TIME’s Nancy Gibbs: The Disintermediation of Media and Politics

March 1, 2016 — Nancy Gibbs, editor of TIME, discussed the parallels between the disruption of the media industry and the upheaval of politics during the 2016 presidential campaign.

In this election cycle, the “traditional entities” – the political parties, the media and the donor class – have been “cut out” as middlemen, said Gibbs. Outsider candidates have been able to “build an audience, deliver a message, and create a platform, all of their own construction.” Candidates can speak directly to voters through social media; Bernie Sanders in particular, despite a lack of media coverage compared to Donald Trump, was able to raise millions, said Gibbs. And although he has made extensive use of media coverage, Trump has circumvented both the Republican Party and the donor class.

We are raising a generation now in which everyone is in the media business.

At the same time, legacy media outlets are no longer as authoritative as they once were. “We are raising a generation now in which everyone is in the media business,” said Gibbs of young people’s fluency in digital publishing. Editorials, once a powerful tool of persuasion, have reduced influence on a public with less reverence for institutions.  Gibbs said of a TIME graphic that went viral: “The four-second GIF of the symbol of America attacking Donald Trump is a more powerful editorial statement in 2016 than anything that The New York Times or “World News Tonight” or The Wall Street Journal could possibly say.”

This disruption mirrors a technology-driven transformation taking place across industries, said Gibbs, with companies such as Uber, Airbnb and Amazon eliminating the middlemen and even the company’s ownership of goods or property. “Why should the media be any different? I think that that is a bracing situation for those of us who have spent our lives as professional journalists,” she said, “but I also think it’s a fascinating opportunity, and I would argue a moment for some humility.”

“One of the reasons media has been disintermediated is because we have gotten a lot wrong, particularly in this race,” she continued. Both Trump and Sanders were discounted by the media, said Gibbs, “because we have systems and rules and arbitrators and power brokers who will prevent anything this wild and unprecedented from happening – that has all turned out to be wrong.”

One of the reasons media has been disintermediated is because we have gotten a lot wrong, particularly in this race.

“Change is hard, and fear seldom brings out the best in people or in institutions…it is going to take a particular kind of courage on the part of the press, on the part of the political class, even on the part of voters to explore the new territory that we find ourselves in,” said Gibbs.

Gibbs was optimistic that the current disruption of media and politics also brings with it new opportunities. “Never in history have we had the power to reach the audiences that we reach now,” she said, also noting that the ability to better tell stories with data and across multiple platforms is another beneficial development of technological advances.

“This can be a golden age not only of journalism, but of governance, because these tools apply every bit as much to those who are looking to shape policy,” she continued. “If you are a citizen with a good idea looking to solve a problem, your ability to rally people to your cause… has never before been as great as it is now.”

Gibbs closed her talk with some suggestions for how media and government organizations could best move forward, and strengthen democracy. The media need to be willing to tell stories about the ways in which government is working, she said, noting that there is an “institutional hostility” toward positive stories about public figures solving pressing problems.

Additionally, both legacy news outlets and government need to embrace technology, said Gibbs. She described a “digital divide” that exists between the public and private sectors in their leverage of technology. “Every time citizens read about the rollout of Heathcare.gov…or the VA’s computers not being able to talk to each other… it is a real problem for the way government and politicians and policymakers are going to be perceived.” Having witnessed a similar resistance to the adoption of new technologies in the newsroom, Gibbs said, “we need to be open to the idea that this first generation of digital natives has a great deal to teach the rest of us, in whatever field we are in.”

Gibbs also discussed journalism business models, media bias, money in politics, coverage of Donald Trump, and voter turnout. Listen to the full audio recording above.

Article and photo by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.