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  • What are the prevailing norms in journalistic ethics in the United States, and how are they changing? In advance of World Press Freedom Day, the Foreign Press Center hosts a conversation between Kelly McBride , Chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter, and Tom Rosenstiel , Executive Director of the American Press Institute, who together discuss new ethical challenges journalists face in the United States’ evolving media landscape.  The discussion will cover pressures being brought to bear on journalists by technology, social media, increasing disinformation, and changing audience habits, with case study examples to illustrate specific challenges.  The moderated conversation will be followed by Q&A with participating journalists.

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual) 

MODERATOR:  Good morning and welcome to the Foreign Press Center briefing “Understanding America: The Future of Media Ethics.”  My name is Jen McAndrew and I am the moderator.  First I will introduce our briefers and then I will give the ground rules.   

In advance of World Press Freedom Day, the Foreign Press Center is thrilled to host a conversation between Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter, and Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, who together will discuss new ethical challenges journalists face in the United States evolving media landscape.  Their discussion will cover pressures being brought to bear on journalists by technology, social media, increasing disinformation, and changing audience habits.   

Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher, and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics.  In her leadership role at the Poynter Institute, she advances the quality of journalism and improves fact-based expression by training journalists and working with news organizations to hone and adopt meaningful and transparent ethics practices.  She was also appointed as National Public Radio’s public editor in April 2020 as the result of a new partnership between NPR and Poynter.  

Tom Rosenstiel is one of the United States leading thinkers on the future of news and the author of 10 books.  Before joining the American Press Institute in 2013, he was founder and director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.  He was co-founder and vice chair of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and also a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  Among his seven books on journalism, politics, and ethics is The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, used in journalism education worldwide.   

And now for the ground rules.  This briefing is on the record.  The views expressed by briefers not affiliated with the Department of State or U.S. Government are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government.  Participation in Foreign Press Center programming does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of their views.  We will post the transcript of this briefing later today on our website.  To kick off the discussion, I’d now like to turn the floor over to Kelly and Tom.  We’ll also have time at the end for questions from journalists.  Over to you, Kelly.   

(No response.) 

Over to you, Kelly.   

MR ROSENSTIEL:  She’s frozen.   

MS MCBRIDE:  Okay, am I — 

MODERATOR:  Uh-oh.  Tom, do you want to kick us off? 

MR ROSENSTIEL:  Sure.  There’s Kelly.  Kelly, you’re muted.  Can you unmute? 

MS MCBRIDE:  Hi.  That happens all the time.  I’ve had that happen like five times now where right as you pitch it the connection blinks.  Hi, welcome.  I’m Kelly McBride.  I’m with the Poynter Institute.  And when Jen first approached me with the idea of this conversation of talking about the future of ethics, my first reaction was oh my gosh, nobody wants to hear any one person drone on about the future of journalism ethics, because there’s a whole cottage industry of people who do that and it can be tedious at best.   

However, Tom and I collaborated on a book in 2012, and the idea in that collaboration was that we could see that technology and economics and audience habits were changing journalism.  And what we knew about journalism ethics was that it doesn’t come in a package handed down from a committee in any one place.  Instead, it grows from this very organic, often misunderstood process.  And so I thought it would be much more interesting for you – it would certainly be more interesting for me – to just have a conversation with Tom about where we see things going.   

And so, Tom, let me start by just asking:  Since we’re talking about the future of journalism ethics, how do you actually describe the past of journalism ethics?  Because there is no one accepted set of rules that everyone in journalism abides by, unlike medicine or law or some of the other professions.  So how do you – just talk a little bit about where journalism ethics even came from. 

MR ROSENSTIEL:  Yeah, it’s a really interesting question, Kelly.  And it’s distinctive that we have no rules in the United States in particular, because the First Amendment has been interpreted in this country to mean no unions, no licensing, no self-policing in any formal sense the way that there is in other countries.  So where did these journalism ethics come from?  They came from, I would say, three places.  The press in the United States, as is – as was true in other countries, began as a partisan artifact.  Different parties had publications and they used those publications to win the support of their people and to attack the other side.  Starting in the 1830s, around the time of the telegraph, that began to change.  Our – the press in the United States began to be independent of party because publishers realized they could make a lot of money for themselves.  So journalism became not a loss leader, a money-losing activity for parties, but became its own industry.  And in the second half of the 19th century, the cost of paper dropped by half every 10 years, and journalism really became a business.   

Well, where did journalism ethics come from?  It actually came from two things.  What sold?  What was it that people responded to?  And then as publishers became more powerful, the people who worked for them in newsrooms began to professionalize and push back against some of the commercial pressures of their publishers.  So groups like the American Society of Newspaper Editors were created by newspeople to push back against and create some insulation if their publishers asked to do – asked them to do things that they didn’t want to do or they thought were – got in the way of their telling the truth. 

