Thank you, Kamala Harris

I’m sorely disappointed to lose Kamala Harris from the race.

I am angry at the parade of white men; old, white men; and old, white, male billionaires who came marching into the campaign because they felt they had to mansplain the race; because they apparently believed they had to rescue us from wonderfully diverse, young, and fresh slate of candidates; and because: ego.

I am angry at journalists and pundits — my own field — for their bias in covering candidates of color and women, a bias they will not acknowledge and will not cover, even though it is a huge story in this campaign and the last one. I am angry at them for holding candidates of color and women to different expectations. I am angry at them for learning nothing from their mistakes in covering the 2016 campaign. I am angry at them for still believing it is their job to predict elections — which they do terribly — rather than inform the electorate. I am angry at them for publicizing the opinion polls that preempt democratic conversation.

I am angry at Democrats — my party — for thinking they can mobilize women and people of colors without actually listening to them, without representing them, without paying attention to the issues that matter in their lives.

I am grateful to Kamala Harris for her candidacy, for her stands on the issues, for her intelligence, generosity, representation, determination, inspiration, and prosecutorial zeal — and her humanity.

Harmful speech as the new porn

In 1968, Lyndon Johnson appointed a National Commission on Obscenity and Pornography to investigate the supposed sexual scourge corrupting America’s youth and culture. Two years later — with Richard Nixon now president — the commission delivered its report, finding no proof of pornography’s harm and recommending repeal of laws forbidding its sale to adults, following Denmark’s example. Nixon was apoplectic. He and both parties in the Senate rejected the recommendations. “So long as I am in the White House,” he vowed, “there will be no relaxation of the national effort to control and eliminate smut from our national life.” That didn’t turn out to be terribly long.

A week ago, as part of my research on the Gutenberg age, I made a pilgrimage to Oak Knoll Books in New Castle, a hidden delight that offers thousands of used books on books. On the shelves, I found the 1970 title, Censorship: For and Against, which brought together a dozen critics and lawyers to react to the fuss about the so-called smut commission. I’ve been devouring it.

For the parallels between the fight against harmful and hateful speech online today and the crusade against sexual speech 50 years ago are stunning: the paternalistic belief that the powerless masses (but never the powerful) are vulnerable to corruption and evil with mere exposure to content; the presumption of harm without evidence and data; cries calling for government to stamp out the threat; confusion about the definitions of what’s to be forbidden; arguments about who should be responsible; the belief that by censoring content other worries can also be erased.

Moral panic

One of the essays comes from Charles Keating, Jr., a conservative whom Nixon added to the body after having created a vacancy by dispatching another commissioner to be ambassador to India. Keating was founder of Citizens for Decent Literature and a frequent filer of amicus curiae briefs to the Supreme Court in the Ginzberg, Mishkin, and Fanny Hill obscenity cases. Later, Keating was at the center of the 1989 savings and loan scandal — a foretelling of the 2008 financial crisis — which landed him in prison. Funny how our supposed moral guardians — Nixon or Keating, Pence or Graham — end up disgracing themselves; but I digress.

Keating blames rising venereal disease, illegitimacy, and divorce on “a promiscuous attitude toward sex” fueled by “the deluge of pornography which screams at young people today.” He escalates: “At a time when the spread of pornography has reached epidemic proportions in our country and when the moral fiber of our nation seems to be rapidly unravelling, the desperate need is for enlightened and intelligent control of the poisons which threaten us.” He has found the cause of all our ills: a textbook demonstration of moral panic.

There are clear differences between his crusade and those attacking online behavior today. The boogeyman then was Hollywood but also back-alley pornographers; today, it is big, American tech companies and Russian trolls. The source of corruption then was a limited number of producers; today, it is perceived to be some vast number of anonymous, malign conspirators and commenters online. The fear then was the corruption of the masses; the fear now is microtargeting drilling directly into the heads of a strategic few. The arena then was moral; now it is more political. But there are clear similarities, too: Both are wars over speech.

“Who determines who is to speak and write, since not everyone can speak?” asks former presidential peace candidate Gene McCarthy in his chapter of the book. But now, everyone can speak.

McCarthy next asks: “Who selects what is to be recorded or transmitted to others, since not everything can be recorded?” But now, everything can be recorded and transmitted. That is the new fear: too much speech.

A defense of speech

Many of the book’s essayists defend freedom of expression over freedom from obscenity. Says Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld (father of Joseph, who would become executive editor of The New York Times): “Freedom of expression, if it is to be meaningful at all, must include freedom for ‘that which we loathe,’ for it is obvious that it is no great virtue and presents no great difficulty for one to accord freedom to what we approve or to that to which we are indifferent.” I hear too few voices today defending speech of which they disapprove.

