In Amusing Ourselves to Death author Neil Postman paraphrases David Riesman, “In a world of printing, information is the gunpowder of the mind” Abolitionist Wendell Phillips said “What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind” And Thomas Jefferson said “Information is the currency of democracy” The importance of information in determining individual agency in life and society cannot be understated.
The most common form of information we get is News. Today’s News Media are not only the purveyors of our day to day information but also shape the conscience, and to a smaller degree the intellect, of our nation. An assumption I’ve developed is that solutions to societal problems are downstream from news information.
We now face a problem that undermines the quality of that information, 20th century News Media has monopolized narrative distribution. Yet with democratized publishing, there’s been an eruption of first hand experience, accounts, and perspectives from individuals who were unable to publish pre-internet. We will fail to realize the full potential of this power until we democratize distribution too.
In the renowned book Elements of Journalism, Kovach & Rosenthal argue that journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. I would argue the best way to get there is to increase the supply of information from people in the arena, and their distribution.
In contrast, here’s a recent example of a centralized narrative that I review carefully later on. The Information made a deliberate decision to use the facts at hand to manufacture a narrative about CEO Brian Chesky’s leadership being a large factor in Airbnb’s struggles.. But there’s no sector being hit harder by Covid-19 than travel, common sense tells you that.
Beginning of a narrative
This playbook doesn’t deviate from any Shakespearean tragedy - a powerful central figure meets an inciting incident and the story unfolds. Most importantly, it’s simple enough that other narrative distributors can run with it - achieving the central goal of News Media, narrative distribution.
Stick with me as I dive deep, using examples such as this and the coverage of Covid-19, to illuminate how narrative distribution works, reinforce the importance of information in our society, give illustrative examples of the historical context, and kick-start a discussion on what lies ahead.”
I’ve always believed in what I see as the mission of news, to inform the public and bring material civic information to light. The American Press Institute defines the purpose of journalism as
My entire professional career I’ve been immersed in news media and technology, and I’ve now come to a confounding conclusion: The News Media of today has drifted far away from the aforementioned mission, in fact I believe that it is an impediment to it. Starting a publication to change the News Media would be akin to starting a television channel to change multimedia consumption. What we need for text based content is more like YouTube.
Twitter is a good first step having democratized publishing but, not dissimilar to YouTube, the centrality of it is still too constricting. And the creative genius that is 280 characters leaves a lot of quality supply untapped.
In order to truly unlock the above-mentioned first hand knowledge, I believe we need a federated solution - dedicated to democratized distribution, i.e. democratized gatekeeping.
Only then will we be able to create and maintain a public sphere capable of debating our biggest challenges, and generate the public will to solve them. We need nuance - not narrative. And a lack of nuance is the hallmark of today’s News Media.
Simply put, the more information we have, and the more democratized each part of the value chain, the more nuance, history, and context become available and the more informed the public will be.
To understand why a publication won’t change News Media you first have to understand the macro distribution and micro incentive structures in news.
Distribution can be split into two categories which are orthogonally related, narrative distribution and content distribution.
A narrative is an amorphous, weighted idea that permeates into our perception of the world. An example of a narrative is ‘a storm is brewing for X industry’ or ‘the invasion of Y country is inevitable’. Sub-narratives, derivative of the main narrative, exist as well. The defining feature of narratives is that they lack data. Usually they’re over indexed on one data point and ignore the nuance, history, and context that the entire data set surrounding the issue provides. They rely on emotion, which makes them very powerful.
Content is any information, specifically news information. It’s a single article, a news video, or a tweet. Content is what goes into the spreadsheet at the end of the day and keeps the lights on. It carries narratives but is not the same.
When people talk about news distribution they’re typically talking about content. Facebook and Google replaced the newspaper delivery trucks and revealed to the world all of the value in the newspaper business was in distributing the content. Now we’re told that they have a monopoly as they capture all the advertising value.
This is the great irony. Yes, it is true Tech has a stronghold on content distribution, but this narrative exists because the News Media still has a monopoly on narrative distribution. This is why you can’t change the news with a publication, the narrative distribution is controlled by the incumbents.
I’m sure you’re wondering, how does that reconcile with the decay of the news business? While the macro mission of informing the public is powered by dollars and cents, functionally it lacks a price tag. That’s where the narrative monopoly comes in. When someone reads a factually correct bit of information from a non-sanctioned outlet and says “I don’t buy it”, unknowingly they are saying this literally. In the currency of narrative distribution, they are rejecting the product of an upstart competitor.