So what are the three things that guide this?  One is what is it that audiences respond to.  The idea that the press should be very accurate was something that publishers have always claimed.  Even publishers who are not accurate claim to be accurate because that sells, that sells in the market.  As advertising came into being and began to subsidize journalism, there were a lot of ads that were lies, and both the government and the press began to decide that there should be rules against publishing advertising that was untrue because it hurt the reputation of the newspaper if those ads existed.   

So, in other words, they come from the street and they evolve as audiences evolve.  And they’re also pushed against by journalists who want to be able to do their jobs more accurately and tell the truth, and in this country, in the United States, particularly tell the truth against the government, because our First Amendment has one basic concept inside it, which is that if you have a free and independent press, it will be a check or a bulwark against the government becoming too powerful. 

So let me ask you a question, then, that follows on this, Kelly:  Journalism always reflects the culture that it’s in, and you were talking about that.  The press was changed by the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam.  We didn’t even have an investigative Pulitzer Prize until 1960 as the press began to reflect some of these movements.  The press was changed by Watergate.  How will the last few years in America, in your opinion, change journalism?  The years that saw the rise of Trump and his view of the press, the pandemic that we’ve just gone through, and the death of George Floyd – so I’m asking you to step beyond the impact of the platforms and try and project the last three or four years. 

You’re on mute. 

MS MCBRIDE:  Thank you.  Sorry.  It’s my first time on Zoom.  (Laughter.)  We are already starting to see the impacts of this, and you can look throughout American newsrooms and see that there is a real tension, almost an existential question, of whether the press can both reflect all of America, all of the community that it is supposed to serve, and also grapple with the tension of inequality in the United States and in journalism.  And so where this manifests itself is even before George Floyd, even before the pandemic, there were many individuals in American newsrooms who were feeling as if they could not do what you just described, which is accurately report on the world that they see and experience, because of constrictions that were placed upon them in language, in what they can say, and in how they can say it.   

Those constrictions are – come under the guise of neutrality.  And that understanding and application of what it means to be neutral or to pursue the truth without an agenda is currently at odds with many people who get into journalism to challenge the power structures, which is, like you just said, part of why journalism exists in the United States.  And the power structures that they want to challenge are the structures that sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly reinforce a white privilege and a world that won’t share its resources.   

And so you can look at simply the coverage of police and whether police are overstepping their bounds or not.  There are many journalists – I would say probably – it’s probably a critical mass now of journalists – who have reached the conclusion that the anecdotal evidence is strong enough that we can start stories from the basis that law enforcement needs to be reformed, but they are not by any means universal.  That idea is not universal.   

And so then there are traditionalists, if you will, in newsrooms who are saying no, you can’t start the story from that point of view.  You have to create the evidence.  You have to document and line up the evidence, and you have to do it in a way that it can be challenged, and that is – having to do that every time is a challenge for journalists.  It’s a challenge because they feel like their own experiences, as well as this litany of anecdotal evidence, should be enough.  And they feel like if it were anything else, it would be enough, right – like if it was any other challenge.  For instance, we are perfectly fine with accepting the fact that there is inequality between men and women in the United States, and we see that through evidence of pay salary – salary gaps.  Can we do the same with racial inequity? 

Or – and so there’s this challenge that I think many journalists are feeling, and the way that they feel it is they feel like they’re being made to jump through hoops in order to conform with this ethic that you just described as a very nebulous thing that grew up from this sort of organic grassroots process of what does the audience find most useful, and that’s what publishers want to deliver to the audience.  And it comes at a moment when the country itself is changing, right?  The country is about 40 percent people of color.  There is a tipping point in the very near future where white people will be a minority in this country.  And that presents, in addition to this challenge to the ethics of journalism, right, of how do we tell the truth, it also presents a business challenge.   

I am working with many, many companies, and their primary objective is to diversify their audience, and that’s because they know that they will become irrelevant if they cannot become a credible news service for that increasingly large group of people that don’t consume them as their first choice. 

And so I think that there – like when you look sociologically at what’s going on in the country and then you look at – we’ll leave Trump out of it right now – you look at the pandemic and the inequitable impact that it had, you look at law enforcement and the seemingly inequitable impact that it has, and then you look at the role that journalism plays in communicating public health messages, holding police accountable, telling the story of crime and how it happens in our communities, there are some real existential questions about how resources are deployed and whether the power within newsrooms can adjust to those resources in a way that reflects what seems to be the demand from the country to change the type of journalism that it consumes. 

MR ROSENSTIEL:  Before you ask me my next question that you’re going to ask me, let me just throw in two points here for the audience.  One is one of the biases or norms of journalism that has existed for a long time is it’s okay to say, “Police said” and just quote the police because you can’t be sued for that, right?  You’re hanging it on their authority and you’re not taking the responsibility on yourself.  We were all taught that as young journalists.  Like, if you can say, “Police said,” then you’re not responsible.  So that was partly a legal thing that became a cultural thing. 

