Panelists discuss how reporting on politics and the U.S. president has changed with the internet, social media, and smartphones, as well as the new ways in which Americans receive their daily foreign policy news.
AULETTA: Hello. Welcome. Stephen Engelberg on the end, the editor and chief of ProPublica. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor and head of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and Brian Stelter who keeps me up with his emails, chief media correspondent for CNN, and also anchor of Reliable Sources on Sunday morning. I’m Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker and author. Our topic today is redefining political journalism in the digital age. It’s an on-the-record session. We’ll go for about a half-hour up here and then turn it over to members for their questions.
Let me begin by asking—Brian, I’ll start with you—what digital tools do you use that help your journalism?
STELTER: For all the criticism of Facebook and Twitter that these companies are rightly deserving, they have made a huge difference and a huge improvement in my work, and I think in my colleagues’ work. We are able to connect with audiences every day. We’re able to share in new ways. We’re able to hear from the audience in new ways. And for all the talk of Twitter and Facebook being a sewer or a swamp, and I think they are in many ways, I have to admit there are huge advantages, huge benefits from these platforms. I think in terms of being able to hear from people and share with them.
And then I think there are more fundamental changes every day in the way that we’re doing our jobs. From instant transcription of interviews—that makes a big difference, not having to wait a day or a week for something to be transcribed, for a computer to do it instantly. Or when it comes to covering political events or court cases of others, having livestreams of pretty much everything anytime, allowing you to feel like you’re in multiple places at once and be able to see what’s happening. I think all of that’s made a difference, especially in redefining political journalism.
But I fear that all of these technological tools have also created so much heat and a lot less light. It is so easy, too easy, to tweet, to share, to jump, to overreact to something. It’s a lot harder to add context and nuance. And I think that is one of the primary problems in political journalism today. You know, just to use the president as an example, we can jump on every tweet and overreact to every tweet, and fact-check every tweet. But I’m not sure we’re bringing as much light as we are heat in those times.
AULETTA: Stephen, your publication does amazing investigative journalism. How has it helped your ability to do that kind of journalism?
ENGELBERG: Well, everything Brian said and more. You know, there was a period of history many years ago where there was a thought that we were going to have this great age of citizen journalism. And I remember the line that Ben Bradlee had. Someone said: Ben, what do you think about citizen journalism? And he said, I don’t know, what do you think of citizen surgeons? (Laughter.) So and the hope was that citizens would rise up as one and find the next Watergate. That didn’t really happen.
What has happened, and is very important to us, is that if you ask the right question of the collective mind—and we’ve done this in cases writing about maternal mortality and medical injuries in hospitals—you ask people for their experiences, you get incredible communities that you can build through Facebook and through Twitter that will inform your reporting in ways that we could never have had before. So I think that sense, you know, it’s an enormously great tool, if you know where to point it. You still need the journalist to figure out where to look, but I think it can be extremely helpful.
AULETTA: Kathleen, Brian started to touch on some of the negatives. Focus, if you would, on the worries that the digital tools provide for journalism and why they might be worrisome.
JAMIESON: Because there’s so much out there right now, and the process is so rapid, there are times in which you wish that the journalists would just have an extra couple of hours to think about what it is the person is writing, a couple of additional hours to make sure that everything in the story is fact-checked, a couple of additional hours to say would this be a better story if we could set it in accurate historic context, and a couple of extra hours to say is there a really good editorial process that asks whether this is the thing we ought to be covering. Are we in fact in the rush of covering everything that’s out there, because we can, and everybody expects it because we’re online constantly. Are we losing the agenda-setting power of the press to tell us what is important to think about? And in the process of trying to figure out how to be competitive with each other, are people losing the capacity to find those niches that actually would make them different from everybody else, and hence unique in a competitive environment?
AULETTA: You know, we witnessed today the funeral of a man who is talked about and extolled for his making a kinder, gentler—he wasn’t always kinder and gentler, going back to the 1988 campaign—but he was an unusually generous man. How has the digital realm and the tools that it’s provided us in journalism, how has it changed politics? Not how has it changed the press, but how has it changed politics? Jump ball.
ENGELBERG: Well, you know, I think we hear a lot about, I guess, some of the very negative things. I think it’s made it meaner. I think the ability of people to sort of pour vitriol into the water is really quite remarkable. We look back at the Willie Horton ad, and I watched it recently just to remind myself how bad it was. And it’s quite bad. But I think if you look at the Trump closing of the campaign ad, where, you know, the most recent one in the midterms, I mean, it is remarkable the ability to both create something like that, and then get it into people’s feeds in an instantaneous way and work off it. So I think, you know, the internet, for my money, doesn’t necessarily create new things. It just kind of makes them move at a sort of ten-X or a hundred-X pace. I mean, it’s not like we didn’t have nasty politics before. You know, the Jefferson campaign was pretty tough. But, you know, you couldn’t get it into 56 million Twitter feeds, you know, instantly. And I think that’s the difference.
STELTER: Yeah. It’s the amplifying. It’s the increased amount of fuel for the fire that’s already burning. And I think we see that with online radicalization, with people at certain extremes becoming much more angry, much more enraged, some of them then prone to violence and prone to other extremes. I think there’s a majority of folks that tune out the nastiness—don’t care about all the tweets, don’t care about all the silliness. But on the extremes, there’s this ferocity that is fueled, and empowered, and amplified by the internet. And to me, that’s the single most concerning thing right now.
JAMIESON: Let me just add one thing. One of the changes, if you had the Horton ad today—is that it would reach more people who were likely to be activated by it in likeminded communities in which there’d be less critique of it, because the digital structures in which we work right now are uniquely able to magnify fear, and anger, and prejudice, and to find likeminded communities that will share that with each other in an environment in which there is no critical scrutiny, and which the norm is approving not disapproving. At least in ’88, the norm was disapproving.
AULETTA: I asked how it’s changed politics. How has it changed journalism? I mean, you mentioned—I mean, for instance, I remember covering presidential campaigns back in Jimmy Carter, ’76, where basically you had a filing office, where at the end of the day you went. There was no news until you wrote your story. There was no cellphones, et cetera. And now it’s—describe how it’s changed.