So yes, outlets need cash - but a focus on the macroeconomics here misses the forest for the trees. Google is over 20 years old and Facebook already has its driver’s license. Despite the narrative, the economics are actually now back in balance. News just has a smaller piece of the pie.
To illustrate this point, look no further than The New York Times. Topline revenue is down ~50% from the turn of the century in non-inflation adjusted dollars. EBITDA down ~75%! By any financial measure, you’d guess this company is JC Penney, a 20th century power brought to its knees by internet upstarts. But as NYT’s new media columnist wrote his first column, culturally NYT is thriving. And what is the measure of that success? You guessed it, narrative distribution.
Narrative distribution is the means by which narratives are shipped to individuals in a society. No matter how powerful Facebook, Google, et al. are, as long as narrative distribution remains monopolized, the highest degree of truth and highest quality of information is restricted from entering the market.
Like any good monopoly these outlets must have a moat - this starts with the micro incentives.
The incentives are tangible but the instructions on how to attain them are signaled invisibly. The incentive structure for journalists is not driven by the same carrot as most jobs, cash. No one gets into journalism for the money, not even the cable news hosts taking down 7 figures. They get into it for the power, status, and exposure that comes with being responsible for holding power to account.
If you are committed to being a journalist, there is a clearly defined set of opportunities that allow you to achieve the highest levels of the incentives mentioned. It’s no different than any other field where incumbents have a monopoly on the supply of jobs. If you want to be a baseball manager, the only chance you have to get there is to optimize for the corresponding game. There is a clearly defined path to the summit.
Who is the most powerful and respected journalist within the realm of journalism right now? Probably Maggie Haberman or Peter Baker. Maggie is a White House correspondent for NYT. In fact she’s probably the most visible NYT reporter, a CNN analyst, and has received a Pulitzer prize. Peter is the chief White House correspondent for NYT and an MSNBC analyst. Both are well positioned to take the next step in the status game - bestselling author. The cable version of this is to host their own program.
As you can see, the ladder - as well as what awaits at the top, is well defined. Start at a smaller publication like Politico, The Atlantic, or Fortune. Land a job at one of the big 3: NYT, WaPo, and WSJ (or a specialty like chief Bloomberg Forex reporter). Ascend to the White House beat if you’re in politics, or a similarly prestigious beat in business. Expand into a side gig of cable TV contributor. Then write a book, become an editor, or become a special features writer.
Many people accuse the media of drumming up narratives in a coordinated effort, a grand conspiracy, this is false. The way narratives grow is by the signals sent by those with power and copied by those working to attain it. The closed career path is the solution to the equation.
On a macro level the News Media is fighting to keep its power by way of gatekeeping. On a micro level the fight is executed with the pressure derived from a limited number of career opportunities. What this manifests as is Pack Journalism: the same stories, at the same time, from the same people, with the same perspective.
Narratives are vectors, which are composed of a magnitude and direction. The direction is set at the top, the magnitude is driven by the rest - which is Pack Journalism.
The best analogy I can think of is open-source software. Just like open-source, a narrative has no single owner, but many different people add to and support the narrative. In this case, the established outlets with narrative distribution act as the maintainers, overruling anyone who doesn’t get with the program.
For example, if you want to be part of the Linux developer community, you’re not going to win any friends by proving any part of Linux bad or taking Linux down (in-fact this is likely impossible, which makes the analogy stronger). Once a narrative emerges that the media grabs hold of, an aspiring journalist can signal their status as part of the in-group by syndicating or contributing to the narrative, e.g. Retweeting Maggie Haberman’s latest scoop.
The micro incentives are the moat. So long as the only way to achieve career advancement or influence as a journalist is to revert to the median, the incumbent outlets will continue to retain their monopoly. This is reinforced with Noble Myths by the News Media, which I dive into below.
Building validity for a publication dedicated to nuance in a world of narratives would be a catch 22. Since the media determines validity by narrative distribution, it would either be written off by the media or need to employ members of the media and conform.
Yes, you can hire a small team at first that’s not interested in climbing the journalism ladder and serve more of an analyst function - but soon enough you have to tap into the talent pool that is people who want to be professional writers.
The reality is an overwhelming majority of people who love their craft don’t want to write about it full time, they want to practice it. Not to mention they can make more money doing it. But writing is a full time job. The writers who are truly talented writers in their domain are an anomaly. Ben Thompson on tech, Matt Levine on finance, Bill Bishop on China, and those like them all have or could have excelled in their field.
Knowing that, I posit unless we create a new medium, platform, protocol, or incentive structure, that’s federated - the moat will remain virtually impenetrable.
