How we build a media ecosystem that strengthens our democracy — rather than divides it from within.
I. The Fourth Estate
In 1945, the Supreme Court heard a case claiming that the Associated Press had violated antitrust laws by prohibiting its member newspapers from sharing stories with nonmembers. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Hugo Black ruled against the AP, arguing, “The constitutional guarantee of a free press rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society.”
Since that time, the media landscape has changed profusely. Local newspapers face the threat of being swept into corporate conglomerates or driven into bankruptcy due to the prevalence of online news, cable TV has given us a 24/7 news cycle both distorting our priorities and feeding a culture of cynicism, and reporting is increasingly driven by a for-business model relying on sensationalism than by a tradition of impartial journalistic ethics. More frighteningly, our political moment is one that finds the free press under attack by those in our most powerful offices, seeking to undermine the public’s already shaky faith in the media as an institution.
But for as broken as modern journalism might seem, there’s an unshakable belief in what it should be: a Fourth Estate — an official branch of government that holds those in power accountable with its right to freely disseminate information among the people without fear of censorship.
Next year’s election is drawing more debate over institutional reform than any in recent decades, and for good reason. But few have been willing to extend that conversation to the media and recognize the role it’s played in our civic dysfunction, instead resorting to futile boycotts or organized outrage with the misguided belief that the system will repair itself. We have the tools to fix its problems and to build a media ecosystem that supports our democracy rather than divides it from within — but only if we have the political will to do so.
II. From Cronkite to Murdoch
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition in Congress used their mandate from the people to pass a series of broad social and economic reforms tackling rampant inequality and broken institutions. Among their lesser known reforms was the Communications Act of 1934, which set national standards for the various forms of broadcasting to be made available to all people and overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
As local news took hold on post-WWII American household TV sets, the FCC implemented a policy in 1949 called the Fairness Doctrine. In line with its role of regulating radio and TV for the public good, it required any broadcast license holders to present competing sides of controversial issues of public importance. The doctrine stood in place as the foundation of ethical broadcast journalism for nearly forty years until President Reagan, intent on scrapping government regulations in every sector possible, appointed Mark Fowler as Chairman of the FCC. Fowler began the process of repealing the doctrine, which would be completed by his successor in 1987.
Up to that time, the “Big Three” TV networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — had dominated primetime news for decades and in retrospect were the binding glue where public consensus was shaped alongside their counterparts in print journalism. The influence of those who sat at the desks of these programs was so substantial that President Johnson, after watching highly esteemed CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite deliver a reasoned rebuke of the American position in Vietnam following the Tet Offensive, is said to have told a senior aide, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America”. The following month, Johnson shocked the nation by announcing he would not run for reelection.
But at the turn of the 1990s, in part helped by the loosening of merger and antitrust rules under the Reagan administration, cable TV began to take off and shake the dominance of the Big Three. CNN, launched by Ted Turner in the early ’80s, broke through during the First Gulf War in 1991 after being the only outlet to feature live reporting of the air bombing of Baghdad. Then in 1996, two more flagship networks arrived: MSNBC, a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft; and Fox News, the brainchild of Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch and longtime Republican Party strategist Roger Ailes.
That same year, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the first major overhaul of the original Communications Act in over 60 years. Both political parties had by this time been overtaken by corporate capital, and deregulation was the default policy. The lobbyist-written bill reversed longstanding prohibitions on media cross-ownership, opening the floodgates to a proliferation of mega-mergers and corporate-consolidated media that define the landscape today. From then on, and in concert with the rise of the Internet and online journalism, American media would become a highly balkanized ecosystem no longer tethered to the journalistic standards that underpinned the old models.
III. How the Media Fails
The Never Ending Cycle
What separated the “New Three” of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News from traditional TV broadcasting was the fact that they were distinct channels entirely devoted to news reporting. Whereas audiences could previously only hear the news a few times a day during certain time slots, now it was available at any minute of the day — and thus the 24/7 news cycle was born. What theoretically opened up the news to a longer and deeper dive into issues actually produced the opposite, an unyielding need to produce “BREAKING” content and attention-grabbing headlines that could hold a viewer’s attention at any given minute. And a byproduct of that has been a propensity toward negative stories. A Kennedy School study showed that no presidential candidate has received more positive than negative press coverage since 1984, and the problem has only gotten worse since then.
