A ‘Sorry’ Zuckerberg <br>Is Turning to Print <br>As Congress Champs

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Facebook has taken out full-page print newspaper ads for its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, to say that he is “sorry” for allowing a leak of customer data.

It’s a case of the medium being more important than the message.

Why did Mr. Zuckerberg buy print newspaper ads rather than say, Google ads or Facebook ads, which, as most ad-buyers know these days, are more cost-efficient? Strictly from a communications standpoint, it has all the retro appeal of Mr. Zuckerberg announcing that he is embarking on an apology tour traveling by horse-drawn carriage and clad in a top-hat and suspenders rather than his customary hoodie.

It was, however, a way to pay some money to the publications that have been hammering him with how-to articles advising readers on the steps to take to delete their accounts.

If the newspaper owners have their way, the funds from Facebook won’t be a one-shot payment, but just the beginning of a never-ending cash-flow akin to the lucrative “carriage fees” that cable companies pay networks for content.

There are at least two different narratives into which the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal neatly fits.

The first, “Trump stole the election,” matches a familiar pattern with a long history in American politics, from Republican complaints about the 1960 Kennedy campaign in Chicago and Texas on through the hanging chads of Florida and the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore.

The second story is that of the legacy news organizations, such as print newspapers, blaming the decline of their businesses on big technology companies like Google and Facebook. The newspapers have gone so far as asking Congress for an antitrust exemption to help them demand money from Google and Facebook for the privilege of providing hyperlinks to their stories.

It’s not only advertising revenue that the newspapers have lost, though they have lost that, by the billions of dollars. It’s the agenda-setting power. Newspaper editors once had the power to decide what was front-page news, and what wasn’t news at all. Now that power lies instead with the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter and the decisions of aggregators ranging from online powerhouses such as Matt Drudge and Glenn Reynolds to all those distant family members, college classmates, or former co-workers who regularly post to Facebook or email out news articles and opinion pieces.

Questioning the motives of Facebook — “all Zuckerberg really cares about is making money” — or the integrity of its business practices — “they don’t care about keeping your personal data private” — is, for newspapers, a fantasy pathway for a restoration to the central role they once played in information-filtering for American citizens.

This is a somewhat new dynamic.

The Washington shakedown — in which politicians of both parties haul executives of a successful company in for hearings, threaten a regulatory crackdown or investigation, and then retreat after the company hires enough former staffers as lobbyists, makes enough campaign contributions, or otherwise pays homage — is an old and familiar story. There’s some of that in the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica tale, too.

The print newspaper publisher shakedown — in which the legacy press assails a successful Internet company until the Internet company agrees to pay the press lots of money — is a newer tale.

How will it end?

A clue may be in the case of one newspaper that has been relatively more restrained than others in pressing the case against Facebook — the Washington Post. It ran Donald E. Graham’s shrewd op-ed headlined “Don’t Regulate Facebook,” along with an editorial advising readers to “take a deep breath” and avoid “rushing to judgment” about the disclosures. The Post is now owned by Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder who, as a disruptive technology innovator, has a lot in common with Mark Zuckerberg.

Maybe Mr. Zuckerberg’s route out of this one involves not signing up to pay billions of dollars in “carriage fees” to newspaper publishers but rather making like Mr. Bezos did, and personally purchasing one. Mr. Zuckerberg’s net wealth is down about $7.5 billion this year, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, but with $65 billion, he could still easily afford to purchase the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times or Gannett or Tronc. The price would be more than those full-page newspaper ads. Whether it would be worth the investment would require some business analysis about how much of that $7.5 billion decline in Mr. Zuckerberg’s wealth stems from negative press coverage.

One thing is for sure: if Mr. Zuckerberg does buy a newspaper, it won’t be publishing articles telling readers how to delete their Facebook accounts. Readers might nonetheless be able to uncover that information for themselves on the Internet.

The New York Sun

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