The other thing I would just throw in here is one of the reasons it’s so important for publishers in the United States regardless of platform to diversify their audiences is that most of our media is local.  We don’t have very many national outlets.  Most of them are local.  So if you are in Dallas or Cincinnati or San Francisco, if you only reflect a small portion of your community, you’re not going to be a viable business.  Very different, which kind of leads into your question, Kelly.  It’s very different than if you’re a national. 

MS MCBRIDE:  Right, right.  Because market standards then create different norms, right?  Market pressures create just different norms.  So the pressure, the expectations at The Washington Post around whether reporters should share their personal views is a very different pressure than it would be felt in Cincinnati. 

So how do you see those pressures – like, how do you see that playing out?  Because it feels right now like we’re at an impasse where you have this group of journalists saying, “We have to change,” and then you have people who control the organization saying, “No, we need to stay the same because that’s how we’ll really accommodate the entire market.”  So how do you see that playing out? 

MR ROSENSTIEL:  Yeah.  There’s a couple of things.  First of all, it’s really important to know that there is a – the market pressures on, let’s say, CNN are extremely different than the market pressures on, say, The Dallas Morning News or The Boston Globe.  Why?  Because CNN is aiming for or Fox is aiming for a very small portion of a national market, and it’s in a crowded field, right?  There are many players looking for this.  There are at least six national cable channels.  So if they can get 2 or 3 percent, and in a crowded or more fragmented media market, it’s hard to play the role, the traditional role of we are an independent voice, we don’t take sides, we are – and so we’ve seen in our cable news a real shift toward a partisanship.  Whether it’s CNN or MSNBC or Fox, it would be hard to find a cable network that has not built its audience around certain political orientation whether they intended to or not. 

The market pressures in Dallas or Cincinnati or Boston are – get as much – as large a share of the market as you can.  We only have – there’s really only one newspaper in all but about a dozen American cities now.  There are three TV stations, but they are also – they also need a very large share.  

And then as you say, Kelly, there’s this pressure around, “How do I be myself?”  Is the way that I build my credibility by pretending that I’m not neutral, or is the way I build my credibility by ascending to a set of professional standards that means that I will – that I won’t let my own personal biases get in the way of the story I’m telling?  That’s the cultural cleavage that we’re facing in journalism.   

I’ve written a lot, as you know, about what is the meaning and the origin of the concept of objectivity.  And I’ll just say for this audience, in my reckoning and reading of the history, objectivity does not mean neutrality.  It actually means that you have an objective method of processing and verifying the news that you can share with your audience, precisely because you as a person and as a journalist can never be personally objective.  So you have a view that you start with and what you’re trying to do as a journalist to get a more accurate rendering of things is to learn about the views of other people.  Diversity, listening, all of these things that people are talking about are important skills in that, and it also means that where we are in the arc of a story determines to some degree how neutral or open – or how neutral we are.   

If a – climate change is something that we now have a lot of science on, and it would be absurd and inaccurate for a journalist to say there’s a real debate in the science community over whether climate change is occurring.  But on a news story, a breaking news story, a train wreck or something where the facts are just emerging, the press has to be much – has to lean back much more and say, wait, we don’t know very much.   

So that notion of how neutral are you or where – what is your posture or where do you start is influenced I think to some degree by where we are in the arc or trajectory of a story, a long-term trend we know a lot about and a breaking news thing we know less about, and that we have to default back to these older norms of “I don’t know anything yet.” 

Where this really plays out also is there’s a generational split.  I grew up not having a Twitter feed or living out loud, but in fact living quietly and letting my work speak for itself.  If you are 30 and you’ve emerged in journalism and you’ve emerged in your life living out loud and you have a Twitter history and you discovered who you were in part by talking out loud and bouncing ideas off of people, the idea that you are going to be hermetically sealed and not say these things and not express yourself and not be yourself is much, much harder.  Though it’s not all about generational differences, but I think that generational difference makes a difference in the tensions that we have in newsrooms about can you say that you believe that black lives matter, or can you say that you’re – you believe in open immigration, or does that get in the way?   

I’ll just throw in this one last concept because I know we’re going too slowly.  When you think of conflict of interest, is it a conflict for me to have a personal view on things?  One of the rules that has been handed down is that it matter – it makes a difference how close it is to the beat you’re covering.  So it’s – if I’m the food writer at my publication, it’s probably fine for me to be the head of the parent-teachers association.  It’s not conflicting with my food coverage.  But if I’m the education reporter, it probably is more of a problem for me to be the head of the PTA. 

MS MCBRIDE:  Yeah, but let me add something to that, which is who you are I don’t believe can be a conflict of interest, right?  So if you are a lesbian, it should not be a conflict of interest for you to cover whether or not gay marriage should be legalized. 

