Commencement Forum ─ The Future of Media and Political Engagement


The panelists today are
focusing on the intersection of new media and
political engagement. And all of them are
some combination– we’ll see how they would
describe themselves– as entrepreneurs,
which is, again, why we’re co-hosting this,
journalists, and communication experts. And I’m just going to lightly
introduce each of them. And I think you’ll weave
in comments about them and you’ll weave in
comments about yourselves. So starting from right here. Jenny Backus, class of
’90, is the president of Backus Consulting LLC, a
strategic communications firm– at least I hope that’s
how you are describing it. Jenny has served in leadership
positions for Fortune 500 companies. And throughout the
political arena, she has managed more than 40
presidential primary debates, a skill set which is
increasingly relevant as we enter a new season. Recently, Jenny
served for three years as a senior policy advisor and
head of strategic partnerships and engagement for Google. John Kline, who I met
what seems like ages ago, but only within the
last couple of years is now becoming a close friend. And even more important, a close
friend of the Nelson Center, is the president– and I had
to check the pronunciation– of Vlinks, an
artificial intelligence platform that enables media
companies to understand their content and how it is
used better than ever before. John is the co-founder
and co-chairman of Tap Media, a
subscription video platform for personalities
with super fan followings that is backed by Discovery
Communications and Google’s Eric Schmidt. John served as the president
of CNN US from 2004 to 2010, reviving the then-struggling
brand by integrating technology to support a renewed commitment
to in-depth journalism. CNN then attained record
ratings under John’s leadership, doubling profits while winning
the most awards in its history. Ellen McGirt, class of
’84, is a senior editor at Fortune, where she writes
Race Ahead, an award winning daily column on race, culture,
and inclusion in corporate life and beyond. In the past, Ellen has
worked for Time, Money, and most recently, Fast Company,
where she wrote or contributed to more than 20 cover stories
and created the digital series, the 32nd MBA. I spent two years
getting my MBA, so it may have
been more fruitful for me to read Ellen’s work. Her reporting has
taken her inside the C suites of Facebook, Nike,
Twitter, Intel, Xerox, and Cisco on the campaign
trail with Barack Obama and across Africa with
Bono to study breakthrough philanthropy. I was hoping I’d get one. Jenny Kaplan, class of 2014,
is the co-founder and CEO of Wonder Media Network,
along with Shira Atkins, who’s in the back there. And I say this with
enormous pride, because both Shira
and Jenny were my students in my
entrepreneurial process course. In fact, Jenny became
my teaching assistant for two semesters in which
Shira took that course. And Jenny has told me,
although with too much credit, that she caught the
entrepreneurial bug in my course. Although all the credit for
what Shira and Jenny are doing belongs to them. Two days ago, I had
lunch with somebody who asked me why, 13 years
ago, did I come back to Brown to start to teach
entrepreneurship. And why am I now leading the
center for entrepreneurship. And you don’t have to look any
further than to Jenny and Shira to answer that question. I’m enormously proud of
them and all my students. And I’m so happy that Jenny has
come back to be on this panel. So I’m going to turn this over
to Ed Steinfeld, the director of the Watson Institute. Please join me in welcoming Ed
and all four of our panelists. Good morning. And I especially
want to welcome you all to the Watson institute’s
new building, Steve and Robert Hall. Please be frequent– I was
going to say visitors or guests, you’re all part
of the community. Please be frequent presences
here through the weekend, but next year and at any time. And I must also
say, I’m so thrilled that this event is being
co-hosted by the Nelson Center and Watson. That’s typical of
what we do at Brown. We collaborate– I’ll just
speak for the Watson Institute, our future depends
on our ability to keep engaging the most vital
arts of Brown, all of Brown, and especially
the Nelson center. So we have a typically
extraordinary panel of Brown alums. Let me just start with
the first question that I’d like each of you
to answer maybe briefly. We’re bombarded with
all different kinds of information, all different
kinds of media today. And you all have played a
role in generating media and curating it. And so there’s so much distrust
today, so much concern, that there is no truth. That there’s fake news. Where do you find
truth in the media? How do you find
truth in the media? That’s a problem– I’m stuck first. That is actually
the biggest question that is facing society. I mean, it’s a really
tough and hard question. It’s a great question OK,
I mean I took semiotics at Brown, which I don’t know
if anybody did back in the day. Modern culture media,
it changed its name, and they taught you nothing– people walked out there
saying nothing means anything. A tree is a dog. You walked out of
there and there some people who were like, yes,
yes, and then the rest of us were like, what? But I think where
you find truth is, I think it is all about curation. You have to find– and I also
think it’s about referees. People are looking for people
to call the balls and strikes right now. You have the Fox News, you
have the news coming over here. I’ve grown up reading the New
York Times, the Washington Post, and The Wall
Street Journal. So I think that’s
where the truth is. And I know a lot of
journalists that are there. But I think we do– there’s so much out
there now because of how technology has changed it. There are so many
people that are out are saying that
they’re the voice, that I think that what
we are looking for, or the way to find
truth, is to find people who are sort of
factually cutting things down, and places where you can go. Like it’s almost like we need
a modern day encyclopedia that you can go to. A place where you can
look something up. And you can sort of
weigh it with the lenses that are around it. Now, what’s also
happened, and I’m looking at Jenny
down at the end, and some of Ellen’s
writing, which is amazing, is there are lenses that