Contrary to popular belief, narratives are not organic life forms that burst into maturity as events in the real world take shape. Narratives are carefully crafted, premeditated mechanisms that are optimized for distribution. I’m sure you’ve heard someone say “what’s the angle?”, meaning the angle of a story. That’s the root of the narrative. If journalism today was simply reporting facts and not predicated on distributing narratives, what purpose does the angle serve?
While most people will never have the opportunity to be inside an editorial meeting where outlets decide upon which stories they will pursue (story selection) or their angles, thanks to the internet there is plenty of documentation. For example, Showtime’s series The Fourth Estate, going inside NYT for a few weeks, does just that.
Picking up from the intro, here’s a great example of a journalist attempting to will a narrative into existence. Cory Weinberg, a tech reporter for The Information, has decided he will attempt to create a narrative that Airbnb’s founder and CEO, Brian Chesky, may not be the right person to lead the company through the turmoil Covid-19 presents.
Overall the narrative’s theme is: People now doubt Chesky’s leadership in this crisis because the Experiences product line hasn’t gone as well as planned. The first question I have is, why is this any of the author’s business? Both employees and investors are going to have higher fidelity information regarding this so who is he informing? Chesky isn’t being accused of any wrongdoing so what’s the purpose of this story? Entertainment?
Let’s dig in (full screenshot above in intro).
In the first tweet, we can see the attempt to use anonymous sources to support the narrative he’s trying to create. This isn’t exactly polling Airbnb employees and investors.
What the author is doing here is similar to the concept of supporting a narrative with “expert” quotes. Peter Goodman, an economics reporter for NYT, referring to the traditional journalism method explained - “almost a process of laundering my own views, through the tried-and-true technique of dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.”
Next, he primes readers by adding a caveat to the question readers are silently asking themselves - isn’t it just bad luck to be running a travel company right now? Here the author invents a negative out of thin air - under Chesky’s leadership, the company is actually too ambitious.
This is the first indication the author truly has no idea what he’s talking about. Does he believe the company would be better off crushing facile goals and taking it easy? And he adds “insanely” to high expectations. Who’s definition of insane?
Back to the anonymous sources without the real context - it’s probably safe to assume most Airbnb employees like, or at least respect, Chesky. And while any initiative may have failed he built Airbnb! On net, I’m going to say confidently, just because he took some Ls on an initiative or two, he’s still in the black. According to Cory’s logic Jeff Bezos should have been fired over the failed Amazon Fire phone.
If you recall from the beginning of this piece - “Usually [Narratives are] over indexed on one data point and ignore the nuance, history, and context that the entire data set surrounding the issue provides.”
Again trying to drive home a narrative of failure and attach it to Chesky by pointing out that while he has an A in the class he got a C on one assignment.
Again we get more anonymous sources, not quantified, and another sub-narrative is born. The company and the investors went on record to deny these allegations.
Here’s the full thread he tweeted for context.
Here’s what’s so frustrating about this specific narrative. It’s obvious the author has not taken the time to learn about Airbnb’s business. If journalists are going to opine on the activities of a CEO that, by all objective measures has a record of success, we should expect them to approach the subject, with respect and understanding. Especially with no first hand experience. Going back to the purpose of journalism - how does this inform readers or help them?
The real question I have is - why is this story even being written?
The cold hard truth is that the author is on a mission to “get” Airbnb. He’s leveraging Chesky’s name, one he’s worked so hard for, in order to gain exposure of his own. This with absolutely no regard for Chesky as a person. We are better off without incentives to engineer narratives like this.
This is a common practice you’re surely familiar with. At first Travis Kalanick and Mark Zuckerberg were unassuming starry eyed entrepreneurs, heroically building the future. Next thing you know they’re evil tyrants that must be brought to their knees. I am positive any of the journalists who worked on those stories will point to xyz examples of how they were simply “holding power to account” But when you take a step back or dust off the history books the stories are always the same. Not to mention the unspeakable truth, they are the power - who’s holding them to account?
The most frequent rebuke of criticism used by the press whenever they face legitimate criticism is that they “stand by their reporting”. What they mean by that in a literal sense is that the quotes, background, and data they have used in their story, taken at face value, are correct. This is almost always true, they aren’t lying - but what it really means is that the story is devoid of nuance and context that paints the whole picture.
The lengths Ray Dalio goes to control and misdirect the messaging around his autocratic empire says all you need to know about his “radical transparency.”
