The rise of the internet and various smart technologies have disrupted virtually every industry everywhere on the globe, but perhaps none have been so radically transformed as journalism. The journalists attending the IOP and The Atlantic’s Disinformation conference were not afraid to remind the audience of this fact. During the conference, Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic, denounced “vulture capitalists and their willingness to destroy American journalism.” Although most panelists did not condemn the tech industry in such strong terms, there was a general agreement among most that the rise of social media was to blame for journalists and editors losing their, as Maria Ressa put it, “gatekeeping” powers.
Since the conference was co-hosted by The Atlantic and featured guests from The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post, the interests and worries of journalists were front and center throughout the conference. There were two panels on Thursday with a special focus on journalism, the first entitled “Politics as Usual or an Insidious Attack on Our Democracy?” and the second called “How Media Platforms Shape Consumer Realities”.
“Politics as Usual or an Insidious Attack on Our Democracy?” featured editor-in-chief at The Dispatch, Jonah Goldberg, executive editor of The Atlantic Adrienne LaFrance, and editor-in-chief of Semafor, Ben Smith, all interviewed by David Axelrod. As the first panel of the second day, it sought to unpack the sometimes nebulous definition of ‘disinformation’ and debate whether it has become a partisan buzzword.
Goldberg described the internet and social media as “the intellectual wet market,” where ideas spread and mutate in an uncontrolled environment. In this context, Goldberg underscored the importance of newspaper editors as being “intellectual circuit breakers” with the capacity to stop misinformation from being published in the first place. This panel also breached the issue of what role journalists have played in the diminishing trust Americans have for mainstream news outlets. When discussing disinformation and putting a spin on various stories, Ben Smith asked, “Isn’t that just politics?” Additionally, Goldberg was critical of the failures of new media, he criticized the technology and journalism establishments for their role in breaching the trust of their views. He described Facebook and Twitter’s respective decisions to limit the spread of and block the New York Post’s October 2020 article about Hunter Biden’s laptop as having, “backfired enormously” in feeding into conservatives’ understanding that Big Tech wants to censor their point of view. Overall, the consensus from the talk was that the activities of tech companies have diminished trust, and not only do journalists have to redouble their commitment to their craft in order to rebuild that trust and that their skills, including fact-checking and editing, are specifically equipped to rebuilding a social commons.
The second conference was focused on the future of web-based media companies. It featured editor & CEO of The Dispatch, Steven Hayes, chief media correspondent for CNN, Brian Stelter, co-founder of Capital B Lauren Williams, and was moderated by Jim Rutenberg, writer at large for The New York Times.
Williams presented a new model for journalism in describing her startup journalism enterprise Capital B. Capital B was conceived in the wake of the protests of protests in June of 2020 following George Floyd’s murder. Williams wanted to create a news organization beyond the traditional newsroom. Her rationale behind this decision was her concern for the long history of uneven representation along racial lines among media institutions. The failure of mainstream media to serve Black audiences is a breach of trust; Capital B hopes to bridge this breach by making media by and for Black people. She spoke about how focusing on one demographic better allows for trust to be built, instead of “biting the whole apple” and trying to build a new media designed for all Americans.
Goldberg and Williams have found success in different demographic markets, suggesting that there is an appetite for targeted, well-researched media across diverse perspectives in American life. Although many argue that the rise of the internet has led to the decline of traditional journalism and fostered sensationalism, perhaps the Dispatch and Capital B can serve as a model for the constructive possibilities of digital media, delivering informative journalism tailored to smaller audiences. . As Brian Stelter noted when on the panel, the nation needs media startups like theirs if it wants to develop a healthy news ecosystem.
In addition to having the privilege to watch these talks in person, during the conference’s lunch break The Gate had the opportunity to speak to three people who worked in journalism: David Axelrod, Stephen Hayes, and Jonah Goldberg.