Lelyveld then addresses directly the great bone of contention of today: truth. “That which I hold to be true has no protection if I permit that which I hold to be false to be suppressed — for you may with equal logic turn about tomorrow and label my truth as falsehood. The same test applies to what I consider lovely or unlovely, moral or immoral, edifying or unedifying.” I am stupefied at the number of smart people I know who contend that truth should be the standard to which social-media platforms are held. Truths exist in their contexts, not relative but neither simple nor absolute. Truth is hard.

“We often hear freedom recommended on the theory that if all expression is permitted, the truth is bound to win. I disagree,” writes another contributor, Charles Rembar, an attorney who championed the cases of Lady Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill. “In the short term, falsehood seems to do about as well. Even for longer periods, there can be no assurance of truth’s victory; but over the long term, the likelihood is high. And certainly truth’s chances are better with freedom than with repression.”

A problem of definition

So what is to be banned? That is a core problem today. The UK’s — in my view, potentially harmful — Online Harms White Paper cops out from defining what is harmful but still proposes holding online companies liable for harm. Worse, its plan is to order companies to take down legal but harmful content — which, of course, makes that content de facto illegal. Similarly, Germany’s NetzDG hate speech law tells the platforms they must take down anything that is “manifestly unlawful” within 24 hours, meaning a company — not a court — is required to decide what is unlawful and whether it’s manifestly so. It’s bad law that is being copied so far by 13 countries, including by authoritarian regimes.

As an American and a staunch defender of the First Amendment, I’m allergic to the notion of forbidden speech. But if government is going to forbid it, it damned well better clearly define what is forbidden or else the penumbra of prohibition will cast a shadow and chill on much more speech.

In the porn battle, there was similar and endless debate about the fuzzy definitions of obscenity. Author Max Lerner writes of the courts: “The lines they draw and the tests they use keep shifting, as indeed they must: What is ‘prurient’ or ‘patently offensive’ enough to offend the ‘ordinary reader’ and the going moral code? What will hurt or not hurt children and innocents? What is the offending passage like in its context…?” Even Keating questions the standard that emerged from Fanny Hill: to be censored, content must be utterly without redeeming social importance. “There are those who will say that if you can burn a book and warm your hands from the fire,” Keating says, “the book as some redeeming social value.” Keating also argues that pornography “is actually a form of prostitution because it advertises ‘sex for sale,’ offers pleasure for a price” — and since prostitution is illegal, so must pornography be. Justice Potter Stewart’s famed standard for obscenity— “I’ll know it when I see it” — is the worst standard of all, for just like the Harms White Paper and NetzDG it requires distributors and citizens to guess. It is chilling.

Who is being protected?

“Literary censorship is an elitist notion: obscenity is something from which the masses should be shielded. We never hear a prosecutor, or a condemning judge (and rarely a commentator) declare his moral fiber has been injured by the book in question. It is always someone else’s moral fiber for which anxiety is felt. It is ‘they’ who will be damaged. In the seventeenth century, ‘they’ began to read; literacy was no longer confined to the clergy and the upper classes. And it is in the seventeenth century when we first begin to hear about censorship for obscenity.” So writes Rembar.

In the twentieth century ‘they’ began to write and communicate as never before in history — nearly all of ‘them.’ That has frightened those who had held the power to speak and broadcast. Underrepresented voices are now represented and the powerful want to silence them to protect their power. It is in the twenty-first century that we hear about control of harmful speech and hate.

“I am opposed to censorship in all forms, without any exception,” writes Carey McWilliams, who was then editor of The Nation, arguing that censorship is a form of social control. “I do not like the idea of some people trying to protect the minds and morals of other people. In practice, this means that a majority seeks to impose its standards on a minority; hence, an element of coercion is inherent in the idea of censorship.” It is also inherent in the idea of civility, an imposition of standards, expectations, and behavior from top down.

McWilliams then quotes Donald Thompson on literary censorship in England: “Political censorship is necessarily based on fear of what will happen if those whose work is censored get their way…. The nature of political censorship at any given time depends on the censor’s answer to the simple question, ‘What are you afraid of?’” Or whom are you afraid of? Rembar’s “they”? McWilliams concludes:

But in a time of turmoil and rapid social change, fears of this sort can become fused with other kinds of fears; and their censorship becomes merely one aspect of a general repression. The extent of the demands for censorship may be taken, therefore, as an indicator of the social health of a society. It is not the presence — nor the prevalence — of obscene materials that needs to be feared so much as it is the growing demand for censorship or repression. Censorship — not obscenity nor pornography — is the real problem.

