Since joining the Silicon Valley company last year to repair its frayed relationship with the news media, many have considered the former CNN and NBC anchor as little more than window dressing.

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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, Brown took the stage at a conference in New York about the future of the media industry. In front of a roomful 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 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,” Brown said, with a Southern lilt in her voice and the easy charm of a onetime broadcast anchor. “Probably not our wisest move.”

Campbell Brown

Age: 49

Career: Joined Facebook in 2017 after working as a CNN and NBC anchor and becoming a school-choice activist.

Education: Attended Louisiana State University and Regis University in Denver

Family: Married to Dan Senor, former spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq; two sons, 8 and 10.

Source: The New York Times

Some in the audience shot surprised glances at one another. That 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 there?” Emily Bell, a professor at Columbia Journalism School who had been onstage with Brown, wondered later. “She is one of the few people from Facebook who will voice what sounds like disappointment.”

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 last year 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, 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, The Hollywood Reporter named 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 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, 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.

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,” 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.

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.”

Met husband in Iraq

Brown was born into a tight-knit Catholic family in 1968 in Ferriday, Louisiana, population about 5,000. In her youth, 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 what was then Czechoslovakia for two years to teach English before returning to the United States and beginning a television news career, starting at a local station in Topeka, Kansas.

At NBC, she became a political campaign reporter, covering George W. Bush’s run for the presidency in 2000.

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. Brown asked him out, and they married in 2006.

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

In 2007, 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 lineup 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.

Political animal

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

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. She started an education news site that often reports on issues around teachers’ unions, and an advocacy group that funded a lawsuit against teacher tenure. When President Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to be secretary of education last year, Brown wrote an Op-Ed article in her defense, calling 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.

Brown’s friend and Washington Post reporter Anne Kornblut, who had gone to work at Facebook with Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, called Brown in to help rebuild news relationships and ease tensions with an agitated media world. Brown’s hiring was announced in January 2017.

At Facebook, 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.

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

Editors talk about Facebook as an authoritarian regime or perhaps an ideological cult, and they call Brown its emissary to the city.

She takes those ambassadorial duties seriously. She’s a regular figure in the New York media scrum, and hosts frequent media and Facebook mixers at her modern, airy Tribeca apartment.

Brown typically has a guest of honor from Facebook, such as the company’s 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?”

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

“I think she’s been a stronger figure in that role than any platform has ever had,” said Ben Smith, the BuzzFeed editor-in-chief.

But 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, 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, 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.”