We’re transparent. Here are our tools and be honest about whatever it is you’re doing.”
Casey: Can news literacy be brought into the public-school system, Steve—
Casey: In a way that is depoliticized? Can we get news literacy into schools and get everybody on board with it?
Hayes: That’s a good question. I certainly hope so. Part of the challenge today is that what we do as journalists is so different than what we did 30, 40, 50 years ago. Forty, 50 years ago, The New York Times would go and cover a speech, let’s say of a presidential candidate and it was literally the journalist’s primary job to say, “Here’s what happened.” But I think today, given the fact that you all can watch the speech on television or on the internet live streaming or can read a quick take about it—so many journalists don’t feel the need to take that first step and say, “Here’s what happened.” They jump forward and they give you maybe a paragraph or a brief synopsis: “The president said this or the candidate said this. Here are all of the reasons that it happened and here’s the backstory and here’s what they’re trying to do.”
And some of that can be important information, but I think it also—it’s the kind of gray area or grayer area that allows for more injection of personal views and I think that’s going to be a continuing challenge, even if you talk about enhancing news literacy through education.
Casey: And then a viewer on Twitter asks, “Do we need to redefine who is media versus news?” And points out that the words are used interchangeably, but should they be used interchangeably?
Lakshmanan: I don’t think so. Media is a much broader thing. It involves entertainment. It involves platforms, as we discussed; Facebook, Twitter, that’s all media. We are news and maybe we need to sort of re-own this and take back the word news and the word journalism proudly and say, “This is what we’re doing and it involves certain skills. It’s not just like a hot take from someone’s basement.” It’s not the same as anybody just putting out their opinion. There are actual facts behind it, sourcing behind it. Anonymous sourcing is a whole other conversation that we could have, but what I find amazing is sometimes, people just have no idea. I’ve had people say to me, “How can you use anonymous sources if you don’t know who they are?”
And I’m like, “No, I know who they are. My editors know who they are. We’re just not telling you who they are for certain reasons.” But a lot of very smart people who are not in the news don’t understand that and we need to do a better job of explaining that.
Casey: April, we’re out of time, but I just want to give you a moment to weigh in on this question of where we go from here. You’ve had to put up with a lot in terms of personal criticism and sort of personal attacks so give us some tips on how you rise above that and keep doing your job every day?
Ryan: I did nothing wrong. I have done nothing wrong. I go back because that is what I trained for, I attended college for, received a Bachelor of Science for. I think how we rise above it is when people really earnestly look at the stores, don’t look at the personalities. You may not like the question that I’m asked but look at the atmosphere. Listen to what’s been said by the leaders and understand, there’s a reason for the questions. It’s not just coming out of thin air. And the problem is in these last two presidential cycles, be it Barack Obama and be it Donald J. Trump, we had people who have never been in the process of finding out about news before. Now, we have people who are political junkies; they call themselves political junkies and they have to understand, this is not entertainment. This is real life. This is not reality TV and those briefings are not reality TV. This is real life. Everything comes to that White House, between war and peace and everything in between. And when you have that, people need to understand, this is how we rise above. That this is real and these questions are real. It’s not for show. I don’t come in there and play to the cameras. I come in and do my job and I believe Indira and Steve will agree that we have to really assess and everyone has to take onus for this.
Whenever we look at a piece, we have to put our feelings sometimes aside and look at the piece and then come back with our feelings because I think this is too wrapped up in feelings and I think the way we rise above it is to look at it as life and not romanticize it, entertain it, look at it as real. This has been around for a long time, since Colonial days, this news thing and our founding fathers didn’t know Twitter was coming and didn’t know cable was coming. But I thank God that there is a First Amendment that wraps us and allows us, even if they want a war on us, to ask those questions that affect you. That’s how we rise above.
Casey: April Ryan, thank you so much. Indira Lakshmanan and Stephen Hayes, thank you to all of you for being here and thanks for watching.