Lerner puts this another way, examining a shift in the “norm-setting classes” over time. In the past, the aristocracy set norms for dress, taste, and morals. Then the middle classes did. Now, I will argue, the internet blows that apart as many communities are in a position to compete to set or protect norms.

Freedom from

Rembar notes that “reading a book is a private affair” (as it has been since silent reading replaced reading aloud starting in about the seventh century A.D.). He addresses the Constitution’s implicit — not explicit — right to be let alone, the basis of much precedent in privacy. “Privacy in law means various things,” he writes; “and one of the things it means is protection from intrusion.” He argues that in advertising, open performance, and public-address systems, “these may validly be regulated” to prevent porn from being thrust upon the unsuspecting and unwilling. It is an extension of broadcast regulation.

And that is something we grapple with still: What is shown to us, whether we want it shown to us, and how it gets there: by way of algorithm or editor or bot. What is our right not to see?

Who decides?

Max Lerner is sympathetic with courts having to judge obscenity. “I view the Court’s efforts not so much with approval or disapproval as with compassion. Its effort is herculean and almost hopeless, for given the revolution of erotic freedom, it is like trying to push back the onrushing flood.” The courts took on the task of defining obscenity though, as Lerner points out above, they never really did draw a clear line.

The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet is Jeff Kosseff’s definitive history and analysis of the current fight over Section 230, the fight over who will be held responsible to forbid speech. In it, Kosseff explains how debate over intermediary liability, as this issue is called, stretches back to a 1950s court fight, Smith v. California, about whether an L.A. bookseller should have been responsible for knowing the content of every volume on his shelves.

Today politicians are shying away from deciding what is hateful and harmful, and these questions aren’t even getting to the courts because the responsibility for deciding what to ban is being put squarely on the technology platforms. Because: scale. Also because: tech companies are being portrayed as the boogeymen — indeed, the pornographers — of the age; they’re being blamed for what people do on their platforms and they’re expected to just fix it, damnit. Of course, it’s even more absurd to expect Facebook or Twitter or Youtube to know and act on every word or image on their services than it was to expect bookseller Eleazer Smith to know the naughty bits in every book on his shelves. Nonetheless, the platforms are being blamed for what users do on those platforms. Section 230 was designed to address that by shielding companies — including, by the way, news publishers — from liability for what others do in their space while also giving them the freedom (but not the requirement) to police what people put there. The idea was to encourage the convening of productive conversation for the good of democracy. But now the right and the left are both attacking 230 and with it the internet and with that freedom of expression. One bite has been taken out of 230 thanks to — what else? — sex, and many are trying to dilute it further or just kill it.

Today, the courts are being deprived of the opportunity to decide cases about hateful and harmful speech because platforms are making decisions about content takedowns first under their community standards and only rarely over matters of legality. This is one reason why a member of the Transatlantic High-Level Working Group on Content Moderation and Freedom of Expression — of which I am also a member — proposes the creation of national internet courts, so that these matters can be adjudicated in public, with due process. In matters of obscenity, our legal norms were negotiated in the courts; matters of hateful and harmful speech are by and large bypassing the courts and thus the public loses an opportunity to negotiate them.

What harm, exactly?

The presidential commission looked at extensive research and found little evidence of harm:

Extensive empirical investigation, both by the Commission and by others, provides no evidence that exposure to or use of explicit sexual materials plays a significant role in the causation of social or individual harms such as crime, delinquency, sexual or nonsexual deviancy or severe emotional disturbances…. Studies show that a number of factors, such as disorganized family relationships and unfavorable peer influences, are intimately related to harmful sexual behavior or adverse character development. Exposure to sexually explicit materials, however, cannot be counted as among those determinative factors. Despite the existence of widespread legal prohibitions upon the dissemination of such materials, exposure to them appears to be a usual and harmless part of the process of growing up in our society and a frequent and nondamaging occurrence among adults.

Over this, Keating and Nixon went ballistic. Said Nixon: “The commission contends that the proliferation of filthy books and plays has no lasting harmful effect on a man’s character. If that were true, it must also he true that great books, great paintings and great plays have no ennobling effect on a man’s conduct. Centuries of civilization and 10 minutes of common sense tell us otherwise.” To hell with evidence, says Nixon; I know better.

