IS THAT A FACT?
How can the press serve our fractured country?
Season 1 Episode 2
About The Episode
Michael Luo is the editor of the newyorker.com. We spoke to him about a piece he wrote on The Hutchins Commission which was formed during World War II to decide how the press could serve democracy during a period of intense political strife and distrust in the media. At the time tribalism was fueling division in the country, and the press was seen as further sowing discord. The piece was written for The New Yorker’s series on “The Future of Democracy” We spoke about the role of journalism in American democracy, the need for viewpoint diversity in media, and the future of media.
This is episode two of our ten-part series, Is that a fact? In each episode we’ll bring in an expert to discuss an aspect of our current information environment that is threatening the promise of American democracy. Visit our website for more information and find additional links on our guests.
Additional credit: Zoe Denckla provided research assistance and Miranda Shafer provided production assistance.
Darragh Worland: Welcome back to Is that a fact?, the all-new podcast brought to you by the nonpartisan, nonprofit News Literacy Project. I’m your host, Worland. Today, for the second episode of our 10-part series on the impact of misinformation on democracy, we talk to Michael Luo, editor of newyorker.com, about the role of journalism in American democracy.
Luo joined the New Yorker in 2016 after 13 years at the New York Times, where he was a reporter and editor. In 2016, his team at the Times was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Luo has also worked at The Associated Press, Newsday, and the Los Angeles Times. We wanted to talk to him about a piece he recently wrote for the New Yorker’s series on The Future of Democracy about a commission that was formed during the Second World War to examine how best the press could serve democracy. At the time, tribalism was fueling division in the country, fascism was on the rise around the world, and the press was seen as further sowing discord. Sound familiar? The commission had lofty goals for the role of the news media in correcting those issues, and now, 75 years later, we wanted to know: had those goals been achieved?
The New Yorker has this new series called The Future of Democracy. Why did that seem important now, and should we be worried?
Michael Luo: Yes. Some of the guardrails of American democracy, I think, have been threatened in the Trump era, and even before the Trump era, and institutions, whether it’s Congress, whether it’s the courts, even just the concept of truth in American democracy, are under threat. It started with a big piece by Jill Lepore looking at the last time democracy almost died, and that looked at the 1930s, a time when fascism was on the march in Europe, and there was concern about fascism growing in the U.S. So that kicked off the series, and we we’ve had a variety of pieces.
Worland: I would also imagine that you’re pretty selective about what you write about, and yet you chose to write this piece about what I think for most readers would be sort of like this obscure report, the Hutchins report, in this article called “How Can the Press Best Serve a Democratic Society?” So, why was this compelling to you, and how does it relate to today?
Luo: The thing that was interesting about it is, it’s just this extraordinary commission that was put together in the 1940s, and it had all these intellectual luminaries – Reinhold Niebuhr, and this guy named William Ernest Hocking, and Arthur Schlesinger, and Robert Maynard Hutchins, who led this group. And the thing that was fascinating about it is that they were wrestling with a lot of the same issues that we’re wrestling with today. They were worried about the future of democracy. This was the 1940s, so totalitarianism was on the rise in Europe. Fascism abroad and at home were concerns. And Henry Luce, who was the publisher of Time, Inc., came up with the idea of creating this commission. And he asked his friend, Robert Maynard Hutchins, to lead it. And he had the idea of reaffirming to the American people the foundations of freedom in the United States. And they put together this panel, and it was just scathing in its analysis of how the press was doing. And a lot of the fears that they had were very similar to the fears that we have today about division in society, how there were people living in information silos. And it was just a fascinating document. It’s called A Free and Responsible Press. And there was just so much that felt relevant in their work.
Worland: Then another thing that was happening at the time was there was falling trust in the media.
Luo: Yeah, exactly. There was some survey that was done around the time where they asked the public about their views about a bunch of different professions, and the media ranked lowest, below bankers. Given that this was coming out of the Great Depression, that’s a pretty telling thing, that the media ranked below bankers.
Worland: Right. When you say the commission members were wrestling with the same issues that we’re faced with today, like political polarization, distrust in the media, does that mean we’ve made no progress? Are these things that we’re going to be wrestling with forever? Are they unresolvable? Are they cyclical? What’s your take on that?