Reshaping the News: The Power and Perils of Social Media Platforms
Ellison: I’m thrilled to be here. This is my second day on the job, so I’m just glad I found the room. I’m a staff writer here, newly minted, at The Washington Post. And I’m joined on stage by Nuala O’Connor, President and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology; Jay Rosen, who is, it’s noted here, he is the author of the PressThink blog, which is true, but he’s also an associate professor of journalism at NYU; and Craig Silverman, who is the Media Editor of BuzzFeed News, and we’ve heard his name before because he’s actually the guy to blame for this whole fake news. [LAUGHTER] Well, you came up with the term. But we’ll talk about that a little bit later.
What we’re going to discuss today, we’re sort of a platform as a panel, and we’re talking about the powers and perils of digital and social media, in terms of the shapers of news content. A quick note to the audience before we begin—you can tweet your questions to us using the hashtag #PostLive.
Lightning round start question to this panel. The question: we just had an amazing story about Facebook on the front page of The Washington Post today. Facebook: media company? Tech company? Go. Nuala.
Rosen: It’s a tech company that doesn’t want to admit it’s a media company.
Silverman: Yeah. I’d agree with Jay, although they’ve now—it’s been a remarkable year for them. They now recognize what they say is they’re a new kind of platform which encompasses all of those things. But absolutely, they are technology and they are media rolled into one, and actually, the most dominant platform for speech in the world, in some ways.
O’Connor: Right. And also an advertising company.
Ellison: I was just going to say—or are they actually, really, most honestly, an advertising company? And so, Nuala, my first question is for you—which sort of relates to this—who are the news media today? Who are we talking about?
O’Connor: Well, I think some of our previous panels talked about the democratization of journalism and media and information. And I feel like I’m here to also represent—there are good things about the internet still, right? It’s not all bad news. And it is a great platform, as was said, for speech of all kinds, for the individual, for the dissident, for the individual blogger.
But that is also a challenge, that folks online can’t tell the difference anymore between what is a legitimate, well-researched, verified news source and Joe’s blog. So, The New York Times looks the same; everything looks the same on Facebook, in font size, et cetera. And this is the destruction of journalism, as we’ve seen tech disrupt everything from taxis to music and movies, and we’ve got to figure out what’s right and fair, both for the legitimate media and journalists, as well as for the consumers of information in a democracy.
Ellison: Facebook had a big announcement last week that it was going to deemphasize publisher content. And some people were up in arms about that. Jay, you said that going to be a good thing for publishers, in your counter-intuitive way. Tell us why.
Rosen: Well, it’s going to be a good thing in the same way that when you finally realize that this relationship isn’t working and you get out of it, that’s a good thing. Right? And so, I think producers of news can finally look at this Goliath—Facebook—and realize that it really has a kind of a majestic indifference to the fortunes of the news industry. It doesn’t really care about news. News is a fraction of the total game for Facebook, maybe 5%; at most 10%; probably more like 3% or 4% of Facebook is news. And so—
Ellison: I’m sorry. That small a percentage is the traffic that is due to news?
Rosen: Yeah, that would be items in the newsfeed. And, so it’s better for the producers of news to have an unsentimental and kind of hard-ended, realistic view of this Goliath. Now, if people in newsrooms can figure out how to use Facebook to get more attention to their work, to also put themselves in front of people, a fraction of whom might become subscribers or supporters, then that’s good; they should continue to learn how to do that. But they should not feel that there’s any partnership here; that there’s any relationship here. It’s like any other big, giant, powerful force in society; you have to work out the terms of your relationship to it.
Ellison: Craig, how do you feel like the news media is dealing with Facebook, in terms of where are they in that arc of understanding?
Silverman: Well, I think there’s different tiers, is one thing. A good example of that is, Campbell Brown, who’s a former journalist, is the head of journalism partnerships for Facebook, and on the day that they announced that they were basically telling news organizations expect less reach; expect less from your pages on Facebook, she sent out an email to a select group of publishers that I was able to get a copy of. And so, I think there’s a tier of really top-tier publishers, like The Post, like The New York Times, some conservative publishers and other folks like that—BuzzFeed was on this list as well—who they continue to have business relationships with, and I think they will always continue to have that.