@rachael_levy @realrobcopeland stand up a lot of reporting against a lot of lies. https://t.co/OfZQrRyXkW</p>— Dave Benoit (@DaveCBenoit) February 1, 2020
Just because a reporter got a few employees to say they don’t like a company does not mean the majority of employees feel the same way. The story is written that way because of a deliberate decision in an editorial meeting that that is the angle they want to pursue.
Furthermore, the reluctance to retract or correct these stories when proven false is more proof the current state of the press has drifted from its original mission of truth and fully into the narrative business.
Three recent examples of this stand out. In November of 2019 The New York Times wrote a piece about FedEx garnering benefits from the TCJA bill. In February The Wall Street Journal wrote a hit piece on Ray Dalio, lamenting the management style of the Bridgewater Associates CEO. On April 16th, CNN ran a story (tweet below) that Elon Musk had not delivered the ventilators he promised to hospitals.
Three weeks after Tesla CEO Elon Musk said he had obtained more than 1,000 ventilators to help California hospitals treating patients infected with the coronavirus, the governor’s office says none of the promised ventilators have been received by hospitals https://t.co/u3NNpxbvsN— CNN (@CNN) April 16, 2020
These three differ from comparable narratives because they were stopped in their tracks. How? All three were forcefully refuted by the targeted CEOs. In all three instances the outlets did not run a follow up story and no other outlets picked the stories up, which are the two ways the velocity of narratives increases.
The FedEx CEO, Fred Smith, released a statement correcting the piece and even challenging NYT to a debate (they declined). Ray Dalio wrote an even more detailed response to the WSJ story, one that lays out some of the concepts discussed here.
But the simplest and most poignant pushback came when Musk replied to the CNN story with a litany of evidence that he did in fact send the ventilators - all first-hand accounts from hospitals! They didn’t actually ask any hospitals, they ran the story after someone in the CA Governor’s office said they hadn’t heard of delivery. Why didn’t they check? I thought we were told the journalistic method is beyond reproach?
Elon Musk's replies to the CNN tweet documenting he sent the ventilators
Back to the unwillingness to lay down a narrative proved wrong; the head of PR for CNN doubled down after Elon posted the evidence of delivery!
Narratives are constitutive choices. They may gain steam naturally, by way of the micro incentives, but their inception is a decision. In the Elon example a decision was made to ignore the counter evidence and rely on a statement downstream from the question at hand. He pushed back, but not everyone has his follower count. The future will need a more level playing field.
The noble lie is a concept derived from Plato’s Republic, essentially it’s a lie told by the elites to the citizenry in order to maintain social stability and give each citizen something to believe in. This is explicitly in contrast with a malicious lie. A myth is ‘a widely held but false belief or idea.’
I’ve come to learn that the water inside the narrative distribution moat is a set of what I call ‘Noble Myths’. ‘Lie’ is too harsh a term for what is really dogma that has mutated from select pieces of the truth. But journalism does play an important role in our society and many in the press do live up to the mission. I’ve come to realize these are widely held falsehoods often distributed for noble reasons. The Noble Myth.
These Noble Myths are used in two ways. First, to get buy-in from the public that journalism is a protected class of information beyond reproach; only to be done by those whose bylines appear within the pages of sanctioned outlets. Second, to use as defensive retorts when faced with criticism.
This is the most pervasive and undisputed Noble Myth that has been etched into conventional wisdom. It’s also the most pernicious. The quality of information, whether text, image, video, or audio, is not a product of who created it or who distributed it.
The News Media views itself as the ‘arbiters of truth’, but this distinction is explicitly a relic of the 20th century - when citizens had nowhere else to go for information. The function of gatekeeping was a powerful one, but it was bestowed by default. Now, naturally, the benefactors seek to protect this entrenched advantage. The problem is that the internet has proven information, in terms of judging trustworthiness, verification, and story selection, is higher fidelity when everyone is their own gatekeeper and arbiter of truth.
There are obviously some sources that are more trustworthy, and some that are less. But that does not mean there are sources that are 100% trustworthy and others are that are 0%. This is the myth we’ve been increasingly told, because the internet allows for anyone with a keyboard and connection to distribute information that threatens the News Media’s monopoly on narrative distribution.
There has been perhaps no better example of this than Covid-19. In January and February of this year the News Media gave us some of the best examples of their pursuit of narratives over truth. The biggest being that Covid-19 was “just the flu”, that racism was a bigger fear than the virus itself, and that we shouldn’t fear it.
