Ben Smith: “The referees who really matter are no longer the big media companies. The new referees are the Silicon Valley giants.”

From a New York Times story by Ben Smith headlined “How Pro-Trump Forces Work the Refs of Tech”:

. . .I’ve been thinking about conservatives’ long and persistent campaign to influence the referees since the historian Rick Perlstein emailed me recently to offer me a scoop, if a somewhat dusty one.

In combing the archives of The New York Times at the New York Public Library for his new book Reaganland, he’d come across correspondence from the 1970s and 1980s between The Times’s publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, known as Punch, and Reed Irvine, the founder of Accuracy in Media and the prototype of the professional partisan media critic. Mr. Irvine had the ingenious idea of buying Times stock and then showing up at shareholders’ meetings to vocally accuse the paper of being soft on communism. Mr. Sulzberger, in an effort to mollify him, offered him instead private meetings every year in the publisher’s office. A warm, first-name basis correspondence ensued.

In one 1980 “Dear Punch” letter, Mr. Irvine thanked the publisher for the time and the “bull session” in a recent meeting and then expressed concern about a “Soviet disinformation and propaganda operation” making its way into The Times — a reason, Mr. Irvine wrote, that “we lost in Vietnam.” He then pushed Mr. Sulzberger to cover a minor story of a French journalist exposed as a Russian spy.

Mr. Sulzberger quickly assigned his top deputy to push the Paris bureau to look into the issue, prompting a furious typewritten memo from his editorial page editor, Max Frankel.

“It is wrong for The Times to submit in gentlemanly fashion to their inquiry in our offices. And it is certainly destructive of morale — starting with mine — to know that such people are cordially received upstairs,” Mr. Frankel wrote. “I would be ashamed if we ever did pass muster with such nitwits.”

Mr. Sulzberger, delighted to be rid of Mr. Irvine’s disruptions at shareholder meetings, ignored Mr. Frankel’s objections, Mr. Frankel recalled in a telephone interview.

“Punch was for peace over everything,” he said. (Perhaps not everything: Mr. Sulzberger, after all, did publish the Pentagon Papers.)

But the publisher’s hopes that courteous meetings and friendly correspondence would placate Mr. Irvine — who would spend his later years spreading the wild conspiracy theory that an aide to President Bill Clinton, Vince Foster, was murdered — did not come to pass. “History shows that that’s not how this game works,” Mr. Perlstein told me.

Instead, the access emboldened Mr. Irvine, taught others to imitate him and helped push American political journalism into a place where the goal was sometimes to balance the complaints of competing sides as much as to report on underlying realities. The form of media criticism he pioneered has, in fact, become as central to Republican politics in the Trump area as any policy or grievance.

And liberals noticed the conservatives’ success and eventually imitated it, most successfully with the 2004 founding of Media Matters for America, which devoted much of its early energies to providing a new, leftward pull on the establishment media.

The old establishment referees are now barely important enough to target, but they’re still embroiled in an internal debate over whether to try to hold onto a vanishing nonpartisan center. . . .

But the referees who really matter nowadays are no longer the big media companies. The new referees are the Silicon Valley giants that control what we see when we search, browse or post online. But some in the news media learned lessons from back then, ones that Silicon Valley chief executives would be wise to reflect on this election season.

The biggest one is about false balance, and false symmetry. The American right and left have never been mirror images of each other. They’re different sorts of coalitions, with different histories and strategies.

And in the Trump era, a specific kind of misinformation on social media is a central tactic of the right. President Trump says false and misleading things at a remarkable rate — more than 20,000 so far in his presidency, according to a Washington Post tracker — and a whole constellation of blogs and websites, like The Gateway Pundit, support and amplify that strategy.

Facebook, Google and Twitter are making the same mistakes the news media made decades ago, looking for balance rather than confronting the plain reality of the moment. . . .

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