Keating, likewise, trusts his gut: “That obscenity corrupts lies within the common sense, the reason, and the logic of every man. If man is affected by his environment, by circumstances of his life, by reading, by instruction, by anything, he is certainly affected by pornography.” In the book, Keating ally Joseph Howard, a priest and a leader of the National Office of Decent Literature, doesn’t need facts when he has J. Edgar Hoover to quote: “Police officials,” said the FBI director, “unequivocally state that lewd and obscene material plays a motivating role in sexual violence…. Such filth in the hands of young people and curious adolescents does untold damage and leads to disastrous consequences.” Damn the data; full speed ahead.

Today, we see a similar habit of skipping over research, data, and evidence to get right to condemnation. We do not actually know the full impact of Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Twitter, and social media on the election. As the commission says of the causes of deviancy, there must be other factors that got us Trump. Legislation and regulation are being proposed based on a candy bowl of tropes — the filter bubble, the echo chamber, hate speech, digital harms — without sufficient research to back up the claims. Thank goodness we are starting to see research into these questions; see, for example, Axel Bruns’ dismantling of the filter bubble.

Here I will lay some blame at the feet of the platforms, for we cannot have adequate research to test these questions until we have data from the platforms that answer questions about what people see and how they behave.

How bad is the bad of the internet? That depends on evidence of impact. It also depends on relative judgment. Rembar’s view of what he calls the “seductio ad absurdum” of sex and titillation in media: “There is an acne on our culture.” It is “an unattractive aspect of our cultural adolescence.” And: “acne is hardly fatal.”

Is today’s online yelling and shouting, insulting and lying by some people— just some, remember — an “all-pervasive poison” that imperils the nation, as Keating viewed porn? Or is it an unsightly blemish we’ll likely grow out of, as Rembar might advise?

I am not saying we leave the zits alone. I have argued again and again that Facebook and Twitter should set their own north stars and collaborate with users, the public, and government on covenants they offer to which they will be held accountable. I think standards of behavior should apply to any user, including politicians and presidents and advertisers. I strongly argue that platforms should take down threatening and harassing behavior against their users. I embrace Section 230 precisely because it gives the platforms as well as publishers the freedom to decide and enforce their own limits. But I also believe that we must respect the public and not patronize and infantilize them by believing we should protect them from themselves, saving their souls.

Permission is not endorsement

To be clear, the anti-censorship authors in the book and other allies of the commission (including The New York Times editorial page) are not defending pornography. “To affirm freedom is not to applaud that which is done under its sign,” Lelyveld writes. van den Haag, the psychoanalyst, abstracts pornography to a disturbing end: “Pornography reduces the world to orifices and organs, human action to their combinations. Sex rages in an empty world; people use each other as its anonymous bearers and vessels, bereaved of individual love and hate, thought and feeling reduced to bare sensations of pain and pleasure existing only in and for incessant copulations, without apprehension, conflict, or relationship — without human bonds.”

Likewise, by opposing censorship conducted or imposed by government, I am not defending hateful or noxious speech. When I oppose reflexive regulation, I am not defending its apparent objects — the tech companies — but instead I defend the internet and with it the free expression it enables. The question is not whether I like the vile, lying, bigoted rantings of the likes of a Donald Trump or Donald Trump Jr. or a video faked to make Nancy Pelosi look drunk — of course, I do not — but whether by banning them a precedent is set that next will affect your or me.

Hollis Alpert, film critic then for Saturday Review, warns in his essay: “The unscrupulous politician can take advantage of the emotional, hysterical, and neurotic attitudes toward pornography to incite the multitude towards approval of repressive measures that go far beyond the control of the printed word and the photographed image.”

Of freedom of expression

Richard Nixon was quite willing to sacrifice freedom of expression to obliterate smut: “Pornography can corrupt a society and a civilization,” he wrote in his response to the commission. “The pollution of our culture, the pollution of our civilization with smut and filth is as serious a situation for the American people as the pollution of our once pure air and water…. I am well aware of the importance of protecting freedom of expression. But pornography is to freedom of expression what anarchy is to liberty; as free men willingly restrain a measure of their freedom to prevent anarchy, so must we draw the line against pornography to protect freedom of expression.”

Where will lines be drawn on online speech? Against what? For what reasons? Out of what evidence? At what cost? These questions are too rarely being asked, yet answers are being offering in legislation that is having a deleterious effect on freedom of expression.

Society survived and figured out how to grapple with porn, all in all, just as it survived and figured out how to adapt to printing, the telegraph, the dime novel, the comic book, and other supposed scourges on public morality — once society learned each time to trust itself. Censorship inevitably springs from a lack of trust in our fellow citizens.

