The new referees in American politics are Facebook, Google and Twitter, and they would be wise to pay attention to lessons the old media tried to learn.
One of the oddest moments during last month's tech hearings on Capitol Hill came when a Florida congressman darkly hinted that Google was making it difficult for him to find a website he was looking for, The Gateway Pundit.
Sundar Pichai, Google's chief executive, wearing a dark suit and the forced solemnity of an undertaker, promised the congressman he would look into the issue.
Pichai could have said something else: that Google does not showcase links to Gateway Pundit because the site is notorious for regularly crossing the line from wild hyperpartisan spin into outright falsehoods, from a phony sexual assault allegation against Robert Mueller to a recent report amplifying false claims that Anthony Fauci is "due to make millions" on a coronavirus vaccine. Pichai could have said that he wouldn't let nitwits lobby him to pollute Google with lies.
But while it was a quintessentially 2020 exchange, the gripe voiced by Rep. Greg Steube was also a classic example of a politician "working the refs" — that is, complaining vocally about a referee's decision in the hopes of getting a better call next time. It's a tactic the Trump movement has revived and deftly employed against the powerful, befuddled new referees of public debate, Google, Facebook and Twitter.
I've been thinking about conservatives' long and persistent campaign to influence the referees since historian Rick Perlstein emailed me recently to offer me a scoop, if a somewhat dusty one.
In combing the archives of The New York Times at the New York Public Library for his new book Reaganland, he'd come across correspondence from the 1970s and 1980s between The Times' publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, known as Punch, and Reed Irvine, founder of Accuracy in Media and the prototype of the professional partisan media critic. Irvine had the ingenious idea of buying Times stock and then showing up at shareholders' meetings to vocally accuse the paper of being soft on communism. Sulzberger, in an effort to mollify him, offered him instead private meetings every year in the publisher's office. A warm, first-name basis correspondence ensued.
In one 1980 "Dear Punch" letter, Irvine thanked the publisher for the time and the "bull session" in a recent meeting and then expressed concern about a "Soviet disinformation and propaganda operation" making its way into The Times — a reason, Irvine wrote, that "we lost in Vietnam." He then pushed Sulzberger to cover a minor story of a French journalist exposed as a Russian spy.
Sulzberger quickly assigned his top deputy to push the Paris bureau to look into the issue, prompting a furious typewritten memo from his editorial page editor, Max Frankel.
"It is wrong for The Times to submit in gentlemanly fashion to their inquiry in our offices. And it is certainly destructive of morale — starting with mine — to know that such people are cordially received upstairs," Frankel wrote. "I would be ashamed if we ever did pass muster with such nitwits."
Sulzberger, delighted to be rid of Irvine's disruptions at shareholder meetings, ignored Frankel's objections, Frankel recalled in a telephone interview.
"Punch was for peace over everything," he said. (Perhaps not everything: Sulzberger, after all, did publish the Pentagon Papers.)
But the publisher's hopes that courteous meetings and friendly correspondence would placate Irvine — who would spend his later years spreading the wild conspiracy theory that an aide to President Bill Clinton, Vince Foster, was murdered — did not come to pass. "History shows that that's not how this game works," Perlstein told me.
Instead, the access emboldened Irvine, taught others to imitate him and helped push American political journalism into a place where the goal was sometimes to balance the complaints of competing sides as much as to report on underlying realities. The form of media criticism he pioneered has, in fact, become as central to Republican politics in the Trump era as any policy or grievance.
And liberals noticed the conservatives' success and eventually imitated it, most successfully with the 2004 founding of Media Matters for America, which devoted much of its early energies to providing a new, leftward pull on the establishment media.
(The old establishment referees are now barely important enough to target, but they're still embroiled in an internal debate over whether to try to hold onto a vanishing nonpartisan center. Some of those questions are playing out right now at NBC, where progressive prime-time hosts drive ratings on cable, but where the executive suite favors Nicolle Wallace, a former communications director for President George W. Bush and a so-called Never Trump Republican. Two people familiar with the conversations told me that the NBCUniversal chief executive, Jeff Shell, had floated the notion of elevating Wallace to take over the prestige Sunday morning show Meet the Press. An NBC executive said the current host, Chuck Todd, "has led the Sunday news-making and ratings battles for five years at the helm of 'Meet the Press' and will continue to do so.")
