Jeffrey Herbst

Deliberating the News

Air Date: December 24, 2016

Jeffrey Herbst, president and CEO of the Newseum, talks about the future of free speech.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. There’s no more empowering celebration of the First Amendment than the Newseum in Washington, DC. I recall travelling to the original Rosslyn site, and on several visits over the last decade, being most inspired by the journalistic achievement archived, exhibited and explained there.

Today we welcome the Newseum’s leader for a discussion on the future of free speech. Jeffrey Herbst is president and CEO of the Newseum and the Newseum Institute. From 2010 to 2015 he was president of Colgate University. And in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed column, Herbst shares a sentiment we have expressed on numerous occasions here, on The Open Mind. He writes:

“Google, Facebook, and other tech companies say they aren’t news organizations. But that claim is becoming increasingly implausible.”

Herbst continues, “As these companies enter further into the news arena, they will have to develop an understanding of where their editorial role fits into American and world society. Certainly a fundamental challenge will be to delineate how their for-profit imperative and shareholder demands interact with their role as providers of information.”

Truer words have not been spoken. Jeffrey, thank you for joining me here today.

HERBST: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Those seem irreconcilable to me at the moment. The for-profit imperative and the necessity to develop some kind of utility online that is news. How can they cooperate?

HERBST: Well we’re in a new era, and it’s going to take time. But I should note that newspapers in the 20th century faced the same problem. They’re for-profit entities and they also wanted to serve the public good by reporting information. And the owners of the Washington Post and the New York Times and other newspapers last century agonized a great deal about how to align their profit interests and the public interest, and came to some philosophical solutions.

They weren’t perfect. Perhaps they weren’t always um, uh adopted, uh at the precise moment of conflict. But they were significant approaches which were intentional. I think Facebook, Apple, Google are going to go the—have—go through the same agonizing process.

They are for-profit companies. There’s nothing wrong with that. They’re transparent about that. But a significant proportion of the American public is now getting their news via these social media platforms. And even more people are going to be informed that way in the future.

So they’re going to have to think through uh this issue. I think the current binary approach—either they’re tech companies or they’re media companies—is not the right one. Uh they’re media companies, but they’re 21st Century media companies. They’re not the newspapers of the 20th Century.

And they’re going to have to think through what their public role is. The public, their consumers, will also demand that.

HEFFNER: How do you get Facebook to acknowledge—it was just the other day, Sheryl Sandberg once again reaffirming, we are not a media company. How do they—how do we get them to the place where they accept that responsibility?

HERBST: Facebook I think is—they have suddenly become the means by which an extraordinary number of people are getting the news. And this has happened far quicker than anyone, I think including Facebook has imagined. Um. They are getting pushed into this area.

Uh just recently there was the controversy over the so-called Napalm girl photo. Where Facebook took down the post of a Norwegian newspaper which included the iconic photo from the Vietnam war of a young girl running naked from a napalm attack. Uh that was taken—had been taken down by Facebook in the past. It was taken down again as part of their community standards.

When the paper and then the uh Norwegian Prime Minister objected, Facebook stood by its deletion of the post, and then they reversed course. And they themselves have admitted that their community standards and this work is a work in progress. At the same time, Facebook, Twitter, and others are very active in uh scrutinizing posts that may be related to promoting terrorism, from terrorist organizations. They’re taking those down.

So, they’re—they’re more than just the pipes. They’re obviously exercising some degree of editorial control. They just haven’t conceptualized themselves as something other than a tech company yet. I think they’re going to be forced to, because the number of these incidents will continue. And I think they will get under ever more scrutiny as more and more people get their news uh from these uh media platforms, especially via mobile technology.

HEFFNER: At least in the case of Facebook, they, they don’t seem to be acknowledging that the absence of editorial—in fact human—discretion is causing injury to the company.

HERBST: They did take their human curators off the trending topics. It wasn’t off of the news feed. And are trying to do it algorithmically. That’s proven to be difficult. They’re posting some fake news right now. I, I think… you know I see both sides of this. This is happening at an extraordinary speed.

Three years ago, people weren’t talking about this issue. And the amount of news they’re transmitting to ever more people has increased at an extraordinary rate. So they’ve only been in this business, if you like, a short period of time. And we’re asking, and I’m advocating, that they do something which The Post and The Times took frankly decades to work out. And it was still a work in progress then. At the same time, just given uh the more than one billion that they’re, they have, and the many more billions that are going to join in the next few years, they are rightfully under a lot of scrutiny.

