With two fell swoops recently, the twin dangers of media consolidation and news deserts are gathering new momentum – threatening the free flow of information, our civic discourse and our collective ability to make good decisions.
But it’s not too late to do something about it. All of us can help reverse the steady deterioration of the free press by putting our wallets – and our votes – to work.
That isn’t to say the task ahead will be easy. In fact, Alden Global Capital’s new 32% stake in Tribune Media and the nearly $1.2 billion tie-up of newspaper behemoths Gannett and GateHouse Media – both unveiled in late November – underscore the long deregulation of media mergers.
The process began when the Federal Communications Commission started weakening restrictions on TV-station ownership in the 1980s. Since the 2000s, the trend has only accelerated: Fewer than 10 companies now control 90% of media outlets, down from 50 companies in 1983.
As for the newspaper industry, even before November, Gannett, GateHouse and Alden-owned Digital First Media were the three largest newspaper owners in the country, controlling more than 200 dailies. The 25 largest companies in the industry own two-thirds of all U.S dailies – and the pre-merger Gannett and Digital First alone controlled around one-fifth of all dailies. (For more, go here.)
This corporate consolidation has led to an abandonment of local communities and a focus more on the company’s short-term bottom line rather than on the long-term journalistic mission. The bottom-line orientation has gutted newspaper newsrooms, where overall employment fell by about 32,000 jobs nationwide from 2008 to 2017, according to federal figures. That’s a nearly 45% decline.
Still, defenders of deregulation and consolidation cite the internet and how it’s reshaped the media landscape. Apparently, if you don’t like the news served by a corporate-controlled conglomerate, you are free to turn to “somebody sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds” – to borrow a phrase from President Donald Trump.
This is what demagogues like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan want. It is no accident all three autocrats rose amid the hollowing-out of the media in their respective countries. Whether it’s the Putin-instigated Russian invasion of Ukraine, Orban’s nationalistic assault on minority rights in Hungary or Erdogan’s attempt to wipe out the Syrian Kurds, demagoguery and corruption flourish when the public can no longer tell truth from lies.
Research bears this out. For example, in a working paper of the Hutchins Center at the Brookings Institution, researchers from Notre Dame and the University of Illinois Chicago established a causal relationship between the closure of local newspapers and higher borrowing costs for the municipalities that those papers served.
The researchers suggested that “local newspapers hold their governments accountable, keeping municipal borrowing costs low and ultimately saving local taxpayers money.” That’s why the rise of “news deserts” through the destruction of local media by corporate and private equity investors doesn’t just hurt our civic discourse; it hurts our bottom line.
The path to a healthier public sphere demands an active media ecosystem in which journalistic professionals can thrive. Their norms include striving for objectivity, and more and more journalists understand that “objectivity” doesn’t mean giving equal time to “both sides” but being true to the old-fashioned goal of getting the facts right. That’s why we need to strengthen media organizations that put a premium on professional journalism and journalistic integrity.
Here are three concrete steps we can take to combat today’s corporate media monoculture.
First, we can encourage elected leaders to take action. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang all have addressed the problems facing the news media. Sanders wants a moratorium on new media mergers, while Warren wants to regulate the private equity firms that are devastating the media landscape. These, plus ideas promoted by Yang and Klobuchar, are worth taking seriously.
Second, we can encourage those leaders to use the tools already in place to break up the largest media conglomerates. In 1945, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Associated Press v. United States that media organizations are subject to the antitrust laws governing other industries. In his decision, Justice Hugo Black noted that “the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public [and] that a free press is a condition of a free society.” The fact that the First Amendment guarantees “freedom of the press from governmental interference” does not mean that the government must “sanction repression of that freedom by private interests,” Black wrote.
Third, we can support those independent media organizations around the country that are surviving — and, in many cases, thriving. Organizations like ProPublica, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the newspapers of the nonprofit-structured Independent Newsmedia Inc. are just some examples. You can learn more at savingcommunityjournalism.com, a resource associated with the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
We as citizens will pay for it either way. Either we pay now for thriving, rigorously sourced journalism, or we’ll pay with dysfunctional government and a debased civic discourse.
Joseph Shieber is a professor of philosophy at Lafayette College. His “Theories of Knowledge: How to Think About What You Know,” a collection of two dozen lectures, appeared this year as with “The Great Courses” series. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.