“We’re in a period analogous, truly analogous, to the time in Europe just after Gutenberg mechanized the Chinese invention of the printing press,” Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, told me. “After Gutenberg, any Tom, Dick or Martin Luther could print whatever they want, and it took a hundred years to figure out, to sort it all out.”
The 11th episode of “Cape Up” is all about the state of journalism in the age of social media. “Confused,” is how Ibargüen describes it. The former publisher of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald pointed out that while two Supreme Court decisions have shaped our present-day understanding of the First Amendment as it pertains to newspapers and broadcast television, “The law of First Amendment as to Internet … simply isn’t settled.”
In an effort to “help shape First Amendment law” in the digital age, the Knight Foundation and Columbia University announced in May the creation of the Knight First Amendment Institute at the Ivy League school in New York. Ibargüen told me that when such cases come before the court, “I want somebody at the table, somebody at the courthouse that is saying, ‘Let’s err on the side of transparency. Let’s err on the side of free speech.’ ” But what he said next highlighted the unanswered legal questions facing all of us: Congress, companies, courts and consumers.
That’s not to say that everything is black-and-white. We know it isn’t. The First Amendment itself isn’t. Although, the First Amendment is fairly clear. It says, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, a redress of grievance.” Five phenomenal rights. But they also don’t say, well, what happens if it is not Congress? What happens if it’s Google? … Think about it. Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook have more ability to control what we know or think we know than anything in history. Than anyone in history. Than any government has ever had.
We talked about the power of search-engine programmers to mold what we accept as facts. “Even algorithms have parents,” Ibargüen said, “and the parents, the programmers, imbue the algorithm, consciously or not consciously, with some kind of values.” He went on to talk about what happened when you typed “thug” into Google. The ensuing controversy forced changes, so now when you type the word in you get an array of “thug” choices to search. “Somehow that algorithm knows what it is supposed to present,” Ibargüen told me, “and that affects what we think and what we think we know.”
As the former board chairman of the Newseum, Ibargüen was the perfect person to talk to about the democratization of information that has led to the electorate segregating itself into like-minded political and philosophical huddles. And when I complained that we no longer have trusted sources in our 21st century, social-media environment, Ibargüen stopped me cold. “How can there be,” he asked, “until we figure out … how to decide what a trusted source is?”
You should hear Ibargüen’s advice to young journalists starting out and the older reporters trying to make their way in an ever-changing profession. But the best part comes at the very end. You’ll never guess whom he would like to have at a dinner party and the question he’d ask her. Listen to the podcast to find out who that is, and subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher.
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