So. I don’t minimize the problem. Uh I know they’re aware of it. Uh I just think that the current place they’re in, which is this binary choice—technology company, media company—is in the raw—the, that’s the wrong place to be in. They have to conceptualize themselves as a new type of media company for the 21st century. That’s going to take time. But I think they need to go down that road.

HEFFNER: Brian Stelter of CNN ‘Reliable Sources’ media critic… did a terrific essay recently on the peril of fake news, and imploring his viewers to double, triple check sources. It does seem to me that programmed into the flesh of Facebook and Twitter are these erroneous stories. And to what extent do we want to champion someone’s right… we don’t want to champion their right to engage in that kind of—it’s not even journalistic malpractice, as the New York Times Magazine reported this year.

These kinds of anti-Clinton and anti-Trump propaganda have fed into Facebook’s monetization machine.

HERBST: We’re at the first steps of…

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS]

HERBST: the democratization of information. You know we just—at the Newseum, we just celebrated the Centennial of Walter, Walter Cronkite’s birth. And you know he had an impact on the American public that was extraordinary.

For 20 years he said, that’s the way it was. And the next day, people would talk around the proverbial water cooler. That’s the way it was. There’ll probably never be a journalist who will have the gatekeeping function like Walter Cronkite did. And in the past there were a few newspapers and three television networks that filtered the news to people.

They provided relatively accurate, high quality journalism. But from a not very diverse source of people. And from a, only a few companies. Now of course anyone can post, blog, tweet, um. Seventeen year olds have 10 million followers on YouTube. In that democratization of the news, which we view as the free express—free uh, right of free expression realized, there’s going to be a lot of great stuff, and a lot, and a big junk pile.

And I think we’re only at the start of figuring out, not only how can our companies work to flag what is high quality journalism. But we’re going to have to recognize the responsibility of people, uh to become intelligent consumers of the news.

In the past, if you listened to Walter Cronkite and read the New York Times, you were probably a pretty well informed person. Today, there are far more sources available. There’s a lot more information coming at you. Uh but you’re going to have to think hard about how you’re going to be a consumer of the news. It’s no longer going to be a passive activity.

And that’s the road I think we have to start down.

HEFFNER: What are the qualities of Cronkite that can go mainstream again?

HERBST: Well… first, I mean there were just very few lanes through which information passed, and so that’s, you know—

HEFFNER: That’s out of the picture.

HERBST: That’s out of the picture.

HEFFNER: No I understand but, but—

HERBST: I think he had developed a credibility. Part of it was a personal style, obviously. Part of it was however… sitting, and telling the American public at critical moments, uh that he had an independent perspective, which he would, which he had the responsibility to convey to them.

Uh in our Reporting Vietnam exhibition, uh… we have uh some segments from Cronkite, who played a critical role in the coverage of Vietnam. And of course eventually came out against the war. And Linden Johnson said, “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost the American public.” But the American public trusted Cronkite enough—uh, he’s bonafides, his judgement, his style, of course, uh to follow his lead, as it were.

We’re probably never going have someone like that again. Not because some of our journalists aren’t as good. We have outstanding journalists. There are just too many lanes and uh too much competition.

HEFFNER: Well talk about how those lanes manifest themselves on a college campus and uh the plight of free speech. Because that water cooler conversation is something that has turned into a gr—a great controversy, in terms of uh stigma associated with speech and certain kinds of speech.

We’ve discussed this on the program uh with Caitlin Flanagan, who’s written extensively about college students can’t take a joke… Um. This question of… micro aggressions, safe spaces… w-where do you come out on, you know, sort of how the water cooler conversations should be playing out on college campuses today?

HERBST: I’m worried. As a former college president and uh advocate of free expression and free speech, it’s complicated. I should say that residential colleges and universities are among the very few institutions in our society right now that are actually trying to create intentionally diverse communities of people who live together.

In many ways, society is becoming more segregated, especially by income. And the universities and colleges, residential universities and colleges, are trying to do something very difficult.

That said, uh the American public perceives colleges and universities as among the places least receptive to free speech. Which is not only bad because these institutions are based on uh vibrant and courageous discussion of the issues, but it’s bad for their standing in society.

We’ve done a survey of college student attitudes towards the First Amendment with the Knight Foundation, and we found it’s complicated. Students aren’t overwhelmingly in favor of political speech. The controversies around graduation speakers, other invited speakers, I think obscure the fact that overwhelmingly students, to an even higher degree than adults in the American public, want to be exposed to a variety of political opinions. And administrators should take heart that there’s a strong constituency for a free political speech on their campuses.

However students seem to differentiate between political speech and conversations, discussions, about particular groups on campus or about individuals. So close to a majority of students on campuses that we surveyed—about 36 four-year colleges and universities—believe for instance that the press should be restricted from covering student protests, if the protesters so desire.