Luo: So, they spent two-and-a-half, almost three years debating these issues. And imagine trying to write a report by consensus with all these high-powered intellectual luminaries. And they really struggled to find consensus on everything. At one point, Niebuhr said that maybe they are faced with an unresolvable problem, which is this idea of how do you sort of produce a free and responsible press? Maybe that in the end, it’s just an unresolvable thing. And he said maybe the contribution that they could make as a commission was to sort of just highlight those tensions. And that’s why it’s so effective. Because I think that a lot of the values that we look for in the press are contradictory and will always be tension. For example, it’s really important that the press provide a free forum for ideas. That was a big concern of the commission, that a free society depends on free flow of ideas, and the main vehicle for those ideas was the press. And at that point, the commission was really concerned because there had been sort of some consolidation in the media, and it wasn’t easy to start a newspaper, for example. And the media had become incredibly powerful, and they were worried about the free flow of ideas.
In terms of whether we’ve made progress, obviously, our problems today are radically different from that. For example, one of the things that they were concerned about was consolidation and sort of the monopoly power of the press. And obviously, today, the landscape is very, very different. Anyone can be a publisher. Anyone can get their views out there and disseminated. And so, it’s a different set of problems. Even back then, they were talking about these things. And obviously, we’ve progressed in a lot of ways on that front in terms of our awareness of the importance of diversity in the newsroom, and diversity in sources, and diversity in our coverage. But obviously, as you know, in light of the George Floyd protests and some of the reckoning that’s been going on since then, and even before then, we are still wrestling with some of those issues, in a different way, though.
Worland: Today, I feel like if you were to put together a commission to look at journalism, it would all be journalists who would be involved in that. I don’t know that we would necessarily have this kind of multidisciplinary approach to the topic.
Luo: Yeah, that’s what I thought was fascinating. They actually intentionally did not include journalists because they felt like it needed to be investigated from the outside. And that’s why I think it would be very hard to re-create the commission today. We’ve had similar groups that have been formed to discuss the future of the media, but they’ve usually been pretty oriented around practitioners and people in journalism.
Worland: Right. The report is also interesting because it implies that the press was central to American democracy, so much so that it was seen as a force that could fight tribalism and even fascism around the world.
Luo: The Hutchins Commission is credited with forming a socially responsible theory of journalism and articulating that the press had this obligation to the public and to the free flow of ideas, and has this obligation for democracy. I wouldn’t say that the idea really originated with them, necessarily. One notion is that – this idea of an informed citizenry, which is about the heart of how we think of the press and democracy. And the idea of the informed citizenry, I think, actually started in the progressive era, when the press started to move away from political parties, and the press started to become independent professional entities, and the way we elected people started to move away from the party machine and more into the hands of the people. And the idea of the informed citizenry, as I understand it, started to really form in that progressive era. But the Hutchins Commission report did crystallize this concept of the press and democracy, and the sort of larger responsibility.
Worland: So, what do you think the role of journalism is in a democratic society, having written this piece and having been a journalist for as long as you have?
Luo: One thing I think that is easy to forget is that we do have this role. I do think that the kind of function that the Hutchins Commission outlined of a free society depends on the consumption of ideas and the free flow of ideas. How do those ideas get conveyed? When you think of maybe back in the day of the founders, anybody could start up a little press and print up a bunch of pamphlets, and where truth would be adjudicated and sorted out would be in the town square. Today, with the internet and social media platforms, anyone can be a publisher, and all sorts of ideas can flow through the tubes of the internet. And there are blogs, there’s Twitter, there’s Reddit – there’s any number of places that “information” can be published.