STELTER: I think we have to—Kathleen, your perspective.
JAMIESON: I just want to say something positive. (Laughter.)
ENGELBERG: Yeah, really? Why?
JAMIESON: Just because. There are capacities now that we did not have before that are good for the body politic. And we’ve got to figure out those when we see them in one place and generalize them. So Minnesota Public Radio during the last election put up a candidate site that tells you about all the local candidates. We need more journalism about local governance. Described their issue positions. And then, because of the capacities of digital communication, you can click and translate it into Somali, Hmong, or Spanish. Now, if what we care about is journalism being a conduit of accurate information about something consequential—who these people are, how they distinguish each other on issues—then that single act of digital communication was a really important contribution to the body politic.
STELTER: Absolutely. And the ability for folks to organize as well and create communities that are on a positive—that are trying to affect change, and not just stoke hatred and extremes. I remain surprised that we’re not seeing more protest activity in the Trump years, but we have seen some remarkable protest, you know, in the streets, some of those organized online. I think what that means for the press is everybody’s a source now. Everybody’s a member of the media, whether you want to be or not. If you’re using Facebook or Twitter you’re a member of the media. And it changes our jobs profoundly, because our jobs are increasingly about verifying and debunking what everybody else is posting, what everybody else is sharing.
The president is a media company. And so are his rivals. So is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s using her Twitter feed to disarm her conservative media critics, and really creative ways. And then she’s going on Instagram and doing livestreams at night where she’s cooking and talking to her fans. You know, that kind of technology—doing that changes our job, because if she’s not going to give us an interview but she’s going to chat with her friends on Facebook or Instagram, we’re going to have to spend more time fact-checking, debunking, verifying what she’s saying and less time trying to get an interview with her. I think those are the kind of changes that we’re seeing.
AULETTA: But what she’s doing is proving, as Trump with his 53 million Twitter followers does, that he can communicate around you.
STELTER: Yeah, sources going direct. Yeah, everybody’s able to go direct, which I think changes our jobs. It actually makes our jobs more important and more interesting, because rather than just relaying what a politician said, we get to tell you if what the politician said makes any sense or not. And what I think has been great about the past two years, we’ve seen journalists discover an ability—find a voice to be more aggressive and assertive about what the truth is. Journalists are standing up for decency and truth in a way that, you know, we always have to some degree, but we’re doing it in a more loud and forceful way now, given the presidency. And I think that’s a positive.
ENGELBERG: I would push back a little bit on that, in this sense. And, again, my theory is that the internet just makes anything more. It’s not like it invents new things. I’m looking down at my former colleague, Warren Hoge from The New York Times. I think Warren and I were in—every four years we’d have a meeting at The New York Times when we would say: This time it’s not going to be horserace coverage, by God. (Laughter.) We’re just not going to do it. It’s going to be different. And then we’d do horserace coverage. I think that the tendency of the fast-velocity ways that we communicate makes all that much, much worse. And I think there’s an awful lot more focus now on sort of who’s up, who’s down, what’s the percentage. You know, people are mad about the needle, but they love the needle. They want the needle. And the reporters love the needle. And I think it feeds a tendency that does not really do as much as what you’re saying. And I think the medium sort of rewards, you know, this kind of breathless sort of horserace stuff, which I don’t think is that helpful.
STELTER: Everyone wants to be first. Everyone wants to know something first. Everyone wants to be ahead of each other. And I don’t mean journalists. I mean the public. People—news consumers want to be ahead of everyone else. They want the needle, because they want to have an advantage on knowing what’s about to happen. And in that environment, media literacy skills are desperately needed in a bigger, broader way. And that’s something newsrooms can help with. But it’s a lot—a lot of pressure on the tech companies, I think, to be helping folks know how to consumer the news and know what a real story is. I mean, I remember a story that was written about me a year ago was a fake news story—what we used to call fake news, before the president redefined fake news. It was a made-up story designed to deceive you.
The first paragraph were real quotes I had really said on CNN. The rest of the story were made-up quotes I had never said anywhere. I almost didn’t know which was which. I had to go look up the transcript, find out what I had said, what I hadn’t said. (Laughter.) And if it was that had for me, how’s my mom supposed to know what’s real and what’s not real on Facebook? That, I think, is the grave concern of this moment, which is why we need to do more verifying and more debunking. But I agree with you, we oftentimes end up doing the cheaper stuff.
AULETTA: Kathleen, you started doing verifying and debunking many years ago with fact checking.
AULETTA: At the University of Pennsylvania. And one of the questions we have today is—and The Washington Post does a brilliant job of fact-checking Donald Trump. But one of the concerns we have today are our facts accepted as facts? Are yours accepted as facts?
JAMIESON: I think in general the fact checkers’ facts are accepted by those who are already disposed to accept them. We don’t reach the people who are not disposed, because we’re in like-minded enclaves. And as a result, it’s very difficult to break through. Which is why innovations that are difficult to execute are nonetheless important. So CNN was beginning to experiment with fact checking in real time. That’s extremely dangerous, because you can get it wrong in real time. But if as the politician is speaking, you’re summarizing on the lower screen, you would then correct on the lower screen when something is inaccurate. You’re not letting the misinformation set.
One of the ways that we know you can displace information is by setting an alternative narrative. And this is point number two. Fact checking in real time has real merits, if you can get it right. To the extent that we can create a coherent understanding of what the world is, it will displace individual pieces of factual inaccuracy. But that requires a kind of journalism that’s hard to do in an environment in which everybody’s being deadline-driven. One of the reasons I’m very impressed by what the internet digital can do, is that if it uses its interactive capacity well, it can put those narratives in. So there are deceptions about climate change, for example. How do you debunk those? You don’t do it but putting up a fact against a fact. You don’t do it by saying scientists against a claim. You instead create an understanding of how the climate is changing and why.