Gene McCarthy writes:

There is nothing in the historical record to show that censorship of religious or political ideas has had any lasting effect. Christianity flourished despite the efforts of the Roman Emperors to suppress it. Heresies and new religions developed and flourished in the Christian era at the height of religious suppression. The theories of democracy did not die out even though kings opposed them. And the efforts in recent times to suppress the Communist ideology and to keep it from people has not had a measurable or determinable success. Insofar as the record goes, the indications are that heresy and political ideas either flourished or died because of their own strength or weakness even though books were suppressed or burned and authors imprisoned, exiled, or executed.

And he concludes: “The real basis of freedom of speech and of expression is not, however, the right of a person to say what he thinks or what he wishes to say but the right and need of all persons to learn the truth. The only practical approach to this end is freedom of expression.”

Epilogue

An amusing sidebar to this tale: When the commission released its report, an enterprising publisher printed and sold an illustrated version of it, adding examples of what was being debated therein: that is, 546 dirty pictures. William Hamling, the publisher, and Earl Kemp, the editor, were arrested on charges of pandering to prurient interests for mailing ads for the illustrated report, and sentenced to four and three years in prison, respectively. According to Robert Brenner’s Huffpost account, someone received the mailing, took it to Keating, who took it to Nixon, who told Attorney General John Mitchell to nab them. (And some wonder why we worry about Trump attacking the press as the enemy of the people and having a willing handmaid in William Barr, who will do his any bidding!) The Supreme Court upheld their convictions but the men served only 90 days, though the owner was forced to sell his publishing house and was not permitted to write about the case: censorship upon censorship.

Two months later, Richard Nixon left office.

Polls subvert democracy: Media’s willful erasure of Kamala Harris’ campaign

It is journalistic heresy that I abandon the myth of objectivity and publicly support candidates. But the advantage of heresies is that they open one up to new perspectives. By seeing my profession and industry from the viewpoint of an interested voter, I get a new window on the failures of news media.

People know that I support Kamala Harris for president and so these days they’re asking me whether I’m still for her because, you know, the polls. Inside, I scream and deliver a searing lecture on the tyranny of the public-opinion industry, on the true heresy of journalistic prognostication, on the death of the mass, on the devaluing of the franchise of so many unheard voices in America. Outside, I just smile and say “you’re damned right, I do,” and wait to get to my desk pour out that screed here.

The coverage of Kamala Harris’ campaign is a classic case of media’s self-fulfilling prognostication. Step-by-step:

  1. Harris’ campaign opens with a big rally and reporters say she could be bigger than Obama! Thus media set expectations the candidate did not set.
  2. A parade of white men with established recognition (read: power) enter what had been a wonderfully diverse field, splintering the vote.
  3. Harris’ poll numbers decline. Media declare disappointment against media’s overblown expectations.
  4. Media give less attention to Harris’ campaign because, you know, the poll numbers.
  5. Harris’ poll numbers fall more because media give her less attention and voters hear less of her, less from her.
  6. The candidate finds it harder to raise money to buy the attention media isn’t giving her so the polls decline and media give her less attention. Candidates with more money get more attention. Pundits even use money as a metric for democracy. (And meanwhile, candidates can’t use the the inexpensive and efficient mechanism of Twitter advertising because media cowed the company into closing that door.) Harris closes New Hampshire offices. Pundits say they predicted this, taking no responsibility for perhaps causing it.
  7. Return to 4. Loop.
  8. Pundits mainsplain what went wrong with her campaign.

Not a single citizen has voted yet. Yes, campaigns come and go. That’s politics. But here I see this cycle affect the campaign of an African-American, a woman, a child of immigrants, someone 15–23 years younger than the three best-known leaders in the field, and someone who can take on our criminal president and his criminal henchmen. We need her perspective in this race and her intelligence in office. I want my chance to vote for her. But media gradually ignore her, erase her.

And then Harris delivers a speech like this one, last week in Iowa. If you want to know why I support her, all you have to do is watch it.

Afterwards, people notice. Some take to Twitter to suggest she should not be counted out. Some of them are African-American commentators who are also saying we should not count them out.

And now the Guardian says she could salvage her campaign. It’s not in the trash, people. It’s still happening.

