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Columbia law professor Tim Wu on coverage in an ad-seized media

Tim Wu, the law professor who coined the term 'net neutrality,' diagrams the issue at Columbia University.


Donald Trump may hate the media, but if he is elected President of the United States on Tuesday, he'll owe a debt of gratitude to one particular 19th-century newspaper publisher. In 1833, Benjamin Day launched the New York Sun with a business model that was new for the time, and which many believe led to the media's corruption: Instead of pricey subscriptions that kept newspapers – and news – out of the reach of the common folk, Day sold The Sun for a penny. Most of his revenue came from advertising.

As Tim Wu notes in The Attention Merchants, his new history of advertising and media, Day's revolutionary approach meant his primary product wasn't the paper but rather its readership, whose attention he captured and then sold to advertisers.

But after finding initial success with shocking tales of suicide and divorce, Day came under pressure to expand his audience by delivering ever-more-sensational stories: In 1835, he published a six-part series about the discovery of civilization on the moon. (It was, er, not true.)

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Wu, who was raised in Toronto and is now a professor at Columbia Law School, was back in his hometown recently for interviews and a speech to students at University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

It's been widely noted that Trump's rise was facilitated by endless, uncritical media coverage. Do you believe Trump's success marks the apotheosis of the damage that attention merchants can do?

This is going to be CNN's best year in decades, and they have one reason: their star actor, Donald Trump. I think the media made Trump. They also unmade him later.

I understand that most of your interviews here in Toronto have been with public-broadcasting outlets. Do you find publicly funded institutions are friendlier to your message than the big bad commercial press?

That's a very interesting question. No – you know why? I think most of the reporters I talk to, particularly the ones who work in advertising-supported media, also feel that there's a constant threat of advertising going too far, corrupting their business, corrupting their product.

You believe that even the people working for the modern attention merchants – online companies such as Google and Facebook – are dispirited by the turn of events?

No one is that excited about spending all of their engineers' time and ability finding ways to get people to click on ads. There's a sense that a generation, or at least the last five years, have been all about innovations in ad tech, as opposed to what they want to do. New light bulbs, exciting things.

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People in Silicon Valley like to believe they're making the world a better place; nobody sets out – even in advertising – to make the world a more addled place.

This is a very structuralist theory, but sometimes you end up with systems that serve nobody's interests, and I think we're a little bit there with the state of advertising and media right now.

Right. Benjamin Day didn't launch the Sun expecting that he'd end up lying to his readers.

I think there's a cycle, where a medium can be born and sort of fall into the lowest kind of effort to just gain full attention. But I think they can also recover. I think print journalism is an example. By the early 20th century, newspapers kind of got their act together and created better ethics. Set up this line between advertising and reporting, this idea of objective reporting.

You think we've hit rock bottom with the Web and the newer platforms?

It could get worse! We're certainly at a low. And I think just in every way, the ad load has gotten stronger, heavier. The level of invasiveness on the privacy side has gotten worse.

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More people are using ad-blocking technology, which you've suggested might presage a revolt, like the one in the 19th century, when French citizens objected to the aesthetic intrusion of ad posters. Do you really believe we're going to rise up against the attention merchants?

I'm not saying we're going to have a dictatorship of the proletariat. I'm saying there are increasing numbers of people who are desirable ad targets, who take pains to prevent themselves from seeing advertisements. Part of it is ad-blocking. Part of it is not watching commercial-driven broadcasting. And part of it is just a learned indifference to advertising. As I said in the book, it historically is something that seems to happen every 30 years or so.

Instead of allowing their attention to be captured and sold to the highest bidder, you think people should just "suck it up and pay" for services they value. Great idea, but isn't there something elitist about that?

No, because I don't think the numbers are that big.

You think everyone can afford to pay for high-quality news? To subscribe to Netflix instead of watching commercially supported TV?

Cable TV subscriptions, cellphone plans – when you add it up, the average American spends $200-$300 already on media stuff. Facebook – if you look at how much it would really cost to replace all those ads, it's less than $1 a month. If Google could snap its fingers and transfer to a subscription model, I bet they would love it. They know in their heart of hearts they're in a tough place with this advertising model, that it's dragging them to places they never wanted to go.

The Attention Merchants is being advertised; isn't that a little hypocritical?

The overly simplistic view of the book is "advertising is evil." Advertising is information. My problem is the domination of competition by a limited number of players, and I worry that this natural process of trying to get ideas out there is hijacked. In a propaganda state, all you hear from is the government. We don't have that problem. But we do have the problem that all we hear from is the most outrageous and outlandish – or the corporate side. I think we can do better.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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