Q&A: Craig Newmark aims to defend democracy via philanthropy

NEW YORK (AP) — Craig Newmark twists a “Batman” quote to jokingly refer to himself as “not the nerd you want, but maybe now and then I’m the nerd you need.”

Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, has since retired from the pioneering website that made him ultra-rich by expanding the world of classified ads onto the internet. But the 69-year-old self-proclaimed nerd says he’s now busier than ever as a philanthropist, with what he calls his particular skills — nurturing talent, directing people toward a goal, synthesizing expert knowledge — in high demand.

Through Craig Newmark Philanthropies, he launched the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York and has donated to numerous charities that support trustworthy journalism, voter protection, veterans and their families and encouragement for girls to seek careers in technology.

And in April, he committed $50 million in donations to the Cyber Civil Defense initiative. It is intended to help protect Americans from escalating cybersecurity threats.

Newmark sees the bulk of his philanthropic work as a way to help protect democracy, a cause to which he has already donated more than $250 million. That includes his latest donation — funding the Newmark Civic Life Series of Recanati-Kaplan Talks and an initiative of the 92NY Belfer Center for Innovation & Social Impact, which runs through the end of the year in New York City.

Topics include “The Big Truth: Upholding Democracy in the Age of ‘The Big Lie’,” moderated by CBS News anchor John Dickerson on Sept. 18, and future events including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, New York Times reporter and author Maggie Haberman and the founders of Axios.

The Associated Press spoke recently with Newmark about the lecture series and why he believes democracy is in danger. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

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Q: Why did you want to sponsor this series?

A: Basically, our country and our democracy are under threat. And a guy like me, who doesn’t know a lot, figures, “I can work with other people to stand up and defend the country.” I’m doing that in a number of ways. One way is to work with 92NY. They get people who really know their stuff and who talk for the country. I’m not the right guy. It takes a kind of savvy that as a nerd, I lack.

Q: How does gathering people with varying viewpoints help solidify democracy?

A: Well, democracy is about getting people with different viewpoints to work together and get along. The deal is that some people will have strengths, where others have weaknesses and vice versa. There’s always a lot to learn. I’m trying to learn how to counter disinformation, and that’s a theme of these talks. But the more I learned, the more I realized that my confronting a disinformation professional makes me the person bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Q: How do you cut through the disinformation, especially as we approach the midterm elections?

A: I don’t know how to cut through it, but I can speak simple truths. Like the argument that things are thoroughly corrupt. You could show people that’s false. And generally speaking, the corruption argument comes from people pushing the message that says, “Abandon all hope.” If you abandon hope, you’ve lost. There’s still a lot of time to support democracy. It won’t be easy. My contribution will be to support people who are good at it. Like I’m hearing that pre-bunking, inoculating people against disinformation might be really helpful, along with flooding the zone with facts. There’s a lot more good actors than bad actors. The 92NY programs are about telling people who are potentially good actors that it’s time to stand up.

Q: And what do “good actors” need to do?

A: You have to find people willing to take a good honest look at what’s going on and challenge their own assumptions. And then act on that. It’s tough, because we all have confirmation bias. I have confirmation bias. I’ve learned through the decades that I’ve been very wrong at times. That’s why I act in a pretty restrained way. There’s a lot of good people doing a lot of this work. They need to talk to each other. They need to work with each other. Then, effectiveness is amplified. When people work together like that, people are also safer. If they work together en masse, creating a such a target-rich environment, it’s much more difficult for very bad actors to target them.

Q: Does that idea of collaboration extend to your philanthropy?

A: I have the disadvantage of being an amateur in philanthropy. But my biggest advantage is that I am an amateur in philanthropy. I’m not constrained by annual budget cycles and so on, although I have to deal with things like adjusting my burn rate because the biggest single area of expenditures is in supporting democracy. I’m trying to lead by example. And all I know is how to lead from the grassroots and the very bottom up. I have no skills for top-down leadership. I’m a black hole of charisma, you know; I absorb it without emitting any. So all I know is to stand up for things and nudge people to do so relentlessly.

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