According to CNN’s former chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellen, “There’s a thesis in the industry of how news should be done. It needs to be a bit like ESPN: competition, jargon, outrage, who’s up, who’s down… Everybody believes news succeeds when it’s conflict based… So you never have a story focused on consensus, you never have a story on common ground.” And there’s two reasons for this among the cable news networks: cost and competition. “One of the hardest stories to write today is a positive story, on anything”, she explains. “It’s much easier to tell a compelling story about two people fighting than to get into the weeds of an interesting policy issue that requires a slower burn. And it’s way cheaper… reading some of Trump’s tweets costs absolutely nothing, and you can have a reporter doing it all day long.”
One way they accomplish this is with panel-based “talking heads” discussions that typically split a topic between liberal and conservative commentators. It more often than not devolves into screaming matches and indecipherable crosstalk that satisfies the networks’ affinity for conflict, and it’s much cheaper than sending reporters on the ground to investigate a story. But it’s also created a chicken-and-egg scenario in which the panels both reflect and shape our increasingly polarized public. Moreover, despite focusing more on the drama of DC politics than on stories of public interest, this format strips issues of their complexities and presents the image of false dichotomies; that an issue always has two sides, or that each side should be evenly weighted. The line between objective journalism and opinion-based punditry has been blurred, and the public’s trust in the news media has dropped to record lows in accordance:
The Echo Chamber
Because the networks are in constant competition to top the ratings, it’s led to risk-averse decision making and a feedback loop among them. Described by reporter Peter Hamby, “I’ve been in offices where you’ll have an executive producer at CNN, and they’ll look at what MSNBC has on, and what Fox has on, and it’s the same at MSNBC and Fox. And they’ll change the subject of what they’re covering based on what someone else is covering… No one trusts their instincts.” Speaking on the tendency to avoid narratives that go against the grain of the industry, he says “There’s a received wisdom that’s a barrier to entry for both policy and politics stories that… a certain narrative has to be true. And if you try to deviate from that, you get punished for it.” Confirms Yellen, “All the time, you come against [this mindset of] ‘we can’t be first, how do we know?’”
Yet Yellen also notes that despite the networks’ failure, it’s not the case that the entire profession of journalism has failed. In many respects, some of the best investigative reporting we’ve had in many years has been revitalized in the Trump and #MeToo era, producing pieces like Ronan Farrow’s expose on Harvey Weinstein’s history sexual harassment, the Washington Post’s on-the-ground investigation of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s underage sex offenses, and the New York Times’ reporting of sexual assault of undocumented children in detention facilities. Nonprofit newsroom ProPublica employs over 75 reporters and takes its time with investigations, producing thoughtful longreads or ongoing projects like Documenting Hate, which tracks hate crime incidents since the 2016 election.
But for each of these blockbuster stories, there are dozens of articles representing countless hours of exhaustive work by undervalued reporters — stories that don’t always fit into the networks’ conflict- and ratings-driven template: from the US involvement in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, to the damage to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria that persists to this day; from record flooding in the Midwest driving farmers into poverty, to the Pentagon’s continued inability to pass an internal audit to account for spending; from the far-reaching diplomatic cost of Rex Tillerson’s cuts to the State Department, to Trump’s daily violation of the Emoluments Clause by profiting from the presidency without having divested from his business. In the summer of 2018, CNN spent a combined 13 hours on the departure of Omarosa Manigault Newman from the White House… and only 18 minutes discussing family separations at the border. The stories that might have taken months to compile then get a passing mention on the networks (if they’re lucky) before pivoting to a panel of pundits who dissect the latest D.C. melodrama. The problem is there’s no platform for those journalists to get the credit they deserve on a wide enough scale, or for the public to get the compelling reporting we desire.
False Objectivity & Missing Context
It’s that kind of predictable pack mentality that leaves the entire media ecosystem vulnerable to bad faith outsiders, and the 2016 election illustrated just how fragile its hand was against actors who sought to undermine the civic dialogue. In a watershed 2017 study by Benkler, Faris, and Roberts, researchers examined at length the way partisanship, propaganda, and disinformation by the far-right distorted the media coverage of the 2016 presidential election. Among their findings:
Standard journalistic practices were successfully manipulated by media and activists on the right to inject anti-Clinton narratives into the mainstream media narrative [like the leaked DNC and Podesta emails and falsehoods about the Clinton Foundation]… By “working the refs,” demanding mainstream coverage of anti-Clinton stories, right-wing media played a key role in setting the agenda of mainstream, center-left media.