MR ROSENSTIEL:  Right. 

MS MCBRIDE:  And we actually saw people make that argument in the early 2000s when that was an open question in this country.  It should not be a conflict of interest if you are an immigrant to cover immigration, right? 

MR ROSENSTIEL:  Right. 

MS MCBRIDE:  But that – and that’s where some nuance comes into this conversation, is that you can actually be very, very close to a topic and that can make you very good at covering it as opposed to biased. 

MR ROSENSTIEL:  I think this will be where we resolve this, ultimately, in the next few years is that identity informs your coverage and not – so you are not – and we’ve both written about this.  It’s you are both a Jew and a journalist; you are both a woman and a journalist; you are both a WASP and a journalist; you are both an Asian and a journalist.  And those – your identity makes – gives you special insight.  It is not where you end your coverage but it is absolutely where you begin. 

Well, we’re running long but let me just get to your question.  When we edited “The New Ethics of Journalism” in 2013, the view of technology and the platforms I think was – it’s fair to say was more optimistic than it is today.  If we were imagining that book and the debates in that book now, seven years later, how would it be different now that we – the bloom is off the rose of technology and the new economy? 

MS MCBRIDE:  Oh, I think we would be – I think we would be addressing the responsibility of technology companies to self-police, and the way that – I mean, you and I can both come up with dozens and dozens of examples, even in modern times of irresponsible journalism, right?  Journalism that actually harms the public. 

MR ROSENSTIEL:  That’s how we make our living.  We’re press critics. 

MS MCBRIDE:  Exactly, right.  And it manages to work in the United States because there is a critical mass of self-policing, responsible journalists who evolve their practices to meet the needs of the time.  Technology companies have been exempt from that conversation, right, and they have always – they’ve even said out loud they don’t want to be publishers, right, they don’t want to have those ethical obligations that publishers have.  Why?  Because they can’t make as much money.  And I think that we would be leaning head-on into that and saying no, no, no, no, no, you’re in this group and you have a moral obligation to citizens.  You are protected by the First Amendment and you have a moral obligation to do things that enhance democracy and to not do things that harm democracy.   

And we didn’t have that conversation back then, right.  We sort of said, oh, like, these are naturally democratic mediums and they will enhance democracy.  And it turns out that that’s not true, that they are abused in the same way that publishing – traditional publishing can be abused.  And when you live in a country with a First Amendment, you have to have – you have to have a commitment to the common good that we really do not see in the technology companies right now. 

MR ROSENSTIEL:  Yeah, I think we just viewed them as platforms, which is a word that is so neutral it implies no values whatsoever. 

MS MCBRIDE:  Yeah.  So I mean, you’re working with a ton of local newsrooms that are realizing that they were really late to the party when it came to diversifying your staff, right.  And when we talk about – so I want to go back to that idea that the economy, that the business proposition for a local news organization is very different than the business proposition for a national news organization.  Are local news organizations going – I was going to ask you how did that happen, but we sort of know how that happened, right?  They just didn’t put enough energy into it.  Are they going to be able to recover now that most of them are literally on the – I think you frequently say in the – on the last hour of the last day of their existence, unless something changes? 

MR ROSENSTIEL:  It’s – I mean, that – you couldn’t ask a more important question, I think.  Because one of the reasons that we care about local journalism in the United States is because it’s a – we’re a very big country.  Our political discourse is healthier locally than it is nationally, at least right now.  And the place where people have common ground and can come to compromise and solve problems in the United States right now is locally.  It’s not happening nationally.  So the – this is not just sort of like, woah, is the Cincinnati Enquirer going to go away?  It’s there’s a bigger implication to this. 

One of the reasons that American journalism ignored people of color and people who were less affluent was because it was an advertising-driven business.  And advertisers cared about demographics.  They wanted to reach a particular group of their customers, and we reached a point in the newspaper business particularly – even more than in the television business – where getting bigger wasn’t necessarily going to help you if the additional audience you were building were not attractive to your advertisers.  And American newspapers, by the way, made 80 percent of their revenue from advertising, and only 20 percent from circulation.  And American television stations made 100 percent of their revenue from advertising, and zero from any membership or circulation.  So advertising was the business. 

Well, that business is almost gone entirely.  Advertising has shifted over to these companies – Facebook and Google – who control now about 70 percent of all advertising, and it’s digital.  And that number is growing. 

So journalism in America is going to shift, to survive, to a subscription business.  And the real question that you’re – that Kelly’s asking is:  Can these local publications begin to repair harmful relationships with – they had with communities that they have ignored and begin to acquire enough subscribers that they can be sustainable businesses?  Every newspaper that I know that we work with in America knows how many subscribers they would need to have to become sustainable.  And there was really only two or three – maybe one local newspaper that I know of that has reached that point, maybe two.  And they’ve got a couple of years to do it.  Can they do it?  I don’t know the answer.  They – they’re – they want to.  This is a different spirit than they’ve ever had before. 