Real headlines from ~February 2020
Concurrently, the truth that information quality is not a product of distribution was being validated - as citizen journalists were sounding the alarm. In late January and early February Balaji Srinivasan, who taught bioinformatics at Stanford and was cofounder/CTO of a biotech company that sold for $375M, was reading the tape and warning the public of what was to come.
He was simply taking the data available, interpreting it, and distributing what was essentially a scenario analysis. The data available at the time should have led the people tasked with being the gatekeepers of information to one conclusion: take this seriously. Or at the very least, let’s be cautious and prepare. Instead, Recode mocked Balaji as an alarmist worrywart.
Another narrative that gained traction early on: the notion Covid-19 came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory (a class 4 lab), was ludicrous. Despite the fact the lab was studying the exact type of bat borne coronaviruses that Covid-19 is, and being only 9 miles from the wet market where the outbreak supposedly began.
The Washington Post sharply criticized this theory and only 6 weeks later ran an in-house op-ed that offered US intelligence and supporting science to verify this was the likely scenario.
As Josh rightly points out, the facts here lead common sense to one conclusion. Yet the narrative distribution effects are so strong, they lead many really smart people to believe in a narrative that defies all logic.
Here is the best evidence that the Noble Myth, of information quality being a function of distribution, is ingrained into our society.
In January, three months before that WaPo piece, the popular finance blog ZeroHedge wrote an article that suggested Covid-19 came from the lab. Specifically, it went into great detail questioning if a specific doctor at the Wuhan lab, who leads the Bat Virus Infection and Immunization Group, is responsible for this whole mess. BuzzFeed then wrote an aggressive article claiming they were doxing the doctor and instantly Twitter banned ZeroHedge.
Zero Hedge, January 2020: Coronavirus originated from a top, level-4 biohazard lab in Wuhan.— James Todaro, MD (@JamesTodaroMD) April 16, 2020
Next day: Permanently suspended from Twitter.
Washington Post, April 2020 (3 months later): So yeah...it looks like coronavirus came from a bioresearch safety level-4 lab in Wuhan.
This is the clearest example of the first noble myth - the same information deemed credible from a sanctioned outlet was deemed misinformation coming from a blog. Sure, one piece focused on the public data of who and what was being worked on at the lab and the other was based on US intelligence - but they came to the same conclusion.
Furthermore, last time I checked the media was not shy about finding and printing the name of someone suspected of something. Anyone see Richard Jewell? Additionally, if a CDC lab outside Georgia let Covid-19 loose, you’re telling me that the American News Media wouldn’t actively seek out the doctor in charge of the bat research? Why weren’t they the ones doing the digging that ZeroHedge did?
Related to the ‘arbiter of truth’ premise, is holding power to account. Yet during this crisis we’ve seen virtually no pushback on the institution that has proven to be inept at best and a puppet for China at worst - The World Health Organization. In January NYT repeated WHO’s claim that there was no global emergency with little challenge. On March 31st CNN ran an article repeating WHOs claim that there’s no reason to wear masks. Another example where not even common sense was used to pushback.
The most egregious example comes on April 17th, when the Washington Post’s fact check team labeled the President’s assertion that WHO claimed the virus was non-communicable (human to human transmission), was a lie. Despite the fact that WHO tweeted it! Even worse, they cite the tweet in the article and somehow rationalize that Trump lied.
WaPo article refuting WHO tweet
It’s no secret President Trump has a penchant for bending the truth, but to somehow untangle the fact WHO undeniably said this is beyond reason.
The point is not to say that all News Media cannot be trusted, the point is to say that they can and do get it wrong - just as much as any other humans. Yet the omnipresent response of the press today is to discount information that didn’t run through their pipes and cement the accuracy of information that did. But, as we’ve seen with Covid-19, the notion that 100% of information distributed in sanctioned outlets is trustworthy and 0% of information from the wild is not - is insane.
A common piece of pushback is that ‘journalism is a profession; not everyone is a journalist’. The first clause is true, the second is not. Everyone can be a journalist, there are just some people who do it full time to make a living. If someone builds dressers and gazebos in their spare time are they not a carpenter? The end result is all that matters.
At the end of the day the elements of journalism, the curriculum of Journalism school, and the rest of the guides were made up by people. They are not scientific methods, they are guidelines on how to produce the late 20th century definition of journalism. Attributing quotes, sourcing, fact-checking, etc. are not special, nor the only way to write accurate information - anyone can do it. Yet again, from the Covid-19 example, we can see that it’s easier for someone who has domain experience.
