Democracy, civic engagement and the role of the free press

Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen delivered the following keynote during a conversation on the First Amendment for the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and its Latino Endowment Fund in Hartford, Connecticut, on May 18, 2017. The remarks have been lightly edited for publication. 

For the past eleven-plus years, I’ve had the privilege of leading the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, where our mission is to promote a well-functioning democratic republic through support for free expression, citizen engagement, and equitable, inclusive and participatory communities.

We make about $140 million in grants every year to programs, projects, and people committed to informed and engaged communities. Jack Knight, like our country’s Founding Fathers, knew that a well-informed community is a prerequisite to a well-functioning democracy—and you can’t have either without a free press.

Today, all three—informed communities, democracy, and a free press—are at risk. I want to address those risks, but more than anything, I hope to leave you with two thoughts: there is hope, and there’s a role for everyone. There’s a role for you.

A little history: We are in a period of technological transition that is fundamentally different than anything we’ve seen since Gutenberg. I mean that literally.

Before Gutenberg, there was order. Books were few. They came with the imprimatur of religious authority. After Gutenberg, any Tom, Dick or Martin Luther could print whatever and distribute whatever they wanted. Information flowed form the few to the many, then from the many to the many. So many, in fact, that information and opinion became hard to control. A hundred years passed before people figured out how to trust information again.

But trust they did, eventually. And it remained that way, with newspapers, pamphlets, radio, television and even cable doing their best to inform communities, right until the next truly fundamental change: the invention of the Internet and then the World Wide Web. The web has made information potentially accessible to all for the first time in human history.

In the age of the Internet, we will be defined by the ability to effectively and reliably inform society—or by our failure to make information consistently reliable. American culture, which celebrates debate and dissent, led to the enshrinement of the right to speech and press, alongside religion and assembly, in the First Amendment.

From the beginning of our republic until relatively recently, the reach of media was local and largely verifiable. The circulation area of leaflets and newspapers was roughly similar to electoral districts, and even radio and tv signals were local until the advent of national networks in the second half of the 20th Century. In providing the public with accessible insights into the arguments at the core of our republic, the Founding Fathers formalized the role of the press as the staging ground for the middle, a written and spoken battlefield where wars of words are waged until common ground is reached.

It is this tendency toward the middle, toward principled compromise, that I think is the ultimate genius of American democracy. Americans ultimately reject extremes, often tempering the power of an executive with one ideology by installing a legislature with another. Yet, today, our collective ability to engage in principled compromise is waning.

So, how do we reverse this push toward polarization? How do we inform and engage communities so that we can find common ground?

To answer those questions, let’s look at the changing role of the media in our democracy. To an old newspaper man, it’s like asking a hammer, “What do you see?” A hammer sees a nail. So, you’ll pardon me if what I see is the solution, and part of the problem, is media.

The direct relationship between media and geographically-defined communities basically held until the middle of the last century. It was the sudden ability to broadcast nationally, and to offer targeted, membership-based models via cable, that began its breakdown.

But radio and cable were nothing compared to Internet. More than any other medium, Internet has accelerated the decline of newspapers and television business models and altered the flow of information in ways that we are still uncovering.

The Internet is potentially the greatest democratizing tool in history. But it is also democracy’s greatest challenge.

In offering access to information that can support any position and confirm any bias, social media has helped erode the common foundation of everyday facts.

So, what’s the path forward?

The first step is recognizing that the game has fundamentally changed, and there is no turning back. There is no hand-wringing allowed. Nor can we wrap ourselves in the warm cloak of nostalgia for the good ol’ days. Instead, we must honestly assess where we are, and consider our options.

I believe the first role of media in a democracy is to present the truth—the full, accurate, contextual truth. And I believe in verification journalism, which means you check facts before publication. We are imperfect beings and we will never get it exactly right, but accuracy is the goal and, in my mind, the first role of media.

The second role of media in a democracy is the publication of opinion, of point of view. I would argue it is equally important but, if it gets out of balance, as I think it has today, it can have dangerous consequences for our democracy.

That’s lovely—you may say—but if cat memes and listicles are the business model of the present, how can you build a media future on that? The Constitution guarantees the right to speech and publish; but it doesn’t guarantee the right to succeed in business.

So, whatever model we settle on has to meet the needs and preferences of citizens as consumers of information. With that in mind, I will describe three models in this new media landscape.

First, and probably right now, most importantly, is the social media publishers.

  • Today, Facebook and Google are more influential purveyors of information than traditional media outlets. The “Big Five” companies—Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon—increasingly determine what we know or think we know as fact. The accidental publishers of Silicon Valley have supplanted the power of newsrooms by repackaging their journalism with other web content branded as news but not subject to the same standards.
  • Ironically, the good news is that lack of trust is bad for a social media business. If people think they cannot trust what they read on Google or Facebook, it doesn’t matter that those companies didn’t actually produce the content; trust will be lost, and that’s bad for business.
  • The forces of capitalism are leading these companies to think about authentication and truth. You can count on the Big Five to weigh in on how to deliver consistently reliable information, and to use computer programming to do it.
  • Existing publications are also changing how they operate. In the future, media outlets may appear similar to today, but they will be smaller and more targeted because audiences will continue to shrink. As Yogi Berra once said, “If the fans don’t want to come to the ballpark, nobody can stop ‘em.”
  • Existing media may well become niche or specialty publications. But, if they want to survive as mass publications, they need to develop a digital business, because that’s where the readers are and will be.
  • Who is doing this well? The Washington Post. The Post—which Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, bought in 2013—is succeeding not just because it has money and a top editor, but because the Post is reimagining itself for the digital era. It is transforming from a local paper to a media outlet of international importance that uses technology like Amazon does. Like any good business, the Post has evolved with its audience and seized an opportunity.