But I’ll just say this:  Why did the efforts at diversifying staffs in journalism and in newsrooms fail over the last 40 years?  Because people misidentified the goal.  They thought that the goal was to diversify their staffs, and if they hired people who were not all white and not all male, that they were done.  They didn’t realize that what they needed to do was change their cultures so that when those people came into the newsroom, they would feel like they belong there and could make a difference, and that their identities can change the coverage. 

So they hired people who – of color, and they – those people left, because they feel they didn’t belong.  And there was this continuing churn, and no progress was ever made.  Four percent of newsrooms – of newsroom people were black in the 1970s, and the number is about the same today.   

So no progress was made.  So we’re going to have to change our coverage, change the way we listen to these communities, to actually ever win their support as subscribers.  Can that happen in the next two years, if that’s the right timeframe?  Some places yes, and some places no.  But I think some places, yes.   

MS MCBRIDE:  Yeah.  Yeah, I don’t think – I think that the – I think the – what’s going to happen is a lot of the news organizations are going to lose – a lot of news organizations are going to fold in the next couple of years.  And we’re going to start to see – 50 percent, just over 50 percent of the American public gets its information from local television, and they are starting to feel an incredible crunch.  And they’re starting to reckon with the idea that not only do they need to diversify their audience, right, because they have much more competition on the local level, but they also need to – they need to repair the relationships with communities not just that they don’t – that they don’t have in their audience, but who they have actively alienated, mainly through their coverage of crime, right?   

And so there’s these two things that I think are going to intersect in local journalism, and one is the decline, right, so a lot fewer players on the market, even more so than we’re seeing now.  And another is local communities looking very, very different, even in smaller markets where there’s this presumption that – like Charleston, South Carolina is a white community.  Well, it is not.  It is not.  It’s a community that I’ve been going to for 20 years.  Most of the street signs are in Spanish now, right.  They have – they’ve had a – they’ve always had a strong black population.  They have an enormously burgeoning Hispanic population as well.  And if you’re going to be in that market, you’re going to have to be able to provide content that enhances the lives of those citizens.   

MR ROSENSTIEL:  Yeah.  Why don’t we skip our sixth question, what I was going ask you, because I know Jen wants us to get to questions, but I will just say – I’ll just throw this in as an accent what you just said, that journalism in America has always been historically driven by new citizens, by immigrants.  It built its – as it emerged in the 20th century, that’s how it built circulation.  We got away from that at the end of the 20th century, and I think we’re reaping the implications of that.   

Jen, you want to guide us? 

MODERATOR:  Thank you both for that very thought-provoking discussion.  We’ll now open it up to questions from the floor.  I see there are already two hands raised.  Just a reminder, you can raise your hand virtually or submit in the chat box.  I’d like to take the first question from Pearl Matibe from Power FM in South Africa.  Pearl, you can now unmute yourself and ask your question.  

QUESTION:  Thank you so much, Jen.  I really appreciate and thank you for the speakers being available.  Can you just expand on the ethics portion you’re talking about where the identity and beat nexus kind of meets?  So what if, for example, every journalist is also a voter, and they do go out and cast a ballot?  And so in an election environment, can you speak a little bit maybe about is there any crossover with the Hatch Act, like where does a journalist draw the line between, say, covering one area of an election campaign and maybe wanting to be an active participant in a different area?  So for example, let’s say you’re covering a Virginia state gubernatorial election, but your actual beat is international politics.  Is there some ethics issues there in coverage for a journalist?  What are some things that a journalist should be thinking about so that they remain (inaudible)?  Yeah.   

MR ROSENSTIEL:  Right.  Kelly, I’ll take a first swing at this real quick.  One is the – for me, the idea that journalists are committed to informing the public so that other people can make decisions.  There’s a – and our activism as journalists is to be eyes and ears and to help other people make their own decisions.  That’s different than being a political advocate whose job it is to persuade people to a particular outcome.  So we’re not in the persuasion business, we’re in the informing business.  And that’s a form of activism but it’s different than pure advocacy.   

So what does that mean in terms of your question?  I think it means, first off, that the easiest thing for me as a journalist was when I was covering people I disagreed with, because I knew I disagreed with them.  And I knew what my bias was and I worked on that, and I made sure I worked doubly hard to try and understand them.  I think the biases that really bite us are the ones that we’re not aware of, the unconscious ones where we think we’re – we think we’re being open-minded and in fact we’re not because of our own ignorance.  But I think your professional training can allow you to cover people that, “I’m not going to vote for you, pal.  I disagree with you.”   

