Huffington Post says it will frame Trump’s campaign as entertainment. I support that.

"Newsrooms should be more up front with us about how they classify the candidates. Can't even take the guy seriously? Tell us!"

19 Jul 2015 10:23 am 18 Comments

Donald_Trump_star_Hollywood_Walk_of_Fame

This was the entire announcement. Lets look at it again:

[Huff Post Politics] A Note About Our Coverage Of Donald Trump’s ‘Campaign’

Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post
Danny Shea, Editorial Director, The Huffington Post

After watching and listening to Donald Trump since he announced his candidacy for president, we have decided we won’t report on Trump’s campaign as part of The Huffington Post’s political coverage. Instead, we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section. Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.

That’s concise. But there was no bill of particulars for the claim, “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow.” Huffington Post made a statement. It made no attempt to persuade people to it. Presumably the editors thought the evidence sufficiently clear for the basic equation: Trump campaign = entertainment.

I might have done it differently — I would have added a bill of particulars — but I support what Huffington Post did.

1. In that missing bill of particulars might have appeared this, heard on Meet the Press two weeks ago. I could show you hundreds of statements just like it from learned pundits and campaign correspondents. Here is the tireless author of the Washington Post’s The Fix blog (it’s for political junkies.)

CHRIS CILLIZZA: I certainly agree that Trump loves being anyone’s foil because it means we’re talking about him, right? And then I think this is a car accident candidacy, Donald Trump, which is essentially there’s a car accident. You don’t want to slow down. You don’t want to look. But there’s always traffic because everybody slows down and everybody looks, right? And that’s Donald Trump.

Right: that’s Trump. So to classify his campaign as entertainment is to share in — but extend a little bit — what Chris Cillizza and his colleagues have done hundreds of times in their columns and on air. There’s a different logic operating here, they have told us. The logic of… person who is a walking car wreck. A more innocent term for it is “showman.” An even milder, vaguer term is entertainment.

2. A car wreck is entertainment only in this sense: it produces attention from gruesome spectacle alone, not by persuading you of its goodness or fitness or information value. Anything that compels a look or gets ’em talking can be entertaining. 512px-Donald_Trump_by_Gage_SkidmoreWe know this from social life and media life. If you’re willing to be that person who is a walking car wreck, the attention problem is easier to solve. Trump is willing. Other candidates are not. Whatever “issue” he’s talking about at the moment, the problem he’s trying to solve is continuity of attention for the figurine Trump. You can’t assess that sort of campaign in the same way, even though it might affect The Race. Even though it might have political consequences that are quite real.

3. ‘There’s a different logic driving Trump’s campaign. So we re-classified it.’ This is what I understand the Huffington Post to be saying. To me it is a sensible proposition. (Trump’s response.)

4. Yes, I think journalists should be involved in such judgments. Exactly so. What is the logic of this candidacy? Who is a serious candidate for president? Who is not capable? These are exactly the assessments editors and reporters have to be making as they review the field and decide how to “spend” scarce coverage units. They’re not deciding who we vote for. They’re deciding how best to render the field. Who is a serious foreign policy candidate? Who has proposals for addressing inequality that are worthy of more discussion? Campaign journalists should be able to tell us, and then point to the record so we can check our judgment against theirs.

Part of the reason I support what Huff Post did with its Trump coverage is that I think newsrooms should be more up front with us about how they classify the candidates. Can’t even take the guy seriously? Tell us why! It will help in evaluating your coverage. Huff Post struck a blow for editorial transparency when it said: For us, Trump’s campaign is best classified as entertainment.

5. A “symbolic” blow it was, however. From what I can tell, not that much will be different in the way the Huffington Post reports on Trump. It’s not going to ignore the Trump phenomenon. Journalistically speaking, it can’t. The big summer project from Trump studios is affecting the other candidates. It could affect the fortunes of the Republican party. (We don’t know this yet.) It says something about the GOP’s current state that Trump could get this far. And there’s clearly commercial demand for the show among readers and viewers, as well as cable bookers. So let’s be clear: the Huffington Post will still be reporting on Trump’s campaign. But as Ryan Grim said Saturday on Twitter: “It’s reported on first as entertainment. The distinction is symbolic.”

6. As rendered here:

Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 2.27.51 PM

“The distinction is symbolic.” Yes. Also difficult to observe in a wholly consistent way.

