Transcript: Taking On Google’s News Monopoly

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Interview with William F. Baker

For podcast release Monday, February 18, 2013

KENNEALLY: Last month, the Federal Trade Commission declined to take up antitrust charges against Google. The decision disappointed not only Google’s competitors, who charged the Internet search giant with monopolistic practices, but also consumer advocates who say that its search results favor Google’s business aims at the expense of the public.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally, your host for Beyond the Book.

One area where Google’s invisible hand was left without so much as a slap on the wrist is its news page, and the absence of government regulation may one day mean less news will be available online rather than more. That’s the view, at least, of a distinguished media veteran who writes in The Nation that Google’s powerful online market position poses a threat to the marketplace of ideas.

William F. Baker founded and directs the Bernard Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy, and Education at Fordham University, and he joins me now. Bill, welcome to Beyond the Book.

BAKER: Thank you very much, Chris. Good to be here.

KENNEALLY: It’s a pleasure to have you join us, and we want to tell people that besides being a distinguished author and journalist, you were a broadcast executive for many years. Twenty years as chief executive of public television station WNET, channel 13, in New York City, where you introduced the landmark program Charlie Rose and oversaw the station’s transition to digital broadcasting. Before joining NET, you were president of Westinghouse Television, and there, you introduced Oprah Winfrey as a talk show host.
So quite a background in journalism, and your concern with what Google News is doing is for the future of journalism. But let’s talk about the take you have on Google News itself. What is it about the way that the news is presented on Google that worries you?

BAKER: First of all, I have a great respect for Google and Google News and what they do. They are the world’s greatest aggregator. They really know what they’re doing, and maybe for that reason, because they know what they’re doing so well, in a sense – and certainly inadvertently to them – they’ve become, I think, a threat. The threat is that they are so good that they have a kind of quasi-monopoly. Maybe not a legal monopoly, but in the United States, something like better than 65 % of all searches are done through Google. In Europe and places like Germany, it’s in the 90s, high 90s.

People go to Google for a lot of things, and one of the things they go for is news. Google does a good job with news in that they aggregate many, many sources from all over the world. The real problem is because they are so big, they are so powerful, and they do have, in a sense, an inadvertent control, a gatekeeper’s control because of all that, that they wind up with a sense of power. Because the way their algorithm could stack news stories, the way they could – in a sense, they become the ultimate gatekeeper. And when you become an ultimate gatekeeper, there probably should be somebody looking over your shoulder just making sure that all is well, and that someone should be some regulatory authority.

The other thing, and equally as big as this size issue and power issue, in my opinion and in the opinion of many others – and this really is where your center comes in, as well – is the copyrights, the holders of the copyrights, the generators of the news. There are no Google news reporters, although maybe the majority of the people in America now get their news somehow directly or indirectly through Google. But Google isn’t employing any news reporters. The people that are employing the news reporters, the so-called legacy newsrooms of America – most of them being newspaper newsrooms, but other newsrooms around the country – don’t get paid by Google.

They generate the information. It costs a huge amount of money to generate really good information, and no money comes back to the originators of the information. Google makes considerable money through a way they sell advertising and their information to those that want it. They’re doing a good job at that, too, and making millions of dollars off of all that. My argument is that someone should be keeping an eye on Google, not because they’ve necessarily done anything wrong, but just to make sure someone of that scale and power doesn’t do anything wrong.

And the second is, there should be some way that we can share the wealth. Share the wealth not because I love the legacy journalists so much, the newspapers and all, but that I’m worried that if we don’t have a way, because their models – their models meaning the models of the legacy journalists – have collapsed. They used to exist because of classified advertising. Now the newsrooms of America are folding and are in free fall, and we’re losing journalists left and right.

If we want to have professional, paid journalists – and I argue that citizen journalism is nice, but having somebody that really knows what they’re doing and spends the time and has the skill is more important – we’re going to have to figure out a way to pay them. One of the ways I recommend – there may be others and I’d love Google and others to suggest some – is that Google and the other aggregators – Google’s, by the way, not the only one – share the wealth.

KENNEALLY: The notion of the government watching over an organization like Google is one that flies in the face of all these free market principles that are prevalent now. But if we go back into the past, you’ve pointed out in your Nation article that the Founders felt that the news and disseminating news was something that was of public importance. So they passed something called the Postal Act of 1792, which helped to foster the newspaper industry in this country. Tell us about that and its relevance to the argument you’re making now.