And so when Vox uses its capacity to create an interactive graphic that lets you situate yourself on the globe, sit yourself in place, and then says: In 2050, where will you be relative to the weather in relationship to some other state? And it’s making the point, see your city? See where you’ll be? You’re going to be two states to the south of where you are in terms of weather. They have just let you identify with something in an interactive way that locks down a scientific understanding of how the change is being made—not simply in temperature, which we usually talk, but also precipitation. And when you have iterative graphics about climate, so you don’t simply see the static graphic—now, here’s digital capacity. Because we only had static graphics when we were in a print world.
If you can iterate a trendline—for example, with Arctic sea ice, starting with ’76 through the present. The satellites were in place in ’79. So it’s a complete data set. Now, you can’t doubt me as a fact checker for saying I’m selectively using evidence. I’m giving you everything that’s there. If I iterate, so you experience the up and down of the trendline, you understand natural variability without my having to say natural variability. And if I ask you at the end: Can you find any place on the Arctic sea ice trendline that is lower than the last six years as you look across the trendline, and you realize you can’t, you’re more likely to accept that Arctic sea ice is being affected by the climate.
And what that means is there’s an alternative narrative we can ground in an interactive understanding in which we invest the audience in its own knowing through what it is we present. We couldn’t do that before. And that’s a big help.
AULETTA: And what kind of confidence do you have that Trump supporters would accept—and climate change deniers would accept those facts of yours?
JAMIESON: If you’re attitudinally already anchored and you’re hardline ideologically committed and it’s your identity, the likelihood of change is minimal. But you have a whole lot of people who are leaning into that area. They’re not there. Or, they’re leaning into that area, but they don’t have a factual base to anchor. You’re not going to persuade everybody. But you’re going to be able to move those who are leaning but can be pushed to be lean back given an accurate—more accurate understanding. And that’s all you have to do to affect political leadership. Get enough of those people to shift, and you’re ultimately going to create the climate in which we legislate.
AULETTA: How do you—one of the things that—I mean, Jeff Zucker was quoted some weeks ago as saying that every time we do a show in the evening that is not about Trump our ratings plunge. And you look at how much coverage he gets everywhere—not just on CNN. How do you do—I mean, has Trump become our clickbait?
STELTER: (Laughs.) There are—there are certainly a lot of clickbait about Trump, but there are also these incredible investigations about Trump. So I would say the answer is only partially yes. I don’t know if Jeff said exactly that about the rating. I do think, yes, he generally said that Trump is good for ratings. Frankly, though, I think President Clinton would have been good for ratings as well. I assume we’d be in impeachment—
ENGELBERG: Only after Monica Lewinsky.
STELTER: I assume we’d be in impeachment proceedings by then. You know, well, no, if Hillary Clinton were president right now, that would be a big rating story as well. You know, I do think Trump is such a massive story. There are great ways to cover Trump. There are not-so-great ways to cover Trump. And then there is propaganda about Trump. And we’re seeing all of that—all of the above. I think about Trump—as a CNN anchor—I think about him as a front door, right? He’s a way to get you into a story. And then once I have you in the door, I can take you to all the other rooms of the house. We can talk about Maria Ressa in the Philippines, who is being indicted on fake news charges, a bunch of BS. I can take you and talk about other stories around the world. But Trump is a front door. Trump, you know, kind of as a headline, is a front-page story. He’s a way into a lot of different topics. But then I think once we have the audience there, we can do a lot. That’s the way I approach it.
AULETTA: How about—you know, we talked about some of the harm that might be done because of digital tools we have. You have editors who could sit—and business people—who could sit in an office and say, well, we know these stories—Kardashian stories get a lot more clicks and coverage. Shouldn’t we be doing more of that? And then you see reporters tweeting. What’s your attitude to your reporters tweeting?
ENGELBERG: Well, there’s two different questions there. I think they’re both worth thinking about a little bit. I mean, I do think that, Brian, you’re right that you open a door. But the fact is there is a kind of—certainly I think MSNBC and, at this point, Fox are both built on a commercial imperative of sort of being in a certain place in a political conversation. That’s how they make money. And so the so-called business side—I have the privilege of being in an ivory tower that’s a nonprofit—but, you know, the president of our company is sitting out there. But if he were pushing me to get more revenue, he would probably have some thoughts on what would get us more revenue. I think that’s an extremely dangerous place to live. So I think that’s something that’s new and that’s concerning.
And I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten the second half of your question.
STELTER: Can I just suggest about that? Within that context of MSNBC and Fox, they can either do great journalism from the left or the right or they can do propaganda from the left or the right. There’s still an ability for MSNBC, which I think they are—they do every day, to produce progressive journalism, journalism from the left. That’s a wonderful thing.
ENGELBERG: Sure. Now reporters tweeting, which gets to a sort of related problem really, because, you know, this is now—we’ve actually managed to get twenty minutes into a panel without complaining about the lack of money in journalism. That’s an amazing thing. How did that happen?
AULETTA: We got ten minutes left. (Laughter.)
ENGELBERG: Well, we could certainly talk about—you know, if you’re a journalist today, or you’re a young person, and you’re saying to yourself: This may or may not have a great future. How do get a future? You become brand. I mean, Brian, I think, arguably, you became a brand.
STELTER: I was afraid you were going to say that. (Laugher.)
STELTER: Twitter helped. I mean, Twitter helped a lot.
ENGELBERG: Twitter helps. And so that’s not a—it’s not a bad thing. I mean, it helps bring audience to your stories. It helps bring audience to the site or to the issue. And we encourage our reporters to be part of social media, to be part of the conversation.
On the other hand, we also discourage them from expressing strong opinions, which the medium happens to like. So we don’t want them—we can’t have the guy who covers, let’s say, the IRS, start tweeting about, you know, Trump’s taxes in a way that makes it impossible for him to ever write a story about that—or her. So we ask our people to sort of sit on this precipice and be really interesting, but never take an opinion that will rule you out of covering a straight news story. It’s extremely difficult. I’m not sure how they do it. But they actually do manage it most of the time.
AULETTA: Well, wait, but let me expand it beyond tweeting. Reporters, straight reporters for The New York Times and a lot of other publications, appear and get paid to appear on MSNBC, CNN, Fox, et cetera, and express opinions very often. That trouble you?
