Online news and (dis)information in the spotlight (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)
Disinformation may be the single greatest threat to American democracy, prosperity, and even our health. Without a common set of facts, it is nearly impossible to find agreement on our common destiny.
Disinformation permeates and poisons public discourse. Donald Trump’s Big Lie has undermined confidence in our elections; Facebook fuels climate denialism; and misinformation about vaccines has prolonged and exacerbated the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is not a coincidence that the spread of disinformation has accelerated as independent news media has declined. Newspapers are now shutting down at the rate of two per week.
However, as much as I still love reading an honest broadsheet or a spicy tabloid, the solution to disinformation does not lie in traditional print media. The cost-efficiency and publishing speed of online journalism, combined with the comparative advantage of digital advertising, has permanently disrupted the media industry.
Many projects and experiments are underway to find ways to combat the disinformation crisis. Notably, independent digital platforms have demonstrated the ability to report the news with the same vigor as legacy media. Some of the strongest are nonprofits. In New York City, we have been blessed by the coverage of The City, Gothamist, and, of course, Gotham Gazette, among others. Elsewhere, MinnPost, the Texas Tribune, CTMirror, and dozens of other news sites have inherited journalism’s mission of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
These nonprofits depend on a mix of private philanthropy and low-dollar individual contributions. Private support is welcome but won’t scale to match the need for independent community-based media across the country.
Public goods require public support. It is past time that we expand the mission, and the budget, of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to support digital platforms. Since Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, the CPB has sustained public television and literally invented National Public Radio. And despite controversy (e.g., the recurrent “Big Bird” hearings), we are much the better for it.
As proposed by the Federation of American Scientists, the Knight Foundation, and others, Congress should recast CPB as the Corporation for Public Media. Give it the funding to catalyze robust online local news media platforms, and then steer clear of political interference by empowering local governance.
Disinformation is not the only cost of the decline of independent nonpartisan news media. It has also widened the window for government corruption.
Of course, supporting local independent news media, by itself, will not disrupt the damage disinformation causes. Congress must also regulate social media platforms in order promote transparency and restrain the spread of false and dangerous information. False speech about election administration should be made a crime. And foreign actors should be held accountable for interference in American elections.
But as Jefferson said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press.” So does our health, our planet, and our democracy.
Dan Goldman is a candidate for Congress in New York’s 10th Congressional District, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, and was chief House counsel in the first impeachment of then-President Donald Trump. On Twitter @danielsgoldman.