BAKER: There’s been an argument saying the government doesn’t belong in journalism and in news. And my argument – by the way, it’s an argument that we didn’t create. It’s one that was created by some very distinguished professors, I believe at University of Michigan, but at any rate, I can’t remember. They’re wonderful guys. They discovered that really, the government said journalism is important to this country, and we want these then-newsletters, quasi-newspapers to survive, so the government basically paid for the distribution of them.

The Postal Act allowed newspapers to either be delivered free or close to being free. The government was underwriting the distribution of journalism in America. That equivalent in today’s dollars would be billions of dollars, and it really comes from an earlier argument that we had saying that that’s a legitimate argument, a historical argument, that public media should be supported by the government. These days, public media isn’t supported in any way close to the way the government supported journalism back in the early days of this country.

And also, of course, later, in the 1920s and the 1930s, the Federal Communications Commission was established. The First Amendment was just as important then as it is now, and the government had no hesitation to say, look, these media are powerful, they’re important. They’re important to our society, they’re important to our democracy. We have to make sure that they are properly run and regulated. So they started to regulate and have been regulating broadcast media since the 1930s.

KENNEALLY: Right. But the approach today is more or less a hands-off one, and you’re advocating for something less of a light touch.

BAKER: Yes, I am. And by the way, I’ve been at least consistent in that. When I was a licensed broadcaster, even in my Westinghouse days, I wrote a book 20-some years ago, called Down the Tube: The Failure of American Television. One of the things that I talked about was regulation, that the government keeping an eye on broadcasting was really a good thing. Even though in the history of all of broadcasting, the government – and it’s been regulated since, as I say, the 1930s – there’s only been one license that was taken away by the Federal Communications Commission.

But I can tell you as someone who ran a large commercial broadcasting company for a decade, was manager of television stations for a decade before that, and ran the biggest public TV station in the US, or one of the very biggest, here in New York for two decades, that having the government – just the possible threat, just knowing that they might be looking at us, I think made everybody pay a little bit more attention and do a little bit better job.

I think that same kind of thing – this is from practical experience, from decades of experience of being in regulated media in this country by the US government – that it’s really not a bad thing. Do you want them to tell you what programs to put on? No. Did they ever tell us what programs to put on? No, because they weren’t allowed to do that.

But they were allowed to make sure that we didn’t do any really bad things and that we made sure that all voices were heard, etc. I think that is good, and the threat of some kind of regulatory activity is also good, and I say that from personal experience. I’m not an ideologue in this area, and I’m not a theoretician professor. I’m somebody that’s actually done this stuff for five decades.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. You’ve done quite a lot in those five decades. We’re chatting with Bill Baker, who is the director of the Bernard Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy, and Education at Fordham University.

With regard to your second point, Bill, you were speaking about the threat to the future of the newspaper business, the profession, because it’s being drained of resources by forces like Google and others on the Internet. We have examples around the world, in Europe particularly right now, where there is some pressure being put on these kinds of companies to help to share the wealth, as you put it.

BAKER: Yes. Some of the regulators in Europe are looking more heavily at Google and the other aggregators of news and information, and it was really a surprise that the FTC didn’t kind of do what the Europeans are doing. Now the fear is, since the Europeans haven’t really done anything yet except that they’ve been waving the flag pretty heavily, is that will they look at America and say, well, if America didn’t do anything, they may know something we don’t know, so let’s not do anything ourselves. That does concern me, too, the precedent that the FTC set by not really paying attention to this.

By the way, too – again, no big issue with Google as a company, which is an exceptional company. I wrote some management books and highlighted them as a company of great management. But this whole area of journalism, of news, of information, of this kind of information, particularly, is really critical to our society. Unless we have a really strong, robust – robust meaning paid – journalism force in America, you’re not going to have much of a democracy, and that’s what really concerns me.

KENNEALLY: And I guess finally, it would be that disinterest with regard to the state of journalism could lead to unintended consequences.

BAKER: Exactly.

KENNEALLY: We have been chatting with Bill Baker, who is the founder and director of the Bernard Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy, and Education at Fordham University. He has an article in The Nation for January 23 on Google’s monopoly on the news. And Bill Baker, thank you so much for joining us today on Beyond the Book.

BAKER: Chris, honored to be here. Thank you.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. You can follow us on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at the Copyright Clearance Center website, copyright.com. Just click on Beyond the Book. Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.