Media reform: Who should decide what enters the public domain?

This is an immense opportunity for journalism to renew its commitment to professional ethics and public integrity.

Man looking through hole in newspaper (Illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Man looking through hole in newspaper (Illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
AT A TIME when everyone is talking about “fake news,” it’s fascinating to see the release of a movie like Steven Spielberg’s The Post, a film that portrays the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and their remarkable content regarding the Vietnam War.
The Post is another in a long line of movies depicting the relationship between the media and the subject of their investigations, such as All the President’s Men from 1976, on the Watergate scandal, and especially the 2015 Oscar-winning movie Spotlight, on the systematic cover-up child molestation by the Catholic Church in Boston, which was adapted for the silver screen by Josh Singer, who also created the adaptation of The Post.
These two recent movies complement one another. While Spotlight is about how a story is developed; the meticulous research involved such as interviewing victims of sexual abuse, crossreferencing sources, searching archives and libraries, and laying bare an institutional conspiracy of silence, The Post explores the question; who decides whether a story should be published? Part of the discussion about whether to publish the Pentagon Papers takes place in the US Supreme Court, which the paper’s editors petition to in order to exercise their right to freedom of the press, arguing that “the founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential serve the governed, not the governors.”
No less important than a storyline, is the debate between the editors and the paper’s owners and shareholders about money as a means to exercise freedom of expression.
Should those with the deepest pockets be the ones to decide what enters the public domain? What are the interests of a media corporation’s shareholders? Are they aligned with the interests of the public?
At the Globes Business Conference in January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “The weak cannot survive.”
Netanyahu meant the State of Israel, but the same sentiment could be applied to media corporations. Nowadays, the entire media milieu in Israel [and around the world] is on its knees, whether due to financial woes, huge subscription losses, lack of a stable business model, threats from social networks and their siphoning off wholesale advertising revenue, or due to political challenges – threats from changes in media regulation, and harsh attacks on the media made by politicians.
Against this backdrop, we need to recognize that weak media organizations are unable to conduct meaningful investigative journalism. They don’t have the resources to invest in long months of research that can sometimes lead nowhere. They are wary of libel suits and the huge sums that may be required of them to pay in order to settle them. They censor themselves in order not to lose the few advertisers they have left. When this is the reality, exposes like those recounted in The Post and Spotlight are no longer feasible.
Some would claim that in the brave new world of social media, there is no need for old-school journalism. Now, all of the information is out there, and all that’s needed is someone who is willing to share it with others.
The recent #MeToo campaign is just one example of excellent investigative journalism, fueled by individual posts and tweets.
But, in reality, this is an illusion. First, old-school, traditional journalism offers us the necessary context to interpret the vast swathes of information produced by social media. It provides a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, which enables us to connect the dots. Without it, in a world bombarded by information, we are left confused and unable to comprehend.
Second, social media networks also have a dark side. The algorithms which dictate how information is shared and with whom, and the never-ending desire of the major platforms to grow and increase their revenue, have created fertile ground for states, organizations, and individuals who seek to spread disinformation rather than share news. As noted by BuzzFeed in 2016, “The top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than the top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.”
It’s no coincidence that the decline of public trust in the media has come to a stop over the last year, both in Israel and the United States. Nor is it a surprise that there has been a noticeable rise in subscriptions to the major newspapers.
This is the public’s reaction to the assault on news organizations and accusations of “fake news,” and to the understanding that social networks are not quite as free and open a medium as we initially thought they were.
IDI’s project on media reform is tackling questions regarding the role of traditional media – as an exposer of corruption and institutional failure; as a defender of victims, the weak, and the silenced; and as a guardian of our democracy.
This role is now more crucial than ever during a time that might, on the face of it, appear to be a golden age for free speech. In fact, this is an immense opportunity for journalism to renew its commitment to professional ethics and public integrity, and to display the same courage and determination that eventually find their way to the silver screen.
Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Democratic Values and Institutions and Director of the Media Reform Program and the Open Government Program at the Israel Democracy Institute