7. I asked Ryan Grim: If the move Huff Post made is symbolic — not a big shift in practice so much as a statement — what are you trying to say? He told me:

The media aren’t passive bystanders to history, but very much active participants, whether we like it or not. Polls at the early stages are largely a function of name ID. And since Trump entered the race, he has consumed the bulk of coverage and unsurprisingly he is rising in the polls, a phenomenon the media point to to justify even more coverage. It’s self-fulfilling absurdity. And we can choose to do it differently. That’s the message we’re sending.

Especially in the early stages of campaigns what appears to be significant is often a reflection of patterns in media coverage. Patterns in media coverage are a reflection of… well, that’s the problem. Huff Post is saying: We know we’re participants, as well as observers. In our role as framer of coverage and classifier of candidates we stand thusly on Trump’s 2016 campaign: its first logic is entertainment. Don’t agree with us? Fine. You know where we’re coming from.

To me that is progress. “The media aren’t passive bystanders, but participants…” is progress.

8. The opposing position was put forward by… Chris Cillizza, reacting to Huffington Post’s announcement:

Who are we to decide who’s serious and who’s not in an election? Trump’s polling suggests that, whether you like him or not and whether you think his campaign is a sideshow or not, plenty of people who identify as both Republicans and likely voters don’t see him that way. It’s not up to me, The Washington Post or the Huffington Post to decide the relative merits of people feeling that way. It’s our job to understand why they feel that way, analyze how long they might feel that way and figure out what it means for everyone else running for president that they feel that way.

In other words: We don’t know we’re participants. Maybe we’re just observers!

Other reactions I saw from journalists took a similar tack. If you dismiss Trump as entertainment you are telling the voters who support him that they are clowns and asses and dupes. But these are real voters! You can’t say that about them. (Real voters don’t show up until January 2016, of course, but never mind…)


Who are we to decide who’s serious and who’s not? The obvious trouble for journalists is they’re already doing that— but by default. As Ryan Grim said. “[Trump] has consumed the bulk of coverage and unsurprisingly he is rising in the polls, a phenomenon the media point to to justify even more coverage.”

9. I would have done it differently. I would have announced the policy with a detailed work of analysis that gives chapter and verse about early primary polls and media coverage. (Some of that started to emerge here.) I would have made sure that Trump-made news really doesn’t appear in the Politics section. (“We were ironing out kinks yesterday, but that’ll be how we handle it going forward,” Grim said Sunday morning.) And instead of asking political journalists to struggle with the entertainment logic of the Trump candidacy, I’d also ask entertainment journalists to struggle with the political consequences of the Trump production.

10. “That Trump has any support at all is a genuine phenomenon and has implications that are serious,” Grim told me. “That should be covered seriously. What we’re saying is that Trump himself shouldn’t be.” Again, seems sensible to me. And there are signs this weekend of peak Trump so maybe the problem will go away.

But what the Huffington Post did should be recalled as a slip in solidarity that revealed something about the campaign press: it likes the default settings and the circularity they create. It does not like dissent from them. That’s grandstanding. (Politico.) That’s childish. (Bloomberg.) I disagree: “We will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section…” is the work of fed-up and free-thinking adults.

Photo credits: Neelex and Gage Skidmore.

 

“I need people who can make good decisions without tilting it toward the forms they learned on or the skills they identify themselves with.”

I often ask editors and executives at news companies what kind of people they're looking to hire. These two answers I get a lot.

28 Jun 2015 1:39 pm 44 Comments

The first: “Know any developers who want to work in news?” (No, sorry.) The second is a little more complicated. The conversation goes something like this:

“You know what I need?” person who hires journalists will say. “I need people who can look at the news and information situation they are handed, look at what we know about our users and how they behave, look at what we say and believe about our brand, look at all the digital tools we have now… and just make good decisions.” This one is photos and captions, that one is a timeline and a 1,500-word backgrounder. This is a video explainer with some animation, that is a chart with a graceful introduction. Let’s live blog it. “Audio clip with a good headline.” Quick commentary piece that makes one point.

“And if they can make a lot of these things themselves, they’re hired.”

Me to person who hires journalists: “I hear this from editors a lot: First figure out what the story is. Then decide what combination of media best tells the story.”

Person who hires journalists: “But maybe it’s not a story. Maybe it’s an interactive where you can look up the data on your neighborhood. That’s not ‘story.’ I need people who can make good decisions without tilting it toward the forms they learned on, or the skills they identify themselves with. Some very good editors can’t do that. Some very good writers can’t do that. Anyway, that’s what I need.”