At the root of this process of disenfranchisement is, paradoxically, the poll. Theoretically, the opinion poll was intended to capture public opinion but in fact does the opposite: cut it off. I often quote snippets of this paragraph from the late Columbia professor James Carey. Here it is in full, my emphases added:

“This notion of a public, a conversational public, has been pretty much evacuated in our time. Public life started to evaporate with the emergence of the public opinion industry and the apparatus of polling. Polling (the word, interestingly enough, derived from the old synonym for voting) was an attempt to simulate public opinion in order to prevent an authentic public opinion from forming. With the rise of the polling industry, intellectual work on the public went into eclipse. In political theory, the public was replaced by the interest group as the key political actor. But interest groups, by definition, operate in the private sector, behind the scenes, and their relationship to public life is essentially propagandistic and manipulative. In interest-group theory the public ceases to have a real existence. It fades into a statistical abstract: an audience whose opinions count only insofar as individuals refract the pressure of mass publicity. In short, while the word public continues in our language as an ancient memory and a pious hope, the public as a feature and factor of real politics disappears.”

There is not one public; that is the myth of the mass, propagated by mass media. There are many publics — many communities — that together negotiate a definition of a society. That is what elections — not polls — are intended to enable. That is what a representative democracy is meant to implement. That is what journalism should support.

Polls are the news industry’s tool to dump us all into binary buckets: red or blue; black or white; 99% or 1%; urban or rural; pro or anti this or that; religious (read: evangelical extremist) or not; Trumpist or not; for or against impeachment. Polls erase nuance. They take away choices from voters before they get to the real polls, the voting booth. They silence voices.

That is precisely the opposite of what journalism should be doing. Journalism should be listening to voices not heard, not as gatekeeper but as a curator of the public conversation. Facebook and Twitter enable voices ignored by mass media to be heard at last and that is one reason (the other is money) why media so hate these companies.

A little over three years ago, in the midst of the general election, I wrote a similar screed about the coverage of Hillary Clinton. The sins were slightly different — but her email, false balance, the aspiration to be savvy — but my opportunity was the same: to see journalism’s faults from the perspective of the voter, not the editor. My complaints there all stand. We haven’t learned a thing.

And I’m not even addressing the myriad faults in coverage of Donald Trump: letting him set the agenda (no, the big story is not quid pro quo, it is his malfeasance in office); playing stenographer to his tweets; refusing to call a lie a lie; refusing to call racism racism; being distracted by his squirrels. That will all come back to haunt us in the general election. How the nation fares in that election depends greatly on how we are allowed by media to negotiate the primaries.

Return to 2. Loop.

Unpopular decisions

I will please no one with this post about Facebook’s and Twitter’s decisions regarding political advertising and news.

The popular opinion would be to praise Twitter for banning political and issue ads and condemn Facebook for not fact-checking political ads. I’ll do neither. I disagree with both companies, for I think they each found diametrically opposed ways to take too little responsibility for what occurs on their platforms.

First Twitter. A week ago, I disagreed on Twitter with someone who said Facebook should ban political ads. Then a few Twitter folks asked me — on Twitter, of course — why I said that. I explained my perspective, but clearly was not persuasive.

My view: if we cut off inexpensive and efficiently targeted political — and, as it turns out, issue — advertising, then we likely will be left with big-money campaigns still using mass media (that is, TV) just as we had hoped to leave that corrupt era behind. I fear that such a move will benefit incumbents — who have money, recognition, and power — at the cost of insurgents. Without advertising on social media would we have the next @AOC? Yes, I know that Ocasio-Cortez herself is endorsing Twitter’s decision but as The Intercept’s Ryan Grim points out in a thoughtful thread, even she spends money on social-media advertising. If new movements are cut off from using social advertising, Grim argues, it could be “a huge blow to progressives, and a boon to big-money candidates.”

I also argue that at some point, we must trust the public, the electorate, ourselves. If we cannot, then we are surrendering democracy. We must put our faith in the public conversation. If you want to improve it, wonderful: Promote reliable, quality news (as Facebook is doing with its news tab — more on that below); support education by new means; donate questionably gotten gains from political advertising to campaigns to fight voter suppression; support (as Twitter hopes to do) expertise over mere blather. Will we ever, as my German friends on Twitter recommend, ban political advertising in the U.S.? NFW. Because First Amendment.

Now, Facebook. [Disclosure: Facebook has funded projects at my school. I receive no compensation from any platform.] Mark Zuckerberg has said definitively that Facebook will not fact-check political ads. That, I agree with, but not for the reason you might assume. Truth is the wrong standard. If truth were so easy then we wouldn’t need countless journalists to find it. No one will trust Facebook to decide truth. But I do think that Facebook should set and uphold standards of dignity, decency, and responsibility in the public conversation and hold everyone — politicians and citizens, users and advertisers — accountable. If Facebook wants to leave up noxious speech by pols so we can see and judge it, OK, but it should add a disclaimer disapproving of the behavior. (Twitter has said that will be its policy, but I’ve yet to see it in action.) If a politician uses a racial slur in political ad — say, calling Mexicans rapists and murderers — Facebook must condemn that behavior, or its Oversight Board likely will. If Facebook accepts such words without comment or caveat, then it must be presumed to condone them. I’d find that unacceptable.

