Credit: Nathan Bomey

The internet sent the press in a tailspin

Now it’s time to invest in journalism

USA Today reporter Nathan Bomey provides his thoughts on the first draft chapter of “Renewing Americans’ Trust,” from the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy.

After moving to Arlington, Va., in 2015, I quickly discovered that two of the seminal events of the information age occurred within steps of each other about a mile from my new home.

Just north of Wilson Boulevard in the Rosslyn neighborhood near the Potomac River is the parking garage where Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward famously met in the early 1970s with Deep Throat, the secret source who helped to expose the Watergate scandal.

Just south of Wilson Boulevard, about a block away, is a nondescript office building where employees of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency led a project known as ARPANET — also in the early 1970s.

That project turned into the internet.

As the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy’s newly released draft first chapter notes, the internet has massively “disrupted the delivery and consumption of news” by “making access to news faster, cheaper and more convenient.” And it has enabled “precise targeting of advertising,” which has crippled the traditional print business model of newspapers and magazines.

It’s remarkable that one of the high points of American journalism occurred at the same time and place as the seeds were planted for the technology that would lead to journalism’s current economic crisis.

You could even say it was an early sign that the fate of journalism as an institution was inevitably tied to the creation of the internet.

Today, we are grappling with the consequences of those ripple effects — and one of the only ways to rewrite the script is to bring about a movement of nonprofit foundations and individual donors to fund journalism that’s critical for a healthy republic.

As the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy’s newly released draft first chapter notes, the internet has massively “disrupted the delivery and consumption of news” by “making access to news faster, cheaper and more convenient.” And it has enabled “precise targeting of advertising,” which has crippled the traditional print business model of newspapers and magazines.

This cavalcade of challenges threatens what the Commission called our ideal, “pluralistic model” of democracy, which relies on the press to “to provide a shared set of facts that disparate parties can debate and a fair account of the debate itself.”

Without professional fact authenticators on the job, we are left with a new generation of gatekeepers who are ill equipped and even sometimes unwilling to help us differentiate fact from fiction.

In my new book, After the Fact: The Erosion of Truth and the Inevitable Rise of Donald Trump (releasing May 8 and available now for pre-order), I examine this societal transfer of trust from professional journalists to social media algorithms geared to show people what they want to know — not what they need to know.

This wholesale shift has enabled our worst instincts, empowering ideologically motivated actors and groups on both sides of the political aisle to trample the truth by denying science, skewing the facts and circulating false information.

What we see today is a vortex of falsehoods constituting the misinformation age, which threatens to undermine the core principle of community that fuels our democratic republic. Perhaps the most noteworthy example is Russia’s misuse of social media to meddle in U.S. politics.

“We have a media environment that’s easier to manipulate than ever before,” BuzzFeed media editor and fake-news expert Craig Silverman told a packed crowd Feb. 20 at the Knight Media Forum in Miami.

He’s right. And unfortunately the collapse of traditional, sober-minded journalism has narrowed the gap between truth and lies, making it increasingly difficult for the average reader to identify the facts.

Facing an economic crisis, thousands of traditional news outlets have aggressively cut jobs, making it increasingly difficult to cover all the news, especially in small towns.

Regrettably, some once-respectable outlets have resorted to clickbait and coverage that eschews nuance. And those tactics play directly into the hands of critics, including President Trump, whose inaccurate labeling of coverage he dislikes as “fake news” has opened the door for “an entire universe of people who are ready to propagate that,” Silverman said.

Thus, we find ourselves at a critical juncture. We can allow responsible local journalism and many larger, reliable sources of information to die. Or we can invest in reporting because we believe that it’s vital to a vibrant democracy.

If we don’t save journalism, “we’ll have levels of corruption in this country that we never would have imagined,” longtime CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer warned at the Knight Media Forum.

I couldn’t agree more. Which is why I was so inspired to see dozens of foundations from throughout the country attending the Knight Media Forum, demonstrating their serious commitment to funding nonprofit journalism.

The Institute for Nonprofit News now has more than 100 members, such as Bridge Magazine in my home state of Michigan, NJ Spotlight in New Jersey and ProPublica on a national level.

Journalists at these publications are pursuing investigative leads, breaking news and delivering explanatory journalism with the same fervor as Bob Woodward in that Arlington garage so many years ago — because it’s vital to the preservation of truth.

We need them now more than ever.

“When someone sets out to destroy our free press, we must take that very seriously,” Schieffer said, “because that is an attack on one of the foundations of our democracy.”


Nathan Bomey is a business reporter for USA TODAY and author of the forthcoming book, After the Fact: The Erosion of Truth and the Inevitable Rise of Donald Trump. Contact him at nathan@nathanbomey.com and follow him on Twitter @NathanBomey.

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