Riders on the New York City subway, April 1, 1963 (AP Photo/ Jacob Harris)

Breaking the News

Journalism & Democracy in the Age of Big Tech

Almost a century ago, Walter Lippmann wrote, “In an exact sense the present crisis of Western democracy is a crisis in journalism.” He could have added that the reverse is also true: a crisis in journalism is a crisis for democracy. It’s understandable that Franklin Foer, former editor of the New Republic and now a national correspondent for the Atlantic, uses this quote in his book World Without Mind: The Existenial Threat of Big Tech (Penguin, $27, 272 pp.). We are living through another such crisis, and both journalism and American democracy again lie in adjoining beds in the trauma ward.

Foer’s own story has become the stuff of modern media tragedy. He rejoined the New Republic as editor when it was bought by Chris Hughes, the young, wealthy co-founder of Facebook. Foer initially saw Hughes as TNR’s savior. Instead, Hughes presided over its effective demise. As Foer tells it, an early warning sign was the obsessive focus on Web traffic data. Another was the hiring as CEO of Guy Vidra, a former Yahoo executive who described TNR rhapsodically as a “vertically integrated digital media company.” Foer soon learned that his bosses were actively seeking his replacement. He quit, followed by most of the magazine’s best writers and editors. Foer tells his story here, but those seeking a detailed memoir will be disappointed. World Without Mind draws on Foer’s experience to tell a larger story about the ills of modern media—and, thus, of contemporary politics and public discourse.     

A physician treating such patients will necessarily look for the cause of the disease. The patients themselves will hunt for someone to blame. Foer here is both physician and patient, and he looks for a culprit other than himself and his fellow elite journalists. He finds it in “Big Tech”: companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, which run our new media landscape.

One should always review a book as it is, not the book the author might have written. But when that book gives short shrift to an important aspect of its subject, it’s fair to say so. Foer isn’t wrong to blame Big Tech for the state of modern journalism. But he neglects other culprits. They include journalists themselves, who have collaborated with Big Tech to degrade the profession—and called the result good. Another culprit is surely us, the readers. With or without the influence of Big Tech, we display our preference for chaff over wheat with every click.

Without indulging in the fiction of a golden age, Foer is nostalgic for better times in the profession. I was a journalist for a short while: a graduate of Columbia’s journalism school and briefly an intern at Newsday and reporter at Roll Call. I share his nostalgia. I remember what it meant, as a journalism student newly arrived in New York, to experience the thrill of buying the Sunday New York Times on Saturday night. “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,” writes Wordsworth. But to get the Sunday paper the night before was very heaven.

Swollen with sections and bleeding fresh ink, the Sunday Times seemed to live up to the paper’s motto: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” It felt authoritative. Even a selective reader couldn’t help but encounter unexpected stories. That involuntary exposure to what felt like all the world’s news was a big part of its value. It involved not a leap of faith, but an act of trust: trust in the reporters and editors who produced the paper. One trusted their expertise, their (relative) disinterestedness, their professionalism.

Today’s Times experience is different. I’m aware of the dangers of nostalgia, but I still insist that today’s Times is not just a shadow, but a deliberate rejection, of its older self. Its squad of editors may have been top-heavy and stifling, but they were essential to one’s pact of trust with the paper. The Times recently announced it would get rid of many of its copy editors, describing it in PR-speak as an effort to “significantly shift the balance of editors to reporters at the Times.” When I think of all the times my own reporting was rescued from error, bias, and short-sightedness by some newsroom Gorgon, I shudder to see this mass defenestration of editors described in positive terms.

Equally worrisome was the simultaneous decision to eliminate the public editor, or ombudsperson. That position was filled by someone experienced in journalism and authorized to call the Times to account each week. The real tragedy of that position’s elimination has to do with what the Times has said will replace it: the mob. As a memo cheerfully put it: “Our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog.” The Times’s strength comes from its professionalism and expertise. Its editorial page regularly laments the effects of online shouters on civil discourse and respect for truth. Yet it handed over one of its more important methods of self-scrutiny to cranks and amateurs—to the paper’s most credulous fans and most reflexive haters.