these people that you think are putting around things. Like, I, as a woman, watching
presidential coverage in this election cycle. You see Howard Schultz, sorry– old CNN– get a town hall. Yet you see Kamala Harris or
Elizabeth Warren put out policy after policy. They can’t break through. And that is, quote
unquote “neutral people,” who probably think they’re
neutral, but are finding it more interesting to have a
corporate CEO get a town hall, than someone who’s
talking about childcare. So one of the things
that’s happened is that we are starting to
realize that people that really see themselves as truth tellers
and don’t that they have biases are influencing the way that
they’re telling their truth. So I think that’s a big
challenge that’s coming up. And you’re going to need to
have more people challenging that orthodoxy, with
also understanding that people are really trying
to give a rounded picture. And so a lot of people are
professing their biases before they report the news. That’s a little hard
too, but I think that’s what you’re seeing
in the media right now. At least that’s
what I’m feeling. John. So thanks to Ed, I got to lead
a study group this past semester at Watson. Thanks to you, the Watson
Institute and our students were the best this year. It was real. You said yes to the idea. And it was called the
news versus the truth. I have one of our
participants right here. And I learned some
really significant things because the co-leader of the
session was a Brown psychology professor named Steve Sluman,
who’s written a book called The Knowledge Illusion, in
which he makes the point– and we explored this at
length in the study group– that we each define
truth differently. We form our beliefs based
on what people who we trust tell us. And so there’s truth, you
could boil that down to facts. Gravity is the truth–
even though it’s a scientific theory, it’s true. Certain things are just true. But a lot of the contentiousness
that we feel, and the shifting ground we feel, I’d
argue has to do more with how people are
applying those facts. The conclusions that
they’re drawing from facts. Everybody in the
abortion debate right now may agree on all the facts about
when a heartbeat is discernible and how mitosis and meiosis
occur and all of that. But they disagree
on the outcome. And that has nothing to
do with a disagreement about basic facts. That’s belief systems. If anybody went to
synagogue this morning, or is going to
church tomorrow, you might take issue with with
the truth, the factualness, of some of the stories
underlying the Bible. But you’re still going
to church or the temple. And I think that’s
at the core of what– sources of truth are
going to depend on what circles you’re in, separate
from facts, which I think depends on the audience,
the receivers, the consumers of information having a
better understanding of how to parse what they’re hearing. So news literacy
information, literacy becomes very important. To build on all of
that, I’ll start by going back in time to one
of the first stories I wrote when I was that Fast Company. And it was the
first ever profile of a young tech executive
named Mark Zuckerberg, which at the time, until
very recently, was something I was very
excited to tell people about. We put him on the cover. They only had six million users,
and there were still so new, out of the college only system,
that I wouldn’t have a Facebook account. And I think I was the first
person from the class of ’84, outside of anybody
was in academics, to have a Facebook account. It was the only
time I’ve ever been a trail blazer of any kind. So six million users, and Mark
and his entire executive staff were my first Facebook friends. So as part of teaching
me how it worked, and to understand the potential
power of this platform that they were still trying
to figure out themselves, the extraordinary
thing about it and I knew enough about the world. And I certainly knew
enough about people to know this was nonsense. But they were building the
entire energy and momentum of the site on people sharing
information about themselves, and calling that news. The news feed was brand new. And his proud use case for
why it was so important was, people were complaining
about news feed on news feed, and it was generating
news about news feed and it was this whole big thing. And so then see, it works. And sure enough, here we
are many, many years later. It’s working. So to build on trust and
bias, what ends up happening, is that people take their
status and their role as communicators in
their communities, however they define that
digitally in their lives, and they begin to
broadcast things that make them feel good. And I wish I could believe
that presenting them with a set of facts even as
basic as gravity as gravity would be helpful. It doesn’t matter. What we’re seeing
overwhelmingly is, at least from my point of
view, as someone writes a daily column
about race everyday– did Liam Neeson say
something terrible? Are we talking about
Robert E. Lee again? Who got shot? It is just the most grim
look at the American psyche that you could possibly imagine. And yet people want to
really engage in this because it’s thanks
to the hard work of confronting their biases. It’s the hard work of
understanding a history that has never been surfaced. So between truth and in media– like, a history major. This is the history
major’s answer. We have to understand
everything about our origin. We have to understand how
our communities are founded. And why certain people
never get a mortgage, even though they’re
credit worthy. And why people gravitate
to certain types of news and information
and then share it. And truly truly dangerous
thing about Facebook is that I don’t even get to
see the news that you see. And then it just disappears
and nobody is held accountable. So those are the kinds
of difficult issues that we’re asking voters
and readers and subscribers to talk about. And parse when they really want
to talk about same-sex marriage or they want to talk about
limiting civil rights. Or people who
consider themselves part of a faith based community
saying terrible things about refugees at our border. There’s just no common
ground right now. So for me, ultimately, I want to
end my little sad little speech here on the idea of trust,
because it’s something that we’re really
grappling with. How do you develop trust? How do you develop a
