How Big Money and Big Media Undermine Democracy

I have very little to add in the way of comment, but I wanted to let all of you know that Bill Moyers just interviewed John Nichols and Robert McChesney, the authors of the new book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America, and it’s incredibly fascinating stuff… And, by “incredibly fascinating,” I mean infinitely infuriating… Here’s video of the segment, followed by a bit of the transcript.

BILL MOYERS: So why rub our nose in it? I mean, everybody, as I’ve said in the opening, knows it; knows that money and media are destroying our elections, as you say. Why another autopsy?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, this isn’t an autopsy, this is the product of three years of work. Bob and I are political junkies. I mean, there’s no other way to say it. We love politics. We love covering it, we love talking about it. And we feel a sense of loss. We feel a sense of loss in America, where our elections are no longer these great battles of ideas, but, in fact, very controlled events, managed events. And so after the Citizens United ruling of 2010, which essentially freed up corporate money to flow into politics, we knew that this is a big enough pivot point that we should step back and spend the next few years looking at how an American presidential election and all the elections beneath it play out. And so we looked at the 2012 cycle from start to finish, over a three, four year period. And what we determined was that we didn’t know much at all about how bad it was. And so, instead of the $6 billion that all the news headlines said was spent on the 2012 election cycle, it was actually more than $10 billion because most of the groups that analyze it don’t look at state, local and referendum elections.

And we also brought I think something very different to this. We’re saying that, as you have this inflow of money, this huge amount of money flowing in, we also have the stand down of journalism. We have lost tens of thousands of journalists. Newsrooms closing down, newspapers cutting back. The worldwide web has not filled the void by any means.

And so, we have a situation where massive inflow of money and the check and balance of journalism declining. You end up with almost a perfect situation for propagandizing the American people, from managing their debates into a narrow zone where those with the money will invariably prevail.

BILL MOYERS: Let me be particular for a moment. Look what’s happening to local television stations. In just the last few months Gannett Company offered $1.5 billion for the 20 local stations of the Belo Corporation based in Dallas. The Tribune Company $2.7 billion for 19 local stations. Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is the nation’s biggest owner of stations, $1 billion for seven more stations. One analyst calls it a renaissance of the local television business. He says, it’s the best it’s been in a long time. More big companies buying more local news stations. But is it good for the country?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, the fact of the matter is that what has made local television boom in recent years is political ads. That $10 billion we talk about, roughly $6 billion of it goes into political ads. These folks aren’t buying those stations to because we want to really help democracy. They’re buying them to make money. And here’s one of the–

BILL MOYERS: From political advertising?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, among other things, admittedly. But here’s one of the things we chart in the book that just absolutely blew our mind. In the 2012 cycle there were local stations in big battleground states where they actually shaved minutes off the local news so they could fit more ads in.

In one circumstance we looked at a situation they expanded the time period set aside from local news. And you’re, like, great. We had this intense election. You must really want to tell us more. No, they expanded it so that they could get more ad revenue because citizens go to the local news to find out about politics. But when you’re shaving the newscast, when those citizens show up to get information, the information’s coming from the ads, not from the news.

JOHN NICHOLS: And there are many countries in the world, the Scandinavian countries, for instance, which are they basically ban political ads. They allow party election broadcasts, which are very structured. But–


JOHN NICHOLS: Because they say, at the time of an election, people need news and information, not, you know, some sort of managed statement from candidates that might actually cause them to think badly about the other candidate.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: I think this is something that most Americans, because, are unfamiliar with if they’re under the age of 65 or 70, that our elections weren’t like this for the first 170 years of American history, prior to the 1960s. And even in the 1960s and the ’70s, the amount of political TV advertising was much smaller for campaigns.

So there were only a handful of ads that were negative, relative to the lion’s share of TV candidate ads, which were positive and about the candidates.

But increasingly, they’ve become more and more negative over time, to the point that by 2000 roughly half of them were negative. And I think we haven’t seen the final tally for 2012. But probably 85 percent, 90 percent in that range of ads were negative..

In related news, Moyers also has a new piece up today on his website about the six initiatives currently underway to turn back the tide set in motion by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which essentially made all of this possible by giving the green light to corporations and wealthy individuals intent on buying elections. I think you’ll find it to be a great resource.

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  1. Edward
    Posted November 12, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Theses 6 corporations control 90% of American media.

  2. anonymous
    Posted November 12, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Terrifying shit. Corporations buying local stations, slashing news department budgets, and making tons of cash by handing over the airwaves to wealthy individuals hoping to sway elections. These airwaves belong to the people of the United States, and they should be taken back from those corporations that aren’t acting as good stewards.

