Facebook’s new role as news publisher brings new scrutiny

Marc Tracy, The New York Times

Posted at Nov 12 2019 09:28 AM

Facebook’s new role as news publisher brings new scrutiny 1
Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, US, Oct. 23, 2019. Erin Scott, Reuters

A little more than 2 weeks after Facebook announced a news initiative, the social network was on the defensive, responding to a published report that a website co-founded by the company’s top news executive had displayed bias against Elizabeth Warren.

Popular Information, a liberal newsletter, reported on Monday that The 74, a nonprofit education policy website co-founded by Facebook’s top news executive, Campbell Brown, had published several articles attacking Warren, a senator from Massachusetts and Democratic presidential candidate. One of them called Warren “the second coming of Karl Marx.”

The newsletter entry was written by Judd Legum, a former editor of the defunct liberal website ThinkProgress and a onetime Democratic political operative. It argued that the articles critical of Warren that appeared on The 74 were relevant to Facebook’s move into the news business, because Brown still sits on the site’s board. Legum also reported that the family foundation of the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was a donor to The 74.

Brown responded swiftly to the criticism on Monday, saying in a Twitter thread that her involvement with The 74 had no bearing on Facebook News and that the articles singled out by the newsletter were opinion essays, not news articles.

“The 74 is not part of Facebook News and the FB news team does not and has not supported The 74 in any way,” Brown wrote on Twitter. “I still care deeply about the issues The 74 covers so I remain on the board of directors w/no editorial role and make personal donations (it’s a nonprofit).”

Brown, a former anchor at NBC and CNN, also said that she had listed her relationship with The 74 in her Twitter biography. She added that her support for the charter-school movement — a frequent topic in The 74 — puts her in the company not only of DeVos, but of Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., a presidential candidate.

The flap is the latest sign that Facebook will be susceptible to charges of bias now that it has stepped more boldly into the role of media publisher.

The company drew the close attention of journalists, politicians and anyone else on the lookout for signs of partisanship when it announced Facebook News, a separate section on its mobile app featuring reporting from publications including BuzzFeed, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

News organizations responded positively to the move, for the most part, because Facebook is able to deliver readers in huge numbers and had agreed to pay for some content. There was skepticism, too, some of it resulting from Facebook’s decision to include Breitbart, a far-right news and commentary site, among the publications it had chosen to highlight. On Friday, Facebook News removed posts from Breitbart that claimed to identify the whistleblower who set in motion an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Steve Snyder, the editor-in-chief of The 74, said in his own tweets Monday that the site had also published opinion pieces critical of DeVos and her policies, along with news articles dispassionately covering education. “Nothing is structured here to prioritize one viewpoint over another,” Snyder said in an interview. He added: “Campbell plays no editorial role.”

Legum defended his newsletter story in an interview. “She maintains a public association and is admittedly still involved in the website — she sits on the board,” he said, referring to Brown. “I don’t think it’s illegitimate to say we should be able to evaluate what’s on there and that it reflects somewhat upon her approach.”

A Facebook spokeswoman said in an emailed statement that The 74 was not among the sites whose articles will be featured in Facebook News’ selection of top stories, adding that Brown had always been open about her relationship with the site. “Any suggestion otherwise is baseless,” the spokeswoman said.

When the company announced its push into news last month, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said he hoped the new tab’s users would number in the “tens of millions” in the United States and “hundreds of millions” globally.

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