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We cannot sit by and allow corporations, billionaires, and demagogues to destroy the Fourth Estate

Walter Cronkite once said that journalism is what we need to make democracy work. He was absolutely right, which is why todays assault on journalism by Wall Street, billionaire businessmen, Silicon Valley and Donald Trump presents a crisis and why we must take concrete action.

Real journalism is different from the gossip, punditry and clickbait that dominates todays news. Real journalism, in the words of Joseph Pulitzer, is the painstaking reporting that will fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, [and] always fight demagogues. Pulitzer said journalism must always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.

When we have had real journalism, we have seen crimes like Watergate exposed and confronted, leading to anti-corruption reforms. When we have lacked real journalism, we have seen crimes like mortgage fraud go unnoticed and unpunished, leading to a devastating financial crisis that destroyed millions of Americans lives.

Real journalism requires significant resources. One reason we do not have enough real journalism in America right now is because many outlets are being gutted by the same forces of greed that are pillaging our economy.

For example, two Silicon Valley corporations Facebook and Google control 60% of the entire digital advertising market. They have used monopolistic control to siphon off advertising revenues from news organizations. A recent study by the News Media Alliance, a trade organization, found that in 2018, as newspaper revenues declined, Google made $4.7bn off reporting that Google did not pay for.

At the same time, corporate conglomerates and hedge fund vultures have bought and consolidated beleaguered local newspapers and slashed their newsrooms all while giving executives big payouts. Gannetts proposed merger with Gatehouse Media, for instance, will consolidate hundreds of publications under one mega-corporations control and slash $300m worth of synergies which is often corporate-speak for layoffs. Matt Pearce, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, notes that the new Gannett/Gatehouse chief executive is getting $4.5m in bonuses and stock just for walking in the door.

The result of these trends has been the decimation of journalism. Over the past 15 years, more than 1,400 communities across the country have lost newspapers, which are the outlets local television, radio and digital news sites rely on for reporting. Since 2008, we have seen newsrooms lose 28,000 employees and in the past year alone, 3,200 people in the media industry have been laid off. Today, for every working journalist, there are six people now working in public relations, often pushing a corporate line.

When we have had real journalism, we have seen crimes like Watergate exposed and confronted, leading to anti-corruption reforms. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

At precisely the moment when we need more reporters covering the healthcare crisis, the climate emergency and economic inequality, we have television pundits paid tens of millions of dollars to pontificate about frivolous political gossip, as local news outlets are eviscerated.

The negative effects are predictable: according to a working paper by researchers at Notre Dame and the University of Illinois, when newsrooms are hollowed out, overall costs to taxpayers rise, because there are fewer reporters scrutinizing government transactions. A study published by Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, a non-partisan forum, found that, despite millions of Americans struggling to survive, budget-strapped newsrooms have not turned their attention to poverty.

To be sure, when we see the Miami Herald expos on Jeffrey Epstein or the Charleston Gazette-Mails courageous reporting on the opioid crisis, we know that good reporters are still overcoming the odds and managing to produce essential journalism that scrutinizes power, exposes wrongdoing, and challenges the status quo. But we know that those success stories are too often the exception and not the norm.

We also know that Donald Trump is making things far worse. He is a pathological liar who has spent his presidency trying to demonize journalists when they dare to debunk his lies. Worse, he has called the media the enemy of the people in a deliberate attempt to destroy the very idea of a free press.

Trumps authoritarian bullying of the media is totally unacceptable and it must be denounced and rejected. But let us be clear: that alone will not solve the journalism crisis. Moreover, a further expansion of oligarchic business models in the media industry could make matters worse.

Today, after decades of consolidation and deregulation, just a small handful of companies control almost everything you watch, read and download. Given that reality, we should not 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.

After all, TV networks that rely on $4.5bn a year of pharmaceutical ads may be thrilled to sugarcoat our current dysfunctional healthcare system but they will never provide a consistently fair hearing for something like Medicare for All, even though polls show that a majority of Americans support such a proposal.

