“Americans Have Lost Their Bedrock of Democracy” Warns Former Newspaper Executive in Cutler Lecture




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Nov 17, 2017
by Sarah Sexton
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“Americans Have Lost Their Bedrock of Democracy” Warns Former Newspaper Executive in Cutler Lecture

Former Miami Herald publisher Alberto Ibargüen delivers the Seventh Lloyd N. Cutler Lecture on the Rule of Law  Alberto Ibargüen, President, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, delivers the seventh Lloyd N. Cutler Lecture on the Rule of Law

Two weeks after Facebook, Google, and Twitter executives testified before US Congress on how Russia used social media to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, Alberto Ibargüen called on the tech titans to acknowledge their role as “publishers” and take responsibility for the authenticity of the content they disseminate.  

Speaking on November 14 at the Newseum in Washington, DC, the former newspaper executive and current president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation said, “With the disaggregation of news sources and the rise of technology companies as leading publishers, Americans have lost their bedrock of democracy, which is a shared baseline of facts.” 

Ibargüen was joined by Charlie Savage of The New York Times for the Seventh Lloyd N. Cutler Lecture on the Rule of Law: “Trust, Media and Democracy in the Digital Age” (full text). The lecture series was established by Salzburg Global Seminar in 2009 to honor the life and work of Lloyd N. Cutler, former White House Counsel to Presidents Carter and Clinton and long-time Chairman of Salzburg Global’s Board of Directors.

Ibargüen is a former publisher of The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. During his tenure, The Miami Herald won three Pulitzer Prizes and El Nuevo Herald won Spain’s Ortega y Gasset Prize for excellence in Spanish language journalism.

While technology companies never intended to shoulder responsibility for reporting news, Ibargüen said, Pew Research Center found that in 2017 two-thirds of adults in the US get their news from social media. Many of these tech companies shirk classification as media companies and disavow responsibility for authenticity. But Ibargüen warned that misinformation and “fake news” would prove bad for business if the public loses trust in what they read on Facebook and other social media platforms.

Ibargüen and Savage discussed several possible solutions for determining the truth of online content, from Facebook’s efforts to curb “fake news” using a network of fact-checking partners to The Trust Project’s work with newsrooms and technology companies to help algorithms differentiate between news content and fakery.  

Ibargüen recounted that 10 years earlier, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, approached the Knight Foundation for funds to work on technology that would determine the truth or falsity of online content. “It didn’t work. The technology wasn’t there,” Ibargüen said of those early efforts, “but I think that’s the future.” 

Savage said that while technological advancements and artificial intelligence may contribute to the solution, these solutions would raise critical questions around ethics and governance. The public would need to know who programmed the algorithms – and who financed them, Savage said. 

Ibargüen and Savage also shared observations about the changing understanding of what free speech and press mean to Americans. A substantial majority of college students believe “free speech” means censoring speech that would cause psychological harm or exclusion of people or groups, Ibargüen said. 

“The increased value of inclusion and protection from this sort of harm is intensified by the common use of social media, with its reinforcement of filter bubbles, of like-minded thinkers, and the ability to block anyone with whom you disagree,” Ibargüen said. “And anonymity, hate speech, and bullying all promote the sort of thinking that values protection over exposure.”

Ibargüen noted that the present upheaval around communication technology is only the beginning. “We’re very much in the early days of a new world,” Ibargüen said. “After Gutenberg, society adapted to embrace his disruption and thrived as never before.  Here's hoping history repeats itself.”

View full set on Flickr

All photos can be republished with the inclusion of the credit: Salzburg Global Seminar/Stephanie Natoli

This lecture was delivered under the auspices of the Lloyd N. Cutler Center for the Rule of Law. To learn more about Lloyd N. Cutler and the center, please visit: cutler.salzburgglobal.org

Press inquiries can be directed to Thomas Biebl, Director of Marketing & Communications: tbiebl@salzburgglobal.org

The full text of the lecture can be read here

Download the transcript as a PDF