Facebook says Zuck doesn’t hate journalists after all, and doesn’t want them to die

If you’re a journalist, chances are you’ve either read or been forwarded links to a story in The Australian, a newspaper based in Sydney that contains some explosive commentary from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg behind its paywall (the Daily Beast has a summary of it). According to the story, Campbell Brown—Facebook’s head of news partnerships—said in a meeting with the paper’s senior executives that “Mark doesn’t care about publishers,” and also warned that if media companies didn’t work with the giant social network on business model solutions, “in a few years, I’ll be holding your hand with your dying business, like in a hospice.”

These comments were held up by some as conclusive proof that Facebook hates journalists and can’t wait for the industry to die. After all, the sentiment seemed to fit right in with some of the social network’s recent moves, which have reduced traffic to media outlets by significant amounts. Some even believe the company is trying to deliberately distance itself from media because it is such a political and social minefield, and that all of this represents a retreat from having to deal with journalism altogether. But would Facebook really come out and say it doesn’t care if the media dies?

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Sources at Facebook, not surprisingly perhaps, say Brown’s comments were taken out of context and in some cases appear to have been manufactured wholesale. “These quotes are simply not accurate and don’t reflect the discussion we had in the meeting,” Brown said in a prepared statement. The company says they don’t reflect its actual thinking either about journalists or the media industry as a whole (no one has used the term “fake news,” but it’s obvious people within Facebook are thinking it). The social network says it has a recording of the meeting that proves its case, but so far the company hasn’t released it.

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As usual when the Facebook is involved, there are a number of layers to this latest dust up. One is that Facebook probably is trying to distance itself from the media—whenever it gets involved, it raises issues like the company’s role in misinformation, censorship, and other unpleasantness. Also, as Josh Benton has pointed out at Nieman Lab, it appears that Facebook really is a lot less interested in driving traffic to publishers, based on the available evidence from publishers like Quartz.

On top of that, Campbell Brown’s bald statement that “we are not interested in talking about your referrals any more” has the ring of truth, given some of what she said at a Recode conference earlier this year, when she told publishers they could basically take it or leave it. “If anyone feels this isn’t the right platform for them, they should not be on Facebook,” she said at the time. Some journalists even appear to support her latest comments as a no-holds-barred assessment of where things stand.

Whether Facebook is making the changes it has (de-emphasizing traffic to media outlets, etc.) because it literally hates the media and wants it to die is anybody’s guess, of course, but the fact remains they are happening. So the comments from Brown might have seemed like a veiled threat, but they could also have been just a statement of fact: If Facebook won’t provide the revenue or the traffic necessary for some outlets to survive, publishers might start going on life support. Journalists wish this wasn’t true, but are afraid that it might be.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.