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Is Facebook’s Campbell Brown a force to be reckoned with? Or is she fake news?

  • Facebook — with its reach of more than 2.2 billion users — already holds enormous power over the news that people consume.
  • As Facebook's head of news partnerships, Brown, a former CNN and NBC anchor, is emerging as a surprisingly adept negotiator for her publishing vision at the social network.
Photographer | CNBC

It was another terrible day for Facebook and the company had dispatched Campbell Brown, its head of news partnerships, to do some damage control.

In mid-March, Ms. Brown took the stage at a conference in New York about the future of the media industry. In front of a room full of editors and advertising executives, she immediately faced a question about Facebook's latest scandal: The company had sent a letter to The Guardian threatening a lawsuit if the newspaper published a massive report on the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica's improper harvesting of the data of millions of the social network's users.

"If it were me, I would have probably not threatened to sue The Guardian," Ms. Brown said, with a Southern lilt in her voice and the easy charm of a onetime broadcast anchor. "Probably not our wisest move."

Some in the audience shot surprised glances at one another. That Ms. Brown was so willing to buck Facebook's tightly controlled messaging — and do it in the middle of a news cycle that kept getting worse — made some wonder if she had gone rogue.

"Is she on her way out?" Emily Bell, a professor at Columbia Journalism School who had been on stage with Ms. Brown, wondered later. "She is one of the few people from Facebook who will voice what sounds like disappointment."

Ms. Brown, 49, wasn't out at Facebook. Yet she has long had to grapple with questions about whether she really has influence at the social network.

Since joining the Silicon Valley company in 2017 to repair its frayed relationship with the news media, many have considered the former CNN and NBC anchor as little more than window dressing. Others see her as a more insidious figure — a telegenic personality with close ties to conservative figures who can offer Facebook's outreach the veneer of journalistic credibility. To them, she is an ambassador from a dictatorship, willing to deliver bad news with a smile and some canapés. No matter their view of her, almost all question what influence she has at a company where the chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has viewed news — both making it and displaying it — as a headache.

But a year and a half into her tenure, Ms. Brown, who became a school-choice activist with close ties to conservative politics after her TV career, is emerging as a fiery negotiator for her vision of Facebook as a publishing platform, according to interviews with more than 30 people who work or who regularly interact with her. This month, Hollywood Reporter named Ms. Brown one of this year's 35 most powerful New York media figures.

Facebook — with its reach of more than 2.2 billion users — already holds enormous power over the news that people consume. But now it is making its first venture into licensed news content. Facebook has set aside a $90 million budget to have partners develop original news programming, and Ms. Brown is pitching publishers on making Facebook-specific news shows featuring mainstream anchors, according to two people involved in or briefed on the matter, who asked not to be identified because the details were confidential.

Once those shows get started, Ms. Brown wants to use Facebook's existing Watch product — a service introduced in 2017 as a premium product with more curation that has nonetheless been flooded with far-right conspiracy programming like "Palestinians Pay $400 million Pensions For Terrorist Families" — to be a breaking news destination. The result would be something akin to an online competitor to cable news.

Ms. Brown is also pushing paywalls for publishers on the social network, another first for a company that has long avoided circulating any content that users would have to pay for.

"This is us changing our relationship with publishers and emphasizing something that Facebook has never done before; it's having a point of view," Ms. Brown said in February at a tech and media conference where she discussed how Facebook planned to de-emphasize low-quality news and could even begin paying some publishers.

Whether all these changes last — or even get implemented — are open questions. Facebook has started down the road of editorial control before, only to change course. The company laid off a group of editors in 2016 after a controversy over its Trending Topics items and replaced them with an algorithm that automatically surfaces the top news of the day.

And with recent changes that have lowered the visibility of hard news in Facebook's News Feed, frustration within the media industry is mounting. Rupert Murdoch, News Corp.'s executive chairman, has called for publishers to band together to force Facebook to pay for news content.

Ms. Brown declined to speak on the record but some Facebook colleagues spoke about how she has navigated the relationships with the news media and inside the company, even as the social network's own rapport with journalism remains uneasy.

"Campbell leads a critical piece of our business," said Dan Rose, Facebook's vice president for partnerships. "She's been incredibly effective, and she's just getting started."

Plunging Into News

Ms. Brown was born into a tight-knit Catholic family in 1968 in Ferriday, La., population about 5,000. Her father, a local politician and state insurance commissioner, once served a prison stint for lying to the F.B.I. during an investigation related to an insurance company.

