July 13, 2018

From the Bill of Rights to Leonard Cohen songs to 'Westworld,' these works inspired a billionaire to help journalism

(Editors’ Note: I’m devoting today’s media roundup to a single topic: One person’s view of the challenges to journalist and his attempts to help. Disclosure: Craig Newmark Philanthropies is among Poynter's largest funders.)

When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013, his new employees were curious as to his views about the value of journalism, particularly the work they do.

Bezos chose to speak in the language of stories, something the journalists understood.

When he said he loved the obituary of a bouncer from Washington’s 9:30 Club, the journalists saw that as appreciating strong writing, feature work, personalities — and perhaps a respect for aspects of local news. When Bezos said he liked a no-nonsense explainer about Syria’s conflict, journalists saw support for contextual work and for coverage, often expensive, of the world beyond America’s borders.

I’d asked craigslist founder Craig Newmark, a fixture at journalism conferences in recent years and an increasingly prominent funder of several journalistic initiatives (including a $1 million gift to Poynter to fund a faculty chair in journalism ethics), if he’d be willing to illustrate his interest in journalism in terms of literature, philosophy and pop culture.

Newmark liked the challenge, mulled over five selections and spoke to me earlier this week about his picks and what they signified.

“Each of these pieces speaks of my own sense of mission, what I should be doing in my life,” Newmark says. “These are the things that matter to me … ultimately, they’re a call to action.”

(Note: Some readers blame craigslist for hastening the decline of newspapers’ classified industry, but I’d argue that other companies such as Monster already had been moving in, serving people better, and the decline was inevitable. Additionally, Newmark has been one of the most serious funders at trying to prepare journalism for the future.)

With that out of the way, let’s hit the list:

1. The Bill of Rights

The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution mattered to Newmark growing up in Morristown, N.J., a teenager on the humble side of town. Those amendments were a set of values, like Sunday School or civics lessons, and a promise of sorts for someone who would become a college scholarship kid.

“By then, I had a sense of what I was about,” Newmark says. The Bill of Rights, to him, is all about fairness and respect and less directly about opportunity. “The Bill of Rights tries to create level playing ground for us” — regardless of creed, race, socioeconomic status.

It fueled his focus on freedom of the press, once he recognized America needed a trustworthy press to protect democracy. Once he grew rich, it was the basis for his efforts to fund journalism efforts.

2. Songs by Leonard Cohen (including “Anthem” and “Democracy”)

Cohen, the Bard of Montreal, grew up a strictly observant Jew and a writer, and only belatedly a poet, singer, world wanderer and deep believer in meditation. He entered Newmark’s world in 1988. The Cohen song that hooked him wasn’t “Hallelujah,” which has become everyone’s anthem, or “Suzanne,” the song interpreted by Judy Collins that put Cohen on the map.

“I think I heard the album, ‘I’m Your Man,’ which spoke to me pretty directly,” he says. Other albums followed, such as 1992’s “The Future,” which included “Anthem.”

“Anthem” is a song about hope amidst darkness. It includes lyrics such as: “There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” After the 2016 election, this idea — the future is imperfect but no setback is a reason to give up — struck a chord.

“It spoke to me, saying, ‘I need to speak out. I need to do something,’” he says. ”Sometimes I’ll do that directly, or sometimes I’ll go through back channels.” It’s something, he says, he has to do.

Cohen’s “Democracy,” written in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, is as fresh as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in New York’s outer boroughs. “Democracy will come not through laws or governments, but through a fresh wind, a hole in the air,” Shelagh Huston wrote in 2016 for Quartz.

A few lines from the song:

Precisely, Newmark says.

“It prophesizes that something is going to happen,” he says. “A higher power is saying I’m no big deal, but I’ve got to stand up and I’ve got to be stubborn about it.”

3. This quote from Marshall McLuhan

The quote, from McLuhan’s book "Culture Is Our Business," is probably a half-century old, given publishing lead times, but it is as relevant as the latest article about Russian influence in the 2016 elections, Newmark says.

“Whenever I try to read McLuhan, it goes over my head. Most of McLuhan, I don’t get," he says. "But danah boyd posted this quote — and it hit me like a lightning bolt.”

In Newmark’s view, McLuhan is describing what is happening, with both civilians and military trying to manipulate your view of the truth — of what is truth, what are facts. “It intensifies a sense of mission,” says Newmark, who funds boyd’s Data & Society Group, the Tow Center at Columbia University and fact-checking efforts.

“The idea is that we are in the middle of the Information War — I can fund the groups helping do the job (fighting disinformation), and they are force multipliers, and they can be more effective than I could ever be alone.”

Which leads us to…

4. Bandwidth, by Eliot Peper

Here’s a sentence from this fast-paced novel’s description: “Like everyone else, Dag relies on his digital feed for everything—a feed that is as personal as it is pervasive, and may not be as private as it seems.”

Welcome to 2018. There are a number of good books on this topic, but Newmark salutes the book’s focus, its blunt description of the power of people who control platforms.

"You can manipulate a person by manipulating a person’s feed," he says. "You can tell a person what to believe, and maybe tell a person what to do."

5. Westworld

Newmark’s appreciation of this began decades before the HBO adaptation. The self-described “old-school nerd” was absorbed in Michael Crichton’s heavily researched, multilayered story, which he wrote and directed for a 1973 film starring Yul Brynner.

“It’s the best treatment of what machine-consciousness would be, and how would the vast majority of humans treat them,” Newmark says.

“Westworld” recognizes a new dimension for tech, journalism and policy: As machines became conscious, they become people, Newmark says. How should we help them get their human rights recognized?

It’s not a predominant topic in the rush to artificial intelligence, but it should be, he says.

“We need to think about this now, because if one is going to think of machine-people as people, we need to speak now.”

On all these issues — bringing different people into journalism, adding consciousness to tech issues, improving fact-checking and the battle against disinformation — Newmark is taking on a bigger role after years of study.

I try, he says, “to practice what I preach.”

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