Right. What’s the name for that talent?

UPDATE: Michele McLellan builds on this post with some observations of her own about the same problem. “True digital expertise takes much more than multimedia skills.”

The announcement that NBC did not make about Brian Williams getting a second chance there.

They had an opportunity to rid themselves of toxic anchorman syndrome and credibility collapse via celebrity behavior. But no...

20 Jun 2015 12:54 pm 4 Comments

This from Jonathan Mahler is dead on:

NBC’s handling of Mr. Williams suggests that the network is still clinging to an increasingly anachronistic vision of the anchor’s chair as a sacred throne, and the anchor as the voice of moral authority. It’s a response that seems in many ways tone-deaf to the striking changes in the way we consume information — changes that are reshaping the relationship between newscasters and consumers. The news anchor is no longer the embodiment of reason and truth; his voice is now just one of many. And network TV is just another platform.

Likewise: this from Frank Rich in April. (“Like the cockroach, the anchorman has outlasted countless changes in the ecosystem around him.”) In recognition of these facts, I took the liberty of composing a news release that did not happen this week. It’s my way of commenting on an opportunity missed by NBC.

Brian_Williams_and_wife_Jane_WilliamsThe announcement that Brian Williams would return to the newsroom — but Lester Holt would take over his old job — was a gift to NBC executives because it allowed them to retire an overgrown and ill-fitting job description (lead anchor as face of the brand, “anchor’s chair as a sacred throne…”) that is not only outmoded and hard to believe but actively harmful to the news division— and to the person who is is installed in that creaking chair.

They had a chance to rid themselves of toxic anchorman syndrome and credibility collapse via celebrity behavior. But they couldn’t grasp it. They refused the gift.

Here, then, is the press release they never wrote, but should have.

Imaginary press release starts here: don’t quote it out of context. I made this up!

NBC News announced today the eventual return of its suspended broadcaster, Brian Williams, to active duty and his replacement as anchor of NBC Nightly News by Lester Holt, NBC veteran and Weekend Anchor, who had been filling in for Williams during an investigation of misstatements he made about his reporting work for NBC.

“Lester stepped into the anchor chair in a trying time and has really come through for us,” said NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. ‘We are lucky to have him and I know he will continue to do great things at NBC News for years to come.”

Brian Williams, the network announced, will re-join MSNBC as anchor of breaking news and special reports. He will occasionally anchor “live special reports” on NBC when Holt is unable to or better used elsewhere. “Brian now has the chance to earn back everyone’s trust,” said NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack. “His excellent work over twenty-two years at NBC News has earned him that opportunity.”

Previous anchors had been named managing editor of the NBC Nightly News and were considered responsible for the final program. In a note to staff, Lack announced that this tradition would end, and the anchor’s job would be right-sized for a different era in journalistic authority. “Brian himself has said that ego got in his way, with disastrous results,” Lack said. “We do not think that was just a personal failing.”

After its internal review of Williams past misstatements, NBC and Comcast executives engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of possible remedies. Leadership came to the conclusion that a management decision by its top executives, not one or two but a succession of them, had allowed the lead anchor position to evolve into a principality of its own, ruled by one voice: the anchor’s.

The review also found that NBC and Comcast had encouraged Williams to play up his celebrity status and devote more of his after-work hours to appearing on entertainment television. This was part of a plan to appeal to younger viewers by making the face of the NBC News brand a friendly and familiar one with obvious standing in cultural venues outside of news.

“Face of the brand, ambassador for the news division in other media spaces, managing editor of the flagship broadcast, hard working anchor for NBC Nightly News, symbolic leader of the news troops at NBC, globe-trotting reporter when a big story hits, charming and funny celebrity for the talk show set, trusted on-air guide when a crisis requires the network to go live— that is far too much for any person, any position,” said Andrew Lack in his note to staff. “We allowed it to get out of hand.”

NBC said that the lead anchor position would still exist, that its salary would stay the same or rise, and that Lester Holt, a popular figure inside and outside NBC, would not only anchor the NBC Nightly News but also preside over the network’s live coverage, such as elections, a president’s speech to the nation, or a major news event like Hurricane Katrina.