brand that’s trusted? How do you develop
a voice as a curator that people will
follow and believe and will pay for,
ultimately, because that’s what the media has to do. We have to solve the
problem of getting people to pay for the reporting
that’s truthful. The Edelman Trust
barometer this year, it’s an annual survey of the
institutions around the world that people trust, and
for the first time, NGOs rank second to, not just
business, but my employer. I trust my employer to
understand the news, to be truthful with
me, and to weigh in on issues that matter to me. I trust NGOs next, then I
trust business in general, and then last comes media,
and in between there’s government somewhere. It’s always sort of a shifting
fight to the bottom, media and government. But the idea that people
trust their employers is taking real root here. And we’re asking
employers to weigh in. Every day, there’s
another amicus brief, or collect letter. And they’re worried about
transgender rights and access to bathrooms and
same sex marriage. And they’re really
moving on these issues because their
employees want them to. So it’s a strange
new development. And the cynical
answer is, I trust people who pay me, who are
smart enough to pay me, because that is the one
sign of their good judgment. But actually– but
with the Howard Schultz is sort of
[? playing ?] that a little bit but with some
exceptions, we’ve seen some extraordinary leadership. [AUDIO OUT] It’s hard to go last here. I think, thinking about truth,
building on what all of you said, right now
there’s an opportunity. More than ever,
there’s information for more and more sources. And it isn’t that when
people were getting news from a few places,
there wasn’t bias. There were clearly
biases forever. There have always been
people writing the news. And so I think that the
more information there is, there’s actually
also an opportunity to address who’s writing it. I think more and more,
as Jenny mentioned, people are bringing out, to
begin with, who they are, and what their biases are,
when they’re writing the news. When they’re reporting. When you see on Twitter
if people are using that as a source of news,
you can go to their bios and see who they are and
where they’re coming from. And I think that
that’s a challenge to curate and figure out
what is real, what is true, what are facts,
if facts even are the same for different people. But also, it’s an
opportunity to be able to hear from people who are
using their own voices to tell their own stories. And I think there
is power in that. I think there are all sorts
of new and old mediums. I have a podcast company,
so I’m particularly fond of that medium. But I think part of
the power of that is that you’re hearing
people tell their own stories with their own voices. And at some point, it’s
really a literacy issue. How are we going to figure out
how we identify what’s true and what’s not, to us? So on Facebook, if you’re
looking through your news feed and it looks like it’s from a
reputable source, that’s great. But how do we actually
know that that’s true? And to me, that comes back
to that curation factor. Who are the people I trust? What are the institutions
that I do still trust? Before I started this company
I worked at Bloomberg News as a reporter. So I have a lot of respect
for traditional– or not so traditional media. And I think that it’s important. And there are things
about fact-checking, and these big institutions are
big institutions for a reason. But I think it comes
baco– to I actually think it’s a good thing
that we’re questioning now, what is true. Where is this news coming from? How do we take those facts,
like gravity, look at the lenses that those facts are
being reported through, and identify what we think
is correct because there isn’t really one truth. There are all these
different truths, depending on where
you’re sitting. So that’s not a
very easy answer, but I think that
it’s sort of like– we have to have
the responsibility to take on that education to try
to figure out what is accurate and what isn’t and
how we move forward with that lack of clarity. We’re going to just do
maybe two more questions, and then we’ll open
it up to the audience. So please generate
some questions. But for this one, maybe
anybody can weigh in, but maybe this one we’ll focus
on Jenny Backus and John Klein. So to the 2020
presidential campaign, I was about to say
is about to begin, but we’re well into
it in a big way. Jenny as a person who’s trying
to shape a message for clients, and John as somebody who’s
from a big organization, tried to develop strategies
for delivering the message. What’s going to be the critical
platform on which discussion happens in this
wild media space? Well the interesting
thing that I’ve learned, now maybe through
four presidential campaigns, and watching media cover
presidential campaigns and trying to impact it, is
that there is a huge tendency to try to run the last
race and not this race. And candidates that have– we started off before Barack
Obama even got onto the scene with Hillary and McCain. And McCain was trying
very hard not to be Bush. And Hillary is trying very
hard not to be John Kerry. And Barack Obama was just
doing his own thing over here. And I think that is
something that you know– I got to work actually with
John on presidential debates when he was running CNN. And CNN did something
really innovative. They decided that
people would want to listen to presidential
primary debates which like in DC, was like, what? Why would you ever go
to California Democratic Convention and all those crazy
people and hear them talk. It really changed who
you saw in– and I worked in the ’04 cycle the ’08
cycle, and then I was at Google in ’12 watching from outside. But now we have
millions of debates. So that model that
CNN built, they’re still trying to have
a president debate. How are you going to have
a presidential debate with 36 people on the
stage, or even 12? Those debates are not going to
serve the same role anymore. So I think it’s hard
to say– you can say, oh, this is going to be the
Twitter or the Snapchat. The technology that’s going
to be the most powerful is going to be the one is
actually helping people talk to real people in these states. Because there’s so
many candidates, you can’t win with a
huge TV buy right now. You are going to have to go and
