Autocracy’s Opening When People Don’t Know the Facts

Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post media columnist, examines journalism's role in a democracy, the decline of local journalism, and the rise of social media platforms considered as news sources.

Margaret Sullivan is the Washington Post’s media columnist. The Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism graduate previously served as the New York Times’ public editor and as editor of her hometown newspaper, the Buffalo News. The author of Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, Sullivan writes frequently about journalism’s role in a democracy, including the First Amendment’s role in our national life.

Sullivan spoke about the relationship between journalism and democracy in this conversation with Lindsay Lloyd, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the Bush Institute, Chris Walsh, Deputy Director of the Human Freedom and Women’s Initiatives, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute. She also discussed social media platforms being considered publishers, the decline in local journalism, and the First Amendment and misinformation.

How do you define freedom of expression?

In American democracy, with our precious First Amendment, freedom of expression means that we as Americans, up to a point, can say can say what we want in the way we want to without bringing the force of the government down upon us. It doesn’t mean we have no accountability, or that there might not be criticism or censure from our fellow citizens. But it does mean the government can’t stop us from what we want to say.

And there are limits on this right. It’s not something that has no limits whatsoever.

When you look at organizations like a Facebook or Twitter, are those online platforms publishers? If so, how should lawmakers put them on an even playing field with traditional media?

I lean toward seeing them as publishers, not simply as a platform or a place that has no responsibility. They’re closer to a newspaper, a magazine, or a TV station because they are the way we communicate these days.

To answer your question directly, I tend to think of them and YouTube and Spotify as more like publishers. They’re not the New York Times, but they need to take responsibility to at least some extent for what they are putting out into the world.

Now it’s very difficult for Facebook, for example, with its billions of users to be policing everybody on its site. We found out that’s almost impossible to have happen. And Facebook and Twitter will talk about their content moderation and community rules. That’s fine, but how do you really enforce them and what is the penalty for breaking those?

To answer your question directly, I tend to think of them and YouTube and Spotify as more like publishers. They’re not the New York Times, but they need to take responsibility to at least some extent for what they are putting out into the world.

There’s been talk about reforming what’s called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to create a more equal playing field between social media and traditional media. Do you think Congress has a role to play there or do you think it can be self-regulatory?

My sense is that it cannot be self-regulatory. What happens with Facebook and other social media platforms is they tinker around the edges, but don’t make any really substantial changes.

I do think that Congress needs to get involved with regulating the social media platforms – or publishers, if we want to call them that. I say “and” rather than “but.” This has to be done in a way that acknowledges and respects freedom of expression and freedom of speech.

But should these platforms or publishers have some kind of liability for what they are putting out there or should they be held completely harmless from liability?

I don’t think they should be held completely harmless. Through the lens of free speech, we have to look at possible harm done, dangerous misinformation and disinformation that hurts our society. Who gets to decide that is tricky. But the reform of Section 230 is important because there’s just no way to enforce any kind of accountability.

How do democracies deal with misinformation and disinformation?

I don’t think the founders of our country were able to think about this in the way that we can think about it now. The technology is just so different today. There was no such thing as the “tweet heard around the world” or anything like that. So you don’t want to shut down everybody who has an opinion different from your own. You don’t want to shut down people whose speech may even be appalling or reprehensible. But there is a point at which really harmful misinformation and disinformation ought to be regulated.

Not necessarily by the government, but by the responsible parties. The government can set the boundaries for that or help set the boundaries. This should be enforced at a somewhat smaller and more detailed level. To be more specific, when Twitter decided to take then-President Donald Trump off its platform, that was a justifiably controversial thing to do.

You don’t want to shut down everybody who has an opinion different from your own. You don’t want to shut down people whose speech may even be appalling or reprehensible. But there is a point at which really harmful misinformation and disinformation ought to be regulated.

Twitter basically said, we are going to be responsible for what’s on our platform and that too much of what’s being said here is deeply harmful, not just false, but dangerous. That was the move they made. And President Trump is still not on Twitter.

Of course, that was his platform of choice. So there’s a debate to be had there. There are certainly First Amendment scholars and lawyers who thought that was wrong or that some kind of short-term penalty would have made sense. But he hasn’t been brought back.

To what extent does the First Amendment apply to misinformation?

