Two new books discuss how the news media industry fell — and how it can be fixed.

By Andy Zucker

It is hard not to be angry at the greedy and unethical “bad actors” who helped precipitate the crisis in news (and corresponding declines in media literacy) now facing humanity in the twenty-first century. This was one major takeaway after reading two books about the newspaper business.

The first book, Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts by former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, describes in great detail how the news began to go bad around the year 2000. The second book, Saving the News: Why the Constitution Calls for Government Action to Preserve Freedom of Speech by Martha Minow, a former dean of Harvard Law School, proposes several ways to fix the daunting problems in the news business.

Of course, it was not only bad actors who were responsible for the demise of hundreds of local papers and more than half of all newspaper jobs. Craigslist and other online advertising companies sucked away income that had been key to sustaining print journalism. Also, many websites, such as Yahoo! News, began aggregating news articles from established newspapers so that readers could quickly scan a variety of sources, with free links to the original articles, all without reimbursing the news organizations that had paid to produce the content.

I knew about those significant causes, yet was less familiar with the brazen ways in which people and companies who were building their web presence willingly fooled people with both inaccurate or intentionally shocking stories simply to gain an audience—all to generate eyeballs. As a young woman working at BuzzFeed said, according to Abramson, “There’s so much shit on the internet, it’s kind of fun to just be like, ‘What kind of sandwich am I?’ People want to know what will happen to them, they want to be reaffirmed in their beliefs. People love it when we’re accurate, or when we’re really inaccurate. If it seems like science, people appreciate that.”

By 2016 — again according to Abramson — the top 20 fake stories on Facebook significantly outperformed the top 20 real news articles. Outright fraud masquerading as news had become highly profitable. Just as significantly, real events could be presented in ways intended to shock or to make partisan points simply in the interest of building an audience and generating income. Informing people had once been the primary purpose of the news (not that it was always fulfilled), but the new goal was to become rich and influential while sucking the lifeblood out of the legitimate news industry.

Abramson’s book is more than 500 pages long, and it provides almost too much detail about what happened to the media through the newsrooms of the Times, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Vice, and Facebook. Influential figures like Steve Bannon and Marty Baron make appearances, as do a host of lesser-known individuals. Although the Times and the Post survived the era, they experienced terribly difficult years before becoming thriving legacy newsrooms—exceptions in a dying industry.

Minow’s book is a learned plea, steeped in history and law. She first asks readers to pay attention to the problem of maintaining a democracy while living with a crippled news business; secondly, she asks for governments to take steps to remedy the situation. Minow points out that the context for freedom of speech has changed. She writes: “Although ‘more is better’ once seemed a sensible approach … the ‘more’ provided by digital resources may destroy professional journalism, undermine public confidence in information, and negatively affect the provision and absorption of information needed for self-government.”

Minow is concerned that state and local governments are too passive in the face of the real threats posed by the loss of so many sources of accurate news. She proposes three types of possible response. The first would be to change the rules for digital platforms, like Facebook. The second would strengthen protections against deceptions and fraud, and the third would provide greater support for local and national news sources. A dozen specific recommendations illustrate these options, and include reinstating the “fairness doctrine,” regulating major internet platforms as public utilities, and vastly increasing government support for news media beyond public broadcasting.

Friends of mine are starting a nonprofit organization to save a venerable local newspaper in the northwest corner of Connecticut. Abramson and Minow would undoubtedly applaud their initiative. Like my friends, we can each make a difference. And without increased media literacy for young people, along with more action from state and federal government agencies, the battle for a healthy and truthful news business may be unwinnable.


Andy Zucker, Ed.D., a member of Media Literacy Now’s Board, has experience in education as a federal program evaluator, researcher, book author, and STEM teacher. He and colleagues recently developed a free one-week unit for grades 6-12 called Resisting Scientific Misinformation, available here.

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