Is Facebook buying off The New York Times, and if so, for what? In 2019, Facebook reportedly planned to launch a news tab featuring headlines and article previews from various outlets, including the Times, for “as much as $3 million a year.” The program has launched to little fanfare, and former Times CEO Mark Thompson told Washington Monthly that America’s newspaper of record receives “far, far more” than $3 million per year from Facebook.
As Washington Monthly‘s Dan Froomkin reported, howeer, “Participating in Facebook News doesn’t appear to deliver many new readers to outlets; the feature is very difficult to find, and it is not integrated into individuals’ newsfeeds. What Facebook News does deliver—though to only a handful of high-profile news organizations of its choosing—is serious amounts of cash.”
While the terms of the deals remain secret, Thompson did tell Washington Monthly that Facebook gives the Times “far, far more” than $3 million annually. If Facebook News does not drive engagement on the platform, it seems Facebook isn’t exactly getting its money’s worth. That raises serious questions about the integrity of the program.
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The Times‘ net income was $100 million in 2020, so receiving “far, far more” than $3 million per year at essentially no cost seems rather significant.
The idea of paying news companies for content on social media platforms is rather controversial. Google threatened to pull search out of Australia because the continent-nation was considering legislation to force companies like Google to pony up in order to feature news content on search. Yet the Facebook deal seems less about paying news organizations in order to feature content and more about, well… something else.
Mathew Ingram, chief digital writer for the left-leaning Columbia Journalism Review, argued that such a payment may make the Times dependent on Facebook. “It creates a hole in your balance sheet. You’re kind of beholden to them,” he told Washington Monthly. “It’s like you’re a kept person. You’re Facebook’s mistress.”
If Facebook is The New York Times‘s sugar daddy, what kind of favors will the Big Tech company demand for its cash?
As Washington Monthly noted, this kind of deal represents “a serious breach of traditional ethics.” Before the internet, independent newspapers would never have considered accepting gifts or sweetheart deals from entities they covered. Facebook is extremely controversial, and receiving millions from the company creates a conflict of interest.
Such deals also give Facebook an undue appearance of legitimacy, and they edge out smaller competitors, Washington Monthly argued.
If Facebook’s intent were to save American journalism, it would be making generous offers to smaller, local news organizations that do original reporting, Damon Kiesow, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, told me. By contrast, Facebook News “doesn’t really help anyone in the industry except for the small select group of outlets that get paid,” he said. “These efforts are all flavored with a strong dose of crisis communication and regulation avoidance.”
Facebook’s payments seem more like a power play than a legitimate attempt to compensate news outlets for access to their content.
Washington Monthly noted that there is “no evidence” the deal has impacted the Times‘ coverage of Facebook. “Before the Facebook News deal, the Times famously published an op-ed titled ‘It’s Time to Break Up Facebook,’ by Chris Hughes, a cofounder of Facebook turned critic. And since the deal, columns from Tim Wu and Kara Swisher, among others, have been similarly critical. In December, the editorial board welcomed a lawsuit calling for Facebook to be broken up.”
Yet this does not mean the Times won’t become Facebook’s “mistress” in the future. The sugar-daddy may have not yet made any demands, but that certainly does not preclude demands in the future.
Washington Monthly faulted Facebook for having “become a vector of disinformation and hate speech that routinely invades our privacy and undermines our democracy.” Conservatives may point instead to Facebook’s history of censoring conservative speech in the name of fighting “disinformation” and “hate speech.”
Facebook’s executives are likely aware of the tremendous power they wield and recent events have raised concerns about Facebook appearing to put its thumb on the scale for its favored causes.
As The Washington Free Beacon’s Alana Goodman reported Sunday, Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz directed more than $5 million into a network of nonprofits run by Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. These donations raise suspicions about Facebook’s decision to censor news articles that highlighted Cullors’ purchase of a $3.2 million mansion in a lily-white suburb.
Facebook blocked its users from posting links to a New York Post story on Cullors, claiming the story violated its “privacy and personal information policy.”
The Post fired back that the decision was “so arbitrary as to be laughable.” Media outlets routinely report on celebrities’ real estate purchases without facing social media censorship.
Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna have bankrolled many organizations Cullors founded. While Moskovitz left Facebook as an employee in 2008, he is still reported to be one of the company’s top stakeholders, with most of his $20 billion net work coming from his estimated 2 percent holdings.
Facebook has a tremendous impact on America’s public discourse, and it can throw its weight around in some subtle — and some far less subtle — ways. The fact that this company is paying the Times more than $3 million annually should be extremely disturbing, and it should only highlight how unscrupulous and biased America’s newspaper of record has become.
Sadly, the rot extends beyond the Times as well. According to The Wall Street Journal, Facebook News also involves ABC News, the Journal, The Washington Post, and Bloomberg.
Facebook is stretching its tentacles out into the news industry, pulling together a harem of “mistresses.” What happens when the sugar-daddy finally starts making demands?