A Campaign Of, By, and For Big Media

(Plus a Note on Ebenezer Hazard)

Maybe we asked for it. Perhaps as citizens we just can’t muster up the time and energy to delve into the issues that really matter. We can’t even seem to get to the polls in anything approaching credible numbers. When barely over 30% cast a ballot in the 2014 Congressional, state, and local elections, what’s happened to democracy’s vital juices? Voters in countries around the world turn out numbers in the 70th, 80th, even 90th percent ranges. Even in our Presidential elections, we pat ourselves on the back if we get to 55 percent. You could make Pogo’s case that we have met the enemy—and it is us.

But is this skimpy democratic participation cause or is it effect? Is it only that we as citizens are short-changing our democracy? Or is someone giving us a helping hand? Even worse, is somebody else the even greater culprit?

It’s no secret to readers of this space that I believe the declining state of our electoral campaigns, the news and information we are fed, and the collapse of investigative journalism have been fed by Big Media. The consolidation of media ownership in so few hands has decimated our civic and political dialogue. The billions and billions of dollars that the captains of Big Media must spend to consolidate their control leads directly, and most often immediately, to cutbacks in the newsroom, the wholesale shuttering of news bureaus, and the firing of almost a third of newsroom employees since just 2000—and it started before that. Other forces can be cited as encouraging the decline, but my focus today is on the effects.

Media, with precious few exceptions, have turned the 2016 Presidential election into the ultimate reality show. This campaign is seldom about issues that matter. When it is about “issues,” they are so peripheral to the challenges we face as to be laughable. No, media’s goal is to entertain, to focus on “personality,” and to reap huge profits from delivering we the people to the advertisers who are, in truth, media’s most prized audience. (Right now, media are complaining that because of the unusual circumstances of this particular Presidential election, like one candidate’s “self-funding,” they aren’t selling quite as many political ads as in 2012. But tune in cable and even the networks and it seems there are almost as many minutes of commercial ads as there are political news programs.) It all comes down to which candidate will make the biggest verbal gaffe, who has the most winning smile, who will we vote off the island on November 8?

The news media drive the conversation, as Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy Professor Thomas E. Patterson so perceptively wrote in a September 21 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. Controversy trumps serious issues and context is created by superficial coverage that amuses, rather than informs, the electorate. Maybe we have met the enemy, and it isn’t us.

Which brings me to Ebenezer Hazard. Who, you ask? Recently, as we moved out of our home of 40 years to join a “maturing” generation of downsizers, I was going through my newspaper and magazine collections and came across a Time magazine “Special Bicentennial Edition” artfully dated September 26, 1789, carrying the news of that day. (No, I’m not that old, and there was no Time magazine in 1789, so I’m referencing a 1989 issue.) As George Washington took office that year, he sacked the head of the previous Articles of Confederation government’s postal service, one Ebenezer Hazard. The reason, according to Time, was that, in trying to economize government expenditures, Ebenezer “cut back on funds for mailing newspapers throughout the country.” Time continued: “Washington, who believes that the exchange of reading material, along with trade, is one of the main ways of bringing the various states together, shelved Hazard” in favor of somebody who would be more attentive to what Washington thought really important.

Washington was not alone in his appreciation of getting news and information out to the people of the far-flung young nation. Jefferson, Madison, and a majority of the people’s representatives in Congress agreed. That’s why money was appropriated to subsidize the mailing of newspapers and the construction of a vast network of postal roads. It was perhaps government’s largest expenditure up to the eve of the Civil War. The Founders knew that if their experiment in self-government was to have any chance of survival and success, it required an informed electorate armed with news and information.

Madison explained why: “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce, or a Tragedy, or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a People who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”

So, too, Thomas Jefferson: “The basis of our government being the opinion of people, the very first object of government should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers, and be capable of reading them.” (BTW, the last sentence above, especially if changed from “man” to “person,” is exactly what telecom’s Universal Service Fund and Lifeline’s subsidized broadband are all about.)

These sentiments—let’s call them warnings—ring as true today as when the fledging country started on its daunting experiment with a new form of government. But they have no impact on the barons of media, and politicians shy away from media issues because they must live or die on the stage created for them by those barons. If media insist on pushing aside the really consequential issues in favor of who has the most winning smile or who has raised the most money, or all the other horse-race coverage that passes for “breaking news” every day, then all of us as citizens are being denied the news, information, and high-quality civic dialogue upon which the future of our country depends.

We are on the verge of three televised debates that will play a huge role in the election’s outcome. I put this to the debate moderators: will you pledge to ask even one question about the future of our news and communications ecosystem? Will you ask these nominees how they will ensure media diversity and genuine issues coverage? Will you ask them how they will keep the internet free and open?

It’s not too much to ask. Not too much to expect credible media because credible media are the necessary foundation of successful self-government. And not too much to expect those who would lead the nation to confront, not avoid, these issues. Issues avoided are issues denied. They cannot be solved. Ignoring them for profits or votes disserves the common good.

By Michael Copps.