In her youth, Ms. Brown was kicked out of an all-girls boarding school for sneaking off campus to a party. She spent two years at Louisiana State University before attending Regis University, a small Jesuit school in Denver. Afterward, she moved to then-Czechoslovakia for two years to teach English before returning to the United States and beginning a television news career, going from a local station in Topeka, Kan., to Richmond, Va., then Baltimore.

Her approach on camera was confrontational, yet likable. In 1996, she got a call from NBC News.

"There was something about her on screen that indicated she was a person who could make you feel comfortable — the nice girl next door you could talk to," Neal Shapiro, then president of NBC, said in 2003.

At NBC, she became a political campaign reporter, covering George W. Bush's run for the presidency in 2000. She smoked cigarettes and threw parties. With her best friend and fellow reporter Anne Kornblut, she started "Chick Chat," a social group for female White House correspondents that drew political guests as well as charges of elitism from those it excluded.

While in Iraq in 2004 for a story on the Abu Ghraib prison complex, she met Dan Senor, chief spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Ms. Brown asked him out and they married in 2006 and now have two sons, ages 8 and 10. Ms. Brown converted to Judaism, her husband's religion, before their marriage, and friends said the couple is known for hosting raucous seders with skits and singing.

Mr. Senor now works for the conservative billionaire Paul Elliott Singer's hedge fund, Elliott Management, and is a power broker in the Republican fund-raising world, as well as a frequent guest on morning news shows.

In 2007, Ms. Brown joined CNN as a prime-time anchor but struggled for good ratings. She quit three years later with a statement that threw shade at her fellow CNN anchors, saying that she could not compromise her desire for honest, unbiased reporting.

"Shedding my own journalistic skin to try to inhabit the kind of persona that might coexist in that line up is simply impossible for me," she wrote.

Some said her behavior now, seemingly throwing Facebook's strategy of silence under the bus, mirrors that letter.

A 'Friend of Sheryl'

But after leaving CNN, Ms. Brown did shed her journalistic skin, and turned herself into a political animal.

Ms. Brown became an activist focused on education. She fought teachers' unions, a tactic some friends think was meant to position her for a run for office. A New York Magazine profile once posed the question, "How did an ex-news anchor become the most controversial woman in school reform?"

"She was a celebrity in ed reform," said Eva Moskowitz, the founder and chief executive of the Success Academy Charter Schools, where Ms. Brown is a board member. "We just didn't have people of her prominence before."

Ms. Brown also started an education news site called The 74 Million, which often reports on issues around teachers' unions, and an advocacy group called The Partnership for Educational Justice, which funded a lawsuit against teacher tenure. She served on the board of Betsy DeVos's American Federation for Children. (Ms. Devos has funded The 74 Million.) When President Trump nominated Ms. DeVos to be Secretary of Education last year, Ms. Brown wrote an op-ed in her defense, calling Ms. DeVos a "friend."

By then, Facebook was in crisis mode over how it handled news.

In mid-2016, the social network was grappling with criticism that its Trending Topics team of editors was choosing to feature left-leaning content and leaving out right-leaning posts. A few months later, the term "fake news" would crash into the lexicon after the presidential election.

Ms. Kornblut, who had left the Washington Post to go work at Facebookwith Sheryl Sandberg, the company's chief operating officer, called Ms. Brown in to help rebuild news relationships and ease tensions with an agitated media world. Ms. Brown's hiring was announced in January 2017.

Many in the news business were immediately skeptical about what Ms. Brown might do.

"If you wanted to deeply understand American journalists, having a TV personality is not really the first place you would go," said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, a nonprofit that supports news media with research and training.

At Facebook, Ms. Brown became part of an informal cadre on the company's business side known as the FOSSes, or "Friends of Sheryl Sandberg." But close association with a powerful figure within the company does not assure her of success.

When it comes to decisions related to publishers, the power at Facebook has traditionally been more with the product staff, who tend to be aligned more with Mr. Zuckerberg and cloistered from meetings with partners, according to several media executives. Google, in contrast, has a similar power dynamic but, publishers said, a more robust partnership structure and easier contact with product teams.

"She's smart, but we're different beasts," Richard Gingras, the vice president for news at Google, said of Ms. Brown. "I'm in a fortunate position where I'm involved with the product. I can make change. I feel for her, I really do."