That question is upon us. Look at the misinformation swirling around the COVID vaccines. People can legitimately have different opinions about that and they should be able to express them. But then you get to something more specific: Should Spotify continue to host a Joe Rogan who has not in every episode, but at times, said things that have, I think, misled people at a time when it’s a matter of life and death? I don’t want the government coming down on Joe Rogan. There’s a free speech issue that’s very important. But his platform should be concerned about it and would be concerned about it if circumstances were a little different.

If it was just a regular person spreading a lot of disinformation, they might come down on them. But there’s a $100 million contract here, so there’s a reluctance to do that. We’re seeing that, too.

I spent my career in newspapers as a reporter, an editor, and as the public editor of the New York Times. Now, as a columnist, I am very immersed in and committed to First Amendment rights. At the same time, I’m very concerned about the way social media and the platforms are being abused. There’s a real push and pull for me there.

Does common sense come into play when you have someone like a Joe Rogan, who’s a former comedian and who runs a podcast? Should people be able to tell the difference between someone who’s starting opinion like that and someone who’s delivering credible information?

I would hope that they would be able to tell the difference, but I know that 11 million people per episode are listening to a person who’s almost a cult figure. When he says things like, as he has said, if you’re young and healthy, you do not need to get vaccinated, that’s not true. If you follow the science and the experts, who I think are the most credible, they would find that to be a pretty dangerous thing to be spouting.

Yes, it would be great if people would then do some comparing and say, “Let me see what the CDC has to say.” Yes, he’s a comedian, so let’s not treat him like a medical expert. At the same time, he’s bringing people onto his podcasts and interviewing them and not challenging them, or fact-checking them in any way.

He is really influential and that is worrisome. He has the right to say these things. I don’t know whether it’s wise for a platform like Spotify to pay him unbelievable amounts of money to spread disinformation or misinformation.

There’s a lot of gray area here. I don’t know all the answers. We have to weigh things that have conflicting values.

You have written a lot about communities losing their local news source. What is the impact on those communities when this happens? Is there an example that you can point to where this has particularly hit the community hard?

I wrote a book about local news and spent most of my career at my hometown daily, the Buffalo News, where I started off as a summer intern and eventually became the top editor. So I observed the importance of good local accountability reporting and the importance of the way a newspaper can knit a community together. It’s not just about watchdog journalism.

Sometimes that kind of journalism dwindles or even goes away. We have “news deserts” now where there are no sources of local news. There are places where there is no good source of local news.

There have been studies about this, which I wrote about in my book, Ghosting the News. Some things that happen when local news goes away or withers is people become less politically engaged. Instead of becoming committee people or going to the school board meeting, they become less politically and civically involved in their communities. This is documented. They become much more polarized in their voting. They go into their tribal corners much more so, rather than saying, “My neighbor and I have a common source of facts here, which we get from our daily newspaper.”

I don’t think these daily newspapers need to be held up as perfect in any way, but they certainly are useful. You might have been able to say that we both understand there’s this community issue, and we may disagree about how to handle it, but at least we know the basic facts.

Some things that happen when local news goes away or withers is people become less politically engaged. Instead of becoming committee people or going to the school board meeting, they become less politically and civically involved in their communities.

This isn’t the case anymore in many places, even where there’s still have a daily newspaper. One thing that’s happened with the Buffalo News, and I bet this is true in Dallas and many other places, is that newspapers that used to cover the whole state or the whole part of a state, have pulled in. They don’t have as many people, so they can’t cover the outlying areas. What often happens is the people just aren’t aware of what’s going on with, for example, their Congress people or the issues that are important.

This is not a partisan thing. Do people have the information they need? That’s basically what the press is supposed to be about in the United States, to give the citizens of our country the information they need to vote and to hold their public officials accountable. But I’m worried now that increasingly, they don’t have that. It’s a big deal.

You wrote recently that Americans are finding their local news sources more credible than their national news sources. Yet the Pew Research Center has documented how readers don’t even know that their local newspapers are in financial trouble. Is there a remedy for this problem?

Pew has shown that, at least a couple of years ago, many people had no idea that local newspapers were in trouble. I think more know now. There has been a lot of documentaries, books, and articles about this. And people can see in their own communities that their paper is only four pages now, when it used to be 30 pages or whatever. But it’s also difficult for people to know what to do when they realize their paper may have been bought by a hedge fund.