The other thing, of course, is that the vast majority of journalists are not covering things where they necessarily have formed opinions.  Where should the highway be or what’s the weather going to be or what do I think about this food that I – there aren’t that many – I never really encountered this directly until I started covering presidential campaigns as a reporter and I had a personal opinion about whether I might vote for someone.  But for much of my career, I never, frankly, thought that I was rubbing up against things, probably because I was unconscious of the biases that I was bringing to that coverage.   

Over to you, Kelly.  

MS MCBRIDE:  Well, I think that there’s – so what the audience wants and what journalism wants to deliver, in this case, there’s actually a discrepancy here because these many people in the audience will say look, I know you have an opinion, tell me what it is before you tell me your reporting so that I can factor that into how much I believe you.  And what journalists say in response is no, no, no, no, no, we’re going to keep our personal votes to ourself.  We’re not going to tell you who we’re voting for.  But we’re going to allow our professionalism to speak for itself and we’re going to acknowledge – we’re going to give you accurate information about this candidate or this race.   

And the challenge is – is that – so on a – particularly on a local level, we can’t go back to that early American world where publications were partisan, because the economics won’t support both a conservative and a liberal publication in every community, right?  We can’t go back there in any way right now.  And so you’re getting – I mean, you can see with like MSNBC and Fox, those are sort of the two most blatant examples where you see that you have a practically declared point of view, if not absolutely declared perspective, and then coverage and a fair amount of advocacy, particularly from Fox. 

On a local level, that won’t work.  It won’t work economically, and it also doesn’t serve citizens really well either.  It doesn’t actually help, right, because keep in mind that their business model isn’t to serve the entire, it’s just to get a tiny sliver of the potential audience.  If your mission is to serve the entire audience, then you have to figure out a way to give the audience information on political races in a way that they find credible.  And in that gap is where we right now are sort of standing in all of this messy tension right now – the tension from our staff, the tension from citizens, the tension from critics and candidates who would say you’re not unbiased.  And so there’s no clear solution for that, because the audience is actually saying no, no, no, no, no, tell me where you are.  I’m not convinced the audience really, really wants that, but what they want is something that they can trust. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We have a few more hands raised, so I want to take a few more questions.  I would like to call on Zhihang Du from Caixin Media, China.  Please unmute yourself and ask your question. 

QUESTION:  Hi, this is Zhihang from Caixin from China, and I have two short questions, one for Tom and one for Kelly.  And for Tom, I want to hear your reaction on the hedge fund Alden Global Capital’s buyout of Tribune Publishing, and as we talked about the future of media ethics, what will be the future of local media?  And who will be – what kind of viable way do you think there will be to help those newspapers to survive and continue to produce fair and professional news? 

And the question for Kelly is about diversity.  As you mentioned, there is an increasing need for diversity from news institutions, and I want to hear your reaction on the NY – New York Times – yesterday’s decision to change op-eds into guest essays and how do you – what do you think is the real change behind?  Thank you very much. 

MS MCBRIDE:  Oh, thank you for asking me the easy question.  Tom, why don’t I take that while you think a little bit more about what you want to say about Alden.  So I actually think that makes perfect sense.  That is a label, “op-ed,” right – opposite the opinion page – meaning the place where we have all the other opinions.  Opinion pages were the institutional opinions of the newspaper, and the op-ed page was the place where other diverse voices came in.  Doesn’t make any sense anymore.  It doesn’t make sense in the physical world – a lot of times, that’s not even the way newspapers are laid out anymore – and it absolutely makes no sense in the digital world, which is where most of us consume our news. 

So it is a small, tiny step.  We made a big deal about it yesterday when the op-ed – when the New York Times announced it.  It is really a tiny step in greater transparency, which means labeling things what they actually are and then doing it in a way that people understand what they’re reading and what this really represents, which is a challenge.  It’s as much a design challenge in the way that we create and deliver news as it is in what words do we give to it, because there are so many times when the audience just does not understand what it is consuming.  Is it a reported piece or an opinion or an analysis or satire?   

So I’ll leave that there.  That was easy.  Thank you. 

QUESTION:  Thank you. 

MR ROSENSTIEL:  Good answer.  So I would – I have said for a long, long time, and I think there’s a lot of evidence that – I think the facts bear this out – that there isn’t a – there isn’t an ownership model that is superior.  For many years, people thought it would be better to have local owners, chain ownership is bad.  Well, there were good chains and there were bad chains.  There were good local owners and there were bad local owners.  And I spent a lot of time looking at this over the years.  Tom Johnson, who was my publisher at the LA Times and then worked for – was president of CNN said what – the thing that matters are the values of the owner, not the structure of the owner. 

I think that’s still true with an exception.  I don’t believe that the nonprofit model will work necessarily and that the commercial model won’t.  There are some very good commercial models out there.  The New York Times is a commercial model.  It’s in fact a publicly traded corporation.  The billionaire who owns the Minnesota Star Tribune – that’s working out very well.  It’s working out well now in Boston as well, where they have a billionaire owner.  Jeff Bezos has been good for The Washington Post.  Those are commercial.  There are also nonprofit models that work, that clearly work.  The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit and that has worked. 