At the helm of this disinformation campaign was Breitbart, a far-right website led by Steve Bannon. Using sustained attacks on the traditional media with claims of bias (including Fox News), Breitbart was able to successfully frame issues like immigration and the exaggerated or fabricated Clinton scandals in a way that ultimately benefited the Trump campaign. One of the most widely shared stories among the right, concerning allegations of “pay-to-play” influence by the Clinton Foundation, illustrates how effectively Bannon’s organization was able to co-opt the media’s frantic news cycle. Prior to 2015, Bannon and right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer’s Government Accountability Institute (GAI) commissioned Peter Schweitzer to write a book and documentary called Clinton Cash about Hillary’s supposed use of her position as Secretary of State to enrich herself through the Clinton Foundation. In April of 2015, Schweitzer and GAI gave the New York Times open access to their research materials, leading to a lengthy piece titled, “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal.” Despite the insinuation of corruption, the piece acknowledges that no evidence of corruption was ever uncovered… only ten paragraphs in, and never disclosing Schweitzer’s ties to Breitbart or GAI. This type of misleading writing would be replicated by the Washington Post in August 2016 about the contrived Uranium One scandals, and both articles would be widely circulated in the fall within the right-wing media apparatus as proof of their authenticity — including by Breitbart, in effect legitimizing the scandals it concocted.
Why such respected newspapers would lend credibility to an organization that has a long and disgusting history of bigotry and embracing white supremacists might only be illuminated by a statement made by CNN analyst Jeffrey Toobin in the aftermath of Trump’s election: “Every time we said something bad about trump, we felt we had to say something bad about Hillary. I think it led to a sense of false equivalence that was misleading.” Right-wing agents like Bannon understood the traditional media’s vulnerability in appearing objective and balancing negative coverage given Trump’s plethora of baggage, and they weaponized it against them. And it worked. By the time of the election, coverage of Hillary was overwhelmingly focused on her apparent scandals rather than her policies, and coverage of Trump was overwhelmingly focused on his core policies rather than his scandals.
Aptly put by CJR’s scathing analysis of 2016 media coverage:
The problem is this: As has become clear since the election, there were profound differences between the two candidates’ policies, and these differences are already proving enormously consequential to the American people. Under President Trump, the Affordable Care Act is being actively dismantled, environmental and consumer protections are being rolled back, international alliances and treaties are being threatened, and immigration policy has been thrown into turmoil, among other dramatic changes. In light of the stark policy choices facing voters in the 2016 election, it seems incredible that only five out of 150 front-page articles that The New York Times ran over the last, most critical months of the election, attempted to compare the candidate’s policies, while only 10 described the policies of either candidate in any detail… Moreover, when the paper did write about policy issues, it failed to mention important details, in some cases giving readers a misleading impression of the true state of affairs. If voters had wanted to educate themselves on issues such as healthcare, immigration, taxes, and economic policy — or how these issues would likely be affected by the election of either candidate as president — they would not have learned much from reading the Times.
To fully grasp the extent to which print media failed at informing its readers what was at stake, consider their following breakdown of New York Times front page stories, keeping in mind that “campaign misc” is defined as “articles focused on the ‘horse race’ elements of the campaign, such as the overall likelihood of victory of the candidates, details of intra-party conflicts, or the mobilization of specific demographic groups.”:
Apparently reeling from Trump’s shock victory they helped they helped create an atmosphere for, the media didn’t waste much time overcorrecting, despite the new president-elect’s closed door assailing of the media heads as “deceitful liars” and new chief adviser Steve Bannon’s chilling labeling of the media as the incoming administration’s “opposition party”. From dozens of stories obsessively hunting down white Trump voters in Rust Belt diners, to shameless profiles on your local neo-Nazi or the woes of white workers in the minority, to the Times stacking its editorial board with conservatives (despite having no leftist, Arab-American, or Latinx voices), its pandering to the right again missed the administration’s hemorrhaging of support with suburban and independent voters that would lead Democrats to take back the House for the first time in eight years.
As if taking a cue from Trump’s shameful claim that “both sides” were to blame for the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, there’s been a flurry of bothsidesism, again fixating on the appearance of balance by promoting false equivalency. And even up against the fact that hate crimes have surged since Trump’s election and the vast majority of politically motivated terror incidents have been tied to the right, outlets have been reluctant to identify white supremacy as a rising force in domestic politics and or even use the word “racist” when entirely appropriate, opting instead for “racially charged” or “racially tinged”. In one of the most labyrinthine efforts to avoid the term, the Times described Virginia Senate candidate and Confederate sympathizer Corey Stewart as a “racial provocateur”.