I hear from people who say, “You tell me I should be subscribing to my local paper, but I don’t want to support this vicious hedge fund that’s buying up local papers. What am I supposed to do?” That’s a tough question, but I tell them that, if they can do it, it’s still important to subscribe. You are paying for people’s salaries to go to the school board meeting, to go to the council meeting, to do the investigative work. It might not be pure, but it’s about the best we have right now.

What do you think about nonprofit local news models that are emerging? We have the Texas Tribune here in the state. Is this kind of model encouraging to you? Are they sufficient?

They’re encouraging to me, but they’re not sufficient. They are the most hopeful thing that’s happening. They’re not really newspapers, but digital sites that have reporting, like the Texas Tribune, and they’re all over the country now.

However, they have to be supported in some way. It’s often through philanthropy, which is fine, but sometimes philanthropists have an opinion about the way things should go.

One good thing about the old model was that you could separate the advertising department from the editorial department and say we’re not even going to let the advertising salespeople on the floor. There was a real separation of church and state.

I know people now who are the editors and founders of local news websites, and they do the fundraising and they do the editorial work and they write a column and it’s just much blurrier. But, on balance, I’m very happy to see them coming along. They are helping to fill in the gaps.

There’s been some speculation that the Supreme Court might revisit the New York Times v. Sullivan landmark case that more or less guaranteed freedom of the press in the United States. Of course, we don’t know what the Court might say, but if it does revisit the case, what impact might that have on freedom of press in the U.S.?

It could change the way libel law affects public figures. Let’s say I’m writing an article about Joe Rogan and I make a mistake in it. I go to my editors and I say “I made a mistake.” We need to correct it. And we do correct it. Nevertheless, Joe Rogan sues the paper and me. Because he’s a public figure, what would have to be shown now is that I made that mistake with reckless disregard for the truth and something called “actual malice” that I set out to say something that was wrong and not factual. I didn’t care. That is the standard in the case that you mentioned.

Justice [Neil] Gorsuch and Justice Clarence Thomas have both said they think that is too friendly to the press. They would like to see it reformed and changed. They would like to see the press held more accountable.

I hope that doesn’t happen. After many years in journalism, I know we all make mistakes and some of them are bad. But I don’t know any legitimate journalists whoever set out to put something false in a story. We’ve made a lot of mistakes. We’ve been involved in a lot of corrections, but we don’t do it on purpose.

There’s a different standard, of course, for people who aren’t public figures. If you’re harming someone who’s a regular person, the standard is lower. It doesn’t have to be actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth. This [reckless disregard standard] is for people who are in the public sphere. They may be elected officials. They may be podcasters.

I hope that it endures, and I’m not sure that it will.

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer shows that trust in the media remains low among the public. What thoughts do you have about ways to improve upon the disconnect between the public and journalists? What responsibilities do journalists have to restore that trust or attempt to restore that trust?

You’re absolutely right. Trust is at a low level. The highest level was in the mid-70s, after the Pentagon Papers were published and after the Watergate scandal occurred. It’s been on a pretty steady, sharp decline ever since. It’s low now.

One thing I hear from people is they are upset about the mix of opinion and facts. They would like the news media to stick to straight reporting and not constantly have the opinion and sort of snark as they see mixed into every single story.

We need to be aware of that. Part of this is social media and the way journalists may be on TV or on social media and expressing themselves and their opinions in a way that didn’t used to be the case.

I would like to see us be more transparent about our work. When I was the editor in Buffalo, I used to write a column that ran most Sundays on the front of the local section. I took a story or a project we were working on and tried to take people behind the scenes. How did we put this together? How did we report it? What are the worries? Sometimes I used it as a way to say, we got something wrong and we need to make amends.

If we can try to talk to people more effectively, that might help. But I also know that people have made their decisions about the media. There’s a lot of resentment. I don’t know that we can overcome it. It’s pretty bad.

What impact do you think that low trust in the media might have on democracies, including our own?

It’s a huge problem. People turn to other forms of information, which may be their Facebook feed, pure political opinion, fundraising letters or whatever. When our trust in facts and the truth is so eroded, there’s a huge opening for autocracy to creep in.

So, anything we can do to shore up local news, to build trust, to be more transparent and to try to get some of that common ground back is extremely important right now as much as anytime in my memory. This is a huge concern.

The positive is that we’re talking about this and so many people have become aware of the problems that we’re discussing. I have a lot of faith in Americans and in the country. I don’t think it’s all dire.