But I think the group that I worry about most, who now have to have a hard realization—one—are kind of smaller, what we might call long-tail publishers, who maybe have more niche audiences, or just a smaller audience, and they’ve been trying to get more traffic from Facebook. But now they may get crushed in this. And the other group would be the really bad actors, the people who walk up to the line of what’s allowed and go over it as well, who I think this is who Facebook is actually targeting, is the kind of outlying publications, the smaller ones, the spammers, the scammers, the people spreading false information. I think this is like a shot across their bow, frankly, more than it is for big organizations, and I’ve been watching a group of I guess it’s about 50 pages that I’ve set up in different categories for weeks now.
Facebook said actually these changes started to roll out in early January, and I haven’t seen anything yet. So, I don’t actually know what’s going to happen. It may be a whole bunch of freaking out for nothing, to be honest.
Ellison: What do you mean, you haven’t seen anything yet?
Silverman: I haven’t seen massive drop-offs, or even a trend towards drop-offs for the reach of these pages. And there’s a really important distinction to what Facebook has announced. They told you that your page will probably show up less in the newsfeed; it will get less engagement. However, if your stuff is actually being shared by people individually on their own profiles, that may actually give the same or even more reach.
So, we don’t actually know how that dynamic is going to play out, but I haven’t seen a trend towards people starting to crater yet, and this is from mainstream news to really kind of viral news outfits, that would be our non-news operation at BuzzFeed, for example, and places that I consider really marginal publishers that are like spammy and scammy—nobody has really taken a hit yet.
Ellison: I want to stay on you for a second, because we’ve talked about this fake news term that you helped popularize. What was it initially designed to address?
Silverman: Initially for me, there were three core components to actual fake new, like real fake news, I guess, to put it awkwardly. So, one is, it had to be completely false. So, we’re not talking about a misinterpretation or a story that made a claim that turned out to not be true, but had a bunch of true facts in it. A hundred percent made up. Intended to deceive. So, not a question of a good faith, oh, we got something wrong.
And then the third thing for me was that it was financially-driven. And this is kind of a key distinction because I think if something is ideologically driven that’s completely false to deceive, you can just call it propaganda. We don’t really need new terms. But, when I was doing a research project back in 2014, I came across a lot of these websites that looked like news websites, were making up stories written in a new style, and I saw that the play here was, it was advertising. It was make money; get traffic from Facebook; make money from ads. So, that was where I started using it, and I didn’t even consciously sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to call it fake news, and it’s going to be this.” I just started calling it that, and weird things happened years later.
Ellison: In addition to the many weird things we were talking earlier about, how there’s a pair of jeans that’s being sold with fake news emblazoned on the side—
Silverman: Yeah. They’re really expensive. They’re in the UK. I think they were at Topshop and they were like 90 pounds or something like that. I was also told that they have a bad fit. If anyone’s interested in getting them, it’s not a good purchase.
Ellison: So, Nuala, do you similarly think that the Facebook—the shift that they have announced is not going to have a big impact? Or what is that? Let’s have a few predictions here. What do you think’s going to happen?
O’Connor: Well, I think you’re right to ask the question. Not only where have we been, but where are we going? And it’s been a somewhat long and bumpy journey since the election, for not only Facebook, but all of the platforms. [OVERLAPPING] –More than them, but they are a big player. I am interested to see what the output is from the various announcements, and there have been several. There have been several about the legitimate or kind of validated news sources. They’ve been deemphasizing news sources and emphasizing what your friends and family see. That worries me a little bit.
First of all, how the decisions are made, and that they’re still kind of internally and not engaging external audiences in the decision-making process. But more of what you like and more of what the people like you like, is the fundamental premise of a lot of these algorithms. That’s great for selling you stuff. That’s great for validating your worldview. That is not wo great for an educated population in a democracy.
