New York Times CEO Visits Detroit, Shares Journalism Blues
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Dec. 16, 2016)
Detroit, MI – New York Times President and CEO Mark Thompson was not deterred by the season’s first powerful snow as he flew to speak at the Detroit Economic Club luncheon on Monday. Determined, he weathered the storm, just as his colleagues press forward each day in spite of a journalistic climate that makes wintertime in SE Michigan seem tropical by comparison.
The increase of fake news stories, the ease of spreading rumors online, the de-staffing of traditional news outlets, the challenges of finding a business model that can support investigative journalism and the threat of social media filtering are all shades of the same stormy sky, with irrational public responses dotting the landscape like salt that only makes the darkened road more rough for those trying to navigate the world of change.
But there were moments of sunshine in his speech, with humor towards the publication’s challenges with the incoming President and optimism for the profession of journalism – as long as people support it.
“In my book “Enough Said”, I argue that changes in politics, the media and technology have come together to weaken political language and effective political debate in ways which I believe could ultimately threaten democracy. Impact, compression, over-simplification, exaggeration, intemperance and out-and-out character assassination are the winners. Evidence, coherent argument and explanatory power are progressively losing out,” Thompson said.
He recalled some of Donald Trump’s tweets about the New York Times, including those that were flat-out untrue. Among the tweets the future President called the Times “failing” and “not nice.” Trump accused the publication of losing “thousands of subscribers” when in fact subscriptions are up tenfold from the same time period a year ago.
It seems that they may have made up though, since Trump met with NYT journalists and editors in a 75-minute long meeting where he answered many questions. Thompson said that the publication was grateful.
Thompson had begun writing his book long before the Trump and even before Brexit, both situations that arose in part because of dishonesty and distorted perceptions that thrive in the digital environment.
“Fake news is not new. The spreading false rumors for political advantage, for pure malice, or just for entertainment, is as old as the hills. Supermarket checkout magazines have been assuring us for decades that Elvis never died at all and is alive and well and eating unhealthy snacks inside a replica of the Sphinx on the surface of Mars.
“And yet what’s happening now feels different. Whatever its other cultural and social merits, our digital eco-system seems to have evolved into a near-perfect environment for fake news to thrive. In addition to enthusiastic domestic myth-makers, it’s easy for hostile foreign governments and their proxies not just to initiate a fake news cycle – it is now widely accepted that it was Russian hackers who broke into John Podesta’s emails and gave them to Wikileaks, beginning the chain of events that led to Pizzagate – but to intensify it, and on occasion even to manage it with armies of human “trolls” and cyber botnets. This is a form of what the military calls “black psyops,” in other words covert psychological operations.”
Yet Thompson, like many in the journalism profession, question what can, or should, be done to stop the spread of fake news, or its impact. “Who’ll decide where satire, entertainment and strong opinion end, and fake news begins? Can the millions of sites and hundreds of millions of individuals who post or share news realistically be segregated in real time, page by page, post by post, into digital sheep and goats?
“And who said that the public should only be allowed to read the facts anyway? The First Amendment essentially says they should be allowed to write, distribute and read anything they damn well please. If some of them turn out to prefer churning out and eagerly consuming lies and fantasies, so be it…. Censorship is always worse than the disease it is said to cure. Better our noisy, chaotic, frighteningly vulnerable, but still open and free digital public square, even with appalling aberrations like fake news. Almost anything is preferable to censorship.”
He did, however, question the consequences of the way social media sites filter the information that it shares with users.
“There’s the question of the so-called “filter bubble”, the fear that citizens who rely solely on them for news and opinion live in what T.S. Eliot once called a “wilderness of mirrors”, only exposed to perspectives like their own.
“Then there’s its sister, “herding bias”, the tendency not just to think but to do what your nearest and dearest do: to vote or not to vote depending on whether your friends and family vote, and, if you do vote, who to vote for.
“Finally, there’s that family of potential biases associated with the tendency not just of social media, but of search and most of legacy media too, to put the hottest items at the top: “ranking bias”, “popularity bias”, and so on. Empirically, human beings are more likely to read, like, and perhaps believe stories which other human beings – or some aggregator who has counted their aggregate preferences – have declared to be “popular” or “interesting”.
“In most digital environments, popularity drives virtually everything: algorithms, headlines, story-order. Given all that, perhaps we really shouldn’t be too surprised that across the western world we’re seeing an explosion of significantly digitally-driven populist politics – it seems to be an intrinsic bias in the machine.”
He spoke of the way digital giants cut off revenue to the traditional media outlets, and how people tend to get comfortable only getting their news from within those bubbles of their social media feeds. The New York Times is still profitable, but other publications are struggling. “We have a responsibility to find a successful business model to pay for the independent, credible, professional journalism which this country and the world needs,” Thompson said.
With social media, he said, the ability of local publishers “to deliver real news – about city hall and the state legislature, about local schools and businesses, as well as about America and the world – is under direct economic threat.”
Thompson ended with a plea that resonated well with the journalists and publishers in the room. “Let me end with you, my audience here today. As you’ve heard, proper journalism is expensive to make. The print advertising which once paid for it is in steep decline and, for the reasons we’ve discussed, the hope that digital advertising would grow to replace the lost revenue has turned out to be hollow. The result for many newspapers is cuts, layoffs and a bleak future.
“It’s like any quality product. If you want real journalism, you as a consumer will have to pay for it. So subscribe. Subscribe to your local paper, or The New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, or the Washington Post, or, if you’re feeling particularly flush, to all of the above.
“But don’t rely on someone else – big advertisers, Silicon Valley, Santa Claus – to step in to save the day. Real journalism is vital to our democracy, and it has to be paid for. If not, it will largely disappear and leave the field open for Pizzagate, and that zombie army of illegal voters, and all the rest of it.
“If you as a citizen are worried about fake news, put your money where your mouth is and pay for the real thing. Thank you.”
To read Mark Thompson’s complete speech go to http://www.econclub.org/mark-thompsons-speech-12-12-16/.
To subscribe to the New York Times go to http://www.nytimes.com/content/help/account/purchases/subscriptions-and-purchases.html
To support local journalism at Oakland County 115 News, go to https://oaklandcounty115.com/reader-support/.
New York Times CEO Visits Detroit, Shares Journalism Blues