But the referees who really matter nowadays are no longer the big media companies. The new referees are the Silicon Valley giants that control what we see when we search, browse or post online. But some in the news media learned lessons from back then, ones that Silicon Valley chief executives would be wise to reflect on this election season.
The biggest one is about false balance, and false symmetry. The American right and left have never been mirror images of each other. They're different sorts of coalitions, with different histories and strategies.
And in the Trump era, a specific kind of misinformation on social media is a central tactic of the right. President Donald Trump says false and misleading things at a remarkable rate — more than 20,000 so far in his presidency, according to a Washington Post tracker — and a whole constellation of blogs and websites, like The Gateway Pundit, support and amplify that strategy.
Facebook, Google and Twitter are making the same mistakes the news media made decades ago, looking for balance rather than confronting the plain reality of the moment.
That's what Pichai did in response to Steube, who didn't respond to an inquiry about what exactly had happened when, he said, he'd been unable to find Gateway Pundit several months ago. Steube might have typed the URL wrong, or he might have been referring to a moment in July when Google said a range of sites had search problems. Just a day before the hearing, to Gateway Pundit's fury, the company said it was taking down a video about hydroxychloroquine, a drug that hasn't been proven to be effective in treating the coronavirus.
But "the CEO of Google can't just come out and say, 'The signals your site is sending and fact-checks on your content have created a problem for our company, and therefore we down-rank it,'" said Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. "Admitting that humans are often at the helm of decisions to curate content implies they are a media company and not simply infrastructure."
(The Gateway Pundit himself, Jim Hoft, didn't respond to an inquiry but posted preemptively that "The Gateway Pundit has been 100 per cent correct in all of our reporting on every major story.")
It was Facebook that became the first target of coordinated right-wing outrage in 2016, when conservatives seized on a Gizmodo article to suggest that editors of Facebook's "Trending" section were censoring conservative voices. The story had, in fact, uncovered a secret: that Facebook was turning to humans, with editorial judgment, to make decisions about what content to show its users, rather than simply relying on algorithms.
A former Facebook employee recalls the company's Republican lobbyist, Joel Kaplan, pushing in those early days to do away with human editorial choices, and to let Facebook's algorithms choose what news made its "Trending" section. Instead, Facebook killed the feature entirely, and prostrated itself to the right in a public meeting with Republican media figures and a private 2016 visit by Mark Zuckerberg's executive team to Fox News headquarters.
Since then, Facebook has sought to ingratiate itself to the Trump administration, while taking a harder line on Covid-19 misinformation. As the president's backers post wild claims on the social network, the company offers the equivalent of wrist slaps — a complex fact-checking system that avoids drawing the company directly into the political fray. It hasn't worked: The fact-checking subcontractors are harried umpires, an easy target for Trump supporters' ire.
"It's the fact-checking business that is causing all this trouble," Brent Bozell, founder of the conservative Media Research Center and a veteran professional ref-worker told me.
BuzzFeed News and NBC News reported last week that Facebook executives have acted in recent months on pleas from pro-Trump voices that they not be punished for misleading readers. It's a sign of the pressure on the company — but also of a reality that Facebook won't say aloud: The pro-Trump media is in the misinformation business with scale and energy that lacks parallel, and in part because simply repeating the president often means spreading misinformation.
In fact, two people close to the Facebook fact-checking process told me, the vast bulk of the posts getting tagged for being fully or partly false come from the right. That's not bias. It's because sites like The Gateway Pundit are full of falsehoods, and because the president says false things a lot.
That's the messy political reality — not the sort of neat systemic answer that makes engineers comfortable. The global surge in misinformation isn't a matter of code, or an eternal political truth, or the structure of information. It's just how the social-media-fueled, right-wing populism of 2020 works. And while Google, Facebook and Twitter dance around to refuse saying it out loud for obvious regulatory reasons, it makes them look dishonest and, at times, as Frankel now says of his boss' accommodations, "ridiculous."
The act of working the refs, whether it's a baseball player yelling about a close call at second base or a congressman grilling a CEO, forces the referee to doubt themselves even in cases that, in retrospect, are totally clear. And if you want a clue as to where Irvine's campaign led, look to the bio page of the Gateway Pundit himself, who proudly lists one credential first: Accuracy in Media's 2013 Reed Irvine Award.
Written by: Ben Smith
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