The press’s ability to weave so effortlessly around issues of racism (and sexism) is easily explained by the makeup of its newsrooms. FAIR’s 2011 investigation found that despite a nation that is 36 percent racial or ethnic minority and 50 percent female, “ethnic minorities make up less than 13 percent of newsroom employees, less than 4 percent of television station ownership, and less than 8 percent or radio station ownership… Women, meanwhile, are 37 percent of full-time newspaper newsroom staff.” CJR’s survey of 2016 political reporting found similar results:
So when Democrats took back the House in 2018, their coverage of the new majority was particularly stark. First there was Rep. Rashida Tlaib remarks to progressive supporters vowing to “impeach the motherfucker” in reference to Trump, which received five times more cable news coverage than Republican Rep. Steve King’s defense of the term “white supremacist”. Rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a frequent target of critiques, like when the Washington Post’s fact checker put AOC’s mathematical slip up over Pentagon accounting errors on the same scale as Trump’s lies about terrorists in the migrant caravan and that millions of undocumented immigrants illegally voted in the 2016 election. When Trump vetoed a government funding bill that passed unanimously in the Senate, media figures across the spectrum pinned the blame on “both sides” of the impasse. And when prominent Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Eric Holder, and Maxine Waters took pointed tones toward Trump allies ahead of the 2018 midterms, it was turned into a media spectacle that lumped incivility and nonviolent protest in with the overt calls for violence led by Trump.
Outrage & Propaganda
It’s not that the networks have accidentally stumbled into partisanship. The FCC’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine just years before CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC arrived meant cable news was free to pursue an overt ideological bent in their reporting without regard for the code of ethics embraced by the networks that came before them. No longer would there be a Cronkite to offer a nightly voice of reason. This of course has become clearest most evident with Fox News, which by the time of Barack Obama’s election in 2008 had become the virtual propaganda arm of the Republican Party.
Anchors like Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity relentlessly stoked racist conspiracy theories about the president’s citizenship, gave a platform to various right-wing extremists, and sought to sew domestic division among the Republican Party’s conservative base with the most trivial or hyperbolic topics — from Obama’s tan suit, to lies about “death panels” in the ACA, to a “War on Christmas”… and so on and so on and so on. A flagship Stanford study estimated that Fox News’ coverage contributed 0.46 points to the Republican presidential vote share in 2000, 3.59 points in 2004, and 6.34 points in 2008, fostering a symbiotic relationship with one of the two major political parties in the US that further distorts not just journalistic propriety, but our elections as well. Just as alarming, the study estimates that the impact of cable news explains two-thirds of the increase in political polarization during that period.
But even during that time, the network had limits on its absurdity. Glenn Beck’s show was cancelled after his unhinged rants became a constant embarrassing target for political satire, and Hannity was reprimanded for coddling the Tea Party movement too closely. And throughout the Republican primary in 2016, most of Fox’s anchors delivered skeptical if not outright condemnation of Trump’s remarks, reflecting Fox CEO Roger Ailes’ own belief at the time that his antics would deliver the party a blowout in the election. But in July of that year, Ailes would be forced out due to sexual harassment allegations, and an aging Rupert Murdoch ceded leadership to his less authoritative son Lachlan. In this leadership void, the network’s most extreme voices have thrived, particularly Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.
The New Yorker’s stunning exposé on “The Making of the Fox News White House” described in detail how the illusion of impartial journalism has given way to outright coordination between Fox News and President Trump, who is known to use his hours of scheduled “executive time” each morning to watch Fox & Friends, regularly retweeting their claims or tweeting out support of those who show him favoritism. Among its many revelations, the piece tells of how Trump has privately rated many of the network’s anchors on a “loyalty” scale, that Hannity talks with Trump every day and advises him on messaging (which Hannity then reflects on his show), and that Murdoch’s improved relationship with the president yielded a hefty reward: the Justice Department approving the Fox-Disney $71.3 billion merger while blocking Tribune Media’s acquisition by AT&T — the owner of Murdoch’s rival news network CNN. The Murdoch family personally reaped $2 billion from the deal.