And so, my question is, what is the role of each of the actors in the ecosystem? And again, it’s easy to pick on tech and it’s kind of almost too easy right now. Everybody’s doing it. It’s kind of convenient. I try to zig when people are zagging and I’d say there’s enough blame to go around in lots of different quarters, including individual kind of choices. I’d really emphasize, I’m going to plug my org—CDT—go to our, cdt.org, and look at our New Year’s resolutions on how to use tech in your daily life. And one of them is, put down your phone occasionally, right? And actually talk to people who are not like you, who don’t already share your worldview. I think it was fascinating what the staff came up with, and they were fairly kind of all about limiting tech in your daily life.
But, what is the role and responsibility—which, I love that the word responsibility is in this panel. Every actor in a democracy has a responsibility to further the principles of democracy, including truth. And that involves you in your personal choices about what you share. That involves the platforms and how the algorithms are programmed to begin with. And so, to say that they’re just neutral—that’s a fallacy. All algorithms have values—the question is, what are they, and how do we engage with them and know what they are?
Ellison: Before I came to The Washington Post, I was at Vanity Fair, but before that, I was at The Wall Street Journal, where I learned that you can’t really just scold people into taking responsibility. You have to give them an economic incentive. Not even the tools; you have to make them do it. So, Jay, what is a Washington Post or a New York Times, or pick any traditional news media outlet, to do in its relationship with a platform, once they realize that they want to break up, that they’re not going to be—that it’s not a great boyfriend or husband or wife or whatever? I don’t think that that sentiment would be unwelcome in any of these outlets, any of these places. What can they do?
Rosen: Well, I think it’s good to take a step back first and say, how did we get to this situation? And, it’s useful to realize that before the internet the producers of news were also the owners of the system for distributing information. Those two things were joined together. That’s what the media business was. Vanity Fair was not only the editors and the writers who produced the articles in Vanity Fair, it was also the place on the newsstand, and the subscription business that allowed Vanity Fair to land in your mailbox every month, right? And those two things were one company, just as CBS News had the newsroom for CBS News and it had the wires and the network for getting that program into people’s homes.
So, production and distribution were married, and the media business prospered and remained remarkably stable for a very long period of time. Today, we can see that as like a parenthesis. It was an unusual situation. It looked like the nature of thigs, but it was actually a very long parenthesis. So, today we still have producers of news, but they have to deal with a world in which distribution is done by others, especially by these giant tech platforms, who have actually taken charge of the relationship between the users of information and the sources of information.
So, in that environment, instead of trying to play with the powers that be and hope that Facebook’s going to be nice to you and cut deals with them and start doing video because they want you to do video—which some of our media companies have done—instead, I think the producers of news have to in a way go back to the beginning and start forming strong relationships of loyalty with the people who really value their product.
Rosen: Which is subscribers, but it’s—yes, and but it’s not just subscribers. It’s people who are subscribers because they believe in the value of what you do, and they understand how you do it, how you do it, how it differs from other forms of chatter and information. And I think that, ultimately, is going to be the only course to have.
Now, in order to do that, you have to have a very strong, clear vision of where you’re going. And if you know where you’re going—like, for example, The New York Times knows its entire business is to convert one small percentage of the people who read The New York Times into subscribers. That’s their alpha; that’s their omega. They know where they’re going.
In that world, they can decide to play or not to play with Facebook. They can use it for what it’s good for, and they don’t have this illusion that we’re going to get married and live happily ever after.
Ellison: Right. Yeah, I mean, I think that the idea that there is money, there is enough money to sustain it. I mean, the inefficiency of the old advertising business was a fabulous thing for media companies, so I remember having conversations early on with people saying, “I would be happy to pay $2 to read one of your articles.” And I was like, “Do you know how much money it’s going to take to actually feed my children? More than $2. So you’re going to need to spend so much—at Vanity Fair, you’re going to need to be Prada, Chanel, and Gucci all wrapped up together. So, I still worry about the economic viability of that kind of a model.
But Craig, you’re at a place at BuzzFeed that has been experimenting a lot with a variety of different kind of funding models, and there’s the—talk a little bit about where you see the success of that being? I know that BuzzFeed has done a lot to split up its news and its film division. Do you see that being the future? Do you see that being a viable way forward?
