Professional, evidence-based journalism has been under assault for decades now, but over the past few months, fresh attacks have battered it further. These attacks arrive fast and furiously, from so many directions that one hardly has time to acknowledge them all, much less address them in a way that keeps journalism’s business model alive and protects the integrity of the original enterprise.
Just since my last column in the Jan. 28/Feb. 4 issue we have seen:
§ More than 1,000 employees laid off at BuzzFeed, AOL, Yahoo News, and HuffPost. The broadcast and digital company Vice Media denuded itself of 350 people. And last year, Mic—a site aimed at and staffed by young people and once valued at $100 million—eliminated virtually its entire staff.
§ GateHouse Media, which publishes 145 daily newspapers, 325 community publications, and 555 local websites in 37 states, laid off at least 60 employees.
§ The Forward announced the end of its print publication—after 121 years of publishing in Yiddish, English, or Russian (and, recently, all three)—and cut loose about 30 percent of its staff, including its editor in chief.
§ Twenty Lake Holdings—a subsidiary of Alden Global Capital, the New York City hedge fund that purchases newspapers and strips their assets, fires their employees, and sells off their real estate—made a play for Gannett, the nation’s largest chain of daily newspapers as measured by circulation. The offer was rejected, but this is just the first round.
§ Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, published a 544-page book that argues that journalism should stick to old-fashioned commitments like “truth” and “facts.” The problem: Her book is riddled with passages that nearly everyone—with the exception of Abramson—considers some combination of plagiarized, sloppily reported, and insufficiently fact-checked. The inexplicable failure of so credentialed a figure to properly credit others—especially when much of the original work came from the very news sites she was seeking to critique—was a gift not only to those in digital media but to the conservative, pro-Trump world that seeks to discredit traditional journalism as “fake news.”
All of the above makes it harder for journalism to hold power to account. What makes this so worrisome is that, economically speaking, these are fat times. Many of these layoffs are happening at profitable companies, and many funders and shareholders are seeing their best returns in years. One of these days, a recession will come, and with it a carnage that will make us nostalgic for the comparatively halcyon moments of today.
On social media, toxic lies and rumors are filling the vacuum created by the disappearance of (relatively) reliable reporting. This is especially dangerous because, these days, many news consumers are unable to distinguish between reputable and disreputable sources, and because, by and large, the social-media giants take little responsibility for what they publish. Without these companies’ lax standards—and in the case of Facebook, the invasive, potentially illegal privacy violations they engender—Donald Trump would not have been elected president in 2016. It’s not just the Russian bots or the Eastern European teenagers paid to create fake news, like the accounts of pedophile pizza parlors and phony DNC murder plots. It’s also the stories that appear in places like Breitbart (Facebook’s third-most-shared news site during the election), the National Enquirer, and, until recently, Alex Jones’s Infowars. During the presidential campaign, all three were all in for Trump, and all three enjoyed his praise and support.
Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos’s decision to reveal the blackmail attempt by National Enquirer publisher David Pecker reminds us that his supermarket tabloid is a protection racket, not a news organization. (Though, of course, Trump disagrees: The Enquirer, he tweeted in January, “is far more accurate than the reporting in [Bezos’s] lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post.”) And the lawsuit against Alex Jones by the parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook likewise highlights the insanity that emerges from his malevolent mouth. (“Your reputation’s amazing. I will not let you down,” Trump promised Jones on his program during the 2016 campaign.)
This situation is not only ridiculous; it’s dangerous. And even though Jones has been banned from YouTube and Facebook, and the Enquirer has long been discredited among sensible individuals, their lies continue to metastasize throughout our compromised media ecosystem. Despite the scandals that have enveloped it, Facebook enjoyed what analysts called a “stellar” end to 2018, with 2.3 billion users and $6.8 billion in profits in the fourth quarter alone. Meanwhile, the company interfered with research tools that allow reporters from outfits like ProPublica to track the way advertisers target political ads. And Apple recently circulated a plan to demand the lion’s share of profits from pushing news across its 90-million-viewer platform, using a Spotify-style model to undercut publications. (When Facebook did something similar, the company lied about the number of views that videos received, leading to a costly and counterproductive “pivot to video” that eventually resulted in the layoffs of countless reporters.)
No one is more to blame for the weakened state of journalism than the big tech companies. They captured the digital-advertising revenue, starving publications of much-needed funds. They allowed conspiracies, lies, and rumors to spread and multiply across their feeds. When healthy, the media can serve as the immune system of the body politic, swiftly identifying and stamping out disinformation. But thanks to corporations like Facebook and Twitter, our democracy—and with it, society itself—is sick and getting sicker.