“Lester Holt is our lead anchor,” said Comcast CEO Steve Burke. “We want him to focus on the news and maintaining the trust of our viewers, not his own celebrity in a cultural space outside the news.”

Andrew Lack, in his note to NBC staff, said: “When we go live, Lester Holt will preside over the broadcast, introducing and connecting the work of NBC journalists while explaining to viewers what is going on. Anchoring ‘Nightly’ and sliding into the hot seat for live coverage: these will be the core duties of NBC’s lead anchor going forward. We are reducing a bloated job description to two key elements, and re-setting everyone’s expectations.”

Lack made it clear that the executive producer of NBC Nightly News — not the anchor — would have the final word on all editorial decisions. “We are going to eliminate any ambiguity about that.”

NBC also announced that the “roving anchor” model, in which the entire broadcast shifts to a breaking news location so the anchor can be visible on scene, would be retired and the dollar savings used to put more reporting resources on the ground at major news events. “The anchorman as ‘voice of god,’ if it ever did exist, does not describe the media world of today,” Lack said. “By right-sizing the position we plan to give Lester Holt everything he needs to succeed for many years to come.”

— Imaginary press release ends here: don’t quote it out of context. I made it all up! —

Earlier from me on the Brian Williams mess:

* NBC would be insane to let Brian Williams return (March 14, 2015.)

* Brian Williams has not led. What’s an anchor for? (Feb. 6, 2015.)

Here is Brian Williams interviewed by NBC’s Matt Lauer about his return to the network.

Campaign reporters: you are granted no “role in the process.” It is your powers against theirs.

Forget it: there is no guaranteed “role.” That’s a fiction you and your colleagues created to keep the game the same every four years.

18 May 2015 9:34 pm 51 Comments

So Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post — whose mission in life is to explain to us how things really work in politics — is rolling along in his “Hillary Clinton is shamefully avoiding the press” column when he cries out to us:

Do you not think it is of value to know how Hillary Clinton spent her time since leaving the State Department? And how the Clinton Foundation handled its business with various donors who would, undoubtedly, still be in the picture if she was elected president? Or what she thinks of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the fight currently happening in Congress? Or Iran? Or the Middle East?

You get the idea. The role of the media in this process is to show voters who these people are, really, and to explain how these people would govern the country if elected. Like the media or not, that’s a very important role — and one that is essential to a functioning democracy. (My italics.)

The role of the media in this process? What on earth are you talking about, Chris?

You’re supposed to be our super-savvy guide to the way things are in the power game that is national politics. You are the least sentimental creature to walk that system’s halls… remember? No one can out-realism you! You’re Mister “let me tell you how it really works.” That’s your whole franchise. And yet here you are, bawling about “the role of the media” as if it had some sort of guaranteed status within what reporters (mindlessly) call the process.

Who could possibly be the guarantor of this role? The Constitution? (Grow up.) The Federal Election Commission? (Get real.) The political parties? (They’re too busy communicating over the top.) The voters? (I don’t think so.) Role in the process… Says who? The political system evolves, man. You’re supposed to track that for us. (Link!)

Check this out, savvy class:


Yahoo PR has not called me back in three years, and somehow I write. Kara Swisher isn’t lecturing Yahoo executives, users of Yahoo, or readers of tech coverage about some imaginary “role in the process.” She knows that it’s up to Yahoo executives to decide whether they want to talk to her. And it’s up to her to find out what’s happening at Yahoo, regardless of whether the company decides to talk.

“Yahoo has not called me back in three years, and somehow I write…” is a true statement about power relationships. They have the power to shut me out. I have the power to keep reporting, regardless of their efforts to shut me out. They can refuse comment. But if my stories are good enough, people will talk about them and Yahoo will be voiceless in that conversation. Is that what you want, Marissa Mayer? Game on! Swisher’s “role in the process” doesn’t enter into it.

Political reporters: You have no guaranteed “role.” That’s a fiction you and your colleagues created to keep the game the same every four years so you don’t have to go to school on how to be useful and powerful in the election system as it evolves. The fiction works if you can get the right people to believe it, but when they clearly don’t care about your “role in the process” how are you going to make ’em care? Got a plan for that?

I doubt it. I base my conclusion on columns like this from Ruth Marcus of the same Washington Post. She’s also complaining that the candidates won’t answer questions. (My italics.)

Question time, campaign officials soothe, will come. Meanwhile, why step on her message — criminal justice, immigration — by taking questions?