ENGELBERG: Yes, it does. I’ve been on those shows very rarely myself. I’ve worked with people who loved being on them, and they’re very good journalists. But I honestly think if you’re going to come to work tomorrow, let’s say, and write a sort of news analysis about the future of CBS, you should not have been on last night kind of wildly opining on what the Times is revealing about Les Moonves. I just think that’s problematic.
AULETTA: But I’ve just—I’ve expanded the brand, haven’t I?
ENGELBERG: Well, if you worked for me, I would say: Stick to what the story says, Ken. Let’s not go off into your opinion about how they’re all sleazes, because that might sound good on TV it’s not so good.
AULETTA: Kathleen, how do you feel about that?
JAMIESON: If the attack against journalism is they’re all veiled partisans who find clever ways to disguise their partisanship, and journalists are in venues in which it looks as if they actually are partisans, they’re opening journalism to the attack. And I worry about that.
STELTER: I would like to have many kinds of journalists, though. And I think there are many kinds. There are lots of partisan, political journalists from the left and the right who clearly come from a place, a point of view. And they show that, and they share that. And they might produce great journalism. That’s why I’m worried about The Weekly Standard possibly shutting down. But I also want lots of AP and Reuters reporters who just deliver the facts and nothing more and don’t go on TV and opine. I think there’s room—I think there’s room for all of that. And I think The New York Times and Moonves, great example. They’ve got Jim Stewart as a columnist writing a column with a point of view about the reporting, at the same time they have Abrams and others doing the reporting and publishing it straight. So I think there’s room for both. We don’t do a good job of differentiating them, however. And on Twitter, it can sound like we are all biased, we are all partisan. And it contributes to that sense of noise that’s not helpful.
AULETTA: There was a debate about a year or so ago, when Gerard Baker was the editor of The Wall Street Journal, about whether we should use lies in headlines to describe something that Trump said. The Times and The Washington Post did describe some of the things he said as a lie after a while, not just misleading or false. Baker said: We shouldn’t do that, because we’re climbing inside his head, and we’re assuming that he knowingly lied, as opposed to being misinformed or believing it falsely. Any thoughts on that?
ENGELBERG: Yeah, well, we—I took a strong position at ProPublica on this, actually. I don’t always agree with Gerry Baker, but I thought he had a point about this. I will say that after I took that position the president has made a determined effort to beat me down. (Laughter.) And I think he’s winning.
STELTER: Yes, he has.
ENGELBERG: And I think he’s winning. You know, right about the point where he said, you know, every Democrat in the House and Senate has sponsored a bill called Give Citizenship to Anyone Who Crosses the Border, and they were all going to get a car, I thought, well, even if I can’t read his mind, that does seem like a lie. (Laughter.) You know, I don’t know what else you can call that. But I do think we do have to be very careful climbing inside the head of any public figure. You know, when we’re doing investigative stories, we’re constantly taking out things that attribute motivation to people, unless we have very, very clear evidence of it. That’s how you can get yourself into real trouble. And I think in political reporting, the same. You want to be very, very precise and careful about that. But I got to say, this president, he’s winning. I mean, I think some of these things are clearly lies, I have to say.
STELTER: I think it’s more helpful to say—it is hard with some of the specifics whether they’re fibs, or falsehoods, or lies. It’s hard to know exactly where you put them on the spectrum. We can definitively say, however, he’s lying constantly as a tactic, without having to attribute specific statements on whether they are lies or not. And I think the most important thing is the journalists covering this incredible story have to go be able to live with themselves ten or twenty years from now. You’ve got to be able to look back and be proud of the way you described this insanity. And I think some reporters will be proud and some will not. I think there are folks that—at Fox News who should be ashamed of the way they have supported what’s going on. And, look, maybe they’ll be proud of it in twenty years. I don’t know. But I think that’s ultimately the rubric. You know, are you going to be proud of the way you describe what’s going on?
AULETTA: Kathleen, before we turn to the members for questions, do you have a final thought on this, or?
JAMIESON: Yeah. The human capacity for self-delusion is almost limitless.
STELTER: (Laughs.) That’s where we should have started.
JAMIESON: I think it’s important to try to determine when you’ve got patterns of deception what the patterns of deception mean. I mean, the first thing a pattern of deception means potentially people are being deceived on a routine basis. That’s problematic. So when you say something is deceptive, that’s very different from saying that person intentionally did it. So it’s problematic that they are potentially deceived. It’s problematic the content is deceptive. But it’s also possible that someone is severely self-deluded. It’s possible that someone can’t remember what they just said. And that would be a psychiatric problem. It is possible that—
STELTER: It’s actually a bigger story than the lying, if I may say.
JAMIESON: So I worry a little bit about the quick move to the word “lie.” And I love The New York Times. I value The New York Times. I think the page with all the things called lies is a big problem, because among other things that are statements on there that are statements that have been made by other candidates and are not characterized that way when they’re made by other candidates. And on many of those, I think you can say they are deceptive, but you can’t get to intentionality. I can find four or five other explanations for why someone simply could have gotten that wrong. So FactCheck.org doesn’t use the word lie, except in cases in which you have semen on a blue dress.
AULETTA: Yeah, but, you know, one of the things, because—(laughter)—
STELTER: Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again soon.
AULETTA: Because of the digital world and technology, you have an ability to do a quick search for what someone has said. And CNN, for instance, does this all the time, and it’s great. Trump says this today, but this is what he said on this day three months ago.
STELTER: Sometimes it’s not the lying, it’s the contradicting from day-to-day that’s actually more interesting. And I think cable news still has a long way to go to more fully fact check what’s going on. I thought it was interesting last week putting that banner on screen while Sarah Sanders was speaking with facts on the corner of the screen. That’s a step in the right direction. We’ve got to keep taking those steps and keep experimenting. I would love to get to a place where if Trump’s holding a rally, and we are showing it live for some reason, the anchor jumps in as soon as there’s a misstatement, jumps in as soon as there’s a falsehood. And, by the way, we need to make sure we do that in five or ten years, and not just with Trump. Because if this is just Trump, if we’re just treating Trump like he is a one-of-a-kind figure, but then another president comes along and is equally deceptive, damn well better keep covering it the same way, or else we’re going to lose more credibility.
