Silicon Valley, White House South Lawn Among Recent Newseum Stops

Free Speech in the Social Media Era

Newseum president and chief executive officer Jeffrey Herbst (right) with Peter Stern, Facebook’s head of policy risk management. (Scott Williams/Newseum)

Newseum President and CEO Jeffrey Herbst addresses Newseum staff and supporters in this letter.

September was a busy month at the Newseum with numerous conferences, panel discussions, and film screenings. We were particularly honored to host the opening and closing events of the first South by South Lawn, the White House’s celebration of innovators and artists.

Of particular import, the Board of Trustees held its quarterly meeting in Palo Alto, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. We went to California for two reasons: First, to learn about the technological disruption of journalism, the media, and the information ecosystem from the companies that are driving many of the changes. Second, to demonstrate to critical players in the technology sector that the Newseum is a national institution that is committed to promoting the First Amendment and the right to free expression in this new era.

Our visit was especially timely because Facebook had just confronted a controversy around the “Napalm Girl” photo. This renowned photo, taken by Nick Ut in 1972 and displayed in our Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery, was deleted by Facebook after a Norwegian newspaper posted it. After an uproar and amidst cries of censorship, Facebook allowed the photo to be re-posted. The incident was a telling indicator of how technology companies affect the flow of news and how much more thought we need to give to what free expression means in the 21st century.

The trustees visited Apple (to learn about Apple News), Google (to learn about Google News) and Facebook. We had valuable conversations at each place where we learned how these important companies understand the world they are helping to create. We also developed contacts that will be very helpful in the future. Everyone we met expressed appreciation for the trustees’ engagement and interest in the Newseum’s mission.

The board also heard from Paul Saffo, a renowned futurist, and John Markoff, a reporter for The New York Times based in Silicon Valley, about how the technology of information has evolved and the implications, among other things, for our democracy.

Finally, with the kind help of trustee Esther Wojcicki, we sponsored a public panel titled “Free Speech in the Social Media Era.” The panelists included Geoffrey Brigham (director for trust and safety at YouTube), Peter Stern (a policy manager for Facebook), and Vivek Wadhwa (a Silicon Valley-based fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering). In front of an audience of about 150, we discussed how to preserve and promote free expression on the web, what standards mean when companies have to deal with the laws and cultures of many dozens of countries, and the implications of several hundred million more people joining the internet in the next few years.

Our discussions confirmed my view that we are, despite the changes that have occurred in the last few years, still in the early stages of the new information era. How it will evolve, and how our freedoms will be affected, is not yet clear. It was obvious that people across Silicon Valley are looking for answers and that they very much hope the Newseum will play an important role in these debates. That is an important and fitting opportunity for us and one that I am determined we will seize.

As always, I am grateful for your support of the Newseum. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any ideas or suggestions.

Best regards,

Jeffrey Herbst
President and CEO, Newseum

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