The people who made the methods up do not have a monopoly on truth. The dogma that journalism is only done by people who do it professionally is just a way to retain power. They have created the allusion that information is only legitimate if it’s wrapped in a sanctioned outlet’s distribution. A friend pointed out this paradigm has manifested itself on Twitter with the Blue Checkmarks.
These guidelines mattered much more in the days of atoms because there were no correction mechanisms! Now there is an infinite and instantaneous correction mechanism called the internet. Look no further than censorship of comments on news articles for evidence of the reluctance to embrace this new technology for truth.
Now, I want to make one thing very clear. There are some absolutely world class journalists who provide the world with information and insights that would never see the light of day without their work. People who commit themselves to mastering their subject matter. Who commit to the purpose of journalism and devote their lives to it. Who often risk their lives for it. The positive impact of their work cannot be understated. The problem is they are not the whole pie nor the ones with powerful narrative distribution.
Let it be: information should no longer be judged shorthand on distribution.
When facing criticism, a common rebuke used by the Press is that the accuser is attacking “a free press”. The operative word being ‘free’. What that criticism often is - pointing out inaccuracies, or items that are not fair to the subject - is entirely removed from the argument at hand, the freedom to publish. In fact, one can argue that the First Amendment’s clause citing a free press has just as much, if not more, to do with the critic’s freedom as the original publisher.
Journalists love this quote from Jefferson about free and fair press, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I couldn’t agree more. But there are two huge problems with the contemporary use of the quote and similar lines of reasoning.
First, ‘newspapers’ in 1789 were not a distribution vehicle for the then-not-invented concept of 20th century journalism. Second, Jefferson wrote a litany of letters sharply critical of the Press, mostly from his later and post Presidency years.
Reporting as we think of it now was still far away. If those early newspapers did contain what we think of as contemporary news, it was almost always either reports from Europe that were sometimes months old or local news of a town’s doings.
With newfound access to the debates of Parliament, the act of reporting blossomed in late 18th century London. But, according to Mitchell Stephens’ History of News, it was not until the 1820s that it came to America. 1822 was the first year a reporter from outside Washington took up covering DC. And it wasn’t until almost 20 years later with the advent of the telegraph that, as Neil Postman puts it, ‘we had decontextualized news of the day’.
Impartiality, in the same flavor we’ve come to expect from our outlets, was alive in the early years of the Republic. There were high minded Federalist newspapers that sought impartiality, but they were not primarily gathering news, and quickly became the exception.
The Continental Congress and Original Colonies were not shy about the role they saw for the press in a new Union of States. In a 1774 address the Congress stated the freedom of the press promotes “truth, science, morality….[and] whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs.”
The Pennsylvania Declaration of rights stated “The people have a right to freedom of speech, and of writing, and publishing their sentiments, therefore, the freedom of the press ought not to be restrained” That verbiage implies strong sentiment for absolute freedom, as well as no special treatment to publish.
Perhaps most important in figuring out what was meant by ‘press freedom’ back then is how the two seminal cases regarding it set the tone for the issue in America.
In 1733 John Peter Zenger, printer and publisher of The New York Weekly Journal was arrested and imprisoned for eight months before surviving trial for criticizing the New York Royal Governor. His defense introduced an argument that would be used by future journalists accused of libel - truth. That it is not libelous if it is true. More importantly, the defense was adopted by the hearts and minds of American citizens.
69 years later Harry Croswell, the editor of an explicitly Federalist newspaper The WASP (opposed to the Democratic-Republican paper The Bee), was put on trial for asserting President Jefferson had paid James Callender to call George Washington “a traitor, a robber and a perjurer” as well as attacking John Adams.
After losing the case, Alexander Hamilton rose to his defense in an appeal heard by the NY Supreme Court. He argued that truth is a defense for libel, and Justice James Kent essentially agreed. The case was lost but the spirit of Kent’s opinion was codified in NY State’s laws, followed by PA, and eventually the soul of the American people.
The Alien & Sedition Acts, and the Sedition Act of 1918, both jailed political figures for their writings, not the modern interpretation of objective journalists.
The point of these examples is that our modern interpretation of the First Amendment regarding the Press is actually a product of political discourse, not modern reporting. Reporting is certainly covered, but the precedents and sentiment that set that tone are a byproduct of individual actors and publications, not card carrying members of a press corps.
To the second point. Jefferson well understood the role of a free press in principle, but he also despised them in practice. He understood what is true today, humans pay attention to news that is grandiose. His entire quote, often reduced to “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper” is worth reading:
The argument I make here is analogous, the importance of the freedom to publish cannot be understated. With that comes the right to critique what is being published.
