Democracy dies in darkness according to the motto of the Washington Post, and this is, of course, just one of many phrases reciting the axiomatic theme that credible and responsibly reported information is the blood of a democratic society like the United States. If true, then why has the “information age” brought democracy itself to the brink of destruction? There are many answers, including from those who would say that the question itself is alarmist—that, for instance, the “democracy in peril” narrative is a talking point of the political left with no foundation in evidence. But ain’t that the rub? Have we not crossed the event horizon of an epistemic crisis?
It bears repeating that a healthy democracy not only tolerates, but requires, a debate of competing ideas; but thanks largely to the major internet platforms, society has devolved to a shouting match of competing realities. No technological singularity required. We have already carved out a point in our little corner of spacetime that is dense enough to prevent truth from escaping. It may be self-evident that truth dies passively in silence, but truth can also be trampled to death by noise, and how could “democratizing information” ever have produced anything but a cacophony?
In a recent editorial for the Los Angeles Times, Anita Chabria asks Why is it OK for rich guys to steal my work? She writes…
Retail theft is causing a civic meltdown and inspiring a ballot measure to incarcerate repeat toothpaste thieves.
But billionaire tech bros dismantling democracy for profit, stealing thousands of times a minute by selling advertising against something they don’t own? That barely gets a shrug, even as more media professionals are laid off, more publications close, and reliable information becomes so scarce and hard to spot that truth itself has become political.
Some might argue that news organizations have lost so much credibility that it hardly matters, and I cannot deny that I have read my share of careless articles under the imprimatur of respected brands, including the WaPo. But notwithstanding cultural and social changes that ebb and flow through any industry, the bottom line is that good investigative journalism is expensive, highly skilled, and time consuming, and the internet industry has only served to make those obstacles larger, if not insurmountable.
First, social media fostered, and still perpetuates, an illusion that “citizen journalists” and raving pundits consistently uncover hidden truths which are obfuscated by the mainstream media. Second, social media demands feeding the beast 24/7, which forces the traditional news organization to prioritize speed over quality, thereby often fulfilling the prophecy that mainstream news is untrustworthy. And finally, the major social platforms resist paying for the news material they exploit for profit. In combination, how can these forces not cause a downward spiral in professional journalism, including the layoffs now being reported? And that’s before we truly see AI alter the landscape.
While it is impossible not to point to Trumpism as the paradigmatic—and potentially fatal—symptom of rampant conspiracy-mongering, the folly of democratizing information is shared across the political spectrum. The internet industry told the world that their platforms were the antidote to media conglomerates—the proverbial “gatekeepers,” who controlled, and even buried, the information to which people are entitled. And thus, Big Tech’s assault on copyright law often rode atop the half-baked slogan that “information wants to be free” in both senses—liberated and gratis. And everyone—nearly everyone—believed that bullshit.
Although copyright is commonly associated with creative and entertainment material, it was nonfiction works, including journalism, that were at the center of the constitutional framers’ attention when they drafted the “progress clause” in Article II. There’s a reason why that clause says, “to promote the progress of science,” and in one of my favorite papers about the adoption of copyright at the founding period, Professor Jane Ginsburg notes, “Petitions to Congress before enactment of the first copyright statute sought exclusive privileges for works overwhelmingly instructional in character.”
A century later, copyright protection would encompass a broad range of creative and performing arts, but at the outset, the framers understood that the Republic would fail in persistent darkness. Thus, the speech right, the press right, and copyright can be seen as working in concert toward the hope that future generations would have the “science” necessary to sustain the American experiment. Now, just over 230 years since the first Copyright Act and the Bill of Rights, I am hardly alone in wondering whether that “science” is lost, symbolized by the fourth estate shedding 500 jobs in January alone.
In 2021, Senator Klobuchar first introduced the Journalism Competition Protection Act (JCPA), which would provide a limited exemption to antitrust prohibitions against collective bargaining among news media organizations. Passage of the JCPA would enable news media companies to negotiate terms with giants like Meta, Google, et al. for licensing news content shared on those platforms, and Chabria cites a study from the University of Houston, which states that, with passage of the JCPA, the major platforms would owe news organizations between $11.9 billion and $13.9 billion per year. So, of course, the tech giants have used their lobbying power to block the bill.
Meanwhile, Big Tech continues to argue that they should not pay news organizations anything because their platforms “drive traffic” to the news channels. Artists will recognize this as the “exposure” rationale for piracy, and it takes some chutzpah to keep peddling this nonsense against a backdrop of layoffs and closings. Because it doesn’t take an economist to know that traffic alone does not pay for overhead and salaries—and that’s even if Google et al. actually increase traffic relative to pre-internet readership.
What we know for sure is that a democracy without a robust and free press is in danger of no longer remaining a democracy, and we know that news organizations have historically struggled to be financially sustainable. As the internet industry has done with music, motion pictures, literary works, etc., they sold the promise of access to news and information while siphoning the revenue that pays people to produce that material in the first place. And as we are witnessing in real-time, the vacuum is filled with charlatans, liars, cowards, and thieves. Thus, the proverbial “sunlight” promised by Big Tech is not a disinfectant, but a poorly made pesticide that animates the weeds and kills all the fruit.
Photo source by: Mediaphotos