Um, because that’s part of the process. You can’t tweet your way to the presidency. Because reporters have different — sometimes better and more pointed — questions than voters. Because there are growing areas of legitimate inquiry — Clinton’s position on trade, for one — that merit answers. (The New York Times’ Amy Chozick offered an excellent example on immigration: “How could you stretch the law further than the president . . . says it can go?”)

Because how you behave on the trail augurs what you’ll do in office, including how accessible you’ll be. I have forebodings of future columns lamenting President Clinton’s umpty-umpth day without a news conference.

“Because that’s part of the process.” Seriously, Ruth? Your “because” is only a cuz if candidates decide that to reach the people they want to reach, or persuade the people they need to persuade, or avoid some damage they wish to avoid they now need to engage with the journalists who cover the campaign.

Reporters ask better questions than voters? Well, part the waters, here comes the press.7403734608_7c3291e44a_z

I have a better idea, journalists. Figure out what the voters want the candidates to talk about. (And when they’re ready to listen.) Persuade the voters that in your coverage you’re on their side— so many of them that the campaigns have to take notice. Then leverage your superior connection to the people the candidates want to reach. (That’s what Univision and Jorge Ramos plan to do, I’d bet.) It’s a power game, not a frozen process in which you are granted some role by the mighty hand of James Carville or Ed Rollins.

In 1992, the Charlotte Observer played it that way. They determined what the voters in North Carolina wanted statewide candidates to talk about. Then they asked about that. The opposite of “reporters have better and more pointed questions than voters.” I wrote about the Observer’s approach in my 1999 book, What Are Journalists For? Here’s the former editor of the Observer, Richard Oppel:

Voters were intensely interested in the environment… So our reporters went out to senatorial candidates and said, “here are the voters’ questions.” Terry Sanford, the incumbent senator, called me up from Washington and said, “Rich, I have these questions from your reporter and I’m not going to answer them because we are not going to talk about the environment until after the general election.” This was the primary. I said, “Well, the voters want to know about the environment now, Terry.” He said, “Well, that’s not the way I have my campaign structured.” I said, “Fine, I will run the questions and leave a space under it for you to answer. If you choose not to, we will just say ‘would not respond’ or we will leave it blank.” We ended the conversation. In about ten days he sent the answers down.

Compare: “We’ll just leave a big block of white space next to your name, okay?” vs. “Answer our questions because that’s part of the process.” Or Swisher’s “somehow I write” vs. “Hey, the role of the media in this process is…”

Look: I think candidates should engage with the press and answer tough questions, reducing the importance of any single encounter with journalists by having lots of them. The fact that they increasingly don’t is partly a sign of the news media’s diminished hold on the audience and partly a sign of weak and overly cautious candidates intimidated by a staff that preserves its own power by controlling access and message. A more freewheeling style might serve some candidates equally well, but the handlers would become less important that way so they argue against it. Shutting off almost all access has become the accepted way to win. It is not necessarily a better way to win, but it is far better for a risk-averse staff, and consultants who make money off advertising. It also persuades weak candidates that they’re fine as they are. Of course none of that matters, because timid candidates, controlling staff and an over-the-top messaging system is what we have.

Nothing about the political press makes it an inherent “part of the process.” The sooner that fiction is abandoned the better off producers of campaign coverage will be. You have to compete. Or as Jack Nicholson says in The Departed: “No one gives it to you. You have to take it.”

This has been edited from the original. I toned it down a little. —JR

On the deep grammar of the White House Correspondents Association Dinner

"The Washington press corps is like that big extended family with a terrible secret that cannot be confronted because everyone knows how bad it would be if the discussion ever got real."

25 Apr 2015 6:40 pm 59 Comments

Have you ever come to know members of a family who collaborate in staying silent about something bad that happened in the past, something no one wants to talk about because to talk about it would probably tear the family apart?

The innocent would have to accuse the guilty. The guilty to defend themselves would find a way to spread responsibility around— or just lie about what happened. Which would then enrage people who were there because it rewrites history and erases their experience. If you have ever come to know such a family — or been part of one, as I have — then you know how participants in the conspiracy share a signaling system that can instantly warn an incautious member: you are three, four hops away from violating the pact of silence… if you don’t want to bring the whole structure down, then I suggest you change the subject… or switch to one of the harmless work-arounds we have provided for the purpose of never getting too close to the source of our dread.

