Craig Newmark: Media Is the Immune System of Democracy

One of the themes of the Activate conference, put on by The Guardian Media Group at the Paley Center in New York on Thursday, was the power of the networked world — including what Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger calls a “mutualised” or networked media — to change society for the better. In a panel on that topic, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark talked about his views on the importance of a free and open media industry, which he called the “immune system of democracy,” and Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig talked about his efforts to fight corruption in government with a web-based project he calls “Rootstrikers.”

Newmark said he has recently been transitioning away from spending most of his time doing “customer service” for Craigslist, in part because the site no longer needs him as much. His new passion, he said, is trying to help support non-profit agencies and efforts of all kinds through a project called Craig Connects, which he launched six weeks ago, and also trying to bring some verification to the non-profit world by working with groups like GuideStar, which he said was “like Yelp for non-profits.” Said Newmark:

I’ve lost patience with good intentions [and] I’ve found that some non-profits are really good with the heart-wrenching stories, and really good with cashing your checks, but they’re not so good at getting things done.

The Craigslist founder also talked about how important a free and “verified” press was to a democracy. The man who some newspaper publishers have accused of destroying their business models by taking away classified revenue, also said what the media needs more of is “the traditional journalism ethics of fact-checking and the separation of advertising and editorial.” Newmark said he is working with the Center for Public Integrity to create crowdsourced networks of fact-checkers and curators.

Lessig, meanwhile, gave an impassioned presentation that approximated spoken-word poetry at times, painting a picture of the revolutionary fervor that accompanied the formation of the U.S. republic in 1776, and how that original vision has been corrupted by money and powerful vested interests. Lessig said his new effort to collect stories and information about corruption, called Rootstrikers, gets its name from a quote by Henry David Thoreau, who said that “there are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

In answer to a question from the audience, Lessig also explained his shift from promoting ideas like net neutrality and copyright freedom by saying those kinds of concepts don’t have a hope of succeeding in Washington, D.C. because of the pervasive effects of corruption.

In the Q&A following the panel, Lessig played the role of skeptic and Newmark the role of optimist when it came to the power of social networking to effect change: Lessig said the power of the traditional media and skewed political interests was proven by how dominant the “Obama birther” movement was in the news over the past several months, while Newmark said that younger people are effectively “doing their own curating and building their own networks from the bottom up, and that’s the really important thing.”

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user