The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elon Musk wants to fix media mistrust with a dopey rating system. There’s a better way.

Elon Musk. (Mark Brake/Getty Images)

Entrepreneur Elon Musk thinks journalism needs fixing, and he’s got just the answer.

Enraged last week by negative media coverage of Tesla, his car company, the tech billionaire proposed a rating system in which the public would vote on the credibility of individual journalists and news sites.

As with all things Musk, the sketchy idea brought rave reviews from his obsessive fans, even though his explanations (by tweetstorm) of how journalism works show that he’s way out of his depth.

“Problem is journos are under constant pressure to get max clicks & earn advertising dollars or get fired. Tricky situation, as Tesla doesn’t advertise, but fossil fuel companies & gas/diesel car companies are among world’s biggest advertisers.”

It doesn’t work that way. Journalists are not under pressure to earn ad dollars through their news stories and in fact go out of their way not to write favorably — or at all — about their company’s advertisers.

Musk should stick with his plans for colonizing Mars with his SpaceX venture.

Besides, the field of those aiming to improve media trust is already plenty crowded, as an industry grapples with the rush of misinformation, propaganda and hoaxes that flooded social media platforms and may well have affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

There’s the Trust Project, hosted by Santa Clara University,. There’s the News Integrity Initiative from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. There’s the Trust & News Initiative from Duke University.

There are so many of these worthy efforts and the names are so confusingly similar that the Nieman Lab at Harvard provided a puckishly titled guide to seven of them, “So what is that, er, Trusted News Integrity Trust Project all about?” All of these projects also speak to the troubled condition of news media today, which has suffered from a trust deficit for many years.

Meanwhile, local newspapers — some of the most trusted sources of news available — are in a death spiral that seemed to increase its velocity over the past month.

It feels like the beginning of the final act.

The horrors of what’s happening at papers owned by Digital First Media, such as the Denver Post, are well known: The company’s vulture capitalist owners at Alden Global Capital are shrinking newsroom staffs at a frightening pace, with no apparent regard for the important role that these papers play in their communities.

Brian Tierney, a Philadelphia investor who once fought with Alden Global Capital’s investors over control of the Philadelphia Inquirer, told me that he was stunned by how little they knew — or cared — about the public-service role of newspapers.

“When you talk about the civic good, they go ‘Huh?’ It’s not their world — it’s a piece of meat with the word newspaper stamped on it,” Tierney said.

Eventually, the Philadelphia papers — the Inquirer and the Daily News — would come to be run by the Lenfest Institute, a philanthropic organization that is providing a welcome measure of stability after many years of turmoil.

But even papers with well-meaning local ownership, like the Salt Lake Tribune, are experiencing brutal cuts: The paper is losing one of every three newsroom staffers, it was announced a few weeks ago.

And papers like the Buffalo News, which I edited for many years, are going through deep reductions, despite being owned by the company chaired by Warren Buffett, who well understands the role that newspapers play in a community. Buffett was for many years on the board of The Washington Post.

Buffett sounded close to hopeless about the future of the newspaper business during a Q&A session at Berkshire Hathaway’s recent annual meeting.

“No one except the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and now probably The Washington Post has come up with a digital product that really in any significant way will replace the revenue that is being lost as print newspapers lose both circulation and advertising,” said Buffett, who bought dozens of local papers in 2011. “‘It is very difficult to see . . . how the print product survives over time.”

He added, about the problems at the newspapers his behemoth company owns, that “the economic significance to Berkshire is almost negligible, but the significance to the society I think actually is enormous.”

It’s also profoundly sad, for many reasons.

One of those is the very issue of public mistrust that Musk cynically claims he can address.

I know from my own research, and that of others, that local news tends to be trusted news.

As Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute has observed, when people say they don’t trust journalism, they are far more likely to be talking about, for example, cable news than their hometown paper: “Most Americans like their own media pretty well.”

An ill-conceived rating system — Musk says smirkingly he would call it Pravda, Russian for “truth”— can never begin to touch the value of roughly 1,300 daily newspapers that are now gasping for breath.

Local philanthropy and eventual nonprofit status are probably a part of the solution — if there is one.

If a Silicon Valley billionaire really wanted to improve trust in the news media, he would help reinvent the economics of city and town news outlets so they can do their vital work. City Hall, Mr. Musk, is a lot closer than Mars.

Note: This column has been updated to correctly identify the hosting of the Trust Project.

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