find 6,000 people in Ames, Iowa to go out in the middle
of the snow in February and caucus for you. You’re going to have to– so I think it’s
what is happening is media is changing how
candidates are running. So in order to get
news, Elizabeth Warren goes to Georgia. Or Badow gets his haircut. Now there was a great
Karen Tumulty column in DC, which is shared
by all my friends, about what would have
happened if Amy Klobuchar went to get her haircut. That would have been
a whole– to go back to your bias question. So I think that’s going
to be really interesting. To add these two things and
then turn it over to John because I’ll give you a
nice hard question here. But the last two days I have
been so troubled by what has happened with this
Nancy Pelosi video. And I think it is getting
to the core of what the biggest challenge– because first of all there
are foreign actors that are deliberately using
our social media platforms and some of our own problems– I mean we’re helping them– to shape this election. And that video of Nancy Pelosi,
the President of the United States re-tweeted and Fox is
talking about like it’s a fact. And Facebook won’t take it down. Right, that’s the thing. And Twitter, all these
people on Twitter, like Jack are you going
to take the video down. Jack you’re going to take away– So that was a big test for me,
whether or not that old sort of system of ethics and values– I mean I’m a Democrat, I’ve
been constantly disappointed. I have lots of
Republican friends. I’ve been– why haven’t they
said anything about Trump? It’s just crazy. Like the ones I used– Bob Dole and all these
people I first met. Like what happened to them? Now it’s the same
thing with the media. I was like, OK, well,
they learned their lesson from last cycle. They won’t let
this happen again. And they’re not. So I don’t know. I’m a little bit– So that’s a good example of– it’s going to be
the technology tool. I think the way it is
it’s not accountability. That it’s going to be
mass accountability that actually ends
up forcing people to change their behavior. If Lindsey Graham has everybody
in South Carolina say, you can’t do that. Or if people go at
Zuckerberg and say, we’re going to boycott all
your corporate advertisers. We’re going to take we’re going
to take away your accounts. We’re not going to give
you clicks on eyeballs. It’s going to be technology
that enables collective action to actually hold people
accountable for bad behavior. I think that’s
going to be the way. That’s like my thought. In terms of what’s influential,
filterless platforms, the more direct
connection there is between a candidate
and the voters, I think the more influential. These town halls that the
networks have started to do are phenomenal for that
because the candidates actually get to speak at length
about what they would do. And it’s not built in
fireworks or fights or anything like that. We worked hard at CNN in the
2007/2008 debate cycle to– I was really surprised
when I got to CNN. The producers of the debates,
not you in particular, but the commonly held
belief was that our job was to get them to
fight with each other. And I had to say,
oh, wait a minute. I had been out of the news
business for six years. I’d been at CBS News for a long
time and overseeing 60 minutes, but then I left. And I had a startup
for six years. And I come back and I see
this, and I said, well no, as an audience
member, I actually want to hear them
say what they’ll do if they’re president. So let’s get rid
of the fighting. And we tried an experiment, I
think it was the South Carolina debate. That was three of them, right? There was Hillary, Obama,
and John Edwards still. We did it in two parts. We had the classic
debate structure, they’re standing at podiums and
we’re firing questions at them. And then for the
second half, we had them come down off
the podium, remember, and sit-in those comfy chairs
and just have a conversation. And they got to speak at length. And we got to hear them. And the second half, you saw a
spike in the ratings for that. Which should have cured,
once and for all, the idea that the classic debate
structure is the way to go. And people want to hear. Clearly, had empirical evidence
that the audience really does want to hear more from them. So now you’re seeing,
in the town halls, you get the chance to do that. And then, of course,
it still gets back to what Professor
Steve Sluman taught me, which is what your friends
tell you about what they’re hearing and seeing. I think it’s very powerful. If you can hear Amy Klobuchar
or Elizabeth Warren speak at length, it gets rid
of all power of media outlets to spin it in
those first few moments. And then, of course, it gets
thrown into the rinse cycle. And everybody else
gets to define it and suddenly people, start
coming away saying, well actually, yeah she was terrible. I thought she’d been
great, but now I realize how terrible she was. But for those brief
shining moments. you get a direct connection. But then I think a
lot depends on what your friends say about it. You know, I’m leaning
more toward this because I like her ideas
about blah-blah-blah. You know, she’s got more ideas
and I thought she’d have. That’s good. And that’s sort of how people
start to make up their minds. So my job– after so
Gore quote unquote, “lost his first debate”
the size and lines debate, he’d lost the spin
and expectations. So my job in a Kerry
cycle, Michael Hooley said, you have $500,000
to buy online advertising to say Gore won– I mean, to say Kerry won,
whether or not he did. So that’s exactly what
you’re talking about. Remember we got rid
of a thing where– there was a thing, post debate,
there would be the spin room. Where journalists would
wait and all the candidates would file in. And we would rush to stick
our mics in their face and they would tell
us how well they did. And we got rid of the
spin room because it’s like what why would we,
as a news organization, willingly put ourselves
in position to be spun? You just heard them talk. Make up your own mind. But all of that stuff
is very controversial. And it’s not the conventional
approach that’s taken. So I think part of
the issue is the way that establishment
media had fallen into this hand-in-hand collusion
with the entire political establishment, as to how a
campaign is covered and talked about. And a little bit of the distrust
