Bipartisan cooperation is, as we’ve often noted, in short supply in Washington, D.C. But we’re seeing an example of it with the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) of 2021.
The JCPA is a successor to a similar bill filed in 2019. As with that bill, Rep. David Cicilline, is a key sponsor in the U.S. House. The Rhode Island Republican has worked with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, to introduce versions of the act in both chambers of Congress.
The stated goal of the JCPA is to allow news outlets to collectively negotiate with Google and Facebook over payments for news outlets’ products on the online giants’ sites. The 2021 version adds local television to the mix, reflecting those stations’ increasing pinch from online advertising patterns.
There may be more stomach for such a move now than there was two years ago. After all, Australia and Facebook squared off recently over this issue, and Facebook blinked. France just fined Google for abusing its position in online advertising. Frustration with opaque standards has created new critics in the U.S. We see another reason to step in.
There’s a growing sense among many that they shouldn’t be exposed to ideas with which they disagree. The angry letters we receive about “Doonesbury” and “Mallard Filmore” are evidence. Rather than just moving on or recognizing that other readers have other views, people say items they disagree with should be removed. Some have even extended that stance to letters from the public and have done so, ironically, with a letter of their own.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that online behemoths like Google and Facebook help drive the decreasing tolerance. While it’s fair to argue neither is as pernicious as Fox or MSNBC, which happily obliterate the line between opinion and news coverage in search of ratings — they do make a substantial contribution to individualized echo chambers. How they do it is frighteningly straightforward.
The algorithms they use are designed to establish themselves as sources of content, be it entertainment, music — or, yes — news. They analyze searches, clicks and pageviews to find similar content, then “helpfully” suggest it as a next step. It takes stunningly few clicks to convince them you’re interested in only one type of information. Once that happens, Facebook and Google happily keep serving it up, leading people further away from the idea that any view other than their own has validity.
This creates a substantial user base, which both then leverage to their utmost advantage. They behave, as trusts have done throughout American history, in a manner fundamentally inimical to any potential challenge or alternative.
The risk here is that democratic societies depend heavily on the oft-cited “marketplace of ideas.” They depend on people at least hearing arguments from both left and right, before deciding which path should be taken. When people are structurally prevented from doing so and are outright encouraged to reject the possibility of disagreement, it is corrosive to the very basis of our form of government.
We’re under no illusions about a panacea that will cure local media’s problems. That’s not how things work. And, frankly, we’re not afraid of competition. Newspapers have been written off too many times to count, and we’re still here. Radio was supposed to end newspapers. Then television. Then the internet. We’re still part of our communities and are working hard to serve them.
What we object to are businesses that consciously undermine the idea of fair competition for online advertising while profiting off our work. Both Google and Facebook see enormous traffic driven by the work of local journalists. They profit directly off of us. And when we object to being used so blatantly, they cluck and say we should be happy to have the links put up for people, that we should be glad to have the exposure.
But really, when is the last time you could pay a bill with exposure? Can exposure pay the rent or grocery bill? Sorry guys, that takes real money.
Having two leviathans sitting astride the world’s access to information, two giants with every incentive to polarize and none to encourage community, is not good for anyone. The JCPA isn’t perfect, but it may well be a step in the right direction.