As wealth concentration increases, so has media consolidation
On Martin Luther King Day 2018 we need to reflect on how it came to be that we went from re-electing our first African-American President to electing Donald Trump, whose recent racist rant at Haiti and all of Africa, has once again cast our president as a white supremacist to the rest of the world.
Those remarks followed on President Trump’s controversial response to last year’s Nazi rally and torch light parade the night before in Charlottesville, Virginia on the hallowed grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. Over that weekend a female anti-Nazi protestor pedestrian was allegedly mowed down by a white supremacist motorist. Later in the day, two Virginia state troopers were killed when their helicopter crashed accidentally.
“This represents a turning point for the people of this country,” said David Duke during the rally. “We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back. That’s what we gotta do.”
The President cast the violent turn of events as one where the Nazi’s and their opponents were morally equivalent because there was hate “on many sides.” Organizers of the “alt-right” march were heartened by the President’s refusal to condemn them and wrote in their Daily Stormer that it was a clear sign that he was in their corner.
NEWS VERSUS INFOTAINMENT
Our nation is deeply and bitterly polarized. It is increasingly unlikely we can move forward collectively as a nation because we have been torn asunder, armed with competing news narratives. Our news is now a melange of social media echo chamber and media outlets pitching to us what they think we want to read, with confirmation bias analytics their guide. Its a perennial cyber war, that can only end when the other side is totally annihilated with a flash and a bang. Our past ignorance digs us in deeper.
This collapse of civility has come with the loss of a national common fact pattern upon which we can debate the issues of our day. To a large degree it is the consequence of a multi-national corporate news media complex that has decimated independent local news coverage in the greedy pursuit of profits over the public interest. In their quest for global domination and saturation they have been abetted by the Federal Communications Commission and a Congress that they bought and paid for.
PUBLIC TRUST CORPORATE PLUNDER
The airwaves and radio frequencies are a public asset that were originally just licensed to broadcast companies as a conditional public trust that could be revoked if they operated only in their own self-interest. They were subject to heavy regulation in exchange for access to these lucrative platforms that brought them into every American home.
Here was the deal; the broadcast corporations had to provide local news and information that was in the public interest. Under the Equal Time Doctrine they had to make an effort to provide equal time to political candidates and when covering controversial issues they had to comply with the Fairness Doctrine that mandated they provide balanced and fair coverage.
Also, baked into the FCC laws and regulations was the precept that the concentration of ownership of newspapers, TV and radio stations by monopolies posed a threat to democracy. But, in waves of bi-partisan media and telecom de-regulation, that really got traction under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the media giants got their way and the public’s interest was sold out.
EXIT LOCAL NEWS-IN AGGREGATED FREE CONTENT
And, no doubt the advances in communication technologies have radically altered the journalistic landscape and created a real crisis for the old newspaper and broadcast journalism business model. According to a Pew Center report, put out last year, over the last few years the nation’s overall newsroom workforce experienced its sharpest decline since 2009.
“According to the American Society of News Editors’ Newsroom Employment Census, after falling 6% in 2012 and 3% in 2013, overall newsroom employment was down 10% in 2014 – the most recent year for which figures are available – to 32,900,” reports Pew. “Between 1994 and 2014, the profession has shed over 20,000 jobs, representing a 39% decline.”
Between 1981 and 2014 the nation went from 1,730 newspapers down to 1,331 by 2014. According to the website Newspaper Death Watch that decline continues, not just in terms of newspaper closing all together, but in reporters having their pay cut by double digits and forced to take weeks off so that their publisher can keep them employed but bring down labor costs.
At the same time, decades of influence peddling and hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions paid off, as the public’s airwaves increasingly became more like privately held real estate. And make no mistake, this betrayal of the public trust has been bi-partisan, enabled by a revolving door between government and industry the key players whirl through.
THE GOLDEN REVOLVING DOOR
Take Ajit Pai, a former top lawyer for Verizon, who President Trump appointed to be chair of the FCC. In Pai’s career he cashed in his service as a government lawyer and regulator in the service of the very same kind of media conglomerates he used to regulate. He was first appointed to the FCC by President Obama. It was Pai who led the charge to end net neutrality and reverse the Obama Administration’s push to have the FCC prevent the same corporatist interests Pai had served from being able to throttle the speed of the internet as they saw fit.
Back in 2004, William Safire foresaw the long shadow of media consolidation clearly. “The reason given by giants to merge with other giants is to compete more efficiently with other enlarging conglomerates,” he wrote. “The growing danger, however, is that media giants are becoming fewer as they get bigger. The assurance given is “look at those independent Internet Web sites that compete with us” — but all the largest Web sites are owned by the giants.”
He continued. “How are the media covering their contraction?….. Much of the coverage is “gee-whiz, which personality will be top dog, which investors will profit and which giant will go bust?”
“But the message in this latest potential merger is not about a clash of media megalomaniacs, nor about a conspiracy driven by “special interests.” The issue is this: As technology changes, how do we better protect the competition that keeps us free and different?”
“You don’t have to be a populist to want to stop this rush by ever-fewer entities to dominate both the content and the conduit of what we see and hear and write and say.”