you were speaking of, I think, is earned. My career in media spans an
increase in sensationalism in news, and a decline in
rigorous or classical news values of sobriety and just
present the information. And lo and behold, we’re down
at the bottom of the trust pile. Well, let’s start fixing that
to the degree that we can, and win back people’s trust. I think it’s important. This last question, I want
to turn to Ellen and Jenny. I catch myself, not
infrequently now, thinking [INAUDIBLE] Walter
Cronkite [INAUDIBLE] news. Just turn on the TV, turn
the channel to Walter or grab the New York Times. And just get the honest truth. And in my few more self
reflective moments, I think, maybe it’s just
nostalgia for something that never really was. And those establishment
channels themselves excluded lots of voices,
whether intentionally or not, and reflected power. And so, what I want to ask
you both is, to what extent is that true? And have we gotten beyond
that in any positive way? OK, I’ll start. Well first of all, you can
still pick up in New York Times. People may have forgotten. But I think it’s both. I mean, I do think that the
news, as both if you were just referencing, has become
significantly more sensationalized. And I think some of it
comes down to the fact that it’s a media business. And I know that when I was
at Bloomberg during the 2016 election cycle, stories that
had Trump in the headline did better. They got more clicks. People wanted to read them more. And depending on where you
are, that’s what you want. You want your
stories to get read. And so I think that there is– definitely news has become
more sensationalized. On the other hand, I do
think that there have always been issues with power
and truth and all of these different
biases in news. And I do think that, as many
of us learned here at Brown, it’s about finding
different sources and figuring out it isn’t just
turning on Walter Cronkite, or just reading
the New York Times. It’s, how can we use
different sources to try to not just be
within an echo chamber to read the same things
over and over again. How can we try to sort of
deepen our understanding of the stories at hand? And I think that is through
different kinds of mediums, whether it’s social media,
or podcasts, or just different kinds of
newspapers, whatever it is– taking a minute
to think like, OK. I can read the New York Times
and watch a YouTube channel, and listen to podcasts and
all of these different ways to actually get different
perspectives instead of just going to that one source. And I think that’s
more powerful than just turning on one TV channel
and accepting it as fact. I think part of
the implicit thing I have in the back of
my mind is that for all of the multiplication
of media channels, maybe they’re just
accentuating misogyny, accentuating bias rather than– I’m worried that those
aren’t washing out. Yeah, I would just
quickly say, I agree. I mean, I also think
that, increasingly, we’re only reading the news
that appeals to us. So my news may be
more addressing things that I care about. And so misogyny
is being addressed head on in what I’m reading. But that’s because that’s
what I’m interested in and it’s what’s targeted towards
me on Facebook or Twitter. And everything that
I read is that way. But that’s, for sure,
my own echo chamber. And it may be that
yours is very different. And so you’re not
getting that news, and I agree with you
that there is a risk. The question is how can we– a lot of this, it seems
like a lot of what we’ve talked about
throughout this panel is, how can we as a community
of citizens, or people in the world, change that and
get out of our echo chambers and try to overcome and
maybe use technology in a different way to instead
see more opinions instead of fewer opinions? Yeah, you really you really hit
to the crux of the matter here. What will compel people to
step out of their normal media consumption to find
a reliable voice that may be different from them? Because everything
about that voice is going to feel so foreign that
it’s going to feel unreliable. And I was really struck just
listening to our CNNers here. I mean I wish we had
more time to just ask you a million
questions about what it was like back in the day. Because I have never been
a political reporter, but every now and
then in my life, I’ve dipped into that world. And I went into
a spin room once. I was following the– it
was in New Hampshire– and I was following, in 2004,
all the Democratic candidates. And when you’re
used to it, it seems like a perfectly normal thing. And when you’re not, you think,
this is how it happens here? No wonder we’re a mess. And I walk into the spin
room in the University of New Hampshire. They clearly hated journalists. The only snack was a huge bowl,
like this, filled with prunes. I got the joke, I got the joke. And then when I got
into the spin room, it was filled with
political operatives and the candidates their
candidates surrogates and media. Everyone assumes I was
with the Sharpton campaign. It was the most amazing– I walk in, I’ve
got a pad, and then suddenly every camera is on me. Just waiting for
me to say something about what Al Sharpton
had just said on stage. And that, to my other point
about trust, the talent pipeline in every aspect,
from technology to media, to reporting, to branding,
and all of it, is so thin. And we just keep
identifying as talented, and promoting the
exact same person. This is 2004, right. So the ability to find
an alternative voice is going to feel so jarring
for anybody who remembers, even with some fondness, the three
great men of television news. So anything that we
can do, and anything we can do together,
or anything I can do to be in service
to this, to make sure that we’re pointing to
people who are creating a body of work that is
quality and that’s serious and that we can underwrite
and we can subscribe to our local papers. And we can listen to
important podcasts. All of these things are as
important as eating right and exercising everyday. It’s exercising our
right to support the media that will make
the world better not worse. [APPLAUSE] Questions from the audience. There are microphones
here, so if you can just move to the microphone and
we’ll start taking questions. And please be brief, and the
panelists also will be brief. Yeah, go ahead. Thank you so much for
sharing all your opinions. I think it was