While Ms. Brown has helped Facebook mount its charm offensives at industry events, her efforts to remake Facebook's relationships with publishers has meant cutting back her visibility to the broader public.

"There was a time you couldn't turn on a T.V. and not see Campbell Brown," said Ben Winkler, chief investment officer for OMD, a global media agency. "Since she went to Facebook, Campbell Brown is where?"

Negotiating Partnerships

The answer, it turns out, was close to home. Editors talk about Facebook as an authoritarian regime or perhaps an ideological cult, and they call Ms. Brown its emissary to the city.

She takes those ambassadorial duties seriously. She's a regular figure in the New York media scrum, such as a recent Pulitzer reception at the media hot spot Michael's. She also hosts frequent media and Facebook mixers at her modern, airy TriBeCa apartment.

At these events, attendees are met with wine and hors d'oeuvres (seared tuna, and a cheese and cracker buffet). Guests describe Ms. Brown as "a hoot" with a sharp humor. When she calls the party to order, the group sits around her living room on leather cowhide seats and polished wooden stumps.

Ms. Brown typically has a guest of honor from Facebook, such as the chief product officer Chris Cox, and allows questions. If she deems a question too challenging for the guest, she pushes back against the inquisitor — her go-to is some form of the retort, "Really?"

The gatherings are frequently a who's who of the news media, mixing long-established outlets with digitally focused newcomers. The guest lists have included Ben Smith, the BuzzFeed editor in chief; David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker; Nick Thompson, the editor of Wired; and the Vox publisher Melissa Bell. One editor, who asked not to be identified because these gatherings are off the record, said he felt "humiliated" afterward, having been reminded that the power of traditional publishers is waning.

The gatherings are the first outreach Facebook has made to the New York media world — a world that is increasingly beholden to the company's power.

"I know a lot of publishers there, they have to manage good relationships in order to survive, let alone thrive," said Jason Kint, chief executive of Digital Content Next, a trade association serving digital content companies. "It's not getting better."

Some said Ms. Brown has had more influence on Facebook than they expected, citing the introduction of paywalls and the prospect of the company paying for content.

"I think she's been a stronger figure in that role than any platform has ever had," Mr. Smith said.

As much as those soirees may include needling from her, Ms. Brown's daytime summits with publishers tend to be more overtly contentious. At one recent meeting, two publishers complained about having lost a lot of online traffic after changes to Facebook's News Feed. According to one publisher who was present, Ms. Brown told them the company would give them more traffic if they stopped doing clickbait.

Still, the media industry has been so beaten down by Facebook that some said they were happy to just have someone in the company who talks to them.

"We see some small movement in the right direction in terms of at least improving transparency," said Jim Bankoff, chief executive of Vox Media. There had not been "real movement in terms of providing better business opportunity," he added. "But at least we're being listened to."

Ms. Brown recently helped arrange a meeting between Mr. Zuckerberg and several members of The Washington Post management team: Martin Baron, the editor; Fred Ryan, the chief executive; and Shailesh Prakash, the chief product officer. The group discussed whether a Facebook user should hit a paywall on Post content after clicking on three, five or 10 articles. Mr. Zuckerberg said 10, but The Post executives wanted a paywall to start after 3 articles, according to a person who was in the meeting.

Ms. Brown went for the middle ground, pushing Mr. Zuckerberg to give The Post a test run of paywalls that kick in after three and five Post articles are read. She won. Since March 1, The Post has been doing just that, according to Mr. Prakash.

"She's helped us," Mr. Prakash said.

But Ms. Brown's biggest project is developing a news apparatus within Facebook's premium video section, called Watch.

She is negotiating with BuzzFeed, Vox, CNN, Fox News and others to partner on creating about a half-dozen Facebook-exclusive shows, which will launch in May and June.

Building off these shows, Ms. Brown is pushing to create a curated breaking news destination and envisions a cohesive daily Facebook newscast using partner content highlights — paid for by Facebook, made by media partners, and edited by a growing editorial team, according to a person familiar with her thinking.

Discussing Facebook's reticence to put paywalls in and engage with publishers transparently, Ms. Brown said at the February media and tech conference that it had taken too long for the social network to come around to a workable news strategy.

"I'm having a hard time with patience right now," she said. "And I know publishers are too."

Disclosure: NBC and CNBC are divisions of NBCUniversal.