These changes are part of a broader suite of alterations, all of them ultimately related to Foer’s broader thesis. The Times’s desperation shows in its feverish “adaptation” to the internet. The online Times has become the paper’s primary outlet. That fact drives its voice and content in ways that have changed its mission and degraded the institution. Sober print headlines are replaced online by clickbait headlines and summaries, frequently opinionated and often misleading. In keeping with the online preference for commentary—which is cheap to produce and attracts “eyeballs”—over conventional reporting, it has added an army of opinion-mongers to what was formerly a small stable of columnists. Meanwhile, by encouraging reporters to maintain Twitter feeds, it has turned even its “straight” news staff into opinionated gossips.

This is not a first rough draft of history.

In an effort to draw readers, the Times has shifted from a “paper of record” model to a crowd-sourced conversational model. It overflows with soft interviews, chats between Times writers, “advice” that exploits readers’ fears (a classic recent headline: “We Need to Talk Some More About Your Dirty Sponges”), and pleas for readers to share their “experiences.” This is not a first rough draft of history. It’s about de-emphasizing what an internal memo called “dutiful” pieces—that is, the news—and trying to get readers to “engage” more with the Times, as if it were your buddy, not a newspaper. The internet gives the Times unlimited space for all the news that’s fit to transmit. Instead, it’s drowning in opinion, lifestyle, and trivia—what Foer calls “a deluge of ephemera dissecting the ephemeral.” Its desperate need for clicks, shares, and eyeballs is exemplified by the fact that the Times’s mobile app now allows you to “share” a story on social media from the headline itself, without having to go through the pretense of clicking through to the story. That’s not adaptation; it’s surrender.

 

For Foer, the real culprit here is the environment created by Big Tech. It disdains expertise and scoffs at antiquated “gatekeepers” while extolling the democratization of discussion. In the end, it doesn’t give a damn about content; only profit and monopoly. But the danger is deeper than that. As new generations have grown up in this environment, and as resisters are offered buyouts or otherwise disposed of, contemporary journalists have internalized the new norms. Reporters have gone from putting up with these changes to praising them.

Praising the current state of affairs inevitably leads to the oedipal need to bury the older, professional model. Exhibit A is Foer’s old magazine. For the new New Republic to rise, it had to kill its predecessor. Identity politics, an obsession for the new TNR, was the weapon of choice. The lead article of the first post-Foer issue of TNR was an extensive essay cataloguing and indicting all the old magazine’s sins on issues of race. How misguided its former staff must have been! And, by implication, how righteous and worthy its new staff! Reading the new TNR, henceforth, would involve more than merely staying informed; it would be an act of virtue.

Of course, the story had plenty of examples to work with. That would be true for any hundred-year-old magazine. What the story didn’t say is that a show of virtue can hide a multitude of sins. The new TNR is frankly awful. A magazine that once wrote about congressional appropriations now brims with stories on “cultural appropriation.” A magazine that loved “contrarian” pieces is now the voice of conformist prescription. That its writers are treated as public intellectuals shows how low that phrase has sunk. They are neither especially intellectual nor, to the extent that they exist to tell a bubble of like-minded readers what to think, especially public. It is truly a magazine for our times, alas.

One response to these laments can be summed up in a name: Trump. Foer’s Big Tech culprits aside, the nature of contemporary journalism is often justified by arguing that desperate times demand desperate measures. A science article in Slate last winter argued that in a polarized, “post-truth” age, liberals must “Give Up on Facts” and fight error with emotion. We need less disinterestedness and less empathy for the millions of Americans on the “other side,” goes the argument, and more strategic efforts to sell people on the “right” beliefs. Reporters should be less “neutral,” more adversarial.

I have no particular problem with the prognosis. The diagnosis and prescription are another matter. In an age of polarization, insulation, and distrust, there is not just room but a need for professionalism, and for institutions that do not exploit the currents of passion. When the Washington Post started prominently displaying the new post-Trump motto “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” many cheered. They were wrong. When newspapers are defined by marketing slogans (a working group “brainstormed more than 500 would-be slogans,” reported the Post), readers should worry. Aggressive reporting is not synonymous with adversarialism or inconsistent with tough but disinterested professional journalism. Vastly expanding the ranks of columnists while thinning the herd of actual reporters is no cure for “Darkness.” And a paper whose self-righteous slogan is really a quest for eyeballs will inevitably look for readers in less high-minded ways. A recent search on the Post’s website showed 89 results for “avocado toast,” 108 for “Harambe,” and over 3,000 for “Kardashian.” That’s not light: it’s journalism lite. Modern journalism is trying to survive, not “resist.”