None of that has to be said, of course. It’s all done by antennae. The result is that serious talk about certain subjects is off limits. Key routes into that subject are closed off, because the signaling system activates itself three or four rings out from dread center. To an outsider this manifests itself as an inexplicable weirdness or empty quality, difficult to name. To insiders it becomes: this is who we are… the people who route around—

I mention this because I think it helps in interpreting a bizarre event that unfolds tonight in Washington and on many a media platform: the White House Correspondents Association dinner. How bizarre? Well, look at the evidence of compulsion:


It’s not like they don’t realize it. This is from Politico, house organ for the insider class in DC.

Everyone knows the White House Correspondents Association dinner is broken. What started off decades ago as a stately formal celebration of the best of presidential reporting has morphed into a four-day orgy of everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway— now it’s not just one night of clubby backslapping, carousing and drinking between the press and the powerful, it’s four full days of signature cocktails and inside jokes that just underscore how out of step the Washington elite is with the rest of the country. It’s not us (journalists) versus them (government officials); it’s us (Washington) versus them (the rest of America)

“Everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway.” True! And yet they keep doing it. Why?

I’m sure you have your ideas. Here is mine. I know it will sound crazy (and provide a few chuckles) to those in the room tonight at the Washington Hilton, but I don’t care because the event is itself one gigantic neurotic symptom that begs for some interpretation.

The Washington press corps is like that big extended family with a terrible secret that cannot be confronted because everyone knows how bad it would be if the discussion ever got real. The event at the center of this neurotic system: the failure to detect a phony case for war in 2002 and 2003 and more generally to challenge the Bush forces after 9/11. And this wasn’t just any failure. For a press that imagines itself a watchdog, failing to detect a faulty case for war, then watching the war unfold into the biggest foreign policy disaster in memory… that is an event so huge and deflating that it amounts to an identity crisis.

Now add to that very specific failure a larger lesson that is also too painful to face: in Washington access journalism has been a bust. It doesn’t work. Its practices made possible the spectacular fall down in the run-up to the Iraq War. (Under Obama it’s been so thin that Politico is this week asking: is the White House press corps becoming obsolete?) After a maximal failure like 2002-04 there needed to be a critical reckoning with the whole idea of “access to inside sources as reliable route to scoops.” You can’t maintain that idea and think of yourself as a watchdog, an adversarial force. Not with what happened in the run-up to the Iraq war.

But what if you still want both? Your scoop system, and your self-image as a watchdog. Your insider status, and the critical distance that with the right story could make you a hero of the republic. What if you want your parties with the powerful, and your check on power. What if you have to choose between these alternatives, but you can’t choose because the family has no history of making difficult choices like that. In circumstances like this, you are going to pick denial. And here we find a subterranean route into the Washington Hilton tonight.

3518728500_8159e78919_zThe Washington press corps needed the equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to sort through these glaringly obvious conflicts. Instead they just moved on. No one made that decision consciously. But it happened. Access journalism did not have to answer for its sins. Judith Miller did. That’s the simplest way I can put it. And because that event — which was a massive, wrenching and psychological event — did happen the access orgy that is called the White House Correspondents Association dinner can today go on.

There is access to the dinner itself. There is access to the parties that surround the dinner. There is access to the celebrities and power players who show up at the dinner. But access is the god that failed, with terrible consequences that no one in Washington journalism can reckon with. Instead, they party the pain away. And that is one thing tonight is “about.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 12.38.00 PM
That tweet was deleted.

(Photo: Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes at the WHCA dinner, 2009. Creative Commons license.)

“It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed…” Facebook: please stop with this.

Of course Facebook doesn't "edit" NewsFeed in the same way that a newspaper editor once edited the front page. It's a very different way. That's why we're asking about it!

21 Apr 2015 12:17 pm 19 Comments

I’ve met some of the people at Facebook whose job it is to work with journalists and media companies. They’re good people, smart people. They seem to care about the future of news. Some of my students, now graduated, work with them. I like that.

What I have to say in this post isn’t personal. It’s professional. Please stop doing this. Here’s what I mean:

Last week, at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, Facebook’s Andy Mitchell, director of news and media partnerships, was asked how the company sees its role as a new kind of editorial filter or influence on the news— an important question, now that Facebook has become such an important part of the news ecosystem. He was also asked what kind of accountability Facebook felt it had as a player in that system. Mitchell had three answers to these questions.