In the end, both Facebook and Twitter — and let’s throw Google and all the other platforms in now — refuse to make judgments. They cannot get away with that anymore. They are hosts to conversation and communities. They have an impact on that conversation and thus on democracies and nations. They are private companies. They are going to have to make judgments according to public principles, no matter how allergic they are to that idea.

Now to Facebook and its news judgments. Last week, the company announced details of its new news tab, Zuckerberg joining with Murdoch lieutenant and News Corp. chief executive Robert Thomson, a caustic critic of Facebook, Google, and ultimately the internet. I have worried about the precedent of a platform paying for content, which is one reason why I have supported Google’s decision not to pay European publishers’ extortion under the EU’s new Copyright Directive. But I am also happy to see a technology company stepping up to support quality news and so I’m loathe to look the gift horse in the mouth. In the end, I’m glad Facebook is making its news tab and, even if with its checkbook, making peace with publishers.

But then Facebook decided to include Breitbart in its corral of trusted, quality publishers in the new news tab. Now I’m having an allergic reaction. The project Facebook supported at my school aggregates signals of quality in news. By my standards, Breitbart is far from quality. (This is outdated — from Steve Bannon’s time there — but here’s a good roundup from Rolling Stone of awful things Breitbart has published. I’d say 10 strikes and you’re out.) I understand Facebook’s desire — expressed by Zuckerberg in the company’s news tab announcement and again by news VP Campbell Brown here — to include a range of perspectives. The real problem is that we — we in media, in journalism, in Silicon Valley — have not grappled with the political asymmetry in both news media and disinformation. The real solution, I have argued, lies in investing more in responsible, credible, fact-based, journalistic conservative media to compete with the likes of Fox News — and Breitbart. Now, if you want to present some number of conservative sources, it doesn’t take long before you find yourself staring at Breitbart and worse.

Paradoxically, in their effort to find the mythic middle, the platforms are falling into the journalistic trap of objectivity — or as the right puts it these days, neutrality. That sounds like safe space, neither this nor that. But as Jay Rosen has lectured journalists for the better part of a decade, the view from nowhere is a myth — in my words, false comfort and a lie. It doesn’t exist. There is no safe escape from these hard problems. There are no popular decisions.

The platforms — all of them, whether they want to be lumped together or not — are facing tremendous political pressure as the right and left are forming a pincer movement exploiting moral panic to go after them as a class, jeopardizing freedom of expression on the internet for all of us. That is why I defend the platforms, to defend the internet; and why I also push them to do better, to improve the internet. I understand their panic in response. But hiding from judgment is not the answer. To the contrary, every technology company must make a bold and brave decision about where it stands, about the covenant it is offering the public, about the principles of dignity and decency it will defend.

Killing political and issue advertising is no solution. Refusing to hold political and issue advertising to account is no solution. Refusing to judge journalism is no solution. Politicians — and especially media — forcing technology companies into these corners is a problem.

What I fear most is the unintended consequences of these too-easy answers. I’ll end by recommending a just-released paper from economists warning about the cost of the precautionary principle: that when out of precaution we forbid something (whether political advertising or, in the case of this paper, nuclear power) we risk a consequence that could be worse. It sounds so satisfying to tell technology companies they should butt out of politics, but then we take the tools they provide away from the very people who have not been heard by mainstream media and who are finally empowered by the net, and we leave that power in the hands of the legacy regimes that have so screwed up the world. Be careful what you wish for and retweet and like.

For a National Journalism Jury

For the last year, I’ve been engaged in a project to aggregate signals of quality in news so platforms and advertisers can recognize and give greater promotion and support to good journalism over crap.

I’ve seen that we’re missing a key — the key — signal of quality in journalism. We don’t judge journalism ourselves.

Oh, we give each other lots and lots of awards. But we have no systematized way for the public we serve to question or complain about our work and no way to judge journalistic failure while providing guidance in matters of journalistic quality and ethics.

Facebook is establishing an Oversight Board. Shouldn’t journalism have something similar? Shouldn’t we have a national ombuds organization, especially at a time when the newsroom ombudsperson is all but extinct? The Association of News Ombudsmen lists four — four! — members from consumer news organizations in the U.S. I’m delighted that CJR doubled that number, hiring four independent public editors, but they cover only as many news organizations — The Times, The Post, CNN, and MSNBC; what of the rest?

