It seemed an odd choice when the Financial Times picked Steve Bannon for the keynote interview at its “future of news” conference. In many ways, Bannon is yesterday’s media man: out at Breitbart, out at the White House, then out at Breitbart again. He last made big headlines in January, as the source who turbocharged Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury.
The FT invite, however, landed before stories in last weekend’s New York Times and London Observer thrust Bannon right back into the spotlight. The two papers reported that in 2014, Facebook handed reams of its users’ data to a researcher linked to Cambridge Analytica, the shadowy, UK-based company that mined the information to the apparent electoral advantage of Donald Trump. Bannon—who invested in Cambridge Analytica, served on its board, and even chose its name—had yet to speak publicly on the revelations, which have driven sharp new debates on Facebook’s role in the 2016 election and data protection writ large.
At Thursday’s conference, Bannon finally broke his silence. Addressing a rapt audience of New York journalism bigwigs and assembled media hacks in a plush Midtown Manhattan tower block, Bannon claimed he hadn’t known about Cambridge Analytica’s deal with Facebook, but that “the data from Facebook is just about the cost of it….That data is out there. It’s being bought and sold every day,” he said. “Facebook takes your stuff for free and sells it and monetizes it for huge margins. Then they write algorithms that control your life.” (After the event, Bannon told CNN’s Dana Bash that he “doesn’t remember” paying Facebook for data.)
Given Cambridge Analytica’s transatlantic operations, the conference fell at an opportune moment for the FT—handing a big US megaphone to the UK’s newly minted “newspaper of the year.” But Bannon largely deflected follow-up questions on his role, casting the story as a desperate liberal media smear. (“You struck out on Russia. And now you’ve gotta go to Cambridge Analytica, as if ‘that’s what won [the election].’”) And the rest of his interview with FT Editor Lionel Barber ranged all over the map: from Benito Mussolini to Marine Le Pen, and from the fall of Ancient Rome to the rise of modern China.
Just what to do about Facebook was a recurring question at the conference—as Times editor Dean Baquet put it in a separate keynote, “It’s hard for me not to think of what Facebook does as editing….They make decisions about what people get to see.” But like Bannon’s interview, the event as a whole rather slipped away from the week’s hottest media story. Instead, a star-studded roster of speakers—including top editors and executives from ABC, CNN, Glamour, The Hollywood Reporter, The Information, and BuzzFeed—addressed a dizzying range of challenges facing the press, such as the decline of advertising revenue, the difficulty of building digital audiences, and, of course, attacks emanating from the Oval Office.
The day’s first panel, which pitted Facebook Head of News Partnerships Campbell Brown against Google VP of News Richard Gingras, was a case in point. Brown was grilled early on Mark Zuckerberg’s delayed public response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which she attributed to more urgent internal efforts to secure users’ data. But the debate quickly turned to older philosophical questions. Are social platforms publishers? To what extent should Facebook and Google regulate content? The answers are still blowing in the nor’easterly wind.
That’s not to say the day’s discussions didn’t add value. Emily Bell (who leads Columbia University’s Tow Center and serves on CJR’s Board of Overseers), for instance, pressed Brown on Facebook’s controversial plans to let users assess the trustworthiness of media outlets. (“Is Breitbart a trusted news source?” Bell asked. “To some people, it is. To some people, it is not,” Brown replied.) And an interesting panel featuring Reuters’s and HuffPost’s editors in chief, Stephen Adler and Lydia Polgreen (who both also serve on CJR’s board), as well as Newsmax CEO and Trump booster Christopher Ruddy, offered rare fresh insight on what constitutes a “fact” in modern media. Adler defined a fact as something you correct when it’s wrong; Ruddy said the media often differs over interpretations of facts, rather than facts themselves; and Polgreen said she wants her reporters to steer clear of “chin-stroking” fact-check journalism altogether.
On the whole, however, Facebook could have used a more focused turn in the hot seat, given the many questions it has yet to answer on its data-sharing practices and promises to protect user profiles going forward. Bannon, for his part, was making a first public outing since Politico reported that Breitbart’s readership has plummeted in the past 12 months, driving the site ever closer to a cliff’s edge. When Barber asked him about its decline, Bannon replied that conservative media outlets aren’t immune to the harsh advertising climate that’s roiling all digital publishers—echoing earlier thoughts from mainstream media panelists and pundits.
Advertising aside, however, Breitbart is no ordinary digital publisher. It forced itself into the national conversation because of Trump, but also because it was brazen in setting an agenda the mainstream media felt compelled to write about. Since Bannon’s departure, the site has been noticeably less aggressive in that regard. Its crisis thus feels existential.
The decline of Breitbart found echo in an earlier remark by Baquet, who, asked whether the Times should be leading the “resistance” to Trump, answered that “the biggest problem with being a leader of the opposition is that eventually the opposition comes into power…and then you’re a chump.” Bannon addressed that thought, in part. “You’ve got to break news or make news,” he said. “You have to have a sense of urgency, and people have to feel that they need this information. The site’s a little more aggregation today. I think the guys have a different strategy.”
The FT’s event offered a useful, high-profile overview of a global media landscape in permaflux. But amid talk of business models and “fake news”—and of Mussolini, Xi Jinping, and Julius Caesar—one big question, in particular, still lacks an answer. Et tu, Facebook?
Update: On March 28, 2018, BuzzFeed reported that the Financial Times and The Economist “were Cambridge Analytica clients, with an industry source saying the data firm had been brought on board as way to gain new US subscribers.” In a statement, the FT told BuzzFeed, “The FT worked with Cambridge Analytica for a brief time on a market research project.”