ENGELBERG: And I will—I will say, though, I’m with Kathleen on this point. I want to stop for questions, but I will say it gives me enormous heartburn to imagine, you know, my twenty-four-year-old whippersnapper self, sitting at a computer at CNN typing “president denies mocking woman he just mocked,” because sure as I’m sitting here, that whippersnapper will make a mistake with that, and you will never hear the end of it. So I think this fact-checking instantaneously thing is really tricky. And it makes me really nervous.
STELTER: Yeah. It is.
JAMIESON: One of the stories that we are displacing by the quick move to lie are the consequences of inconsistent signaling by a president of the United States. When a president says X is Y, and then X is Z, and you’ve got international players who are trying to determine where the United States stands, that is problematic. So I wonder sometimes if in the quickness to make that judgement, which is a judgement about his capacity to lead and about his temperament, we are missing the implications for governance in the international arena.
STELTER: Are you free on Sunday? (Laughter.) That would be a really good segment for Reliable Sources.
ENGELBERG: It would be interesting.
AULETTA: Let’s go to questions. Yes. Just wait for the—and please identify yourself, member.
Q: I’m Russell DaSilva from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pitttman here in New York.
First and foremost, thank you for a lively, informative, illuminating presentation. And thank you for being journalists. My question is about the historical context in which this arises. And you folks are far more knowledgeable about the history of journalism than I. I grew up in an age of unified news sources. And one of the things that is most confusing about the current age, at least to me, is the fragmentation of where we get our news through sources many of which don’t even pretend to be news. But if we look at the history of this country, which of these is the aberration? If you grew up on a farm in Kentucky in the 1830s, where did you get your news? You got your news from gossip. You got it when you went to the food—the feed store. You got it when you went to church. And if we go back to the period of our revolution, we had pamphleteers, like—(laughs)—Alexander Hamilton, who did not pretend for a minute to be objective.
So my question is, if we put this into historical context, is it possible that the cacophony of news that we hear, the mixing of truth and falsity, of opinion and fact, is in fact the music of democracy? And is it possible that this is the sound of America singing?
AULETTA: Who’d like to—
ENGELBERG: You know, I think, first of all, that’s historically accurate. I think the period of unified news that people in this room and panel grew up with is, in fact, unusual in the history of journalism. You know, to return to the theme that I’ve hit several times: The difference is that cacophony is being amplified in ways that I think actually undermine democracy. And it’s not just here. You know, if you follow Central Europe, Poland, Hungary, et cetera, the ability of a foreign power to reach into this system and take what might have been a rumor that a few people accessed in 1779 and put it in the Facebook feed of literally millions of people, that takes us to a different point. And I think that that has allowed the sort of undermining of fact in a way that potentially is troubling for democracy. I think that’s the real question, which is, you know, can 21st century democracy survive sort of these new tools? I think the jury is frankly out.
STELTER: There was a headline the other day about media haves and have nots, and I think it applies to the public as well. The difference, perhaps, between fifty or a hundred years ago now is that as a news consumer, you have the opportunity to be the smartest, most informed, most well-read consumer in the history of the world, with a hundred different outlets at your fingertips, all the international sources and all the databases and all the primary sources you could possibly imagine. You have that chance now; you didn’t have it before. Or you could read a bunch of lies and hoaxes and smears on the Internet, and you can decide to live in that world, which is full of resentment and hate and anger and rage. The difference is that the gap between those is so vast, and getting wider, right, because you can keep getting smarter and smarter with your news consumption, if you want to, and subscribe to all these wonderful websites, or you can just live in that trash and filth. The difference is massive and I think maybe that that is the difference right now.
JAMIESON: One of the changes is in the capacity of the medium to manipulate us. So in a print world, in an oral world, our capacity to be analytic was still relatively high, because we could slow it down and examine it. At the point at which television ads’ visual stimuli, rapidly paced, with music that’s evocative under it, with print that contradicts the visuals in ways that invite us to draw false inferences that we are unaware that we’re drawing, its capacity to manipulate us has changed. At the point at which you get something in a viral environment and you like and share before you actually process consciously, you are nonetheless influenced in ways that you couldn’t be when it was a billboard, a placard or a broadside.
AULETTA: Let’s get some other—Warren? Wait for the microphone.
Q: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute.
When I think about digital journalism and what I worry about, I don’t worry about the New York Times or CNN, I worry about the regional press, and I worry about the absence of that press and the effect that has on the practice of democracy. If you don’t have state legislatures and city councils being covered the way they were before when you had regional newspapers, can digital journalism function to fill that gap?
ENGELBERG: I knew we’d get to money. (Laughter.) I’d like to take a first shot at that, Warren, because between my time at ProPublica and my time, you know, at the New York Times, I spent six years as the managing editor of the Oregonian in Portland. The day I arrived it had four hundred twenty full-time equivalent employees, as we like to say in journalism; today it’s around eighty. So that is what has happened to the coverage of local news in the state of Oregon, and that was one of the finest regional newspapers, you know, in the country. So I think the effect is very, very serious. I do not, at the moment, see the market providing us with a solution, because what we need in the digital money space is people to pay for subscriptions. And The New York Times can do that; The New Yorker seems to be doing it; The Wall Street Journal, maybe one or two others, The Economist. Regional newspapers so far have been utterly unable to find a way to get there.
The other quick thought I’ll throw out about why this is serious is it’s not just the state legislatures, bad enough though that is, or the city government, bad enough though that is. When I put out the front page of the Oregonian—which was read by a lot of people; today not read by so many—every single day I put major foreign news, major national news, major political news from Washington. People accessed not just the region but all kinds of well-written news from the New York Times news service, Washington Post news service, Associated Press, Reuters, et cetera. That is no longer there. And I think that is also—people forget when they say the regional press is declining—what’s going to happen to state legislatures? What’s going to happen to the education of the people in those states who now, with respect, you know, basically have cable television as their outlet? And I think that’s a problem.