We are all swimming in this river of information. The cleanest sources of that information that make our democracy function have to come from somewhere. And that source is still journalism, in large part. And the thing that worries me is that those kind of tributaries of information feeding that sort of river of information are drying up. And that’s what I fear with the decline of local newspapers, with the business model of journalism struggling, and just the sheer number of people who gather the information that is essential for democracy has dwindled. Yes, can citizens gather information, non-professional journalists, but can they gather information and convey that? in some circumstances, that’s what has replaced local newspapers. And there are all sorts of ways that various nonprofits or other entities that have tried to sort of fill that gap. I think there are potential crowd-sourcing citizen sort of solutions, but I still think that whatever you want to call it – the press, the media, the mainstream media – still has a deep responsibility and obligation to be that gatherer of information, and the entity that is feeding factual information to democracy.
Worland: A recent survey conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that Americans feel that media is necessary, but they’ve lost confidence in media organizations. And they find them to be biased, despite these great aspirations be impartial. And American readers or news consumers even feel that these news media are contributing to the growing political divide. And we all know that news media is important, and it’s fundamental to democracy, but I think there’s also this impression that we’re not meeting that ideal. So, what do you make of that contradiction?
Luo: So, first of all, when you dig down deeper into that data, there’s a partisan skew in the distrust of the media, that Republicans distrust the media far more than Democrats – not that no, Democrats don’t trust the media. And where does that come from? Why do conservatives disproportionately distrust the media relative to liberals or Democrats or whatever, the left? This is a tough truth, but it has to do with the right-wing media ecosystem. These are a bunch of nonpartisan academics, and they didn’t set out to have a partisan analysis of the problem. And what they basically concluded through looking at a lot of big data sets, was that they estimated about a third of the media ecosystem is this radicalized sort of right-wing ecosystem, where there’s an asymmetry in terms of the amount of disinformation that’s in it. And when you look at the left and even the far-left media sources, there’s more of a tie to fact-based mainstream news. Obviously, we have to also talk about part of this right-wing media ecosystem, the growth of talk radio. Obviously, then you get into the emergence of Fox News, and then you get into things like Breitbart and Gateway Pundit, and that kind of thing.
So, number one, there is an asymmetry to this issue. I don’t want that to be a cop out. The “mainstream media” or news organizations like The New York Times, and The Washington Post, and CNN and others are not perfect.
Worland: Can you give us examples of things the news media can do to improve its coverage?
Luo: It’s important to have diversity in your newsroom. And actually, that was part of the poll too. I think it said that Democrats are more likely to talk about diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, and Republicans were talking about it in terms of ideology, I think. I do think that it’s important to have newsrooms full of people of different walks of life.
For example, I covered religion. I think a blind spot of mainstream media and a lot of mainstream media newsrooms is religion coverage, because the reality is, a lot of mainstream media newsrooms are very urban, very metropolitan, very highly educated, and as a result, more secular. And so, it’s important to have people who understand and speak the language of religion. And that’s just sort of one example in some of the conversations about diversity. For example, it’s good to have people who have military backgrounds. At a time when the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan were huge news stories, it’s important to have people who have backgrounds and different walks of life. Obviously, you have an aspiration to sort of reflect the diversity of America, and there are limitations to what you can do. You can’t have one of everything.
The other thing that is worth discussing is objectivity and fairness and truth. Is there any evolution that needs to happen in the way that newspapers report about objective facts? All the sort of attacks about fake news that are out there. So, watch cable news, where a lot of times, it’s not really reporting, but it’s just opinionating, and panels of people going back and forth and yelling at each other. And that’s not journalism, in a lot of cases.
Worland: Can you talk a little bit about that debate over objectivity, impartiality, moral clarity? Because I think in a lot of ways, especially for your average news consumer, they’re not following these debates that are going on in newsrooms. They don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors and how much this is being talked about.
Luo: Right. And my friends, oftentimes when they hear directly from me, the lengths that we go to to fact check stories, to make sure that we’re being even-handed and fair, and the depths that we’re going to to actually understand the truth in situations that are quite complicated, it’s very eye-opening to them. I thought it was kind of amazing that sometimes I would get these really vitriolic emails, and I would write a very sort of polite, straightforward email back, explaining – whether they’re contesting a particular story, explaining how we reported it and how I went about it, and why I disagreed with whatever thing that they said. I mean, obviously, if there was something that needed to be corrected, I would correct it. But it was so disarming for them to actually interact with somebody and talk to somebody, and actually hear the lengths that we went to to report stories. And so, I don’t really know how to scale this.