The one exception is I have – there is no evidence at this point that – of a hedge fund being a positive influence on owning.  Now, there aren’t a lot of hedge funds out there.  There’s Alden; there’s the new owner of McClatchy, and it’s too soon to say; there is – GateHouse has hedge fund ownership in it, but it’s not – it’s a little bit of a mix.  But there’s no evidence of Alden being a positive influence.  The evidence is that Alden has bought these things to extract profits from them, to cut the quality of the product.  They actually make more money every year, year upon year.  They are taking money out of those publications.   

The model that works – the model that is working – is if you have a benign owner who says you can be revenue-neutral.  Whatever you make, you get to keep, and if you can grow, you can grow your news organization; and if you can stay flat, you can stay flat.  But this extraction model that Alden follows has been devastating to local communities and it’s devastating to the democracy. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you for that.  Our next question will go to Fumitaka Sato from NHK, Japan. 

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you for this implicated briefing.  I came from Japanese public TV, so my question for both of you also on the role of public media in the United States.  You were talking about any media can’t away from the advertisement, and revenue from the advertisement.  And also you – in the United States there are few public media, like NPR and PBS.  Do you think the role of those public media increasing in the future or decreasing in the future?  Thank you. 

MS MCBRIDE:  Increasing.  And it’s important to say that public media in the U.S. doesn’t work like public media in Europe, right?  Like, the subsidies from government are miniscule, and mainly public media works in a nonprofit model, which is – right?  So there’s commercial media, there’s nonprofit media, and then there’s public media, and you see journalism in all three of those realms.  

But nonprofit is the bigger category.  And a small number of nonprofits are public media, meaning that they are eligible to get some funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but most of them get less than 40 percent of their funds from that.  And I don’t see that actually increasing.  And I just think because of the political climate in the country, I don’t think that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is going to start spending more money on more organizations.   

So you have the public media model that you have right now.  And in most cases the healthiest public media organizations are those that minimize the amount of contributions that they take from the government not by reducing their overall budgets, but by expanding the amount of money that they get from citizens and from foundations and other types of donations, right?  So they make the pie bigger, the financial pie bigger.  It means that should the Corporation for Public Broadcasting decide that they’re going to not fund that particular organization, it wouldn’t have that significant of an impact.   

And if – the nonprofit model, when it has a diverse amount – I mean, this is true of the commercial model too, right?  The more diverse your funding sources, the less likely it is that you will be whipped around by any one particular funder, whether it’s the government, or a private donor, or an advertiser, or a subscriber.  And so that’s really the key no matter what the model is.   

I do think that nonprofit journalism is probably going to grow.  I think that there’s a lot of citizens who recognize and want to support journalism.  And I think it’s a way of bringing in a type of corporate sponsor that you can’t currently bring in in a commercial enterprise right now.  So I do think that – I think that nonprofit media will grow. 

MR ROSENSTIEL:  I have nothing to add other than that you are also seeing commercial enterprises getting nonprofit funding like The New York Times, the Raleigh News and Observer.  So it – yeah, it’s going to grow because it’s – because you have – you have the public who is concerned about journalism withering. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question goes to Alex Raufoglu, Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan. 

QUESTION:  Thank you so much.  This is Alex Raufoglu from Azerbaijan independent news agency, Turan.  This is such a compelling discussion.  I thank the FPC for organizing this.  I wonder how much you think the organized foreign influence, disinformation campaigns particularly launched by regimes with poor press freedom records, also had a fair share in all this.  Like, have they succeeded to undermine the idea of journalism ethics as based on a public interpretation of not only who American journalists are, but also of their role in democracy? 

And separately, if I may, while we all are pondering over how to prepare to navigate the ever-changing mediascape in the coming years, I’m wondering if you could come up with any suggestions for independent media outlets that are trying to survive in nondemocratic countries.  I’d appreciate that. 

MR ROSENSTIEL:  Well, I’ll take a first whack at the first part, Kelly, if I can.  I think that – I mean, we have companies that now are tracking where these campaigns come from and do mapping, and it’s significant.  The purpose of most of these disinformation campaigns, and we’ve spent a lot of time looking at this, is not to persuade people to believe the false narrative.  It’s to get them to doubt any narrative.  It’s to get them to doubt the journalism that they see.  And that causes them to then turn to political leaders that they believe, that they trust or like and just accept their word. 

So the purpose of disinformation is actually to get people to not think for themselves but to kind of put their faith in some place or some person that they – and that’s what’s, I think, particularly damaging about it.  

The platforms have been both naive and cynical and have allowed that to happen.  They haven’t done anything – they haven’t done enough about it.  They have not self-policed.  Kelly already talked about that.  But it also works because human psychology allows it to work.   

