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So why this?
As the folks who’ve been doing this with me the past 40 years or so know, the business of media is about aggregating an audience. In the advertiser supported businesses selling an opportunity to advertisers to engage with that audience provides revenue; the bigger the audience the more you can charge. In the subscription based businesses the more audience that signs up and pays for your service, well then, you can figure out the rest. Content provides the means to those ends. So if you’re a provider of content, and people want to consume it you do well as do the media platform and the marketers, provided they all did their jobs as well as you did yours. I’ve played a role in each of those three areas of the business and what I’m seeing now scares and angers me more than a little, and it’s why you’re reading this here and not on Facebook. I’ll explain.
Back in the days of the dinosaur, when I started, there were 3.5 TV Networks and only 3 of them provided Network news programs. They all owned & operated TV stations of their own and made a lot of money using airwaves that belonged to the public that they got to use under license from the Government. They were licensed “to serve in the public interest”. Broadcasting was a big business and when you were doing well, a virtual license to print money. As part of the bargain, the function of the news department was to provide a public service to inform and educate viewers and while every network kept score about who had the bigger audience, Network news was not looked upon as a profit center. In the 80’s that as well as a lot of other aspects of the relationship of media and the government changed.
One of those changes was the elimination of “the fairness doctrine”. Introduced in 1949, it required the holders of broadcast licenses to both present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was—in the FCC's view—honest, equitable, and balanced. As a condition of retaining a license, controversial subjects both needed to be presented and with opposing viewpoints to provide balance. On August 22, 1987 the FCC voted to remove the rule along with more than 80 other rules and regulations, from the Federal Register following an executive order by President Reagan to eliminate unnecessary regulations. That wave of deregulation, coupled with a more economic challenging business environment, changed everything about television and especially television News. In essence, without the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, outlets like Fox News could not exist in the form that they do today.
Despite the very real economic pressures that face news divisions at the Networks that I worked at, and in one way or another I worked for all of the original 3, my experience was that competition was rooted in becoming a trusted source of information that offered context to the 24 hour news cycle. There were charges of bias and I’m sure that it times there was justification because, human beings are imperfect but in my experience, in the main, they were and remain trustworthy. I was in a position at various times in my life to be a subject of news coverage given my profession, and my experience with news gatherers in both electronic and print media has been constructive and respectful. The only exception came with News Corp. A reporter who had covered our very successful prime time presentation was ordered to re-write the story with a negative spin…the reason was to create a negative perception in the ad community where we were both competing for more dollars. As bad as that was, in comparison what is going on today, it was child’s play.
Facebook and the other social media platforms have lobbied for and received protection from liability for publishing false and dangerous information that no broadcaster or publisher could. With that protection they have amassed a greater concentration of media power than has even been assembled especially given their access to the data of their users. Using that data and technology to micro-target content to an all too willing audience helps them to make more money and to create the poisonous echo chamber where hate festers and grows. The content from wild conspiracy theories to outright lies, has no challenge to its truthfulness and is there to fuel anger and outrage to get users to consume and share more of it.
By reinforcing prejudices and fanning the flames of conflict it all too many times inspires hateful actions. Like or hate him, we have a President, a content provider to hundreds of millions, who by last count has disseminated over 20,000 lies and misstatements along with a host of incendiary comments; information that any other platform user would be barred from posting, all to be taken at face value. Where our discourse has by and large respected the maxim that “you can have your opinion, but not your own facts” it is now redefined by the use of “alternative facts” carrying the weight of the highest office in our Land.
Though an imperfect step, Twitter’s decision to tag falsehoods and offer information alongside to users that is verifiably truthful is a positive step that echoes the Fairness Doctrine and to my view hardly reeks censorship since the original statement remains on the platform. Facebook, on the other hand, steadfastly refuses to do anything, including allowing the President’s most recent suggestions of violent actions directed at US citizens to stand unquestioned & unchallenged: This despite the fact that they are well aware of how their platform was misused in the 2016 election as well as the ongoing efforts to do more of the same. I take Zuckerberg at this word that they will continue to hold fast and for that reason I will not contribute my data or my content.
Disconnecting from Facebook is hard and in truth not very impactful as the act of just one person means next to nothing. In a very real sense, connections to friends and family which were so easily facilitated by the platform are now held hostage: you feel like you’ve disinvited yourself to a party that some asshole is throwing but that all your friends are still at having a good time. I truly love my FB community but just can’t continue to support what is a nakedly selfish business decision that already has created so much damage to all of us. So that’s that…in a time where we’re all challenged to do something to effect positive change this is my attempt at “something” and I promise I won’t belabor it further. Tomorrow more about the goings on here in Madrid which are much more upbeat.
Stay safe and strong.