And those sentiments are even stronger among women and African Americans. So there are some significant free speech issues. Finally, I think you can’t underestimate the degree to which social media has just transformed the college environment, eh, and college discussions.

Students more than anyone else live on their phones, live via mobile. And uh… that’s great. They’re getting a lot of information. They have access to more information at their fingertips than anyone in world history. And it’s also proven to be problematic in ways we can discuss.

HEFFNER: Flesh that out for us a bit. You, you’re saying that these young people, specifically African American communities, within the college space, don’t want their protests to be recorded or covered?

HERBST: Well they… about 42-46% of uh college students say it’s legitimate to restrict the press from covering college protest—from covering protests on college campuses, if that’s what the protestors want. Because they think the protest—the media will be biased. Students tend to have a dim view of the media in general, uh, or because they think that the protestors message won’t get out.

There’s an even uh higher percentage of women and African Americans who believe that. Um. I think what’s happening on college campuses is complicated. I mean—uh—

HEFFNER: But you, but you think that the—the… that stance is inspired by this notion that their protests are somehow going to be marginalized by the mainstream press or—

HERBST: Or if—

HEFFNER: Or misread.

HERBST: I think, I think a couple things. First, for this generation of young people, who have grown up digitally, free expression and f—and a free press, can be separated. In the past, when you had a protest, you wanted the media to cover it, because that was the only way to get your message out.

Today you don’t need the press to get your message out. You can put it on YouTube, you can tweet, you can blog about it. And it can go out far faster than the college newspaper will publish. So students, uh, separate free expression and, and free press, in a way that we’ve never seen before in American society, because of technology.

And second, um, they’re willing—they want, in many cases, and as I said, this is only close to a majority. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s close. Um. They think that the protestors should have the right to tell their own story without the mediation of the press. And that’s something different.

HEFFNER: Well this, this curmudgeon millennial would say that that is extremely problematic. Right? Because the norms of civil disobedience and… justified… anger in the form of… protests, a sit-in… That—if you want those to carry legitimate weight with you, President Herbst, or… the local press, whatever constituency you’re attempting to rally, you’re, you want… that… you may want to upset the status quo, but you have to adhere to a certain set of, of values in implementing your agenda…

How do you, how do you see that disconnect?

HERBST: Uh… that’s very interesting. And uh there’s just been a report by PEN on uh free speech on college campuses, which investigated this. This change from the civil rights movement—the civil rights movement intentionally used all 5 freedoms of the First Amendment.

Uh, speech, press, religion, petition and assembly, uh to promote its views that all Americans should enjoy equal civil rights. The change we’ve seen in this generation of students, is the belief that they can promote their agenda without recourse uh to some of these rights. And indeed that the rights under—as understood by society in general, are somehow marginalizing that.

I think that’s wrong. I think the people who feel disempowered, who feel marginalized, should have the greatest interest in a vibrant First Amendment because the powerful don’t need rights. They, they will get done what they want done. It’s the people who are marginalized, who are disempowered, uh who’s, for whom recourse to rights is most important.

But you’re right. That disconnect is occurring on college campuses. It’s fed by a variety of reasons, but not least that social media uh, with its ability to go around traditional press, has been this venue by which so many students communicate, protest, live their lives.

HEFFNER: I can understand how social media can be the first line of defense against uh an injustice. We’ve seen that play out in domestic disputes and police disputes around the country, but this idea that you’re going to be insulated from… um… uh, the… values that… ought to influence protests. You know that you, you’re not going to face the same degree of scrutiny. I, I just don’t understand that. That, that, you know, what are you trying to hide if… you know your goal is a public outcry?

HERBST: I don’t think, I think they’re not trying to hide. I do—I agree—

HEFFNER: Yeah.

HERBST: that with your domest—dismay. They’re trying to shape their narrative by themselves. That there is a significant mistrust for better or for worse.

HEFFNER: So this is like the ultimate PR mindset.

HERBST: It’s the ultimate—right. It’s the view that you can talk directly to the public, uh, without the press. Uh and as I said, in a world where 17 year olds have 10 million followers on YouTube, you can understand that.

HEFFNER: Yeah, and, and I think also there’s a, a deterrent to the extent that the tactics are unsavory or uncivil or ill-advised in the implementation of a protest, which has also been documented just as much as injustice has been conveyed through the Snapchat, the Vine…

HERBST: Mhm, mhm.

HEFFNER: Et cetera. So you know what, what I think this is leading us towards is those water coolers being so segregated, in terms of what the reality is on the ground. How do you teach at the Newseum and in your former career as a college president, teach values that are going to desegregate these, these disparate water coolers around the, the confines of a college campus?