Silverman: I think where we fit in is—and, bake in my bias, I work there—I don’t think I’ve completely drunk the Kool-Aid, but I’ve probably had some of it. I think there’s probably space for a small number of kind of truly global, digitally native organizations that aren’t driven by paid subscriptions. So, I think between Vice and BuzzFeed and Vox and some others, I do think there’s a business in that. I don’t think there’s a broad business with lots of big organizations that can actually do that. So, my view is that I think there’s some clear leaders in that category, and BuzzFeed’s probably one of them. But even BuzzFeed itself—one of the things that the company has clearly had to do is try to get revenue from a bunch of different places.
So, one of them is, we sold a cookbook for Tasty, and it’s apparently a bestselling cookbook. And now we sell lip gloss, and we sell a hot top cooking thing where you can use the Tasty app and cook food exactly like that. And so there’s that whole product division. We also do stuff with brands, of custom content, which is like the original thing that BuzzFeed does. And the most recent thing that BuzzFeed did, which meant that we were such an anomaly for a long time, is we actually now have ads on our website. You almost never saw ads directly on BuzzFeed’s website, and now we have them.
And, as one of the people who writes for the site, I’m happy because—okay, so that helps support our newsroom—but also, it slows the page down, there are a lot of junky ads online, and so I have conflicted feelings about that. And so, I think the lesson for BuzzFeed is, is that, even if you’re one of the bigger websites and bigger players, you still need lots of different revenue sources to make this all work. And BuzzFeed is still not a really big company, you know? There’s still a lot of—the amount of venture capital we have taken, the expectations have still not been fully-met, so there is still a big fight to go on with that.
But, I do think that the size of us—and yes, you mentioned the film division is starting to make films and sell TV shows and all that kind of thing. That’s expected, I think, to be a big driver of revenue, more so than banner ads on the website.
Ellison: Right. One of the most interesting findings from this study that came out today was the notion of inattentiveness, people who aren’t that attentive to the news. And, again, we go back to the genius of the platforms at getting people to be attentive to what is on that platform. What they are attentive to is sort of what the topic that we’re discussing today, but I just wonder—the best media purveyor is Donald Trump. He keeps people incredibly attentive to whatever it is that he’s doing. And you see, to the extent that news organizations wrapped themselves around Facebook for a little while, they’ve all wrapped themselves around Donald Trump at this point.
What kind of a job are they doing, covering Trump? Jay, I want to start with you, because I know you have some strong feelings about this. How is the news media doing?
Rosen: Well, I spent almost my entire day on that question. I think it’s a very difficult question to answer because the traditional relationship between story and press doesn’t apply here, for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s useful to think of Trump as a competing media organization to the media organizations. So, it’s not just a story to cover; he’s actually trying to take away your audience, take away the cultural space.
Ellison: He’s trying to disintermediate.
Rosen: Yeah, that space that media once occupied. And you could see that in the way that he became like during the campaign a ratings powerhouse. What that did was make him a more successful of what’s on NBC than the journalists at NBC; that’s why he called into five shows; that’s why they had the camera waiting for him to come stage, right? Because, as a media company he was more successful than media companies.
Another weird thing, a very difficult thing, about covering Trump is that, in an interview situation, normally in an interview situation you’re trying to get at some reality that is beyond the interview, right? The policy. The intention. What he plans to do in his foreign policy.
With Trump, an interview situation isn’t like that at all. He’s just trying to use that media event to boast about himself, and to set up some spectacular narcissistic bomb that will produce more attention. And so, the whole idea that you’re interviewing him to get at a reality that is not the interview doesn’t actually work.
Ellison: I think this is why there was so much attention on that Michael Schmidt interview, where he didn’t push back on certain things, and there was a big debate about it.
Rosen: Yeah. Right. And it’s so much bigger than you didn’t ask him enough tough questions. So, how are they doing? I think Donald Trump breaks every routine of political journalism that existed before he became president. And that requires the press to go back and sift through the wreckage and decide which of those routines still works, and then invent new ones. And I don’t think our press is very good at doing that on the job, on the fly, when it has this big story to cover.