Worland: But I agree. And I think there’s a lot of talk in the news industry about how we clearly have not done a good enough job of telling the public what we do and how we do it.
Luo: I do believe that pulling back the curtain of how reporters and editors do their job is important. And I also do think that news literacy and teaching people about the different types of news that they consume, and the differences, and the aspirations and principles behind journalism, is important. There are some people who are very upset at The New York Times and dropped their subscription from the left. There are people from the right who have dropped their New York Times subscription because they think it’s too liberal. And then there are people from the left who have dropped the New York Times because they feel like they pull punches. This gets into the objectivity thing. And they’re maintaining this performative false balance thing when it’s not warranted. And they say that they’re just parroting what the Republicans say and not subjecting to enough scrutiny. And so, the Times gets it from both ends.
Worland: Now, is that a good thing? I mean, if everyone’s criticizing you, does it mean, well, we must be doing something right?
Luo: Probably. I mean, that’s why I really do admire – what Dean Baquet is doing right now is trying to steer this ship through this Trump presidency and imagining what The New York Times will look like and what the sort of world will look like in a – perhaps in a post-Trump world. He’s thinking about not just right now, but what are the implications, five years, 10 years, of some of these decisions. And that’s where the objectivity, moral clarity sort of debate gets complicated.
Worland: Is Wes Lowery the person who introduced this concept of moral clarity, or did that predate his op-ed?
Luo: I think it predated him. I don’t think he came up with that term.
Worland: Can you just sort of talk about – what was his argument?
Luo: So, Wes Lowery wrote this op-ed. It was after the Tom Cotton op-ed. But basically, what Lowery was doing, though, was kind of taking the decision to publish that piece as sort of a little bit of an avatar for both sides – false, balanced journalism that gets criticized a lot. And so the gist of the criticism of “objectivity” is that in the Times or other sort of journalism outlets, efforts to appear impartial, to appear objective, the tendency is to write a story and say, “Tom Cotton said this, that, there are riots going on, and you need troops going in,” and quote another Democrat saying, “I disagree with that” or something like that. And then you’re done, without sort of really interrogating the quote and finding some – a little bit of rigor to it and saying, that’s actually not true, for example. And basically, the problem that people have with objectivity in journalism is that you just sort of have this – you quote one side, you quote the other, and you don’t sort of step in and actually assert what is true or not.
So, Lowery’s alternative is something he calls moral clarity, which is where you gather all the information and essentially function as a truth-teller. I am a little concerned about the blending of activism and journalism. And I say that the rules of activism are different from the rules of journalism. And I think that potentially, when you talk about moral clarity, that can become sort of a greater concern. In my piece, what I sort of wrote about was maybe we can talk about some different terms. And I mentioned things like depth, and rigor, and nuance, and quality, and maybe those are some of the things that we can aspire to.
Worland: How do you, at the New Yorker, wrestle with covering this current presidency, and President Trump in particular, in a nonpartisan way?
Luo: So, first of all, magazines in general have a little bit more freedom to – where the writer can inject himself or herself into the piece. Although it’s pretty understated in most New Yorker nonfiction, as we call it, or features, it might be sort of more commonly called in the magazine, you might see a writer sort of insert himself or herself into the piece late in the piece as they’re trying to sort of nail a point.
Worland: So, you’re saying there’s more of a blending of opinion and news in a kind of creative nonfiction way. And I guess there’s an assumption that your readership can absorb that. Because I think one of the biggest issues we see right now in sort of your average news consumer or information consumer of any type is an inability to distinguish between opinion and news, and the problems that that can cause.
Luo: Yeah, I think actually, we know from reader services, one of the reasons that New Yorker subscribers subscribe to the New Yorker is because it makes them feel part of a broader progressive literary community. And so, again, I think the burden on us is less. So, obviously, when I was at The New York Times, it’s a very different scenario.
And in terms of the labeling thing, it is something that I’ve thought a lot about and have tried to take a bunch of different steps to address. One of them is through these rubrics that we use, these labels that we use, but it’s just less of a concern for us. And on the internet in general, you’re right – I think most consumers of news don’t distinguish the difference between the news and opinion.