This pipeline between Fox and the White House has had direct implications on policy, like when Trump suddenly walked away from the 2018 omnibus appropriations bill and led the government into a shutdown. Per the New Yorker, “Both Mick Mulvaney, his budget director at the time, and Vice-President Mike Pence had described it as a done deal. But on March 22nd Trump became agitated, a former top aide told me, when the evening hosts at Fox ‘lit him up,’ and the next morning, on ‘Fox & Friends,’ one of the President’s most reliable supporters, Pete Hegseth, ‘ripped him.’ At 8:55 A.M., Trump tweeted that he might veto the bill, because it lacked funding for the ‘BORDER WALL.’ The former top aide said of Trump’s sudden reversal, ‘It was all Fox.’”
“Fox is not just taking the temperature of the base — it’s raising the temperature,” Nicole Hemmer says in the exposé. “It’s a radicalization model. Fear is a business strategy — it keeps people watching.” In this atmosphere of escalation, extremist fringe websites catering to that same paranoid style of right-wing politics have also taken on growing prominence. During the 2016 election cycle, Free Beacon, Daily Caller, and Breitbart emerged among the most shared media sources among the right, with the latter supplanting even Fox News as the nexus of conservative media for the first time:
As the aforementioned Harvard study details, there is no comparable media network among the left. When far-left sites post fake news or inaccurate claims, they’re typically either ignored or met with skepticism and fact-checking among their own online audience that shuts down their further circulation. Far-right sites, on the other hand, are met with a hospitable environment in which fabricated stories are widely disseminated. As a result, there has developed what they describe as as an “asymmetrical relationship” among these two very different media audiences:
On the conservative side, more attention was paid to pro-Trump, highly partisan media outlets. On the liberal side, by contrast, the center of gravity was made up largely of long-standing media organizations steeped in the traditions and practices of objective journalism.
Because of this seemingly impermeable, propagandistic right-wing media network, those who buy into false or misleading claims about those outside of their political affiliation are incredibly unlikely to be swayed with the presentation of factual counterevidence. And during the 2016 election, they were especially vulnerable to Breitbart’s influence:
The more insulated right-wing media ecosystem was susceptible to sustained network propaganda and disinformation, particularly misleading negative claims about Hillary Clinton. Traditional media accountability mechanisms — for example, fact-checking sites, media watchdog groups, and cross-media criticism — appear to have wielded little influence on the insular conservative media sphere.
The manufacturing of outrage has become the primary product of the right-wing media, and it shouldn’t seem coincidental that this has corresponded with a rise in violent white supremacy, hate crimes, and politically-motivated attempts to assassinate progressive lawmakers.
The Money Race
But at its root, all of these issues feed into one, central reason for these failures: we have a media ecosystem fueled not by the public good, but by money. The need to generate revenue through ratings is in conflict with a strong commitment to the press’s historical role as the Fourth Estate, to educate the public on pressing matters and underlooked stories, and to challenge those in power as a means of promoting transparency and accountability to the people they represent.
When Congress passed the Communications Act in 1934, it did so with the intent of guaranteeing that broadcasting operates in “public interest, convenience and necessity”. What followed for over a half century was an imperfect but credible profession of journalism in print, on radio, and on TV, that took its role as the Fourth Estate seriously, and in return was highly regarded by the public. That consensus began to fall apart first with the decimation of the Fairness Doctrine, and finally with Congress’s passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which paved the way for the vast corporate consolidation we have today.
Corporate ownership of the media ensures that the information we get to read and hear flows from the top with corporate executives, rather than from editors and reporters on the ground. And the effect isn’t always just subtle bias. Take Sinclair Broadcasting, whose buying spree has made it the largest TV broadcaster in the country reaching 39% of homes and 39 of the 50 largest markets. Sinclair itself is a conservative, pro-Trump organization responsible for gutting local news and moving its ideological coverage in a rightward slant, most disturbingly exposed when it forced dozens of local anchors across the country to read from the same script that derided “the sharing of biased and false news” — an echo of President Trump’s frequent attacks on the “fake news”. Trump later took to Twitter to heave praise on Sinclair, and the FCC commissioner he appointed is expected to raise the national cap on market ownership for broadcasters from the current 39% to 50% or higher — giving the company access to the majority of households.
