A free press supporting informed and engaged communities is at risk

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Thomas Jefferson sued the Hartford Courant for libel. (He lost.) But Jefferson still believed that, given the choice of government without newspapers or newspapers without government, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers, and be capable of reading them.”

Today, however, Jefferson’s vision of a free press supporting informed and engaged communities, the prerequisite to a well-functioning democracy, is at risk. The good news is there is hope, and everyone has a role to play.

Through the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers enshrined the role of the free press as the staging ground for the middle, a written and spoken battlefield where wars of words are waged until common ground is reached.

It is this tendency toward the middle that is the genius of our democracy. Americans ultimately reject extremes, often tempering the power of an executive with one ideology by installing a legislature with another. Or, as has been the case in Connecticut, sending liberals to Congress but more conservatives representatives to the statehouse.

Yet today, as media undergoes a period of technological transition unlike anything since Johannes Gutenberg, our collective ability to engage in principled compromise is waning.

The Internet is both the greatest democratizing tool in history and democracy’s greatest challenge. Yes, the web has made information potentially accessible to all for the first time in human history. But in offering access to information that can support any position and confirm any bias, the web has eroded the common foundation of everyday facts formerly established by traditional media.

How do we reverse this polarization? How do we inform and engage communities to find common ground?

The first step is recognizing that the media landscape has fundamentally changed, and there is no turning back.

What we know —or think we know— as fact is increasingly determined by a handful of tech companies out west. The accidental publishers of Silicon Valley have supplanted the power of newsrooms by repackaging their journalism with content branded as news but not subject to the same ethical standards.

Ironically, journalism’s saving grace may be the invisible hand of capitalism. Lack of trust is bad for business. If people are skeptical of what they read on Google or Facebook, it doesn’t matter that those companies didn’t create the content; readers will hold them responsible.

That’s perhaps why tech companies are now thinking about authentication and truth with greater urgency. How exactly these companies will deliver consistently reliable information has yet to be seen, but this much I know: they’ll use technology to do it.

About ten years ago, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, approached me about funding an effort to combat the lack of authenticity online. “What do you want—money for 10,000 fact checkers?” I asked. And he said, “No. That’s a newspaper solution. I’m an engineer. I want to write code to figure out if something is true.”

I was floored. How could you write a computer program to tell whether someone was telling the truth? But with advancements in artificial intelligence, I realize Tim was onto something. Someday soon, technology may do exactly what he predicted.

At Knight Foundation, we are focused on rebuilding trust by offering grants to bolster truth and public confidence using technology, by partnering with MIT’s MediaLab and Harvard Law School to consider issues of ethics and governance of artificial intelligence, and funding the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University to support free expression in the digital age.

It’s not too late. We are still in the infancy of the revolution in how we consume information digitally. I recently asked a professor at MIT where he thought we were, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a new technology and 10 being a mature technology. And he said, without hesitation, “Two, maybe three. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

But technology alone won’t be enough to reassert the role of truth in media and society. We must renew our shared commitment, in the proud New England tradition, to the Town Hall mentality —to the right to disagree, concurrent with the willingness to find common ground. If citizens are to influence the future direction of their community, play a role in its progress, we need to regain our faith in facts—and in each other

Commitment to democracy is not a choice you make once; it is a choice you make over and over again. And, as Jefferson reminded us, no one is off the hook.

Alberto Ibargüen is President and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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