Scott Rosenberg touched off a minor firestorm in the media-sphere with a post at Axios this week, in which the veteran technology writer argues that at least some of the enthusiasm with which media companies are covering Facebook’s trial and tribulations stems from their resentment over how the company has stolen their readers and advertising revenue. Here’s his argument in a nutshell:
Outrage over Facebook’s misuse of user data and failure to rein in election fraud is real. But the zeal that media outlets bring to their Facebook coverage is personal, too. It’s turbocharged because journalists, individually and collectively, blame Facebook — along with other tech giants, like Google, and the internet itself — for seducing their readers, impoverishing their employers, and killing off their jobs. This blame war is the latest phase of a decades-long grudge match between traditional media companies and new technology giants.
This theory sparked a raft of responses from journalists of all stripes, including everything from a brief “LOL—sorry, but this is BS” from USA Today reporter Jessica Guynn to a full-throated denial by Eric Levitz in New York magazine, who argued even if Facebook and Google have crippled the media industry, that doesn’t mean coverage of their power and influence is motivated by anything other than a desire to expose that power and influence, and to question its impact on a civil society (including journalism).
It would be one thing if Axios presented a litany of libelous errors that journalists had made in the course of covering Silicon Valley with a vengeance. But if this alleged resentment isn’t producing misinformation, then what is the point of insinuating that critical coverage of Facebook is rooted in personal grievance? Who is served by such unsubstantiated insinuations?
Others noted that BuzzFeed has been relentless in exposing the details of various stories involving Facebook, despite the fact that it owes more of its livelihood to the social network than just about any other media entity, and therefore might be assumed to be more favorably inclined towards it rather than less. And some pointed out that in the early days of Facebook, a case could be made that coverage of the company was overly positive, making the current critical approach more of a return to normal than an outlier.
Some saw the Axios piece as primarily a piece of marketing—a way of indicating that Axios is sympathetic to the tech giants and their complaints about overly critical coverage. And a few noted that the media startup, which is run by former Politico founder Jim VandeHei, had a partnership with Facebook that involved a series of exclusive interviews with senior executives.
One of the other implications in Rosenberg’s piece is that Facebook and Google didn’t just steal audience and revenue from publishers because they had natural advantages, but because media executives failed to adapt quickly enough to the internet, and then in a desperate attempt to catch up, handed over too much of their business to Facebook and Google. Whether anyone in the traditional media industry wants to admit it or not, that point has more than a little truth to it.