In order to improve our society from the consequences of this Noble Myth, we must not limit the scope of press freedom, but expand it.
Think about it this way. Anonymity is taking this example to its furthest extreme. Yet some of the most important writing to appear within the pages of a newspaper was written anonymously. The Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers, which carried the weight of selling 13 states on banding together, were written under pseudonyms! Ben Franklin was famous for writing anonymously under pen names such as Silence Dogood, Richard Saunders, and Busy Body. How did this era of anonymous, non-journalistic, era of information turn out? I’d say we did alright.
It’s time to apply the same level of press freedom in practice to everyone, both in praise and critique.
Let’s face it, the most important variable into both the economic and efficacy equations of News Media success is time. The more time people spend consuming news the more money is made and the more effective the information presented is at forming opinions. This is a linear relationship and will never change (yes even for subscriptions).
Napoleon famously would wait three weeks to open letters sent to him, as most of the issues at hand no longer needed action after that time period. With news, the goal of the people delivering it to you is to capture your attention immediately. I am making the argument a vast majority of news does not deserve your immediate attention.
Henry David Thoreau said “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Neil Postman argues that he’s right. That the telegraph didn’t solve a need so much as create a new form of discourse we couldn’t turn away from.
Think about the past few years, how many stories did you read or watch that have or will add value to your life? There is certainly a benefit of learning about the world but any benefits must be weighed against their opportunity cost.
I don’t believe news should be actively sought out unless it’s actionable or compounding information. If you are a dairy farmer and a piece of legislation will gut you, you should read it because it’s actionable. If you want to learn about mergers and acquisitions, a news article won’t be actionable and the compounding value will be negligible. You should read Investment Banking by Rosenbaum & Pearl.
Unmistakably, we need people to unearth baseline data and information. If the wire services were to disappear it would be a calamity. But that service is a far cry from what news has become. We need information about Covid-19, we need it about a war, we need to make sure the government isn’t corrupt, we need it about a lot of things. But that doesn’t mean we need to consume it every day.
Lastly, the way News Media has manifested itself reinforces this argument. I’ve already covered what the micro incentives are that cultivate this paradigm. Most news is entirely devoid of history, and that really hurts the country. Look up the aforementioned Sedition Acts and compare them to recent coverage of press freedom, you’ll be amazed.
Why is this? There is an aphorism in journalism ‘man bites dog’, to explain that journalists tend to cover things that are unordinary, regardless of the entire data set. If a dog bites a man, no one blinks. If one man bites a dog, it’s front page news - which gives the impression the phenomenon is more widespread.
Secondly, most of the News Media are not experts, they are generalists. If Rosenbaum & Pearl were the ones writing about PE deals the news would be much more impactful. There’s a name for this: The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.
Most (not all) things you read in the newspaper or watch on TV are done with little to no underlying research or first-hand experience. There’s an inside joke in cable TV, that guests are booked before they know what they will talk about and then are given little time to gather thoughts to play the role of the “expert”.
Lastly, as Benjamin Franklin first asserted and Alexis de Tocqueville reaffirmed, Americans have an affinity for ephemeral typographic content and political discourse. Look no further than the success of Twitter in fulfilling its self-proclaimed prophecy as the public agora. I am not naive to the fact newspaper-esque content is ingrained into the DNA of America, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to harness that thirst for the better.
How do I see things playing out? Here are my predictions of the near term.
Things will ‘go back to normal’, but not the normal you’re thinking about. From the Presidency to the local store that receives bad press, the role of the press as an intermediary is officially coming to a close. They are now full fledged actors - but that’s how normal used to be.
We’re starting to see, and will continue to see, the proliferation of D2C political and business outlets. Ted Cruz, Dan Crenshaw, and Joe Biden all have their own podcasts. On Podbay’s charts, Crenshaw’s podcast is 5th in news. Ahead of MSNBC, CNN, WSJ, BBC, WaPo, and all NPR podcasts sans one. Bernie had his own Substack newsletter.
True to Postman’s warning in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the politicians who are ascending the fastest and accumulating the most electoral (tangentially related to institutional) power are the ones with the most media exposure. Once political actors fully embrace the fact they can reach audiences larger than what legacy outlets can offer, and do so without a filter, we will see an explosion of politician, party, and special interest owned media.
I would not be surprised if AOC and the remnants of the Bernie coalition have their own Post-Cable-Network (PCN) (what Cheddar is), by 2022.
This world will look exactly like the period of our nation’s birth, with different technology. Jefferson founded the National Gazette and used it to secretly bash Washington while he was his Secretary of State! So, this is not unprecedented.