1. “It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed by what you tell us that you’re interested in.” You send us signals. We respond.

2. Facebook should not be anyone’s primary news source or experience. It should be a supplement to seeking out news yourself with direct suppliers. “Complementary” was the word he used several times. Meaning: complement to, not substitute for.

3. Facebook is accountable to its users for creating a great experience. That describes the kind of accountability it has. End of story.

To find these answers go to 45:50 in the video clip and watch to the end.

George Brock, journalism professor in the UK, was the one who asked about accountability. He comments:

Facebook is not, and knows quite well it is not, a neutral machine passing on news. Its algorithm chooses what people see, it has ‘community standards’ that material must meet and it has to operate within the laws of many countries.

The claim that Facebook doesn’t think about journalism has to be false. And, at least in the long run, it won’t work; in the end these issues have to faced. Facebook is a private company which has grown and made billions by very successfully keeping more people on its site for longer and longer. I can imagine that any suggestion that there are responsibilities which distract from that mission must seem like a nuisance.

Google once claimed something similar. Its executives would sit in newspaper offices and claim, with perfectly straight faces, that Google was not a media company. As this stance gradually looked more and more absurd, Google grew up and began to discuss its own power in the media.

I would put it differently: Facebook has to start recognizing that our questions are real— not error messages. We are not suggesting that it “edits” NewsFeed in the same way that a newspaper editor once edited the front page. It’s a very different way. That’s why we’re asking about it! We are not suggesting that algorithms work in the same way that elites deciding what’s news once operated. It’s a different way. That’s why we’re asking about it!

No one is being simple-minded here and demanding that Facebook describe editorial criteria it clearly does not have— like reaching for a nice mix of foreign and domestic news. We get it. You want not to be making those decisions. You want user interest to drive those decisions. We’re capable of understanding the basics of machine learning, collaborative filtering and algorithmic authority. We know that to reveal all would encourage gaming of the system. We’re capable of accepting: this is what the users are choosing to use now. We’re not platform idiots. Stop treating us like children at a Passover seder who don’t know enough to ask a good question.

But precisely because we do “get it” — at least at a basic level — we want to know: what are you optimizing for, along with user interest? How do you see your role within a news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? In news, you have power now. It is growing. Help us understand how you intend to use it. What kind of filter will you be? What kind of player… playing for what?

These are not outrageous or ignorant questions. They do not misstate how Facebook works. They are not attempts to turn the clock back to a time when editors chose and readers read. We don’t need your answers to babysit us. We’re awake and alive in the algorithmic age and exercising our critical faculties just fine. If you can’t answer, then say that: We are not here to answer your questions because we can’t.

Andy Mitchell’s three replies are not adequate— for us or for Facebook.

Q. What are you optimizing for, along with user interest? A. “It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed.” No, sorry. As I wrote before: It simply isn’t true that an algorithmic filter can be designed to remove the designers from the equation. The assertion melts on contact.

Q. How do you see your role in the news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? A. Facebook should not be anyone’s primary news source or news experience. No, sorry. On mobile, especially, “primary” is exactly what’s happening. And everyone who pays attention knows how strenuously Facebook tries to keep users engaged with Facebook. So “we don’t want to be primary” is… I’m trying to be nice here… a little insulting.

Q. In news you have a lot of power now. How do you intend to use that power? A. We just want to create a great experience for users. No, sorry, that’s not an answer because you just said the users have the power, not Facebook, so what you’re really saying is: power? us? whatever do you mean?

Facebook’s smart, capable and caring-about-news people should be disappointed that this is as far as the company has gotten in being real with itself and with us.

(This started as a Facebook post. If you want to see it spread on that platform, I’m confident you know what to do.)

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Now here’s a good example of what I mean. In an update at a company blog, Facebook tells us:

Facebook is constantly evaluating what’s the right mix of content in News Feed and we want to let you know about a change that may affect referral traffic for publishers…

Stop the tape! Notice how Facebook is the one evaluating. Facebook is the one changing things up. This is not a scandal or a surprise. But it’s also not: “you control NewsFeed, we don’t control NewsFeed.” They control NewsFeed too. User choice is real. But code is destiny.