fascinating to get all the different perspectives. So I wanted to jump off
of one of Jenny’s earlier points, which was the idea that
media companies are essentially businesses. Even social media
companies are businesses. And there are a lot of intrinsic
factors and money– a lot of it coming from advertisers. And there’s an intrinsic
motivation, in my opinion, to show people content that
will exacerbate their emotions and get them going. So even with things like
what John is working on, artificial intelligence,
and options that might help alleviate it and
just distill it down to facts. Are those even viable solutions? Or is there a viable
solution to this problem with all this money
coming in the system and an intrinsic motivation
for social media companies and media companies
to display information that panders to human
psychology to some extent? Well I would just say that,
one of the best things that has happened under the Trump
administration has been, more people are
paying for media. The rise of subscriptions
to newspapers, more funding into the old truth
tellers, or the gatherers, is going to give them more money
to get out onto those platforms and back. It is it’s actually
an interesting policy question that’s happening
right now in Washington. Is Facebook a
news-gathering organization? Or are they a media platform? Under one way,
they’re regulated. They don’t want to
be seen as a news because, this is a
different set of rules. So there’s a lot
of fighting about, how do we define these guys. But more funding
into truth tellers, both in the traditional
media, and then sort of outside documentary,
films, podcasts. The New York Times’ podcast is
one of the most well listened to podcasts out there. And they’re still
telling the same truth that they were reporting. But they’re now using their
increased subscription dollars to fight in that realm. So I think that
is maybe one way. People do need to make money. We need to pay journalists. Journalists, like teachers and
nurses, are woefully underpaid. But it’s a financial business. You need to be
able to fight back. But I do think that’s how
you’re going to fight it. When other people learn how to
manipulate those social media platforms, just like the
Russians, then we will win. I’d also question the premise
that conflict creates audience. At CNN, we eliminated
as much as we could. And we had the highest
ratings we’ve ever had, including today
during the Trump bump. So people– the more noise
there is in the system, people crave analysis
and understanding. The most DVR’ed show on the
CNN schedule is Fareed Zakaria, GPS, which is a
conflict free zone. It’s all analysis. And people can’t miss it. And so it’s important for
media people to grasp that. The most popular podcast– you’re not building your
podcast based on conflict, let’s get people to fight. It’s, let’s open
your mind and let’s have intriguing conversations. Right, what we’re
actively trying to do is– our mission is that
we’re trying to amplify underrepresented voices. And so our mission
is based on the idea that what people actually
want, what draws people in, is good storytelling. And that doesn’t have
to mean fighting. In fact, I think a fight
becomes quite boring. Especially right now, people are
used to that divisive, debate fight going at each other,
and don’t trust it anymore and don’t want to
hear more of that. So I think some of
it may come down to exactly what
you’re referring to, which is that that isn’t
actually what people want. But I think there
is momentum that has to be shifted
a little bit when you think about what big media
companies think gets ratings. Because they think that
the conflict gets ratings. The question is, can new
kinds of media, can start-ups shift that. And can consumers show
that what they want is a deeper understanding? I think that’s actually
part of the reason the podcasts, as an
industry, have blossomed so much, because, at the same
time as many kinds of media is getting shorter and
shorter and more and more bullet points and all
these different things, podcasts instead are more and
more in-depth stories that can be definitely
conflict-free zones. But it’s really like
a full narrative. Yeah, and look at– I know you want to get
to the next question, but just one final– like. NPR is a conflict free zone. And it’s got 25 to 30
million weekly listeners. It rivals. If they were
ad-supported, they’d be making a lot of money. So there’s proof everywhere. I think it’s lazy executives. It’s just easier
to promote a fight, because no one’s going to
fire you for doing that. Everyone does that, so
I’m just going to do that. What I hope is
that data is going to open our eyes to
what actually works. And I think what actually
works is more information. Thanks so much. My name is Dewey [INAUDIBLE]
I’m a graduate of Brown and also the late,
great WBRU news. I have a brief observation based
on what all of you are saying. In most digital
platforms, the user is encouraged to search
out what he or she wants. And that automatically
excludes everything else in the analog platforms. In the Walter
Cronkite world of old, they may still have been
biases, but the viewers were exposed most
likely to viewpoints they weren’t necessarily just
searching out on their own. So I have a question. How do we strike a balance
in the new media world so that the average user is
exposed to more than just what occurs to them? I mean, the answer to
that is social media. I want to build on
what you were saying about conflict-free
zones, because I think it is so important. To be able to speak to
people as human beings. And just to create a product
that’s welcoming for folks. Jessica Yellen,
who’s a journalist I care very much about
and I admire her, was recently at one
of our conferences. And the coaching that she
received when she first started to cover
politics– and she was told to watch ESPN
because that debate where a bunch of men sit
around and fight about the game they just watched,
was the model. And which is just not
welcoming to anybody but a certain type of 18
to 34-year-old man who is very valuable to advertisers. And that’s what the entire
model is built around, and the rest of the media is– contemporary
entertainment media is built around attracting a
14- to 16-year-old girl. So just let that wash over you. So if you think
about human beings, if you are if you’re looking