Last, mission-driven non-profit publications are now sprouting up around the country.

The Texas Tribune, launched in 2009, is perhaps the most prominent example, with a business model that relies on charitable contributions, sponsored events, and member support.

In Philadelphia, Jerry Lenfest bought the Philadelphia Inquirer, created a trust to hold the asset and then gave the trust to the local community foundation. The paper continues to operate as a business but the trust can receive tax-deductible contributions that can be applied to journalism. That’s another version of the non-profit model. 

Public broadcasting is also not-for-profit. In the 1960s, public broadcasting enjoyed strong government support—significant, majority support from government—with a stable of corporate advertisers and very little competition. None of those conditions apply any more. This is the time to re-think the purpose and structure of public broadcasting.

Against this backdrop of a changing media landscape, remember that people are going to grow increasingly unhappy with the lack of authenticity on the web. As they do, they may do what people have done in other parts of the world: they may turn to the government to decide. That’s un-American—you could tell me that, and you couldn’t be more right. Anyone who has read George Orwell knows the dangers of doublespeak and subtle control of public agendas through alternative facts and casting doubt on dissent and a free press. But it is a real and present danger.

About ten years ago, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, approached me about funding an effort to battle the lack of authenticity on the web. I asked: “What do you want? Funding for 10,000 fact checkers?” And he said, “No. That’s a newspaper solution.” Imagine somebody being able to make this statement: “I didn’t take out a patent on the World Wide Web because I thought it should be free and universal. And the biggest threat to a free and universal web is the lack of authenticity.” So, when I suggested 10,000 fact checkers, he said: “I’m an engineer. I want to write code to figure out if something is true.”

I was absolutely floored. I thought, this is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and this is nonsense. How can a computer program tell whether somebody is telling the truth? Today, with the advancements in artificial intelligence, I realize Tim was onto something ten years ago. Ten years from now, we will have agents of artificial intelligence doing exactly that. 

If citizens are to influence the future direction of their community, play a role in its progress, find common ground with one another, and begin to lead from the middle, they need to know the facts. We need to redevelop a sense of trust in facts and in each other.

At Knight Foundation, we are focused on accelerating and supporting ideas to redevelop that sense of trust in information. Over a decade ago, we began moving away from our tradition of funding journalism training and initiated an exploration of the basic questions: What device will people use? How will they use that device, and how they will value that information? And we’re still at it.

If you think that’s overly simplistic, just think about it: When we began ten years ago, there was no iPhone. Facebook was in college. The first tweet had not been tweeted. We are still trying to figure out what media people will use, how they will use it, and how they will value the information based on the platform.

In a few weeks, we’ll announce a series of grants that aim to use technology to bolster truth and trust. Some of the grants will fund citizen journalists, some will fund people who will write code to check facts. Others will address the state of media literacy in our communities and develop online civics classes. 

Separately, Knight has created a $27 million fund, in partnership with the founders of LinkedIn and eBay, to work with MIT’s MediaLab and Harvard Law School to consider issues of ethics and governance of artificial intelligence—because artificial intelligence is everywhere in our information future.

We have also funded the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University with the express purpose of supporting free expression in the digital age. The law of the First Amendment as to digital media has yet to be settled. We know from law cases what the law of First Amendment is for people and for press. We know what it is for broadcast. One is a right; the other is a license from government. I would rather err on the side of a right for the internet. And when that moment happens, the Knight Institute at Columbia, I hope, will be there in favor of free speech.

All these efforts make me optimistic, as do the new efforts from large social media companies and legacy media outlets. But if our true north is informed and engaged communities, we have to keep experimenting.

We have to train scores of journalists to cover dispassionately the diversity of our nation and to keep government honest. They have to be taught an entirely new technology, as well as journalistic values. We have to train media savvy students from grammar school on. How do you do that with teachers who may not be media savvy? Media organizations need to use technology to collaborate—as ProPublica in New York does, or as the Telegraph does in Macon, or as the publications from Arizona State University do in Tucson.

I was talking with a professor at MIT about the revolution in how we consume information, and I asked him where he thought we were, on a scale of one to ten, with one being a new technology and ten being a mature technology. And he said, without hesitation, “Two, maybe three. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

This means it’s not too late. Cornel West once described himself as a prisoner of hope, and I subscribe to that. An optimist weighs, and on balance, says we may get through. A prisoner of hope knows that the odds are stacked against you, and yet I still believe we will come out of this just like we did after Gutenberg.

You may not be able to buy the Washington Post. You may not be CEO of Facebook, but you can embrace the mentality that inspired this country from the start—the right to disagree, concurrent with the willingness to find common ground.

Thomas Jefferson sued the Hartford Courant—and I may add, lost. I always took particular pleasure in that when I worked at the Hartford Courant. But he still famously agreed that, if it were up to him whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers, and be capable of reading them.”

Commitment to democracy is not a choice you make once; it is a choice you make over, and over again. And no one should feel off the hook.