STELTER: I would just add about the midterms: We know, based on research, that if you’re in a news desert without local newspapers, you’re less likely to vote, and you’re less likely to become a candidate. And I think there are very, very clear examples of the damage that’s being done. I don’t want to always kick it over to the tech giants, but I believe they have a unique role to play. We all are addicted to our phones, and we all have the ability through our phones to subscribe to the news. I think Apple and Samsung and Google and others need to be a big part of this solution. When you are in a local community, when you are, you know—for example, when I land—let’s say I land in Minneapolis or I land in Portland. It’s 2018. My phone still does not prompt me to subscribe to the local paper. My phone still does not prompt me to check out the local TV station. There are some basic flaws in this technology that we’re all addicted to that—unfortunately, I feel it’s out of reach for me to fix or us to fix. I feel it’s up to these tech companies to play a role in local news. And yeah, they’re trying around the edges. Right? Facebook is trying to surface local stories, they claim. But there’s so much more these companies could be doing to replicate the newspaper experience.
ENGELBERG: Let me just say, as a publisher of—
STELTER: Is that too ambitious? (Laughs.)
ENGELBERG: As a publisher of stories, if Facebook gives—more help with, they’re going to kill us. OK? Thanks very much.
STELTER: That’s true. Right. Right.
AULETTA: Let’s get some more member questions. Yes?
Q: I’m Lucy Komisar. I’m a journalist.
In May 2016, NBC national security reporter Ken Dilanian was ready to go with a heavily documented exposé of William Browder, who he proved was a fraud, that none of his Magnitsky story, which launched Russiagate, was true. Browder’s lawyer sent a letter to NBC which killed the story. The State Department knew the details as its Russia experts were in the loop of emails between Browder and Dilanian, emails that I have. But this took place one month before the Trump Tower meeting, which was about the Magnitsky Act; the lawyer would have had other options. That might not have happened. There wouldn’t have been a Mueller investigation. Manafort was at that meeting. Dilanian’s report could have changed the course of Russiagate. Why is NBC’s killing that story on lockdown? Why do the media refuse to report it?
AULETTA: Who’d like to?
STELTER: I hate to say this, but I had no idea, and you’re the first to tell me.
Q: I will send it to—
STELTER: So thanks for telling me.
Q: Good. I have sent this to at least thirty big media.
STELTER: I think it’s always disappointing to assume that we’re covering something up, as opposed to the more benign answer, which is usually we have no idea about certain things. I would just suggest that.
AULETTA: Next question. Yes, sir?
ENGELBERG: News to me.
STELTER: I’m [email protected]. I’m easy to find.
Q: Hi. Jove Oliver at Oliver Global.
I had a question about sort of AI and echo chambers, and I was really—I think it was ProPublica that before the election had a really cool plug-in where you could put it on your browser and then you would see the exact opposite of the political ads you normally see and sort of take you out of your echo chamber, so congrats on that.
One of my clients, Wikipedia, also has an interesting take on AI, which is that they do use AI, sort of like a bot, whenever the Kremlin makes an edit. A human will get a flag by that, and so they have a human in every AI loop. And what’s interesting is, Harvard did a study and the longer people are Wikipedia editors, the more neutral their politics get, because they have to sort of, you know, push back; if you have a source and someone else has three sources, you’ve got to find four sources.
So my question is, as you think about AI and echo chambers and the news, and the sort of algorithms that Twitter puts you in to just receive that barrage of news, what are some of the solutions out there and what do both the tech companies, you know, have to think about, but also, is there something in like the way Wikipedia and ProPublica and some others are innovating that has some solution there? Thank you.
AULETTA: Kathleen, do you want to take a crack at that?
JAMIESON: Too far beyond my area of expertise.
ENGELBERG: I mean, I will say that there’s an awful lot of talk to the tech companies, and you can see why, that the solution to this has to be some sort of algorithm that’s going to filter your news for you, and I am extremely skeptical that any such thing will ever exist. Yeah, so, I mean, the more humans we get in the loop, the better. But that’s going to cost some money, which they don’t want to spend.
AULETTA: Well, in fact, last year Facebook hired ten thousand what they call curators, because their algorithms didn’t work to stop fake news.
STELTER: And amid all this, if you said to me in 2008, Brian, in 2018, the evening nightly newscasts are still going to have twenty-five million viewers, CNN and Fox are going to be having their best years ever—if you’d told me that ten years ago, I would have laughed it off. It is remarkable, amid all this disruption from the tech companies and all these problems of misinformation, most folks still end up going back to these reliable, mainstream, old-school outlets. It is a testament to kind of the foundations of the media universe that the Times and the Foxes are doing so well. And that’s what gives me some hope about human editors and the human role, the human touch, is that—despite all of these tensions and issues, there still is a lot of that going on; there’s still a lot of curating going on by humans. (Laughs.)
JAMIESON: If I could just be an editor of journalism instead of Wikipedia or something else, I would ban “fake news” as a term, apart from imposter sites which are literally trying to pretend they are a news site when they are not, which maybe you could justify calling fake news, but I’d rather call it imposter.
News is not fake. If news is fake, it is an oxymoron. So to the extent that people in news legitimize fake news as a category, they are engaging in self-indictment. Why would anyone do this? I prefer “viral deception,” VD. (Laughter.) You don’t want to—you don’t want to transmit it. If you get it, you want to quarantine it. And I want the negative affect that’s associated with VD attached to it. The noun is deception. We’re worried about deception. We’re not worried about news. We’re worried about deception. And we’re particularly concerned with virality. So it gets into the ecosystem in ways that you cannot “gatekeep,” you cannot create a critical context around, and that makes it particularly pernicious.
AULETTA: Some questions on this side—yes, front row.
Q: Hi. I’m Anne Barnard. I’m the Morrow fellow this year at the council and I normally work at The New York Times, where for the last six years I was the bureau chief covering the Middle East and especially the war in Syria.
And a great example of that dangerous virality—we’ve seen many in the coverage in the war on Syria, especially when state actors get involved. You google the White Helmets, which is an organization of people who, you know, you can argue about whether it’s good that they get Western funding or not, but basically they pull people out of the rubble when no one else does. You google them; the first two or three pages are all from the conspiracy tweets and sites about—and many people who normally would be educated news consumers fully believe this and they bring it up to me all the time. So that’s how it gets out of control.