Sinclair’s long history of promoting right wing propaganda is just one example of how this consolidation of the media has a detrimental impact on democracy. To CNN’s Jessica Yellen, with corporations setting the agenda, there’s evolved a consensus over editorial guidelines: debts and deficits are bad, entitlements need reformed, government spending is a bad thing… and it isn’t an accident, because these are “established institutions owned by major corporations” that have a stake in right-leaning policies. When considering why left-wing elected officials seem to receive a greater deal of scrutiny for their policies than their counterparts on the right (“but how will you pay for it?” directed toward anti-poverty proposals but not at budget-breaking corporate tax cuts), it’s worth reviewing Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony — how the elite instill the idea that capitalism is somehow a natural or “normal” state through dominant institutions like the media, thus preserving their own power via ideology as opposed to force.
Roger Ailes’ own acquiescence to Donald Trump was rewarded with the approval of Fox’s merger, illustrating that the ethos of capitalism and corporate dominance outweighs any personal convictions. The stories produced by these media conglomerates then shape the agendas those in Washington are willing to support, fearful of political backlash if faced with a torrent of negative headlines that aren’t always representative of what their constituents think.
IV. A Media for the People
This day-to-day, short-sighted focus is at the peril of the civic dialogue that the media should be facilitating to inform our decision making. Consider the post-9/11 patriotic fervor the networks were swept into as the Bush Administration deliberately used false intelligence to lead us into Iraq. Administration officials were given an unfettered platform to promote what we now know were lies, the war’s basic assumptions went unchallenged, and those who did offer criticisms were silenced because it “wasn’t good for business”. Again during the 2016 election, they gave Trump wall-to-wall coverage because executives viewed him as ratings gold, even as their own newsrooms faced bomb threats and their reporters faced escalating hostility and violence from the supporters he’d incite at his rallies. “It may not be good for America”, CBS executive Les Moonves said, “but it’s damn good for CBS”.
Since Donald Trump’s election, Democrats have pursued a full-throated government reform message that culminated with the House’s passage of H.R.1, the “For the People Act” — which, under a new president, would represent the most sweeping piece of anti-corruption legislation passed since the aftermath of Watergate. But there’s an important component missing from this platform, and it’s one that would recognize how integral the media is in enabling this system of corruption and division in our politics. One can almost understand the reluctance to talk about media reform given our proud tradition of some of the strongest free press laws in the world. But there’s also near universal recognition that the state of the media is in dire straits, only made worse by the sitting president’s unprecedented attacks on journalists, labeling them the “Enemy of the People”. Gallup’s 2018 poll found newspapers and television news to be the least trusted institutions in America, surpassed only by Congress.
The media has abandoned its longstanding duty to see events through a critical lens, even when unpopular, and especially at moments of crisis — to fulfill its role as a guardian of truth above political agendas or ideology. It’s a vicious cycle, and no player has incentive to change because they rely on money, and we have no alternatives. So let’s build the alternative that disrupts that cycle and puts pressure on them to either change or wither away.
What’s needed isn’t the appearance of balance for the sake of appearances. What’s needed is reporting that’s representative of reality. We need a Communications Act for the 21st Century — to restore journalistic integrity and to protect freedom of speech by breaking the corporate-consolidated media’s stranglehold on the information we receive.
V. The Fix
American Public Media
At this platform’s core would be the creation of a publicly funded but independently operated organization called the American Public Media (APM), comparable to the UK’s own BBC. It’s true that the US does to some extent fund public radio and TV, with NPR and PBS being the most well known, but it’s a misconception that we either completely or directly fund them. Rather, Congress funds the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), established in 1967 as part of President Johnson’s Great Society with two primary mandates: to serve as a firewall between partisan politics and public broadcasting, and to help fund programming, stations, and technology.
CPB’s annual budget hovers around $445 million (about 0.01% of the federal budget), which is then allocated toward NPR and PBS. Because this represents a fraction of the amount needed to cover operational costs, both are forced to rely on on-air fundraising and private donations, raising issues of impartiality. Despite this anemic investment from Congress, CPB has become an exemplar model of ethical journalism and educational content. From the in-depth investigations of Frontline, to content that has shaped millions of young minds with Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to financially supporting a network of public radio and broadcast television across the country, CPB has been a cornerstone in providing a space where ethical journalism can thrive.
Under this proposal, that model would be taken even further. CPB would be given the resources it needs to directly compete with cable news on its own channel and to completely divest by private funding. CPB would consolidate NPR and PBS under American Public Media to deliver digital content, investigative journalism, in-depth analysis, civic resources, and educational programming. Imagine having the option of turning your attention away from the angry panels and propagandistic figure heads, and toward a more measured discussion of current events; reporting that has the nuance of All Things Considered, the analysis of The Daily, or the creativity of Serial, all without partisan crosstalk or lowest common denominator punditry; and a platform to give many of the journalists whose work is overlooked and undervalued a space for wider national coverage that satiates our malnourished civic appetite.
