At a recent Harvard Kennedy School Dean’s Discussion, three of the nation’s leading scholars on the role of the media in society shared grim assessments of the health of the news business in the United States. And they offered only modest optimism that the news media industry can turn that around any time soon.
Moderator Sarah Wald, chief of staff to Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf, posed questions about the media and democracy to HKS faculty members Nancy Gibbs, the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice of Press, Politics and Public Policy; Thomas Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press; and Latanya Sweeney, the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and Technology at Harvard Kennedy School and in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences and director and founder of the Public Interest Tech Lab.
Wald first asked how these experts see the role of the American media now and why news organizations seem to be falling short in fulfilling that role. Here are excerpts from their opening replies, edited for length and clarity:
What an incredibly radical idea the first Amendment of the Constitution was at the time … not only to guarantee the freedom of the press but to make a free press the only constitutionally protected industry. And that suggests that even back then, when the press was very often scurrilous and irresponsible, that the people who had a vision for democracy thought there is a public purpose of accountability that the press as an institution must play.
And yet the founder of Time Magazine, Henry Luce, used to say ‘publishing is a business; journalism never was, never has been.’ (He also said it's not a profession, which some in my profession would quarrel with.) But he was getting at this fundamental tension between profit and purpose, between the set of institutions that are supposed to play this core democratic role, in what is largely a private industry.
That worked great in the 20th century, and in the post-war years America's newspapers were a hundred-billion-dollar business. The broadcast networks, radio—these were incredibly profitable businesses. And so they could devote resources to doing that kind of public service and still make tons of money. In the 21st century, we have had a complete disruption of that business model, and in fact not just the business model for the press, but for our entire information ecology. As of last year, that hundred-billion business for American newspapers was down to $17 billion. For newspapers worldwide, about $30 billion…. You don't think of Amazon as an advertiser [but] Amazon alone makes more money in advertising than every newspaper in the world put together. Google's advertising business is north of $200 billion.
The entire revenue model of what made these really, really successful, flexible, nimble, accountable public-serving institutions got blown up by the arrival of the platforms. Many of the things that we are now dealing with in this country—whether it's the decline of trust in institutions, whether it's the growth of political polarization—you can find a through line to the collapse of the business model for the press and what that has meant—the way that information is created, distributed, what people consume, where they go for information, who and what they trust, and what is and is not profitable. I don't think there's a way that we can really think about the ideal role that the press should be playing, and why it is right now having such a hard time playing it, without thinking about the ways in which some 15 years ago now, the entire industry was blown up—and no one has figured out a strategy.
Many of you are familiar with Joseph Schumpeter's notion of creative destruction, talking about the capitalist system—new ideas and innovations come along and destroy the old, and in his view, ordinarily to the net benefit of society. I think if you apply that lens to what's been happening to the media since the Second World War, you come up with a slightly different story. You get a lot of destruction and a little bit less creativity.
If you think, for example, about television, which came into American life in a large way in the 1950s, it had some beneficial effects. Americans were addicted to watching television and that helped expand the news audience beyond the newspaper. We had what scholars called the inadvertent news audience: these were people who didn't have an intrinsic interest in news but liked television so much that they watched when the news came on at the dinner hour. [Research showed] that television also had a depolarizing effect. The reporting model gave voice to Republicans and Democrats alike, and Americans came to think more highly of the other side. But television also had a downside: People increasingly stayed home to watch television. Civic life in America’s neighborhoods and communities diminished somewhat and there was less face-to-face interaction.
Then in the 1980s cable TV came into American homes—terrific for the news junkie because you could catch the news at any hour but not so good in terms of the general public, because now at the dinner hour, you could catch a movie, sports and the like. For the first time since the founding of the Republic, the news audience began to shrink. The effect was particularly pronounced among young people. The transfer of a news habit from parents to children was disrupted. As some Americans moved away from the news, the level of public information dropped. The other thing about cable, of course, is that it fragmented the media system. And the fragmentation increased as some outlets targeted niche audiences. Along comes Rupert Murdoch, and you get Fox News, and not quite a decade later MSNBC positions itself as the liberal alternative to Fox. We start to get a different kind of news in the system as well as the traditional news.
In the early nineties, the internet comes along. This was going to be the golden age of citizenship. We were going back to the days of the colonial pamphleteers where almost everyone could be a publisher. And yet within 10 years you actually had more concentration in the news sector on the internet that you did in newspapers…. And what else happened with the internet? Digital outlets like Craigslist began to capture classified advertising. Then the Yahoos and the Googles started to take other advertising away, and we started to see the collapse of the business model for newspapers. Then in 2004, you get Facebook. Again, people think, oh, this is going to be extraordinary two-way communication. And we do have that. But social media has turned out to be also a hotbed of misinformation, conspiracy theories, hate speech, and the like. So that's a little bit of a depressing story. I’ve underplayed the favorable aspects of media change. But when you look at the media, when you look at the market, there's probably been more destruction than creativity over the last 75 years or so.
When I was a graduate student at MIT in computer science, you could see the future. You knew that technology was going to change everything. And I and many of us just absolutely embraced it and rejoiced. For me, it was going to right all the wrongs. Here was this neutral technology that was going to make democracy stronger, was going to make opportunities more accessible, knowledge more accessible. It just seemed unbelievable, the potential…. I think I've spent all of my time professionally since then, trying to fulfill the vision that I had as a graduate student.
Today, what we're talking about is not just are harms related to journalism, it's the harms related to society because of a lack of journalism, and how technology has been a part of that…. If we look at the third industrial revolution, the start is the1950s with the invention of the semiconductor, which really revolutionized television. And then if we think of the digital revolution as kind of a revolution inside of a revolution, we just don't know where the end is. And if you think of ChatGPT, version four is already out, and people are just trying to get their heads around it. And it alone is upending our notion of what copyright means. It is unbelievable how fast this technology is moving.
When I was a kid, we had four channels on television and there were slight variations in the coverage of the news among those channels, but pretty much they played by a set of rules so that we had a shared knowledge and pretty much shared facts. We might disagree at the edges or have slight variations of interpretations, but for the most part it was a shared knowledge. But on the internet, critical mass is two people, and those two people can be anywhere in the world. And this had a profound effect on what we think of as community and our sense of belonging. It's not just in journalism. It affects lots of issues around who we trust, who we are.
When there's no broker of the truth and there's no opportunity to even get the truth, you live in a bubble of information, but you think that everyone else is in the same bubble. Did you not see the same thing? And the answer is no, actually.
One of the biggest questions for us in the Public Interest Tech Lab, and the work that we've done with those Facebook documents that we will soon be making public, is asking how you build trust at scale. How do we build shared knowledge? You could literally claim that aliens have landed, and if you say it to the people who want to hear that and you say it in your part of their trusted community, they will believe that. There are lots of people joining us trying to figure out what a public interest internet looks like. What should be the rules of engagement? How do we enjoy all the benefits of these technologies, but without these kinds of harms?
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