Ellison: Um-hm. So, we’ve got sort of Facebook on the one side, Trump on the other, the news media, or journalists kind of stuck somewhere in between. This is a question for anybody, but Nuala, I’d be interested to hear what you think about where do legislators and regulators sort of fit—if the media aren’t great at solving these kinds of questions, what’s Washington’s role?
O’Connor: Yeah, we’re here from th e government; we’re here to help. That’s the worst thing you want to say, right?
Ellison: Well, we’re just back in business now today; they’re opened up.
O’Connor: Well, that’s good news, I suppose. I suppose. If you asked that question in Europe they will say absolutely we need to regulate all of these big platforms on a lot of different speech grounds, and that’s a really hot issue. I would urge a little bit of caution in thinking the government is going to be able to solve—again, for truth, a ministry of truth is a kind of a frightening idea in this environment, in this administration.
But, I do think there is both a regulatory history and possibly a regulatory future. I’m really curious about how much the Fairness Doctrine really plays into this, and the demise of a central media kind of regime that allows for different viewpoints. And that’s some of the testing, I know Facebook and other platforms have done, is forcing you to see things that are alternative viewpoints.
Some of the research we’ve seen in the Knight Commission work on trust, media and democracy is how the filter bubbles really do separate people, and the kind of red journalists—by red I mean Republican-leaning—and populations, and viewers, and readers kind of increasingly are on one is, and kind of left-leaning viewers, readers and institutions increasingly separate. And we saw some fascinating research on Twitter that showed the Sanders people kind of looping around in this weird circle around, on both sides. But you do worry about people seeing more of what they agree with, and whether or not there is no more shared central repository of information, truth and kind of reality for American citizens.
Rosen: I’ll tell you something people in Washington ought to start doing. There are a lot of people in this town who teach their constituents, their supporters, their audience, that you can’t trust what’s in The Washington Post and what’s on CNN, and The New York Times. And they start their day by reading The Washington Post. That hypocrisy, which is what it is, and lying to your own people—that has to stop.
Ellison: Politicians should stop lying. [LAUGHTER]
Rosen: No, no, that’s not what I said. They can continue to do that. I mean, a particular kind of lying in which you rely on the information that you tell your constituents they shouldn’t trust cannot be sustained.
O’Connor: I think building on that just for a moment—the idea that the administration is attacking journalists and First Amendment principles—which, again, I loved some of the coverage and I really would, again, mention The Washington Post article today on Facebook, but also Zeynep Tufekci’s work in Wired this month on—what a great piece. And really that, when we are questioning whether truth and whether journalists and whether people covering the administration are at least trying to get it right. I think you are really hitting at one of the fundamental principles of democracy, and that I think has got to stop.
Ellison: My great hope is that someone will come—there are industries built around ad tech and tracking people, targeting what you want to buy and what your next purchase is going to be. I would like to see a technologist come up and really invest in—when I break a piece of accurate news, that when that travels around the ecosphere, the ecosystem, The Washington Post actually gets to share in the economic gain of that in the same way that people are protecting their brand value elsewhere, and I’d like to see some truly dedicated technologists behind that, because I think that that kind of profit motive will really be the only thing that will get people, aside from scolding, behind real news in a way that hasn’t happened before.
But, we talked about Europe a little bit. I want to talk about censorship in the age of social media, and what does that mean when you can’t really tamp down one individual outlet or another? Do you want to take that, Craig?
Silverman: Yeah. I wish we had published it already, but the story that I have going up today in a couple of hours is actually looking at—so, Twitter has a policy whereby they say unless somebody is clearly violating our terms of service, we don’t necessarily remove their account. But what they have is a procedure called country withholding whereby there are hate speech laws in Germany against overt expressions of Nazism, or what have you. And so when Germany goes to Twitter and points out a Twitter account and says, “Hey, this has a picture of Adolf Hitler on it; it’s called Adolf Hitler 24; it’s talking about murdering people. We would like you take this account down.” Well, let’s leave out the murdering part, because that would violate terms of service.
