By his own admission, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) isn't a dyed-in-the-wool socialist who wants the state to actually own the means of production. But he still wants the government to be very much in the mix of just about every sort of business that gets transacted. That's scary enough when we're talking about making widgets or reducing the number of people who are allowed to enter the country legally (the Democratic presidential hopeful is worried that too many poor people will show up). But it's really bad news when it comes to regulating the media, which is very much on the senator's mind these days.
Writing in Columbia Journalism Review (the self-proclaimed "voice of journalism"), Sanders has unveiled a plan that would halt all media mergers if his administration believes they would reduce the number of journalists employed, "adversely affect people of color and women," or concentrate ownership in fewer hands (sort of a basic goal of all mergers). Sanders says that Facebook and Google have "monopolistic control" of online advertising because between them they account for 60 percent of "the entire digital advertising market" and swears that "after decades of consolidation and deregulation, just a small handful of companies control almost everything you watch, read, and download."
"[President Donald] Trump's authoritarian bullying of the media is totally unacceptable," writes Sanders even as he lays out his plans to limit the ability of, for instance, Jeff Bezos to run The Washington Post as he sees fit. "We should not," avers the senator,
want even more of the free press to be put under the control of a handful of corporations and "benevolent" billionaires who can use their media empires to punish their critics and shield themselves from scrutiny.
When I am president, my administration will put in place policies that will reform the media industry and better protect independent journalism at both the local and national levels.
So when Trump calls out Jeff Bezos for publishing "fake news" and threatens him with libel and other actions, he is an authoritarian bully who must be stopped. (Disclaimer: Bezos has donated money to Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website.) But when Bernie Sanders does exactly the same thing, he is a savior to an industry that has arguably been battered more by the gale of creative destruction than any other in the past 25 years or so.
Sanders' distress over media consolidation rings hollow not simply because he merely rehashes old, played-out perennial complaints. Remember back in 2000 when the merger of AOL and Time Warner spelled the absolute doom of an independent press? Better yet, can you even remember AOL or Time magazine, once massive presences in media that are now desiccated ruins of their former selves? At a point when traditional broadcast TV and radio have never had less influence on public discourse, is the solution making sure that the "right" type and number of people—however defined—own the appropriate number of stations? Does anyone in their right mind think, as Sanders does, that a "targeted tax" on online advertising and "tech companies" will actually work to fund "independent public media" that will somehow report earnestly on the very government that ensures their existence?
This is malarkey and it doesn't help that Sanders wraps it up in the same populist billionaire-baiting rhetoric he covers everything in, ideological maple syrup to sweeten what can only be understood as an unprecedented power grab over freedom of speech and the press.
More than two centuries after the constitution was signed, we cannot sit by and allow corporations, billionaires, and demagogues to destroy the Fourth Estate, nor can we allow them to replace serious reporting with infotainment and propaganda.
We must take action—and if we do, I know we can be successful. We can and will restore the media that Joseph Pulitzer and Walter Cronkite envisioned, and that America so desperately needs.
Legacy media have indeed been decimated over the past 25-plus years and the next decade doesn't look so bright either. And yet, there is no question that Americans have more sources of information at our fingertips than ever before. Even left-wingers at The Nation, a publication that rarely misses an opportunity to call for more government control over virtually every aspect of our lives, understand this. Writing in 2014, Tom Engelhardt notes:
There has, in fact, never been a DIY moment like this when it comes to journalism and coverage of the world. Period. For the first time in history, you and I have been put in the position of the newspaper editor. We're no longer simply passive readers at the mercy of someone else's idea of how to "cover" or organize this planet and its many moving parts. To one degree or another, to the extent that any of us have the time, curiosity or energy, all of us can have a hand in shaping, reimagining, and understanding our world in new ways.
Writing a decade ago from a more libertarian perspective, press critic Jack Shafer (then at Slate, now at Politico) similarly captured exactly what eludes Bernie Sanders and others who equate journalism with the health of conventional daily newspapers that flourished in the postwar era.
Journalism has generally benefited by increases in the number of competitors, the entry of new and once-marginalized players, and the creation of new approaches to cracking stories. Just because the journalism business is going to hell and it may no longer make economic sense to maintain mega-news bureaus at the center of war zones doesn't mean that journalism isn't thriving.
Trump has easily been the most-dissected president of all of our lifetimes. That he hasn't been hounded from office yet and stands to win reelection isn't for lack of trying by professional and amateur journalists who have revealed all sorts of information about him and his dealings. Nobody is suffering from a lack of ideologically diverse and in-depth information about every possible topic under the sun. There may well be more chaff mixed in with the wheat, but that's because we now have far more choice of what to read.
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