Is it merely coincidental that this breath taking concentration of corporate media power comes as the well documented concentration of wealth continues to accelerate in this country?
As journalist jobs disappear, and the pay and benefits erode for those that continue to work in the field, the consolidation of the news media industry continues to accelerate with multi-million dollar payouts for the architects of journalism’s downsizing.
There’s no better example of the anti-democratic corporate news media consolidation than the pending Tribune Media / Sinclair Broadcasting deal. Last year Sinclair announced it had agreed to buy Tribune for $3.9 billion securing access to more than 70 percent of American households, with local stations in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
Back in 2004 it was Sinclair that planned to pre-empt regular programming two weeks before the Nov. 2 Presidential election to air a “documentary” that accused former Secretary of State John F. Kerry of betraying American prisoners during the Vietnam War. Sinclair has stations in swing states like Ohio, Florida, Iowa and Wisconsin., . At the time Sinclair only reached 24 percent of U.S. television households at the time.
But their bold move of going to air with the anti-Kerry hit piece, that already been rejected by all other major networks, sparked a firestorm. More than 100 Democrats in Congress asked the FCC to step in and review Sinclair’s decision. The Democratic National Committee filed a formal complaints with the Federal Elections Commission and activists launched a shareholder action against Sinclair. Ultimately, after huge push back the right wing broadcaster aired only excerpts of the Kerry bashing ”Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal.”
A few months earlier Sinclair ordered seven of its ABC-affiliated stations not to air an episode of Nightline that carried the names of American soldiers killed in Iraq because the company did “not believe such political statements should be disguised as news content.”
The New York Times reported that during the 2016 campaign the broadcaster developed a close Trump alliance. “More recently Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and now a senior adviser in the White House, said at a meeting with business executives that the Trump campaign had reached an agreement with Sinclair to give more access to Mr. Trump and the campaign under the condition that the interviews be broadcast without commentary on the company’s affiliates, according to two people who had attended the meeting but were not authorized to discuss it,” the Times reported. “Taped in Sinclair’s Washington bureau, the interviews with Mr. Trump were broadcast across several swing states.”
Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner who now advises Common Cause, described Sinclair as “the most dangerous company most Americans haven’t heard of.” Copps took specific aim at the right wing broadcasters well established practice of requiring local stations to carry commentaries from former Trump White House official Boris Epshteyn.
“So much for community news. So much for real news. So much for journalism. So much for fair and open media,” Copps said. “No one company should have such power over the news and information that citizens must have.”
According to SEC documents the Sinclair/Tribune deal will pay Tribune’s leader Peter Kern $3.25 million to “reward his efforts” when the deal goes through this year. Also on Tribune’s Board of Directors is New York Public Radio’s Laura Walker, whose compensation for running WNYC and her Tribune post earn her $1 million a year according to the New York Times.
FLYING BLIND WITHOUT LOCAL REPORTING
Over the arc of American history, it was a robust local press which often reported on the stories about those in society that were the most marginal and vulnerable to exploitation. So much of Dr. King’s work that moved the nation and the world was documented by an army of local newspaper and broadcast journalists that were of the places where he preached and protested. Our situational awareness of local conditions was made possible by these journalists and their outlets that are– now– largely extinct.
This local news reporting void, which has only grown worse over time, created the blind spot that caused the national corporate news media to miss the widespread economic decline of Main Street America that Donald Trump cynically exploited. The Federal Reserve and the Clinton campaign hailed the aggregate unemployment data as a sign of a robust economy. But voters don’t live in the aggregate.
As we pause to honor Dr. King, lets remember that for him it was not all about race.
The historic reality is that in King’s last year, marked by the April 4, 1967 speech he gave at Riverside Church, the critique he gave of 1960’s America remains as subversive today as the day he gave it. He railed against the obscenity of America’s military spending and the continued prosecution of the Vietnam War. He decried the nation’s vast wealth and income disparity.
Usually, our corporate news media likes to keep the King remembrance all about race, its so much less threatening to the established order that way.
“We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” King said. “We must rapidly begin … the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
What would Dr. King find today? America’s wealth and income gap has only grown exponentially. It is at its highest since 1928 and is only accelerating. “In 1928, the top 1% of families received 23.9% of all pretax income, while the bottom 90% received 50.7%,” according to the Pew Research Center. “But the Depression and World War II dramatically reshaped the nation’s income distribution: By 1944 the top 1%’s share was down to 11.3%, while the bottom 90% were receiving 67.5%, levels that would remain more or less constant for the next three decades.”
The Pew analysis continues. “But starting in the mid- to late 1970s, the uppermost tier’s income share began rising dramatically, while that of the bottom 90% started to fall.”
By 2015, the average annual income for the bottom 90 percent of American households was $34,074; while the average income, for the top one percent was $1.36 million, according to a research paper written by Professor Emmanuel Saez, from the University of California at Berkeley.
In 1968, before Dr. King died, he organized the Poor People’s Campaign, meant to dramatize the plight of the nation’s impoverished of all races. After Kings death Dr. Ralph Abernathy took over the national crusade that was symbolized by a mule train. By the early 1970s the country had well under 25 million poor people and by 2014 it was approaching close to 48 million people.
Just what side of the Sinclair/Tribune deal do you think Dr. King would be on?