Twitter says, “Okay, we’re going to block that for everyone in Germany, but we’re not going to block it for the rest of the world, because it’s based on your laws in Germany.” So you have a kind of selective censorship, and Twitter doesn’t actually tell you which accounts are being blocked, and within a couple of hours we’re going to reveal a data set of accounts that they’ve blocked in I think like around seven or eight countries around the world.
So, we have that, and Twitter is relatively transparent about how many requests they get for blocks, and how many they do, but they don’t tell you which accounts they update only once every six months. There’s a lot we don’t know. And so, there is constant censorship being done by platforms, sometimes in response to laws; sometimes in response to their terms of service, which they present as basically the equivalent of laws. But it’s actually just what they’ve decided to write, you know? And I think a really important distinction is, I see-I mean, I’m basically, every day I’m looking for how people are gaming these platforms and I see crazy stuff happening all the time. But oftentimes when we point stuff out it doesn’t get taken down, because it doesn’t violate the terms of service or what have you.
And so, there’s the actual removal of accounts. But the other thing that happens, which Zaynep had a little bit in that Wired piece, is there is another type of censorship which is basically like bullying people off the platforms to get ideas out of there. There is another type of censorship which is more common in China whereby basically if there’s a certain conversation happening about something and the government doesn’t like it, they will try to drown out that conversation with frivolous news or frivolous other things from paid sort of government trolls.
And so, the traditional definition of censorship of, you can’t say that, doesn’t always apply. There’s some of that, of removing people from platforms, but they have other means. But there is also drowning people out; there is also harassing them off platforms. So, it’s really a much more diverse nature of censorship now.
Ellison: I know the whole idea that like bad speech can get drowned out by good speech; it’s actually the opposite as well.
Silverman: It can work the other way a lot on—and that’s been really weaponized by some online communities, where they come together and they plan in private groups and messaging apps like, “You see this person? They said this. Let’s go after them, and let’s drown them out, or let’s get them off the platform.”
O’Connor: In the whole marketplace of ideas, idea doesn’t necessarily work in a distributed network model, where there are groups of people who are not actually interacting with each other, so you don’t have an opportunity speak to the same exact group that received the first information to counteract that information. But I think we also need to remember, these are private sector institutions, right?
So, government censorship is very different than the private sector actor, and you’re absolutely right to point out terms of service—and these are the sort of wonky things we look at at the Center for Democracy and Technology, are things like how do TOFs—terms of service—work? And, are they transparent? Are people understanding what the rules are when they’re joining these communities?
Silverman: And are the platforms enforcing them equally, which—
O’Connor: Right. [OVERLAPPING]
Silverman: It’s a big problem. And when you think about Facebook, there’s more than 2 billion people logging in at least once a month on Facebook, and a significant portion of that are like every day. There’s no way you can actually manage that platform, and that’s what Facebook has realized over the last year, really.
Ellison: I want to spend—we’re almost out of time, but I wanted to ask—I can’t let a panel go by without asking a question about Rupert Murdoch, who just came out the other day to talk about how Facebook should be paying sort of carriage fees—the equivalent of carriage fees—to quality news outlets, or at least traditional news outlets. I don’t know if he would necessarily make the distinction with quality or traditional.
But anyway, what do you think of—this is for anybody—what’s the viability of that kind of an idea? Which is just basically old media trying to get paid.
Rosen: Well, I enjoyed this glimpse into Rupert’s fantasy life. I thought it was entertaining, but he used an analogy that doesn’t work. He used the analogy of the cable news industry—
Ellison: The crumpling cable news—
Rosen: Where cable channels pay for the programming that other companies provide them. And the problem with that is that the news companies, as I said, are providing about 5% of the total stuff that’s on Facebook, and if it all went away tomorrow, the actual effect on Facebook’s financial fortunes would be negligible. And so, the leverage just isn’t there. But as I said, it was a pleasant dream. [LAUGHTER]
Ellison: Well, we are out of time. I want to thank Nuala, Jay, Craig—thank you all for coming. Thank you guys all for being here. [APPLAUSE] If you’d like to view clips from any of today’s discussions or check out past Washington Post Live programs, we’re at washingtonpostlive.com. Thank you so much.