Mark Zuckerberg Doesn't Understand Journalism

"Zuckerberg runs a media company that distributes news, but doesn't have a proper newsroom." (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Mark Zuckerberg Doesn't Understand Journalism

Either that, or he doesn’t care.

Mark Zuckerberg wants you to know that he cares, really cares, about journalism.

"I view our responsibility in news as two things," he said in a wide-ranging conversation with a small group of news editors and executives assembled in Palo Alto for a journalism gathering known as Off the Record on Tuesday afternoon. "One is making sure people can get trustworthy news."

The other, he said, "is building common ground in society." It turns out that "common ground" is suddenly Zuckerberg's preferred euphemism. (That, and "community.")

"You're not going to be able to bridge common ground," he said, unless you have a "common set of facts so that you can at least have a coherent debate."

And here's where the contradictions flood in.

Zuckerberg runs a media company that distributes news, but doesn't have a proper newsroom. He runs a media company that has--with Google's help--dominated the vast majority of digital ad dollars and eviscerated the journalism industry's business model, all while preaching about the importance of journalism. He runs a media company that, he says, believes deeply in the need to sustain independent journalism, but won't pay publishers to license journalistic content. And he runs a media company that has decided to show its users less news from professional outlets--it's really not what people want to see, he says--in favor of more individual opinions.

According to Zuckerberg, the way you find common ground--a common set of facts--is not through professional news outlets, but via individuals. And Facebook, with its 2 billion or so users, has plenty of them. But while Zuckerberg said Facebook is now ranking news outlets by trustworthiness--in person, he didn't seem to distinguish among the quality of opinions.

"I do think that in general, within a news organization, there is an opinion," he said. "I do think that a lot of what you all do, is have an opinion and have a view."

And Facebook, he says, simply "has more opinions." Show users more opinions, and you give them more options. "It's not about saying here's one view; here's the other side," Zuckerberg said when I asked him to reconcile the contradiction. "You should decide where you want to be."

Deciding what to believe based on other people's opinions is not only not journalistic, it's arguably hostile to the press as a democratic institution. The truth may be nuanced, but reportable facts are often quite straightforward. As any journalist can tell you, the best answer to the question "what happened?" is not why don't you ask a bunch of your friends what they think, organize their views along a spectrum, and then decide where to plant yourself.

I was, apparently, not the only journalist in the room who took issue with Zuckerberg's reasoning. His view isn't just reductionist but outright Trumpian, argued Joseph Kahn, the managing editor of The New York Times, and particularly harmful to journalistic institutions at a time when the president of the United States has made an argument not unlike Zuckerberg's to attack the free press. "The institutional values of most really good media companies should transcend any individual opinion," Kahn said. And to say that journalism can be categorized the way Zuckerberg suggests is "part and parcel of the polarization of society."

There was a pause.

"I think that's fair," Zuckerberg said. In a newspaper, he continued, publishing opinions in close proximity to the news is "pretty dangerous." Facebook, on the other hand, is surveying readers to determine which professional news organizations are broadly trustworthy.

Facebook wants its users to see less news on its platform these days, and most publishers are feeling the pain. The latest algorithm tweaks were meant to prioritize information posted by users' friends and family--community! common ground!--rather than by professional news outlets. The average decline in Facebook-referred traffic to top publishers in recent months, Zuckerberg said, is something like 20 percent.

At one point, Zuckerberg hinted at the need for government subsidy of American journalism--alluding to the public-television licensing model that supports the BBC. Couldn't Facebook pay publishers directly by licensing their stories or programming? "Yeah," Zuckerberg said, "I'm not sure that makes sense."

"I think news is incredibly important to society and democracy," he added. "It's just that it's a pretty small minority" of what people are reading on Facebook.

And besides, unlike the journalists in the room, he's not worried about the ad-based revenue model falling apart on Facebook. "In our case," he said, very slowly, surely aware of the perspective of the assembled group, "I think it's okay."

Investigative journalism is "sacred," he said. "We have a responsibility to do a lot more," he said. But also: "We don't write the news."

"So Facebook is a media company?" I asked him, as the conversation wound down. He chuckled. "That's a real question," I insisted. He laughed again.

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