On Monday, Mark Thompson, President and CEO of The New York Times Company, delivered remarks to members of the Detroit Economic Club.
Thompson threw around the idea of government censorship of “fake news.”
What can we do about it? The first thing that springs to some people’s minds is some form of censorship or regulation. I note in my book how the 17th century British political thinker Thomas Hobbes came, at least in part, to blame extremist sermons and tracts – tracts which could be mass-produced and disseminated widely within hours thanks to the still relatively new technology of printing – for England’s descent into civil war. He later argued that the war might never have happened if a few thousand of the extremists had been rounded up and executed.
Now, while I don’t suppose that even the sternest critic of fake news would advocate the death penalty, there are certainly some who favor a kind of functional censorship, with fake news sites identified and taken down, and fake news somehow filtered out of search and social media by human or algorithmic means.
Thompson then admits this is unrealistic. Besides, there is a thing called the First Amendment.
And who said that the public should only be allowed to read the facts anyway? The First Amendment essentially says they should be allowed to write, distribute and read anything they damn well please. If some of them turn out to prefer churning out and eagerly consuming lies and fantasies, so be it.
He then suggests a Ministry of Truth, of sorts, run by corporations, but admits this is worrisome.
If we imagine the tools that might be used to excise fake news from the web and social media – a mighty algorithm combing every sentence, every image for any trace of falsehood, aided perhaps by legions of human scrutineers employed by some of the world’s biggest corporations – they sound suspiciously like the means of control employed by the world’s most repressive regimes. They are probably not practical and, even if they were, they would be worrisome or worse in our free societies.
Thompson then falls back on a solution imposed by the state by using food labeling as an example.
Imagine a supermarket where the products had no nutrition information printed on them, and no one was prepared to vouch for quite where they had come from, and the owners told you they couldn’t really take responsibility for the quality of anything. Would you feed your children food purchased from that supermarket?
Nutrition information on food products was mandated by the FDA in 1994. Is this what Mr. Thompson is advocating? A new government agency—a ministry of truth—that will decide what is fake and what is not fake news?
He then praises his own newspaper and admits it screws up occasionally (he does not mention the Iraq lies published by the Times with an end result of 1.5 million dead people).
If readers find misinformation and lies, he says they can always write a letter to the editor. “You can see who wrote the story and, if you think it’s inaccurate or biased, you know who the editor is, and the publisher,” he writes.
Finally, the CEO of the Times uses the fake news meme to push subscriptions.
It’s like any quality product. If you want real journalism, you as a consumer will have to pay for it. So subscribe. Subscribe to your local paper, or The New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, or the Washington Post, or, if you’re feeling particularly flush, to all of the above.
At The Times, we’re making real progress, with audiences and subscriber numbers larger than at any time in our history, as well as big gains year over year in digital revenue. We still post healthy profits.
Hmmm. This appears to be fake news.
In May, the Times reported a $14 million net loss for the first quarter of 2016. “The net loss for the quarter was roughly the same as in the first quarter of 2015. Total revenue fell about 1 percent, to $380 million, from $384 million in the first quarter of 2015.”