for media, designing media, or you’re amplifying
media and sharing it with your friends,
something that’s welcoming to somebody who’s
not just a teenage girl who’s going to buy makeup and tickets,
or a guy who wants to fight about the game, then
suddenly you’ve got something that you can share. And you can converse
with people about. And it becomes a
welcoming thing. But it’s going to be the design. And you’re absolutely
right about it. And you are right about it too. WBRU is not late. It’s alive and well and
doing a lot of podcasting. My name is Kurt
Spalding I’m with IVES, the Institute for Environment
Society here at Brown. Quick question, for
the first time in 2020, we’re going to see
climate change become an issue somewhere outlined
in the top-five conversation. And the media hasn’t
done a wonderful job. I think there’s– watching
chuck Todd try to change things in January. And of course, our good friend
Anderson Cooper got criticized for questioning whether climate
the idea is climate change is gravity is not to be debated. So how do you think they’re
going to do with this? I just read Jay Inslee’s 22 page
statement on climate change. And I could only understand
four pages of it. It’s so thick and hard. And I know something about it. I was the regional
administrative VPA for Obama. So how do you think they’re
going to do with this? I wanted to say, great for
CNN because Ted Turner– I think his spirit
around climate issues has always been with CNN. And Ted Turner being a Brown
alumni, it’s very big to that. Another thing I learned
in our study group is, too much information
really overloads people. The reason that people
rely on their friends to tell them what to think is
because there’s just way too much information out there. And there’s more than
ever, as we’ve established. So you do need to
boil things down, but you don’t have
to dumbify them. And it isn’t so
much having to drill certain facts pounded
into people’s heads over and over again. There is something
to be said for making a vividly powerful illustration
of one piece of information or another. I sent Anderson
around the world. We did a series called Planet
in Peril to try and get at it in that way, to tell
the stories of people who were affected by climate change. And what it meant. One image of a polar bear
stranded on an ice floe can do more to sensitize people
to the realities than anything. But I do suspect, and you
probably know this better than anyone, as people’s
beach homes start to float away, or
know you go to Miami and you’re driving
along the street suddenly it’s flooded
in the middle of street, it’s going to start affecting
people more profoundly. We saw Midwest floods
this past spring. I think it’ll become
easier for journalists to actually access those
stories and illustrate them. Just to quickly
add to that I also think that there’s a huge
corporate understanding now of climate change. And I hate to say it– I mean I remember taking
[INAUDIBLE] class and earth and other [? ethics. ?]
Like it actually– but corporations are actually
taking a moral position on this. And when you have corporations
pushing up here who advertise, and then you have– like my
niece who just graduated from UT Austin like I can’t have
any cup in my house because it violates some– and I always recycle wrong. And I need– I get
really stressed about it. But then you have
the New York Times that just literally has
been pouring dollars, if you’ve been reading
them, into like the planet and what’s been happening. I think you’re going to just
organically see it this time. The town hall voters are
going to ask the questions. The media corporate sponsors who
are sponsoring and underwriting all this stuff are going
to ask the questions. Yeah I think it’s
really flipped. It’s almost like gay
rights, in some sense, it’s now just become an accepted
thing, which is really good. Media is not good at
leading a discussion. It’s better at following. They are all trying to hit
that bull’s eye of what you care about right now,
as opposed to, here’s what you should care about. They’re not as
efficient at that. I also think that
like, gay rights as you mentioned– it’s sort of a
generational thing as well. I think that the beach homes
is a great example for an older cohort. And I think that, from what
I’m seeing and hearing, the younger generation, the
people who are just starting to be able to vote,
climate change is like their biggest issue. Their top issue and even
though the challenges that young people don’t tend to
vote, which is a bigger problem but I think that as
those people get older, it too will become more
and more prevalent. But it’s hard to
tell how candidates will do with it until they
have to actually answer the question. But it will clearly be a
top thing, this go round. So thank you, John,
just a quick comment. Your comments on the
town hall format, and the lengthy
discussion, really echo what Howard Stern of
all people in his new book talks about with his
interview format, being that he kind of
lamented that he never got Hillary Clinton on his show. Because he makes the comment
that his long format interview hour, hour and a half, actually
humanizes these people in a way that even people who disagreed
with certain people on a show, will call him and say, you
know, I kind of see their point. So I think that’s a valid point. But my question revolves
around the whole issue of curation, which I completely
agree is really critical. But the problem
I have is that, I think there’s a step
prior to curation which is, I read New
York review of books NPR. And I’m proud of myself for only
following sources that I trust. I’ve spoken with people who
are avid Fox viewers, InfoWars viewers, and they firmly believe
they’ve picked a curation channel that they can trust. So I guess my question is,
how do we step back from that? And even maybe
even before we talk about social media creating
these clusters of people, is there a sort of a
world view problem? And how do we address that? How do we break through this
worldview that prevents me from seeing even the
arguments on the other side, without resorting to
an ad hominem attack? My answer right now is,
they’re just idiots, right. That’s not a productive
way to have a discourse. But unfortunately,
that’s what we have. We have, you’re an idiot,
and I’m a liberal nutcase from Berkeley. So how do we get beyond