Mathew Ingram of Fortune magazine writes about the same announcement. Facebook, he says, “wants to have its cake and eat it too: it wants to tweak the news-feed in order to promote content that serves its purposes—whether that’s news content or baby pictures—but it also wants to pretend that it isn’t a gatekeeper, because then media companies might not play ball. So it tries to portray the algorithm as just a harmless extension of its users’ interests, when in fact it is anything but.”

David Holmes at Pando.com comments, as well:

I don’t blame Facebook for wanting to squeeze ever-increasing amounts of money from publishers and the content they produce. Facebook is a for-profit corporation and that’s what corporations do: make money. And it certainly doesn’t owe journalists or their organizations anything.

But it’s phenomenally disingenuous of the company to insist that its every strategic decision is part of some “user-first” mentality. Users don’t even pay to use Facebook — so how could they be its core constituency?

Good question.

Also on the “phenomenally disingenuous” beat. Andy Mitchell’s “we’re just a supplement, not the main source” line is reality-denying in the extreme. From the Pew Research center: “Some of our 2014 research revealed that nearly half of Web-using adults report getting news about politics and government in the past week on Facebook alone, a platform where influence is driven to a strong degree by friends and algorithms.” (My italics.) So don’t tell us you’re just a supplement. It insults our intelligence. [Correction: Jesse Holcomb of the Pew Center says via Twitter: “1) Didn’t intend to imply that half of web adults get news from FB & no other source. 2) Rather, FB alone gets nearly half of web adults going there for news abt gov’t/politics.” That’s different. The Pew report has now been re-written to say: “Some of our 2014 research revealed that nearly half of Web-using adults report getting news about politics and government in the past week on Facebook, a platform where influence is driven to a strong degree by friends and algorithms.” Hat tip, Constantin Basturea.]

A distinction I have tried to import into this debate is between “thick” and “thin” legitimacy. From my piece in the Washington Post about Facebook’s mood manipulation study.

Thin legitimacy is when the experiments conducted on human beings are: fully legal and completely normal, as in common practice across the industry, but there is no way to know if they are minimally ethical, because companies have no duty to think such matters through or share with us their methods.

Thick legitimacy: when experiments conducted on human beings are not only legal under U.S. law and common in practice but also attuned to the dark history of abuse in experimental situations and thus able to meet certain standards for transparency and ethical conduct— like, say, the American Psychological Association’s “informed consent” provision.

For purposes of establishing at least some legitimacy Facebook relies on its “terms of service,” which is 9,000 words of legalese that users have no choice but to accept. That’s thin.

Facebook thinks “thin” legitimacy will work just fine. That is why it can give journalists and academics the royal run around at conferences. But what if that assessment is wrong, not from some moral perspective but as a business case? The question turns on this: To what degree does Facebook’s success depend on trust — user trust, social trust, partner trust — vs. power: market power, monopoly power, the power of an overwhelming mind share. I don’t know the answer, but I don’t trust anyone who says the answer is obvious. It’s not obvious. The more the company’s fortunes turn on trust, the greater the business case for “thick” legitimacy.

I wrote about the same issue last year. This is the description I recommended if Facebook ever decided to (I know it sounds crazy) optimize for truth.

The algorithm isn’t picking stories the way a home page or front page editor would. It’s not mimicking the trained judgment of experienced journalists. Instead, it’s processing a great variety of signals from users and recommending stories based on Facebook’s overrrding decision rule for the design of an editorial filter: maximizing time on site, minimizing the effort required to “get” a constant flow of personal and public news. The end-in-view isn’t an informed public or an entertained audience but a user base in constant contact with Facebook. As programmers we have to use our judgment — and a rigorous testing regime —to make that happen. We think it results in a satisfying experience.

Ben Thompson at his invaluable site, Stratechery. “It is increasingly clear that it is Facebook — not iOS or Android — that is the most important mobile platform.”

Andy Mitchell’s answers at Perugia insulted a lot of people. Here’s an account in Italian by a student, Enrico Bergamini, who asked Mitchell about the NewsFeed alogorithm. It includes an interview with George Brock. On my Facebook page he writes: “I was at the conference, I’m the student asking the question at 45:42, and I was obviously disappointed with the empty answer Mr Mitchell gave me.” Other comments at my Facebook page from people who were there:

Mindy McAdams: “The answers Andy Mitchell gave to questions asked after his talk in Perugia were pure spin and obfuscation… The mood was sullen as he continued answering questions with non-answers.”

Eric Sherer: “I attended this conference, Jay. It was a shame. And yes, he treated [us] like children!”