Like the BBC, it would be prohibited from running advertisements for anything other than its own content, and would not accept private donations. The organization would be required to follow minimum representation standards for women and minorities among staff to capture the full breadth, diversity, and accuracy of American life, and all employees involved in the delivery of content would swear to abide by a “Fourth Estate Oath”. The current code of ethics for NPR or the Society of Professional Journalists provide strong models:
- Impartial, honest, and critical reporting on issues of importance to the American public
- Investigative reporting that verifies sources and follows the story wherever it leads
- To remain a watchdog over power, and to give voice to the voiceless
- To seek out diversity in the human experience
- To abide by ethical standards, and to weigh public need to know against personal discomfort
- To embrace complexity and nuance over tabloid journalism or sound bites
- To explain context and historical background whenever necessary and possible
- To avoid conflicts of interest, and to refuse gifts and special treatment
- To never plagiarize and to clearly credit sources
- To admit and correct errors made in reporting
- To embrace the press’s role in protecting a free, tolerant, and democratic society
And finally, the network would have its own mandates, with a revitalized Fairness Doctrine at its core. It would be required to seek out a diversity of viewpoints when presenting arguments, to make a strong investment in investigative reporting by forging close relationships with local and foreign reporters, and to provide information on federal, state, and local elections. In return, at least $1 billion of its funding would be reserved to help support local newsrooms across the country, reversing the spate of reporter layoffs and the decimation of local newspapers in the last two decades that’s left a void in our community coverage and has substantively worsened our political polarization.
In 2016, revenue hit $2.3 billion at Fox News and $1.2 billion at CNN. If APM was given an annual budget of $3–4 billion, it would amount to less than 5% of the military spending increase passed last year without debate, and less than 0.6% of the military budget overall. For comparison, the BBC runs on more than $6.5 billion USD in annual operating expenses. To keep it insulated from future funding cuts by retaliatory Republicans, APM would need to be independently run and given a direct source of funding. This could take on a number of forms, like a small fee on cable and internet subscriptions, or an excise tax on big-dollar TV advertisements — a small cost when considering the upsides. From the Knight Foundation:
A large body of research has found that public broadcasters air more hard news and current affairs programming… more balanced, and more focused on policy substance rather than horse race and palace intrigue coverage. “Essentially,” one study concluded, “freedom from interference by market forces and government seems to lead to a form of public broadcasting that is markedly ‘better’ than its commercial rivals”.
And the benefits are plenty:
Research shows that people exposed to news on public television are better-informed than those exposed to news on private TV. They are likelier to vote, and have more realistic perceptions of their societies, especially on issues related to crime and immigration. They are less likely to express negative attitudes toward immigrants. Countries with strong public broadcasters have higher levels of social trust, and the people who live in them are less likely to hold extremist political views… Public broadcasting, one concluded, “tends to minimize the knowledge gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged, and therefore contributes to a more egalitarian pattern of citizenship.”
Without the need to participate in a fanatical competition for ratings and advertising, the network would have the distinct advantage of being able to methodically investigate stories and carefully deliver content with context. To elevate, broaden, and deepen the discussion being had on the national stage could have a trickle-out effect to other networks if APM takes a large enough share of their audiences, proving that the public truly values independence and honesty over sensationalism.
Again from Jessica Yellen, “There’s a huge audience that wants information, they just want it told a little calm. I can’t tell you how many times I’m in rooms with especially women [and] people who are under 35 going, ‘Stop screaming. I don’t want the yelling. I just want to know what’s happening, and I don’t want to watch for 12 hours’… It’s making people disengaged. While you have some people tuning in more because they’re fascinated by Trump, the data shows that there’s a huge audience that’s tuning the news out. And it’s not because they don’t want to hear the challenging information, it’s because they feel less informed after they watch it… and their anxiety is very high.” But she casts doubt on the networks’ willingness to change on their own: “I think they have to wait to be disrupted… There’s an awareness that there’s another way. They’re just making so much money doing it the current way that there’s no motivation to experiment.”
