Can Journalists Help Themselves?
A major victim of our changed and monopolized media environment is journalism itself. Its diminished state leads to a fundamental question: do journalists have a responsibility, or even a right, to work for change in that environment?
First, some background on our media and information ecosystem. Consolidation mania in our media industry is hotter than the torrid August sun. In just the past couple of months, Gannett has announced it is buying Belo; Sinclair is taking over Allbritton and Fisher; Media General is combining with Young; and Tribune is purchasing 19 stations from Local TV Holdings. We’re talking over $6 billion in deals already this year! Broadcast media is hell-bent on accelerating the pace, with money to burn after raking in billions running anonymous SuperPAC ads during the 2012 election cycle. But each deal they make is another nail in the coffin of the public interest.
The problem extends beyond broadcast to broadband. In cable, Comcast and Time-Warner wield the biggest stick, and now there is talk that number three Cox and number four Charter may soon unite in consolidated bliss. In wireless broadband, telecom giants AT&T and Verizon set the course.
In newspapers, the skid began with consolidation and picked up steam as the Internet spread. Once formidable mastheads have been absorbed into big national chains, and hedge funds are often the owners.
I started protesting against merger mania the day I became an FCC Commissioner in 2001. The Republican-chaired Commission that I joined as a minority party member was in love with big media and anxious to do its bidding. The Commission seldom met a merger it didn’t like, and its continuing approvals of these transactions only encouraged big media to go for even more. So we got Clear Channel amassing some 1200 radio stations, Sam Zell and his disastrous Tribune deal, Comcast-NBCU combining both traditional and new media, the two new Ma Bells, and countless other deals that shrank the number of locally-owned independent media and communications companies. In broadcast, for example, the number of outlets and the resources dedicated to them declined by somewhere between 30-50%, depending upon whose count is used and the precise nature of the metric. And, to make itself even more helpful to the mega-broadcasters, the FCC eliminated almost all of its guidelines and enforcement that were designed to encourage community outlets, diversity of opinion, and minority participation in the ownership and management of our nation’s media.
Big media had a lobbying strategy, of course. It wasn’t cheap but it was effective. They went to the FCC and Congress talking about all the “efficiencies” and “economies” these mergers would bring in their wake, allowing them to do an even better job of serving their markets. It turned out that very often the “economies” meant shuttering newsrooms, firing reporters, and eliminating the last vestiges of responsible investigative reporting. Robert McChesney and John Nichols, in their path-breaking new book Dollarocracy, reveal that less than half as much time and money is devoted to journalism today than was the case 25 years ago. That translates into tens of thousands of newsroom staff. The result is dumbed-down infotainment masquerading as real news and information. Self government can’t survive on that diet!
When the opponents of consolidation began to get a little traction, big media tried another tack. They came into my office full of assurances that consolidation had “run its course,” and if the Commission passed just this one more deal, the company wouldn’t come back for more. But they did come back for more. Unfortunately, a majority at the Commission was duly spun by this out-of-nowhere argument. So, to its discredit, was most of mainstream media. But then again, much of mainstream media was already under the thumb of the consolidated giants who decided what was “news” and what wasn’t. They made the call on what would be covered and what wouldn’t be covered. How well I remember visiting a major consolidated newspaper editor one day as I was trying to corral some attention to the buy-out bonanza, only to be told that this particular editor had freedom to cover any issue—except one. You guessed it—it was media ownership, because the parent company didn’t want it covered!
I personally experienced this big media control of the agenda as I traveled around the country to learn how people in communities actually felt about the quality of media they were receiving. When I went to a town or city where big media reigned supreme, there would seldom be any coverage. I would be at town hall meetings and other venues, oft-times with members of Congress and literally hundreds of citizens, and—no coverage of the event. People had came out in droves, often staying deep into the night, to tell us their media was only getting worse under consolidation—more homogenized programming, less real news, diminishing coverage of local minorities and local culture. Far more often than not, the next day’s news would have nary a mention of it; it was radio, TV, and newspaper silence in Big Medialand. But when I went to a town where independent media still existed, where the broadcast station and the newspaper had thus far eluded the grasp of the consolidators, stories would run before, during, and after our meetings.
It was clear that media consolidation was an issue that troubled a lot of Americans. When the Commission loosened its media ownership rules in 2003, 3 million people wrote in to protest. If media had been doing its job and teeing up this issue for its viewers, listeners, and readers, millions more would have joined the protest.
It is difficult to deny that consolidated media has been anathema to investigative journalism and to the vitality of our civic dialogue. How can we expect citizens to make informed judgments about important issues when issues are ignored? How do we hold the powerful accountable when there are many more lobbyists than journalists covering government? How do we overcome our problems by ignoring our problems? Truth is that America has dug itself into a pretty deep hole over the past generation: a still-stagnant economy producing too few jobs; diminishing competitiveness in trade and the global economy; serious energy, environmental, health, and education challenges; and, perhaps topping the list, government marching to the tune of big dollar contributors rather than to the sweet music of the public interest. McChesney and Nichols are on-target labeling our current political system “Dollarocracy.”
Here are two questions I’d like to pose to readers who have patiently read this far: (1) what is the responsibility of journalists to report on the radical changes that have so dramatically diminished our media? And (2) to what extent, if any, should journalists be involved in working for a reinvigorated and reformed media ecosystem?
Obviously reporters’ options are narrow when they’re told to stay away from a beat. But must the story end there? Is there some unbreakable golden rule that he who owns the press makes the rules? What are media’s responsibilities to report on media’s problems? Can democracy withstand giving big media the right to ignore issues, including the condition of their own house—or does democracy demand more? What about the public airwaves—are they just gated property for big businesses protecting their own fiefdoms? What can, what should, good journalists do when they are prevented from doing the jobs they were trained for?
The facile response to my second question—should journalists be pushing to change the way things are?—is, of course, that they should avoid policy advocacy at all costs, lest they compromise the independence of the Fourth Estate. It is one thing to report a story, this argument claims, but quite another and dangerous thing to be party to that story. But is such a response really enough? If those most affected by bad private and public policies are precluded from trying to change them, isn’t that a denial of citizenship itself?
One question will lead to many others in this discussion. For example, is so-called “objective journalism,” wherein each side of an issue gets equal treatment and credibility (even if one side is off in never-never land) really the kind of journalism we want? Is it really journalism at all? Wouldn’t we be better off with stories that went to conclusions where the facts led, even if those facts might offend some special moneyed or ideological interest?
So much is at stake. While some will cite First Amendment concerns and advocate erecting “Keep Out” signs whenever journalists approach the realm of public policy, others will argue that they did not become journalists to preside over the disappearance of their craft. Perhaps, though, it’s not an either-or matter. Other institutions and entities could help—schools of journalism and communications, professional societies, unions, and—to be sure—the independent media outlets that have managed to avoid disaster thus far. But these all have to step up their game.
If the media is increasingly under the control of special interests that are themselves a major part of the problem, we must find redress. The premise of the First Amendment is that informed citizens are necessary for self-government. Absent an uninhibited marketplace of ideas (which the Supreme Court has identified as a Constitutional necessity), our civic dialogue runs dry, problems go uncovered and therefore untended, and we make a mockery of the founding premise that an informed people can best determine their own destiny.
So we must at least tee up these issues and talk, calmly and rationally, about what is to be done. I don’t pretend to have answers to all these questions, nor even to have raised more than a few of them, but I welcome and encourage a dialogue with interested readers as to their perspectives on the issues. I hope we can have that discussion now. We can still, late in the game though it is, reinvigorate the media foundations upon which successful democracy depends.