HERBST: I think it’s a, it’s a good question, and you know it goes beyond college campuses, because… absent intentional effort, many of these social media platforms will feed you the same views, the same information, that you’ve indicated in the past that you like. So the possibility of ever narrower conversations is a real one.

I think first, you have to ask college students, and we certainly did this at Colgate, what are you trying to es… do, on social media? What are you, what’s your intention here? Um, what are you trying to learn? Um I think we want to go beyond telling students and others, wow, these are cool tools, to ask ’em a deeper intellectual question: what are you trying to accomplish? And I think they need to provide the answers.

Second, I think we want to begin to have a discussion in this country about civility and etiquette on the internet. I think uh that anonymous speech is too powerful. Now anonymous speech, as I said, is protected speech. There’s no question of that. But just because you have the right to say something, doesn’t mean you have the right to be listened to. And I think far too many students, but also many other people, spend too much time paying attention to anonymous speech, anonymous comments, when, without attribution, you don’t know the authority of the person, where they’re coming from.

So I think we have to say to students, look, do you really want to pay attention? Uh do you really want to… base your actions on what someone who you don’t know is talking about?

One of the great moments I thought at Colgate was when the faculty briefly took over the social media platform Yikyak, and made comments like… “Wow, uh, your exams are next week. I hope you’re studying and taking good care of yourself.” Or, “It’s going to be cold tomorrow, uh, dress appropriately.” And the faculty, as educators, not only made those posts but put their names on it. And I think that was an important teaching moment. Uh, which should have implications elsewhere.

I think we have to get beyond the gee whiz factor of social media, because we’re still in the early days of this revolution. To say, each person’s gonna have to say, “What am I trying to accomplish here? And what do my contributions mean from the, for the community?”

HEFFNER: As you see the plethora of students uh emerge from their classrooms into the Newseum, what strikes you most?

HERBST: The students are hungry to discuss these issues. Surprisingly, what we also found in our survey is that students believe there’s actually too much anonymous speech on the internet. Uh they also believe that uh much of the discussion on social media is not civil.

I think one of the things that’s gone wrong in our society is that… older adults have abandoned or not tried to join social media. That’s too difficult, that’s for the kids … that’s for the millennials. Um. What we’re hearing from the students is they may live on their phones, but they’re not happy with a lot of what they see, what, what they experience. And I think the educators on campus, and those of us uh, in society, have to join a conversation. That these technologies are the future, there’s no going back. Uh but we can shape them in important ways to make for a better society and…

What we see at the Newseum is students who want to learn about how people in the past have exercised their rights, and how they can do so to make for a better society. While this generation is often, young generation is often criticized for um, uh, too much sensitivity and the like, they’re also very concerned about social justice and our society and around the world. And I think we can join those to say look, you can shape these tools. We can all shape these tools together, to make for a better society. But we’re going to have to uh do it consciously.

HEFFNER: What are some examples of that kind of consciousness um… that can be modelled among journalists today? To right the wrong that these young people are seeing on their devices?

HERBST: I think that journalists are going to have to meet their consumers, which will—now that the millennial generation is the largest generation in our society. They’re going to have to meet them where the young people are. Which is on their devices. And that we’re still in the early days of figuring out how news, long form journalism or the like, is going to segue into the type of platforms that people are using while they stare at their devices.

Uh, that’s going to take a lot more thinking. I think… journalists are going to have to—and this’ll be part of the post-mortem of this election—figure out how to… highlight important news, significant news, that goes beyond yelling, or the coarse finger-printing—finger-pointing of one side or another that may gain a lot of hits, and may gain a lot of viewership in the short term, but which is not informing our society.

I think clearly journalists in this election were also adjusting to the social media election. I think we’re going to have to look back at this election, say look. What was news, how was it transmitted, how was it transmitted well?

The problem of course is the goal posts keep moving. I mean the technology keeps changing, uh, and we’re going to be at this for a long time. But if we can become more intentional journalists, and most of all I think intentional consumers… we have the opportunity to take tremendous advantage of these great technologies.

HEFFNER: I think you said it about intentionality. Unfortunately the goal posts, Jeff, are the profit motive. But I yearn for, and myself on college campuses… call for… a more deliberative media approach. We think about the mit—deliberative democracy. We oughtta be thinking about deliberative media in making the assessment that you describe. And not be averse to this idea of activism or activist journalism. Deliberative democracy requires deliberative journalism. And deliberative journalists. Thank you Jeff for being here with me today.

HERBST: Thank you so much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.