This will force legacy outlets’ hands. They will have no choice but to step into the ring or risk losing some narrative distribution provisions. I would argue they can still act as journalists, just not under the auspices of impartiality. The American Press Institute agrees this can be done as they state:
Businesses will be slow to the draw here but I think they would be wise to scoop up the talented journalists from failing regional newspapers. Employ them to tell their stories and combat bad press like The Information article above. Owning distribution and providing content people actually want to consume, opposed to the current crop of content that dies by marketing committee, will not only boost metrics; it will generate a meaningful landing place for storytellers.
These independent actors cannot dismantle the narrative distribution monopoly by themselves, but they can offer an alternative to their audiences.
How about the economics?
As I stated, I think the hubbub is noise. The economics are settled. Mitchell Stephens puts it best in History of News in 1988 “Two truths have governed the economics of the newspaper business: one is that well-to-do readers are more attractive to advertisers (think Axios); the second is that poorer readers build higher circulations (think USA Today)”.
How about the institutions?
I do think we need to broadly rethink the 20th century institutions like the White House Press Corps, Fact Checking, and the Pulitzer Prize.
For example, we would be much better off if every question came from someone who actually had a deep understanding of the subject at hand. I.e. a question about banks would be better coming from someone like Matt Levine, an ex banker, than a generalist more concerned about the framing of the question.
I believe we’d benefit greatly from distributed fact checking akin to Wikipedia. That model has provided the world with quantities of knowledge unfathomable just decades ago.
There is no doubt the fallout from Covid-19 will have implications on these institutions.
To me it seems foolish to watch many traverse the same road only to reach the same destination and then take the same path hoping to reach greener pastures. Alan Kay famously said “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” I believe that’s the answer. To chart a new course enabling future travelers to occupy a different space.
Creating a publication based on nuance, history, and context would fail to get meaningful narrative distribution.
I think the solution is democratized distribution / gatekeeping. Making the highest fidelity information the most ubiquitous and easiest to find. We do this by increasing supply with federation. A federated News Media that enables everyone to contribute by increasing positive incentives, such as meaningful conversation and engagement, and decreasing negatives ones, like no context arguments, can do this. It also advances the mission of news, opposed to the centralized stagnation we have now.
The internet has already begun removing the News Media’s gatekeeping function. While most journalists do not accept this fact, this new paradigm is unquestionably for the better. This is analogous to the way Amazon & D2C has replaced the local store. Before them, that store was the gatekeeper of which items provide the most utility. Now, consumers themselves are their own gatekeepers, because they can choose any product. And sellers have an unfiltered market. Information is no different.
An educated and informed public is the ultimate gatekeeper. Even absent specifics, this is a goal worth seeking.
When Wikipedia was founded it was first known as Nupedia. The vision was to create an encyclopedia on the internet that offered far more information than print copies could. Nupedia’s article creation process consisted of rigorous writing and editing from experts and academics. It was a slow, arduous, and political effort that left Nupedia lacking.
When founder Jimmy Wales implemented the crowdsourced wiki-style pages we now know was Wikipedia, there was a tremendous amount of pushback from the experts. At first, they relegated the wiki-articles to a separate ‘unverified’ section, eventually the experts completely severed Wikipedia. You may notice, Nupedia doesn’t exist today.
We should not be afraid of democratized gatekeeping, as history shows - we should embrace it.
The mission and purpose of journalism does not change - to provide citizens information. But applying 20th century dogma to a 21st century world is sure to fail. It would be akin to a business running Windows 98 on their computers because it worked so well for them in the 90s.
Right now, the press is clinging to that 20th century definition of news and journalism. Journalism is not immune to progress. The definition of news has always changed and the world has usually been better for it. The printing press, the telegraph, the radio, and the television all manifestly changed journalism.
More importantly, they all changed the supply and underlying economics. The progressive path is to build a federated media that increases information flows and therefore quality. The money will follow. I posit those underlying factors will break the narrative distribution monopoly.
I may write a part two that does a deep dive into the underlying history mentioned in this piece (we’ve only scratched the surface) and go deeper into the specifics of what I believe could be a solution. The thoughts I’ve written down so far look more like a business plan so we’ll see.
My hope is that you’ve come away with the conclusion that the technology of the 21st century can be used to expand news information quantities, qualities, and freedoms. All to the benefit of society, just like what’s been done in the past.
Information is the gunpowder of the mind, why are we limiting our firepower?
Thank you for reading and Godspeed!
Thank you to those who took the time to read and shape many drafts
First published on May 10, 2020