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.