And now, that brings me to my question, which is—I think the ProPublica model is really interesting, the nonprofit model. I was wondering if you could give any examples of things that you’re able to do because of that model that have also gotten a lot of engagement that, you know, maybe could be emulated by for-profit? And are you looking at doing more in the international news sphere where investigative and long-term journalism is possibly even harder to do? Thanks.
ENGELBERG: OK, well, I guess that’s a ProPublica question?
First of all, almost everything we do reflects the fact that we are able to proceed and make investments of time and effort without having to worry about, you know, the bottom line. You know, our first Pulitzer Prize by Dr. Sheri Fink, now at The New York Times, involved an investigation of what happened at Memorial Hospital in the wake of Katrina, where the doctors euthanized some of the patients. The effort that it took to get that over multiple years, I think it’s almost impossible to imagine, you know, a for-profit news organization taking a full-time employee and spending that kind of time and effort on it. That was read by literally millions upon millions of people, both in The New York Times and on our site. And over the years, we have been able to, you know, bring to light a lot of stories that took that kind of effort, that kind of engagement and, you know, have been very well read. In all honesty, you know, absent a subscription model, if you look at a kind of hits model, we do not have anywhere near the number of clicks that would pay what it costs to have a Sheri Fink do what she did. And it wasn’t just Sheri, of course; there were editors, and so and so forth.
So this does bring us to the point of asking, where do you do it, how do you support investigative reporting? And I think philanthropy will continue to play a role. I also do think it’s true, though—Brian alluded to this earlier—that when you dig up something truly amazing and exclusive through investigative reporting, from a commercial perspective, you are building the argument that people should be subscribers. So I think there is a commercial argument for doing great journalism. It isn’t just, well, let’s do great journalism because it’s great and we’re serving the public. I think there are, sort of, dollars-and-cents cases that can be made that—you know, why should The New York Times have a Beirut bureau? Well, because there are people who care about this and want to see a complete report and they will subscribe. And I think that’s got to be the argument.
AULETTA: Yes. Gentleman in the second row.
Q: Hi. I’m Alex Jones. I’m former director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard.
I want to first of all thank Kathleen for giving us a very clear definition of what constitutes presidential lying. (Laughter.) That was dazzling.
JAMIESON: I think some of the audience missed the referent to that.
Q: It referred to a blue dress with a semen stain. (Laughter.)
In light of what Warren Hoge said and what this lady said about the role of philanthropy in answering the financial problem and dealing with local news, you can make a contribution to ProPublica and get a tax deduction. You cannot do that for the coverage of education or politics at the Portland Oregonian. Is that something that is a policy issue? If democracy is genuinely at stake here, and it seems to be clearly the opinion of many of you that it really is in play and uncertain in its outcome, is that something that could make a significant difference? I’ve read recently, seen statistics that a lot more people are inclined to contribute than to subscribe; they would donate more than they would pay.
AULETTA: Well, in fact, The Guardian, that’s the model—you read their stories at the bottom, that’s what they encourage people to do.
STELTER: And that’s an important point about the difference between membership and subscription. If you’re the member of something, you’re not just benefitting; you’re also helping others benefit. When you’re a member of something, you’re giving it to others, which can feel good, can be charitable, could be a tax deduction. I’m curious in Philadelphia how the paper is working there, how the Enquirer is working as a nonprofit model. And I would love to see more experimentation with just how much you can charge certain customers, because I do think it’s going to—this may be an eighty-ten—or eighty-twenty model where there’s a small number of people that are paying for most of local news coverage, and then a lot of people paying a little. That may end up where we’re going, you know. Interesting.
AULETTA: Yes, the gentleman.
Q: Hi. I’m Zachary Carbelle (ph). It’s good to see Alex. I was once a Shorenstein fellow a long while ago.
So question about money: You said we haven’t brought it up. It’s probably a good time to keep talking about this. On the one hand, you do have some positive trends, and the peek-free seems to be, you know, giving way, whether it’s the Guardian model or pay walls or people being willing to actually pay a certain amount for content. But you also have this trend, really in the past few years, of billionaires buying up media properties. Right? So Patrick Soon-Shiong buys the L.A. Times and Jeff Bezos buys The Washington Post and Mark Benioff buys Time and an Asian billionaire buys Fortune. And yeah, there’s a longer and longer list, as well, of course, Rupert Murdoch and The Wall Street Journal, and then billionaire corporations like Verizon and AT&T buying media properties. So is this the savior of journalism? Because these are clearly people who have excess capital, a willingness to spend it on what for them is a rounding error but what for, you know, journalism and the media is a significant amount of money. Does this concern you, or is this one of these unintended boons of the past twenty years that is actually proving to be a very positive wind at the back of journalism, particularly in the digital space?
ENGELBERG: Kathleen, do you want to jump in on that?
JAMIESON: To the extent that those who own it stay away from it editorially and stay away from the reporters, it’s better to have it than not have it. Thank you to them. I think as we ask the question, however, we ought to also ask, where else are there models that have the potential to succeed more? I mean, to those of you who contribute to your local public radio station, you are in the main also supporting really fine local journalism. And to the extent that those drives interrupt your drive time, as you’re trying to get to NPR and you don’t then phone in and say I’m giving my pledge, well, we all ought to be ashamed, because that’s sustaining local journalism, too. So we can be our own kind of philanthropists at the local level, trying to sustain our local public radio, which is still doing local news.
STELTER: We’re talking about political journalism today, but the argument in favor of news is so broad. It’s about making you smarter and safer and healthier, and I think some of those appeals to the audience, we sometimes take them for granted; we don’t even bother making them. When you’re hearing a tornado warning on the local news, or you’re being told not to eat romaine lettuce, there’s no way you can claim that’s viral deception. I’m not going to say fake news anymore—viral deception. You know that that’s keeping you alive and keeping you safe. And that’s an argument in favor of news that we don’t even sometimes bother making, as folks are trying to get people to subscribe and pay and care.
And just about Bezos and the others: I’m a believer in the idea that Marty Baron has said, which is that if Bezos were to start to meddle in the paper, reporters would leak right away. And so as long as that happens—(laughs)—as long as the leaks happen, I think the billionaire ownership model is, like you said, better than the alternative, better than nothing.