Worland: Right. And it’s less clear online because there’s not a separate page that – when you say “labels,” do you mean clearly indicating this as opinion?
Luo: Yeah. We call it our column. That’s our Daily Comment. The thing is, I guess I would also say that, though, that the New Yorker has a really rigorous fact-checking process. You read some of the things I have written, for example, during the impeachment, and I think you would probably label them as opinion pieces, but they’re fact-driven pieces of analysis that we fact-check. And yes, there is opinion in there. But it’s a little bit different, I think, than some of what’s out there, where it’s not just a problem of labeling, but also things that aren’t true.
Worland: Okay. So, my final question for you is – this is more your opinion, how you feel, Michael – how optimistic are you about the future of journalism in the country and the strength of our democracy?
Luo: One of the things I am concerned about is the places that are succeeding in many cases in journalism are places with paywalls. And so, The New York Times has become a giant success on the strength of subscriptions. The New Yorker has also enjoyed great success through subscriptions. And increasingly, that seems to be the path for sustaining quality journalism. And I’m concerned about, honestly, just a small percentage of people pay for the news. And some of the actual data on that shows that when people pay for quality news, they have a higher estimation of the news. And so, then if you don’t pay for the news and you’re consuming not very good quality news, that’s going to lead to a lower respect for the media. And so, there are sort of big systemic things that we have to think about.
Well, one possibility is, is there a world where we have a BBC-like entity, that the BBC is supported by government subsidy that’s paid for by the public. And a lot of people have concerns about that because it may be, a government-supported media entity wouldn’t be tough enough on the government, for example. But I think it’s one of the things that I think we need to have an active open debate about. One way you might imagine doing something like that, for example, would be some sort of tax on big tech. It wouldn’t take very much to raise a substantial fund that could sustain a very robust media outlet.
The other route, for example, that people are interested in is nonprofits. There are a lot of amazing nonprofit outlets that have sprung up around the country. The thing I haven’t seen yet is their ability to scale, particularly with audience. I mean, just think about New York City, the media capital of the world. And I’m concerned about the future of local news in New York City. A great journalism outfit in the city has started up, and they’re doing great work, but I don’t know how many people are reading them. And so, it’s got to be a multifaceted solution.
I think public radio is a big part of the solution, and a lot of the brightest spots in local news in cities around the country as newspapers have gone away is public radio. But again, I’m worried about how much reach they have and penetration they have. And so, I am very worried about the future of quality news and how accessible that news is. And I do think that at some point, we’re going to need some big solution, whether it is like BBC licensing, because otherwise, I just don’t see how we’re going to get scale in solving this problem.
Worland: Right. So, for such a small percentage of people who can afford quality journalism and who know to seek it out, and who are willing to and interested, is it really serving democracy?
Luo: Yeah. I mean, I think there is obviously a trickle-down effect. When The New York Times reports something and it’s consumed by people who pay for The New York Times, it does get into the public sphere. Then it gets reported by TV, or then government takes action. So, it doesn’t mean that if journalism is behind a paywall, that its effects are not felt beyond the paywall. But when you talk about an informed citizenry and the requirements of an informed citizenry for democracy, that does require access to information and what the conduit is for that? If the number of people who are supplying that information is declining, there’s just going to be less of it. And that’s concerning.
Worland: Thanks for listening. We’ve been talking to Luo, editor of newyorker.com, about the role of journalism in democracy. In our next episode, we’ll talk to Maria Ressa, an award-winning Filipino-American journalist who has reported on President Duterte’s abuses of power, and now faces up to 100 years in prison for doing so. We’ll talk to her about what it means for democracy when press freedoms are eroded, and what it’s like for journalists. Is That a Fact? is a production of the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan education nonprofit helping educators, students, and the general public become news-literate so they can be active consumers of news and information, and equal and engaged participants in our democracy.
Alan Miller is our founder and CEO. I’m your host, Worland. Our executive producer is Mike Webb, our editor is Timothy Kramer, and our theme music is by Aaron Bush. To learn more about the News Literacy Project, go to newslit.org.