If I have strayed somewhat from the framing of Foer’s own argument, that’s because it’s not terribly novel or interesting. For Foer, the real problem lies in the media environment and the companies that have created it. The litany of complaints is familiar. They are destroying individual privacy. They collect user data to manipulate our preferences. They rhapsodize about freedom but provide a new, panoptic form of imprisonment. They treat the traditional media “gatekeepers” with contempt while acting as unacknowledged gatekeepers themselves. They obsess over quantitative data, not quality. They copy and link without creating, and thus damage the laws of intellectual property that encourage invention and creativity. Above all, they are too damn big. They constitute a monopoly over ideas that must be broken. (In an odd footnote, Foer declares that he is not using the term “monopoly” in any technical sense, but instead wants to “revive ‘monopoly’ as a core piece of political rhetoric.” A footnote like that should make readers wary of the entire book.)

Foer’s concerns turn out to be remarkably narrow and mundane.

We have read all this before, and we have read all the well-worn creation stories and anecdotes that fill the first half of the book. One could safely begin reading this book at page 93; Foer’s argument for the importance of editors and other professional gatekeepers needed a tougher gatekeeper itself. Nor, for the most part, are Foer’s proposed solutions novel. Aping the utopian talk of Big Tech’s gurus, Foer proposes that we “take back the mind.” Reverse-mirroring their utopian belief in non-regulation, he urges government to create “a whole new apparatus” for regulating Big Tech, including a “Data Protection Authority.” Emulating the typical sweeping statements of Big Tech, he pronounces the stakes of such a struggle to be “nothing less than the fate of individuality and the fitness of democracy.”

 

I have no quarrel with Foer’s complaints about Big Tech or his proposals to counter it. That they aren’t novel doesn’t make them wrong. (There is one novel element: Foer points to the rise of organic and “artisanal” food as a model for media reform. I doubt somehow that Alice Waters holds the keys to radical change in the tech industry.) The real problem is his surprising narrowness of vision.

Foer rightly argues that the old media “gatekeepers” held real value. They were imperfect, but their professionalism and ability to sort dross from substance was vital to civil society. Given his sweeping language about the death of individual autonomy and creativity and its effects across society, however, Foer’s concerns turn out to be remarkably narrow and mundane. The people he wants to rescue from Big Tech are a small, relatively elite, not especially impressive group: “Intellectuals, freelance writers, investigative journalists, and midlist novelists.” He longs for the renaissance of “the middlebrow culture of midcentury America.”

We do indeed need more investigative journalists, and the turn of the major press toward commentators rather than “dutiful” reporters is tragic. It would be nice if we had more intellectuals, even the “middlebrow” sort, rather than what passes for them these days. But is this the key to “the fate of individuality and the fitness of democracy”? It’s easy to deplore the state of social media today and their effect on social discourse, whatever democratizing potential they hold. But midlist authors and middlebrow publications? Some count the world well lost for love; but does it really need to be remade for the sake of Jennifer Weiner, Time magazine, or the latest Harvard Crimson alumnus on the make?

Foer’s untiring focus on Big Tech as the culprit behind all our present ills is also a problem. Whether he’s right or wrong, that approach gives us too small a share of the blame. The algorithms and other approaches that shape what we read and buy are important and less transparent than they should be. We may not be fully aware of the forces behind our own choices. But, as Foer acknowledges, they’re still our choices. The people (myself included) who walk around all day staring at their devices or waste half their time at work on the internet may look like zombies, but we aren’t. We still have other options, the best efforts of Big Tech notwithstanding.

That’s true for the major news media too. Papers like the Times start changing out of the need to survive and adapt. They end up convincing themselves that these disturbing changes are a good thing: that a mass of self-selecting reader-commentators is better than an independent, professionally experienced public editor; that getting attention is a good in itself; and that partisan engagement is more “honest” than professional disinterestedness. However dire their circumstances, they have made choices—the wrong choices, and worse still when they are reinforced by the inevitable rationalizations.