A Free and Independent Media
Of course, this alone wouldn’t solve all of the problems we face when it comes to the media. The 1996 Telecommunications Act and FCC decisions since Reagan have wrongfully deregulated the media landscape and left us with a corporate-owned landscape that’s already altered the discussions we hear. Sinclair Broadcasting’s dominance was made possible when Trump-appointed FCC commissioner Ajit Pai’s restored the “UHF discount”, an arcane loophole that allowed it to amass a much larger market share than the 39% market cap allows by excluding a large portion of their stations from the official count.
A 21st Century Communications Act should lower the 39% broadcasting market cap to 20% or lower, repeal the UHF rule, and apply the cap toward radio station ownership, which has no cap all — forcing the breakup of corporate behemoths like iHeartRadio (formerly Clear Channel Radio), Sinclair, and Rupert Murdoch’s media conglomerate. Other FCC rules repealed by the Trump Administration like the local cross-ownership ban, the “eight voices rule” and the “main studio rule” should be restored and made statutory to keep local reporting truly local, diverse, and free from these interstate monopolies.
Additionally, we should act quickly to stop this trend of big corporations silencing small and independent voices from spreading to the Internet, the most democratic medium of communication we’ve ever had at our disposal. Chairman Pai’s decision to scrap the Obama-era Net Neutrality rule was horribly wrongheaded, and we should make the rule mandatory by classifying the Internet as a Title II utility under the Communications Act. We should preempt any state laws that have banned municipalities from creating their own city-run, high-speed fiber optic plans, and offer them startup funds so we can begin to address America’s dismal Internet speeds compared to the rest of the developed world. The FCC should be directed to issue rules that target local ISP monopolies and ensure that all consumers have a plethora of choices, lowering the cost of overpriced Internet plans. And we should pass a national equivalent of the EU’s GDPR, a landmark regulation that protects its citizens’ private data from being collected, monetized, and made vulnerable by companies without their consent.
Finally, while most states have a shield law to protect journalists from being compelled to reveal their anonymous sources, there remains no such law at the federal level, and the Department of Justice has in the post-9/11 era taken an aggressive approach against those who leak government information. When New York Times reporter James Risen refused to testify against the government official who served as the source of his book State of War, which described how the CIA botched an operation involving Iranian nuclear blueprints, the Justice Department sued. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled against Risen, but he remained unwavering at the risk of serving jail time. Thankfully Attorney General Holder did not hold him in contempt, but one can imagine what this administration (with its president’s periodic threats to “open up” nonexistent libel laws to sue journalists who hold him accountable) or a future administration hostile to the free press would decide, highlighting the need to protect journalists against the government’s continuous testing of First Amendment limits.
We’re approaching the fourth decade of the 24-hour cable news cycle with little to show for it and a fractured, increasingly polarized populace turning to conspiracy theories and radical fringe websites instead. The election of Donald Trump, and the swift alignment of the entire Republican Party establishment behind him — despite his constant attacks on the free press — are testament to how broken our system of checks and balances are. And when the headlines that carry the day are the ones that sensationalize events rather than treat them with context and analysis, it’s time to recognize that the media is part of that broken system.
Going into 2020, there’s an often repeated but important truth we need to remember: Trump is a symptom, and not the cause, of the division and dysfunction of our society. And things can certainly get worse. Orwellian rhetoric about “alternative facts” from one of the president’s chief advisers, and the gaslighting of the public on a daily basis from the podium of the press briefing room should be flashing red warning signs. We need a trusted institution that everyone can turn to with the assurance that the information being delivered has been handled with careful thought, exhaustive examination from multiple viewpoints, and without suspicion that a story has been sculpted to generate ratings.
Steve Bannon and Breitbart showed how malleable the media ecosystem is when you’re an independent agent willing to disrupt the news cycle from the outside. Inevitably, we need to stop this losing game of pushing the for-profit media machine to be something it’s never going to be, and we should aim to build something better: a source of information divested from the private financiers, ideological battles, and ratings-driven reporting; an entity completely resistant to those temptations, capable of disrupting the entire system, held to ethical journalistic standards that have fallen to the wayside, and accountable to public interest alone. Only then can we begin to restore our trust in the media and rebuild a civic sphere that has left us so bitterly divided, cynical, and misinformed. Without it, authoritarian and racist voices grow louder and the threats to our democracy more alarming.
We can salvage the Fourth Estate only if we build a media ecosystem capable of fighting demagogues’ lies with honesty, right-wing propaganda with ethics, and the media’s money-driven reporting with facts, investigation, and veritas.