JAMIESON: The test is, how does the paper cover the economic interests of the owner? To the extent that it covers it with the same adversarial intensity that it covers the interests of other owners, I am happy.
AULETTA: In the back, the gentleman.
Q: Hatem El-Gamasy from NewEgypt.tv.
Don’t you think that in this digital age now every one of us, regardless of our level of education or our level of information, we have access to tweet right away to the whole world how we feel, how we think about anything and everything? And we might have a certain reaction right now, quick, to any news, and boom, I will say something may offend some people. Don’t you think banning anyone based on their point of view is a kind of censorship? And who is to decide what I say is offensive or not? What I say may be offensive to some people on that side of the world; I might be praised on the other side of the world. So don’t you think freedom of speech or freedom of press is against any kind of censorship in this digital age? We see like Twitter or any other media outlet—they ban people immediately based on some unfavorable point of view. Thank you.
AULETTA: I don’t think you’re going to have anyone dissent from—on this panel dissent from your question.
STELTER: I would just say I have very complicated feelings about this. I think Alex Jones was a relatively easy case, easy meaning—
JAMIESON: That’s the other Alex Jones—(laughter)—
STELTER: So yeah, I should have been more clear.
JAMIESON: This is not the Alex Jones who was the—
STELTER: I should have been more clear.
JAMIESON: —director of the Shorenstein; this is Infowars Alex Jones.
STELTER: Thank you— Infowars. If ever there was a case to be made for banning something or someone, it would be Infowars. That’s an easy case to be made. There are much, much harder cases, and obviously that’s the ones that the tech companies have to wrestle with now. And I don’t have the answer.
ENGELBERG: I mean, the Europeans have an answer to this, which I find myself very uncomfortable with, which is they pass laws saying certain kind of speech is not allowed; you can’t, you know, advocate Fascism in Germany, and I understand why they passed those laws. But I think we would be going down a very bad path if we went down that road, so.
AULETTA: Let’s get some—a couple more questions. Gentleman in the middle here.
Q: Thank you. Mark Hannah, the Eurasia Group Foundation.
I wanted to zoom out globally as well here. As the Internet makes news outlets intended for local or national audiences available and accessible to English speakers around the world, I want to ask the two journalists on the panel whether you’re mindful of the international or geopolitical consequences of your coverage.
And also, to Professor Jamieson, you just came out with a book about cyberwar and the vulnerabilities of digital media in this country and in the 2016 election. I wanted to ask, sort of invite you to talk about your main conclusion there and generalize it for the upcoming presidential election. Thank you.
AULETTA: We just have a few minutes—
ENGELBERG: Let’s start with that. Yeah.
AULETTA: —so, Kathleen, let’s turn to you to respond.
JAMIESON: Yeah. Quick telegraphy in relationship to this panel: I’m very concerned that the press in the United States did not handle the hacking well. It did not routinely source it back to the Russians, even after our intelligence community concluded that they were responsible as sources of Wikileaks that normalized it. It did not—in the rush to get it out there did not ask whether these stories were newsworthy in their own right. It created a scandal frame around things that in retrospect do not look scandalous. And it did not create a comparative frame comparing the Clinton to the Trump issues, when there were issues about both. So it wasn’t a contrast frame; they were simply going for a Hillary Clinton story. There also was material taken significantly out of context, which the book argues, affected votes because it was taken out of context by reporters in two presidential debates.
So my worry coming out of this isn’t about the platforms, although there are plenty of reasons to worry. It is that there is no evidence that the press is engaged in a kind of self-reflection that insures that if there’s a drop of hacked content at the last minute in a presidential race, it will not make exactly the same mistakes again.
AULETTA: Let’s try one more question.
AULETTA: Yes. Wait for the mic.
Q: Hi. Cheryl Gould. I’m a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists and a four-decade veteran of NBC News.
I am concerned, as everyone else has mentioned, about the decline of and the absence of local news. And I’m wondering, what is to prevent the—something like The New York Times from branching out and having regional areas, just as they have—sorry?
AULETTA: They’re saying money.
Q: Well, but you can have more subscribers. It would be reaching a whole different kind of subscriber. And I found it fascinating that Ms. Jamieson correctly pointed out about Minnesota Public Radio doing the work of telling the local residents what the candidates stood for. (Laughs.) I mean, that is so basic, that why isn’t there not an attempt on the part of the, you know, mainstream media to find creative ways to partner with, whether it’s public radio or with a university journalism school? It seems as though there’s not a real attempt to try and figure out a new model.
ENGELBERG: Well, first of all, shameless plug: We created ProPublica Illinois two years ago, so we hear you, we believe in it and there are plans on the drawing board for more ProPublicas, so if there are any wealthy people in the room who would like to support ProPublica Florida, come on down. (Laughter.) End of plug.
I think the issue, in all seriousness, is that, you know, the economic model lags a bit. At the national level we have found an ability to raise philanthropic dollars. We’re raising more now than we ever have. We are seeing people seeing at the national it’s worth sending fifty dollars to ProPublica. And we have had more of that than we’ve ever seen. At the local level, it’s lagging. You know, remember, until very recently, news appeared out of the sky from a monopoly. Who knew that classified ads were the bulwark of democracy—(laughter)—but they were. And so with that now gone I think people are not yet accustomed at the local level, but they may get there. And so I think the simple answer that was elicited on the other side of the room, which was why doesn’t The New York Times do it, it’s not profitable, may or may not ultimately be true. Certainly, we in the nonprofit sector see promise in this, so again, if anybody would like to—
AULETTA: The Times did do it in Texas online.
ENGELBERG: Yeah. Texas Tribune is a great example where they’ve made a go of it. There are small nonprofits throughout the country that are doing a great job locally and regionally, and they obviously need more support.
AULETTA: We promised we’d end at 2:00. It’s a few minutes after.
ENGELBERG: No, it’s 2:00.
STELTER: (Laughs.) Right on time.
AULETTA: Thank the panel. (Applause.)
STELTER: Thank you.
ENGELBERG: We hit the deadline.