So you have this sort of terrible trifecta where the disinformation campaigns are very sophisticated.  They understand what works.  The platforms accentuate it because they’ve created an architecture, an economic architecture that is based on what makes us different from each other.  They make their money by knowing how Kelly is different than I am, and feeding me things that will be – interest her specifically.  And that architecture of separateness has – they have not wanted to tamper with it.  And it works.  It works because it accentuates a tendency in human beings to – which is always at war with our rationality and other impulses, but it is always there. 

MS MCBRIDE:  The Rappler in the Philippines is an example, I think, of a place that doesn’t have true press freedoms.  And the way it works is they have a lot of international support, right?  They have a lot of eyes on them internationally.  It’s an exception, though, and not the rule.  

MODERATOR:  Well, we’re coming to the end of our time today, so we’ll just take one final question and that’ll go to Kohei Tsuji from NHK Japan. 

You’re on mute.  (Laughter.) 

MS MCBRIDE:  Your first time too, huh? 

MODERATOR:  Still on mute, I think. 

QUESTION:  Sorry, sorry.  I’m sorry.  I keep my questions very short.  I’d like to ask the – what will be the media landscape under this new administration?  So we have seen these lies like election fraud in many right-wing medias like OAN or Newsmax.  They kind of took it and let it flow.  But when we see things like the Dominion scandal, they push back on Dominion – the court case – and these right-wing media came to realize that they can’t really broadcast lies in certain things.  

And do you think with this new President these alternative reality, if you will, has gotten a little calmed down and this trend will continue?  Or this alternative reality narrative will still continue to grow even though it’s less visible? 

MS MCBRIDE:  I mean, I think it’s – I think it will continue to be – I think it will always be there.  It will be less visible and – I mean, you see it with vaccinations, right?  You still see – and you will always be able to detect evidence of it.   

And I actually think the administration – so the difference between this administration and the previous administration is do they participate in it, and that’s what makes it much louder and makes people pay attention to it.  I’m not sure whether that’s worse or better, right?  Because when you have this alternative reality and people aren’t paying attention to it, that’s almost more dangerous because you’re not paying attention to it, and then suddenly you’re surprised that a large number of people believe something that is demonstrably false. 

You mentioned a couple of things.  One is the lawsuits by, like, Dominion.  We do have a fairly – the legal system in the United States allows people to sue for damages, for harm caused.  And that is a check.  It’s not nearly – it’s not super-effective because I would – I can find lots of examples where that will never happen.  But it is – but it has some efficacy in reigning media companies in who willfully spread false information.  It is always a potential that if you would willfully spread false information that somebody can sue you and that you can be found liable and the damages will be significant.  

Tom, what would you add to that.  

MR ROSENSTIEL:  I would add two things.  I think that’s exactly right.  Sorry that – if we didn’t have two people who disagreed with each other all through this discussion.  But I would add this:  Journalism and media or news media is always a reflection of the phenomena that it observes.  We reinforce it and we can exaggerate it.  And so in this instance, much depends on how people react to the Biden administration and its handling of the pandemic, the vaccinations, the economic consequences of that in the legislation that the administration is proposing around infrastructure and a number of other things.   

He’s got 18 months or maybe now – maybe a little less to see how that plays out.  If people – if he can – if the administration can peel enough voters away from sort of the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party and does better in the midterm elections than administrations typically do in their first – after their first two years, that will actually reflect how the media behaves.  It’s interesting that OANN has lost audience since Biden has become President and Fox has regained some of its audience, and that audience that Fox has is actually multiple audiences.  That’s a mix of different brands of conservatives, not all of them Trumpists.   

So I don’t know that we will know the answer to this.  Trump is a reflection of something that took 30 or 40 years to build.  And some of what we see in our media fragmentation is structural and some of it is political.  O has – Kelly says OANN and those kind of places will always exist, but if they are truly marginal – if the Republican Party decides that after a couple more cycles that Trump – Trumpism is not a way for it to win elections, it will wither slowly, but it will wither.  But if it – if that’s not the case, it will grow.  It’ll continue to grow. 

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you very much. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Kelly, any final thoughts before we conclude today? 

MS MCBRIDE:  No.  I mean, I feel like we have – you can see that there’s a lot that has yet to play out, and five years from now, you can predict a range of places that the U.S. media are going to be, but there’s a pretty broad arc in that range, and that will have worldwide implications, right?  Like when it comes to media ethics, American journalism tends to influence the world.   

MODERATOR:  Well, on behalf of the U.S. Department of State, I’d like to thank Kelly and Tom for that fascinating and really timely discussion and for sharing your expertise today with the foreign press.  This concludes today’s briefing, and good afternoon to everyone.   

MS MCBRIDE:  Thank you.  

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future