  3. Meta
    Posted November 12, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I particularly like the part where they discuss the possibility of public funding for journalism.

    BILL MOYERS: You remind me that when AOL bought Huffington Post two years ago, the CEO at the time, Tim Armstrong, ordered the company’s editors to evaluate all future stories according to the, and I’m quoting, “Profitability consideration.” Translate that for us.

    ROBERT McCHESNEY: What that means is that the commercial pressures on journalism today are so immense, that they’re, so finding ways to raise money, that the traditional standards of commercial journalism is that editors and reporters did their job well and they would automatically get an audience. And then the advertise people could sell the ads. And they didn’t really have to have too much contact. There was sort of a separation of church and state, as the saying went, in news media. That’s disappeared. Now the reporters and the editors have to be every bit as cognizant of the commercial value of what they produce as the advertising sales people had to be.

    BILL MOYERS: You must’ve seen the story that Time Inc. has abolished the position of editor in chief. And the editors of all of Time’s magazines will now report to the business side through a new senior content officer. What does that tell you?

    JOHN NICHOLS: Well, what it tells us is Time’s catching up with just about everybody else. And this is the painful reality. You know when broadcast media came into being and it was initially thought of as a service, right? You didn’t expect to make a profit off the news. Well give credit to the folks at “60 Minutes”. They showed you can make money doing news.

    And so now in broadcast media for a long time, news shows have been profit centers. They’re supposed to make money. They’re supposed to have a return. We’ve seen this come into newspapers now. Newspapers are expected to return massive profits for their investors even in tough times.

    And the problem with that is that the least profitable stories are the ones for about working class people in tough neighborhoods, that’s the old afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted journalism that we, that I was trained in journalism school was important. That doesn’t fit into a profitability calculus.

    ROBERT McCHESNEY: When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million, what was lost in the story was that if he’d tried to buy The Washington Post 13 years earlier he probably would’ve had to spend $5 billion, something in that area. And the reason is that the commercial, Wall Street has decided you can’t make money doing journalism anymore. That’s why we have so few journalists.

    And, you know, the reason Bezos is interested in it was less for commercial reasons than for political influence. You still have great political influence when you own a monopoly daily newspaper, especially in the nation’s capital. Journalism’s got to be understood first and foremost, as a public good. It’s something society needs, but the market doesn’t produce in sufficient quality or quantity.

    BILL MOYERS: Oh, you dreamer, you.

    ROBERT McCHESNEY: No, but wait. This is, it’s not a dreamer. Advertising gave the illusion that journalism could be a commercial entity and the market would take it wonderfully. But it doesn’t. Now that the advertisers are leaving, we can see that isn’t the case. If we just rely on the market, we will not have journalism. But this isn’t a dream. This is actually not just how other countries have figured it out, all the other most Democratic nations of the world have large subsidies and investments in journalism. But this country was founded on that notion. We actually were the pioneers of understanding the importance of investing in a free press that is–

    BILL MOYERS: The founders?

    ROBERT McCHESNEY: — the founders.

    JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, yeah.

    ROBERT McCHESNEY: The first century of American history is all about massive public subsidies through the post office and printing subsidies to create the most diverse, dissenting news media ever known in the human race.

    JOHN NICHOLS: Everybody says to us, “What’s the new model? What’s the new model for paying for journalism?” As if, you know, there’s going to be some sort of magical calculus that comes up. And over time, we came to the conclusion that the answer’s actually very simple. We found the model. We got it. It’s established, it’s working. It’s very, very functional. Germany, Norway, Britain, all the countries with which we might compare ourselves all have massively funded public and community media. They make sure that there is an independent, nongovernment controlled, they create strong firewalls.

    The model is there. The problem is in the United States we have ended up in a horrible situation, where the basic questions about funding the journalism we the people need to know what’s happening, to know how to be participants fully in our democracy, that we have debates in Congress about Big Bird. And what we say to journalists and to citizens, to civic activists is we can’t play this game anymore. We have to step up and demand massive funding.

  4. John Galt
    Posted November 12, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    If you want a voice in the American system, start a company and be successful, inherit wealth, or marry money. Otherwise, keep your sniveling little mouth shut. This is the way Jesus intended America to be, and, if you don’t like it, you’re a devil-worshiping freedom hater.

  5. Elf
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    How fucked up is it that our best resource for news is Al Jazeera?

  6. Mr. Y
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Something else to factor in.

    “Survey of writers finds that more than a quarter are concerned enough about revelations regarding the extent of government surveillance that they have avoided, or are seriously considering avoiding, controversial topics in their work.”

  7. anonandon
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    It is just going to get worse with the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement going into effect. Wikileaks just released some of the info about it and it is scary stuff.

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