When I was at journalism school, my mentor encouraged us to set aside what he called a “fuck you” fund that would enable us to tell off editors or publishers who expected us to abandon our ethics or professionalism. Many journalists have done just that over the years. (Remember all the people who followed Foer out the door of TNR.) I wonder how many, or few, contemporary reporters have said just that when told to maintain a Twitter feed and keep it “exciting,” “engaging,” or “opinionated.” Surely that’s why some reporters and editors took buyouts. Some who remain have made a devil’s bargain for their jobs. But others like being minor-league online celebrities, at whatever cost. I wonder how much better mainstream journalism would be if more reporters stayed on staff, but told the bosses and their gaggles of consultants that they have no intention of having a Twitter feed, or will only use it to link, without any “engaging” commentary, to their properly edited published pieces. They might not last long. But pushing back is a choice. More of them should make it.                

More broadly, Foer argues that through our addiction to the endless ephemera that make up online content, we have forgotten the true value of reading. It gives us the blessings of “contemplation, moments of isolation, where the mind can follow its own course to its own conclusions.” He’s right. In the grip of our online impulses, guided by the algorithms of Facebook and others, we are losing the value of serious reading: of thinking seriously about words and ideas rather than “following” or “linking” to them. We are indeed “surrendering far more than we intend” by drowning ourselves in ephemera. But the newspapers and middlebrow authors Foer extols are, for the most part, ephemera. Even the great old Sunday Times, luxuriated in on Saturday night and Sunday morning, was forgotten by Monday.

Foer’s book talks big but dreams small. We need better journalism for the sake of the polity. But we need much more than that for our own sakes. The ultimate act of free will calls for more than just cutting back on Twitter or Facebook. It involves throwing away one’s newspapers and magazines (Commonweal excepted, of course) and skipping the five-minute headlines on NPR. One can be informed without being informed up to the minute. There will still be important stories and we will still find and read them. But filling up one’s limited time and brain capacity with momentarily “urgent” trivia is another matter. Filling them with midlist novelists isn’t much better.

Taking back journalism is a good in itself, a good for democracy, and a necessary start

Foer’s book is aimed at a fairly narrow readership. His real audience is the educated upper-middle class. The irony is that he urges them to think radically but demands so little from them. They—we—should do more than reject Big Tech’s algorithms. We should also question the only slightly less algorithmic habits that are his idea of “free will:” the Times here, the old TNR there, a “well-reviewed” book thrown in for good measure. My own form of “resistance”—not just to Trump, but to our degraded culture of ephemera, of shouting matches between desperate and condescending elites and populists and trolls—is more radical than that. In the past year, I have turned away from the Times and toward Ovid, Horace, the Greek Anthology, Gibbon, and Philip Larkin. (Surely the last two are “contemporary” enough.) Good newspapers and magazines are fine; we need more of them. But there are better uses for our precious time.

Avoiding ephemera and devoting oneself amid all the noise to the timeless and classic is not escapism or a way to deny the needs of our own times. Real civic commitment starts locally, not with airy pronouncements about national issues, most of which are about signaling one’s opinion rather than acting on it. Knowledge at that level doesn’t involve following the times or the Times. It means talking to one’s neighbors, attending school-board meetings, working for candidates for lowly local offices. That work can and should be done with humility, commitment, passion, and—with time and a great deal of luck—wisdom.

That sort of wisdom won’t come from the Times or the New Republic: certainly not their current iterations, and not even those institutions at their former best. Foer concludes World Without Mind by writing, “We have deluded ourselves into caring more deeply about convenience and efficiency than about the things that last.” Amen to that. But it’s an odd lament for a book that is ultimately about fixing journalism, which even at its best was never meant to last. Taking back journalism—rescuing it from algorithms, consultants, opinionated Twitter feeds by reporters, and the obsession with page hits, and returning it to a state of serious, aggressive but disinterested professionalism—is a good in itself, a good for democracy, and a necessary start. If we really want to “take back the mind” and care about “the things that last,” however, we will need to do more than that. We need an intellectual and spiritual life that lies not only beyond the reach of Big Tech, but beyond even the best ephemeral journalism or the finest midlist middlebrow writing. We should go all in. We have nothing to lose but our iPhones.

Published in the November 10, 2017 issue: 
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Paul Horwitz is a law professor and First Amendment expert at the University of Alabama

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