I would like to see a structure that would enable anyone — citizen, journalist, subject — to file a question or complaint to this organization — call it a board, a jury, a court, a council, a something — that would select cases to consider.

Who would be on that board? I doubt that working journalists would be willing to judge colleagues and competitors, lest they be judged. So I’d start with journalism professors — fully aware that’s a self-serving suggestion (I would not serve, as I’d be a runaway juror) and that we the ivy-covered can be accused of being either revolutionaries or sticks-in-the-mud; it’s a place to start. I would include journalism grandees who’ve retired or branched out to other callings but bring experience, authority, and credibility with journalists. I would add representatives of civil society, assuring diversity of community, background, and perspective. Will these people have biases? Of course, they will; judge their judgment accordingly.

How would cases be taken up? Anyone could file a case. Yes, some will try to game the system: ten thousand complaints against a given outlet; volume is meaningless. The jury must have full freedom and authority to grant certiorari to specific cases. Time would be limited, so they would pick cases based on whether they are particularly important, representative, instructive, or new.

What would jurors produce? I would want to see thoughtful debate and consideration of difficult questions about journalistic quality yielding constructive and useful criticism of present practice. There is no better model than Margaret Sullivan’s tenure as public editor of The New York Times.

Isn’t this the wrong time to do this, just as the president is attacking the press as the enemy of the people? It’s precisely the right time to do this, to show how we uphold standards, are not afraid of legitimate criticism, and learn from our mistakes. There is no better way to begin to build trust than to address our own faults with honesty and openness.

How would this be supported? Such an effort cannot be ad hoc and volunteer. Jurors’ time needs to be respected and compensated. There would need to be at least one administrative person to handle incoming cases and output of judgments. Calling all philanthropists.

Do journalists need to pay attention to the judgments? No. This is not a press council like the ones the UK keeps trying — and failing — to establish. It brings no obligation to news organizations. It is an independent organization itself with a responsibility to debate key issues in our rapidly changing field.

Would it enforce a given set of standards? I don’t think it should. There are as many journalistic codes of conduct and ethics as there are journalists and I think the jurors should feel free to call on any of them — or tread new territory, as demanded by the cases. I’m not sure that legacy standards will always be relevant as new circumstances evolve. It is also important to judge publications in their own context, against their own promises and standards. I have argued that news organizations (and internet platforms) should offer covenants to their users and the public; judge them against that.

Whom does it serve, journalists or the public? I think it must serve the interests of the public journalism serves. But I recognize that very few members of the public would read or necessarily give a damn about its opinions. The audience for the jury’s work would be primarily journalists as well as journalism students and teachers.

Will it convince our haters to love us? Of course not.

Isn’t Twitter the new ombudsperson? When The New York Times eliminated its public editor position, it said that social media would pick up the slack. “But today,” wrote then-publisher Arthur Sulzberger, “our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be.” That should be the case. But in reality, when The Times is criticized, reporters there tend to unleash a barrage of defensiveness rather than dialog.

Now I don’t want to pick on The Times. I subscribe to and honor it as a critical institution; I disagree with those who react to Times’ missteps with public vows to cancel subscriptions. Indeed, I hope that this jury can act as a pressure-relief valve that leads to dialog over defensiveness and debate instead of our reflexive cancel culture.

Having said that, unfortunately The Times does give us a wealth of recent examples of the kinds of questions this jury could take up and debate. The latest is the paper’s decision to reveal details about the Trump-Ukraine whistleblower, potentially endangering the person, and the justification by editor Dean Baquet. I want to see a debate about the ethics and implications of such a decision and I believe we need a forum where that can happen. That case is why I decided to post this idea now.

This is not easy. It’s not simple. It’s not small. It might be a terrible idea. So make your suggestions, please. In the end, I believe we need to address trust in news not with media literacy that tries to teach the public how to use and trust what they don’t use and trust now; not with the codification of our processes and procedures; not with closing in around the few who love and pay for admission behind our walls; not by hectoring our legitimate critics with defensive whining; not with false balance in an asymmetrical media ecosystem; not with blaming others for our faults. No, I believe we need a means to listen to warranted criticism and gain value from it by grappling with our shortcoming so we can learn and improve. We don’t have that now. How could we build it?


Disclosure: NewsQA, the aggregator of news quality signals I helped start, has been funded in its first phase by Facebook. It is independent and will provide its data for free to all major platforms, ad networks, ad agencies, and advertisers as well as researchers.