David Axelrod, director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, was asked why out of all the problems facing the nation today, the IOP decided to focus on disinformation. Axelrod responded that “the nature here at the community at the University of Chicago, is the intersection between politics, technology in a way that our students are uniquely equipped to confront. One of my goals with this conference is to activate some of the brilliant young people on this campus to think deeply about the problem of disinformation.”
Axelrod reflected on his own experience getting into journalism during his time as an undergraduate at UChicago and spoke about what what young journalists should do to ensure the success of journalism, saying, “You have to be humble about asserting [facts], and you have to be rigorous about proving them to the best possible extent.” He also added, “The answer is not to get the most clicks on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. The answer is to be thoughtful and to demand that others be thoughtful and scrutinizing and responsible because a world in which there are no facts and no truth is a dangerous world. I’ve always said that democracy is an ongoing battle between hope and cynicism. Disinformation is rooted in cynicism and the exploitation of passions over reason. You guys need to dedicate yourselves to that proportion and demand it.”
Describing his work at the Dispatch, Stephen Hayes concluded, “I’ve got so many other things I could say we’re proud of, it’s like picking a favorite kid.” When asked about how the Dispatch was growing and what he envisioned for its future, he responded, “To be candid, we’re grown a lot faster than we thought we would. We thought we identified this market opening and we’d be able to attract people to what we were doing, sort of slower, contextual news. The really good news from our perspective is that our audience is a lot bigger than we thought it was. I think it’s good news for everybody. We’re trying to find this balance between going slowly and methodologically, which is what we planned from when we launched and taking into account that there is a bigger audience than we thought.”
Hayes also touched upon the business side of digital journalism. Comparing the Dispatch’s business model to other internet-media companies, Hayes said, “Our whole business model is the opposite of that. We launched with a subscription-first, member-first mindset. So, as odd as it might sound to hear this, we don’t care about traffic. The only reason we care about traffic is in-so-far as it leads to people who join us and become a part of our community.” Hayes’s advice to young journalists tempted by the allure of sensationalism and click-based journalism? “It gives you tremendous freedom to not have to [build your content around getting clicks]. I get made fun of by my staff because they claim, and it’s not actually true, that I try to make the headlines more boring. Because I want to say, hey this is the thing, read about the thing if you’re interested, if you’re not, fair enough.”
Finally, The Gate sat down with the editor-in-chief of the Dispatch, Jonah Goldberg. Goldberg brought a fresh perspective to the conference that extended to this brief interview. During his panel, he noted that it might be more apt to title the conference “The Erosion of Democracy: Disinformation”, as he sees disinformation in the media as downstream from larger institutional problems. To Goldberg, these institutional problems are as far-reaching as they are pervasive. On the subject of the conference’s emphasis on algorithmic profiteering and Russian disinformation were the main problems, he said, “I think our country has bigger problems than algorithms and Russian disinformation, but I think those problems are worthwhile things to have a conference on. This is not the Constitutional Convention, it will not solve all of our problems or launch us into a new chapter of history. It is what it is, which is not a criticism, it’s just a recognition of that. I think our more fundamental problems are upstream of these things–those problems make us more vulnerable to disinformation and all the rest. I’m a little more skeptical about what we can do about algorithms.”
He went on to explain that his skepticism was rooted in an understanding that technical transparency is not useful without technical literacy to accompany it, commenting, “[It’s] like saying we need to see what’s in the molecular model for the COVID vaccine. Can you tell me what that means? Show me a picture of it, you’re gonna show me a gazillion lines of code, it’s all witchcraft to me. Moreover, the algorithms are not static things, they use machine learning and AI and all that kind of stuff. You can get a snapshot in time. Snap-shots in time are interesting and tell us important things but if I give you a snap-shot of the Titanic as it's leaving the docks, it tells you a lot about the Titanic, but it doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the Titanic.”
The journalists in attendance were united in their view that they can and ought to play a crucial role in reigning in disinformation and helping American popular discourse ground itself in a shared reality with common facts.
Our third and final article covering the conference will focus on policymakers, their reaction to the rise of disinformation, and what practical policy-driven solutions they are imagining.
The image featured in this article was taken by the article's authors while reporting the story.