Corporate media organizations sponsored by fossil fuel industry ads may gladly provide a platform for guests who insist that our current oligarchic economy is just great, but as studies show, the same outlets often downplay or omit coverage of the climate crisis that those advertisers are helping create.

And news outlets owned by Disney and Jeff Bezos may happily tout Disney films and Bezoss plans for space exploration, but we cannot count on them to consistently and aggressively cover workers fight for better wages at Disney or Bezos-controlled companies. In fact, in one instance, we saw that the Washington Post, which Bezos owns, tried to punish a reporter because he spoke out for better wages at the newspaper.

We need to rebuild and protect a diverse and truly independent press so that real journalists can do the critical jobs that they love, and that a functioning democracy requires.

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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.

For example, we will reverse the Trump administrations attempts to make corporate media mergers even more likely in the future. We are not going to rubber-stamp proposals like the new plan to merge CBS and Viacom into a $30bn colossus.

I have long opposed media consolidation, and was one of only 16 members of the US House to oppose the disastrous 1996 Telecommunications Act, which accelerated consolidation. In my administration, we are going to institute an immediate moratorium on approving mergers of major media corporations until we can better understand the true effect these transactions have on our democracy.

In the spirit of existing federal laws, we will start requiring major media corporations to disclose whether or not their corporate transactions and merger proposals will involve significant journalism layoffs.

We will also require that, before any future mergers can take place, employees must be given the opportunity to purchase media outlets through employee stock-ownership plans an innovative business model that was first pioneered in the newspaper industry.

And we will prevent media-related merger and deregulation decisions at federal agencies that adversely affect people of color and women. As the not-for-profit watchdog group Free Press has noted, Women and people of color are woefully underrepresented among broadcast-license holders. The group points out that this is because when the Federal Communications Commission has approved mergers it has failed to consider how such concentration affects ownership opportunities for women and people of color.

Activists block traffic outside the New York Times office during a sit-in to demand coverage of climate change by the newspaper. Photograph: Julio Cortez/AP

When our administration appoints new, progressive leadership at the FCC, we will reverse the Trump administrations moves, which have gutted longstanding media ownership rules. What Trump has done allows cross-ownership of newspapers and television or radio stations; he has also given the green light to owning multiple stations in the same market. The harm may be great: In theory, says Free Press, these changes would allow a single broadcaster to own both your local newspaper and your top-two local broadcast stations, plus operate a handful of other stations through sharing agreements turning your community into a one-newsroom town.

We will do the opposite: we will reinstate and strengthen media ownership rules, and we will limit the number of stations that large broadcasting corporations can own in each market and nationwide. We will also direct federal agencies to study the impact of consolidation in print, television and digital media to determine whether further antitrust action is necessary.

Additionally, we will pass my Workplace Democracy Plan, which will boost media workers laudable efforts to form unions and collectively bargain with their employers. I have publicly supported journalists efforts to unionize. Unions not only fight for media workers wages and benefits, they can also better protect reporters from corporate policies that aim to prevent journalists from scrutinizing media owners and their advertisers.

Finally, when it comes to Silicon Valley, I will appoint an attorney general as well as Federal Trade Commission officials who more stringently enforce antitrust laws against tech giants like Facebook and Google, to prevent them from using their enormous market power to cannibalize, bilk and defund news organizations. Their monopoly power has particularly harmed small, independent news outlets that do not have the corporate infrastructure to fight back.

We must also explore new ways to empower media organizations to collectively bargain with these tech monopolies, and we should consider taxing targeted ads and using the revenue to fund not-for-profit civic-minded media. That will be part of an overall effort to substantially increase funding for programs that support public medias news-gathering operations at the local level in much the same way many other countries already fund independent public media.

Our constitutions first amendment explicitly protects the free press because the founders understood how important journalism is to a democracy. 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.

  • The op-ed was originally published in the Columbia Journalism Review

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/27/bernie-sanders-media-democracy