that and create dialogue around our differing
worldviews that breaks through sort of
this wall that we’ve formed around our worldviews? How do we do that? I’m sure Ellen can
figure this out. I will have an answer. I don’t know if it’s
going to be very helpful. I’m so glad you bring that up. Yeah. That is a huge thing. It is. The Fairness Doctrine
required broadcasters to present opposing
points of view. You had to. And under the
Reagan deregulation, they eradicated the
Fairness Doctrine. Part of the argument was,
look, there are so many– it is one thing when there
were three broadcasters and there was one newspaper
in town or whatever. But now, there’s so many
sources of information, surely you don’t need to balance
everything within everything. But they did not anticipate
the rise of right wing radio. Which never has to present
an opposing point of view. Or the whatever the left
wing analog of that might be. And I think it would
be a pretty good idea– thank you for raising that– to reintroduce the
Fairness Doctrine. It would be hugely
controversial. It won’t happen in my lifetime. But it would be it
would be worthwhile just because they
never anticipated the damage to society
that’s caused by the siloed. And liberals are as guilty
of it as conservatives because nobody’s got
a corner on the truth. People hated the
idea that Trump was going to take on China
aggressively about some of their very unfair
and scary practices. I mean, you try to
do business in China, as some of my companies
do, and you just can’t. And that’s wrong. And so maybe that turns
out to be a good idea. So absolutism on any
front is dangerous. But just since we’re
so entrepreneurial, maybe we could do it ourselves
without worrying about that the government coming in. Because the truth
is, the minute you hear Fairness
Doctrine, of course, there’s not the binary is false,
there’s 10 points of view, there’s not two points of view. But the practice of routinely
including other points of view isn’t false. So if there was a way to
find sources companies who’d be willing to state– maybe certification
isn’t the right thing, or a blue check mark mark
isn’t the right thing– but just be part of a
community that would actually routinely do the hard work. Because it is hard work. And most people
don’t want to do it. I curate a newsletter which
is opposing points of view and it’s hard. And I do a lot of fact checking
of other people’s stuff. And sometimes I amplify
things that I personally am uncomfortable with or I don’t
feel like I fully understand, for the sole purpose
of making sure that I am doing a good
faith effort as a curator. So it’s risky. But then you have Fox News
who has just totally given up pretending that they
are a news station. And they are almost
propaganda, now. They are completely propaganda. And it’s hard to
think, as I always used to make my
bosses go on Fox News. Harry Reid was the first
Democrat to go on with– back in the day
because I’m like, you have to talk to
people that are not like. You’re such a good person. I try. I try. But now, I completely applaud
people that aren’t going on. And I was always like, more
access, take on hard questions because they don’t even
care about the truth. When they won’t admit that the
Nancy Pelosi video is doctored, that’s not a news organization. I feel like Chris Wallace is
like blinking a sign for help. I agree. I’ll go on your podcast. I also think that,
in the meantime, before we can do something
like pass the Fairness Act, some of it is
actually going back to trying to get closer to
face to face conversations and really talking
to each other. I mean, the person who
you want to call an idiot, and I’m sure they want to call
you an idiot, as challenging as it is, if you were
to sit down with someone and hear their story,
to me it’s all about– the way that we create
empathy between people is storytelling as human beings. And so how can you be open
to, and be in a situation where you’re listening
to someone’s story that’s significantly different
from your own. And so I think that it is
through different kinds of platforms and
different ways that you can try to be closer to
someone rather than further and further apart as we resort
to things like social media all the time. It goes back to the
emphasis on town halls. How can we take that ourselves
and really understand? The other thing that I would say
for the, trying to figure out what sources are true. I feel like there’s an
educational component. We don’t have any part– I didn’t have any part
in my elementary middle or high school where I really
was evaluating news sources and trying to understand
what facts were. Even if what I should be
seeing in different sources and how to judge those things. So how do we introduce
that into curriculum? Because it’s vitally
important, I think. This is education. We’ve reached the
end of our hour. But I’ll just say, listening
to the diversity of views, the sheer smarts
of this panel makes me feel a little bit regretful
I don’t have a Brown degree. But more importantly,
very, very deeply grateful to be part of this community,
to be teaching here at Brown, to be a Brown parent. So I want to thank you all,
Jenny Backus John Kline, Ellen McGirt, Jenny Kaplan. Thank you all for
your questions. [APPLAUSE]

Maurice Vega

2 Responses

  1. I love you guys for sharing these. What a wonderful time to be alive, if you’re a curious person.

  2. Advertisers pay the most into media, not subscribers, that's always been the case and it always will be. Once NPR started taking corporate dollars, they gradually been losing more and more of their truth telling ability. But they had to, to survive, as there wasn't enough coming from subscribers. And the purpose of advertisers is to get you to make knee-jerk emotional decisions and open your wallet, explicitly counter to "truth-telling". On NPR, corporate advertisement is designed as PR, to make them seem more benevolent and caring than they are. And a lot of media, especially in the social media space, is advertising designed to look like it's not advertising. Once small independent channels start getting popular, you are going to see corporations and advertisers move in and acquire them or otherwise use their money and power to influence them and if they can't do that, slander them.

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