On the heels of New York Times workers walking off the job, Sen. Bernie Sanders on Friday made the case for revamping the nation’s news media system by giving reporters around the United States the resources necessary to produce high-quality journalism for the benefit of society.
In an email to supporters, the Vermont Independent described how profit-maximizing media outlets have undermined reporting on the most pressing problems facing the country and called for significant reforms and investments to support the accountability and public interest journalism on which democracy depends.
“Today in America, after decades of consolidation and deregulation, some eight multinational media companies control almost all the news you watch, read, hear, and download,” Sanders wrote. “All across the country, corporate conglomerates and hedge fund vultures have bought and consolidated local newspapers and slashed their newsrooms—all while giving executives and shareholders big payouts.”
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The consequences of this trend have been nothing short of catastrophic, he argued, noting that more than 1,400 communities nationwide have seen their hometown newspapers disappear—with negative knock-on effects for local television, radio, and digital sites that count on them for reporting—as Wall Street giants gobble up and strip mine local news organizations.
Meanwhile, publishers are selling billions of dollars worth of “pharmaceutical and oil ads while failing to provide a consistently fair hearing for issues like Medicare for All or downplaying coverage of the climate crisis,” the Vermont progressive continued. Moreover, even though millions of people across the U.S. are struggling paycheck-to-paycheck, “budget-strapped newspapers” have not ramped up their coverage of poverty.
“At precisely the moment we need more reporters covering the healthcare crisis, the climate emergency, and economic inequality,” Sanders wrote, “the corporate media is incentivized to ignore or downplay these critical issues.”
“The American people desperately need high-quality journalism,” the senator stressed. “When we have had real journalism, we have seen crimes like Watergate exposed and confronted. 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.”
Sanders’ intervention comes one day after more than 1,000 unionized New York Times workers participated in a one-day strike over management’s refusal to approve a contract with better pay and healthcare benefits following months of negotiations.
Times Guild members’ ongoing fight “for a living wage and fair pay,” Sanders wrote Friday, “is not so radical when the company just approved $150 million in stock buybacks for its investors.”
“Real journalism requires significant resources,” he continued, “and one reason we do not have enough real journalism in America right now is because far too many media outlets are led primarily by the pursuit of profit as opposed to investing in the workers and resources it takes to educate the people of this country and hold the powerful accountable.”
Sanders argued that “it is long past time” for lawmakers to:
- Reinstate and strengthen media ownership rules;
- Limit the number of stations that large broadcasting corporations can own in each market and nationwide;
- Prevent tech giants like Facebook and Google from using their enormous market power to cannibalize and defund news organizations, especially the small and independent ones without the infrastructure to fight back; and
- Explore new ways to empower media workers to effectively collectively bargain with large corporations like The New York Times.
Some of Sanders’ suggestions echo policy recommendations made by University of Pennsylvania professor Victor Pickard, an expert on the political economy of media and the relationship between journalism and democracy.
In an essay published last week in The Progressive, Pickard pointed out that “more than one-fifth of the U.S. population—approximately 70 million Americans—now live in an area with little or no access to local news.”
He warned that “all manner of disinformation and conspiracy-peddling are rushing into the vacuum created by the collapse of local journalism, including right-wing propaganda operations made to look like authentic news reporting.”
“A dwindling number of newspapers failing to produce even the bare minimum of news that society requires isn’t just a journalism crisis—it’s a democracy crisis,” wrote Pickard. “While journalism isn’t a silver bullet for solving the many challenges facing us—from climate change to racial injustice to the soaring rate of income inequality—we cannot begin to confront these wicked problems without a functional fourth estate.”
“Thus far,” Pickard argued, “the depth of the journalism crisis has outpaced any concerted policy response—especially at the level necessary for reconstructing the entire news media ecosystem.”
After a modest newspaper subsidy program died with the demise of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, the only policy intervention to emerge at the federal level is the dubiously named Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA), which would allow media firms to essentially collude and present a united front to negotiate better terms and extract more revenue from platforms like Facebook and Google.
Despite much hype, the JCPA amounts to a corporate giveaway to big broadcasters and publishers—many of whom have been complicit in exacerbating the journalism crisis—instead of directly supporting journalists or creating new outlets. Indeed, the likes of Sinclair Broadcast Group, Gannett, and Alden stand to benefit from the JCPA. This trickle-down approach to funding journalism attests to the paucity of the American social imagination and the lack of political will to devise nonmarket support for a vital public service. A straightforward alternative to the JCPA would be taxing Facebook and Google to create a dedicated fund (perhaps combined with revenue streams from philanthropists, public subsidies, and other sources) to support nonprofit reporting in news deserts and other underserved areas.
Pickard went on to highlight “glimmers of an alternative news media system… flickering from the wreckage.” He cited “the growing number of progressive initiatives at the state and local levels,” including efforts to directly subsidize local journalism in New Jersey and California, as well as blossoming nonprofit endeavors, which demonstrate “the potential for radically democratized media outlets that are public not just in name but in ownership and control.”
“The explosion of newsroom unionization efforts across the country offers hope as well,” wrote Pickard. “The past decade has witnessed nearly 200 successful union drives at news publications. The wave of successful unionizing in recent years attests to the growing sense of solidarity and commitment to social justice among news workers. We might even envision future newsrooms owned and controlled by media workers themselves.”
“What brings these various efforts together is a shared vision of journalism that centers people’s civic needs rather than a commodity whose value is determined solely by its profitability in the marketplace,” he continued. “They treat journalism as an essential public service whose primary purpose is to facilitate participatory democracy, not merely as a vehicle for a handful of rich, white men to make gobs of money.”
Nevertheless, “much more must be done,” Pickard stressed. “We need systemic projects that guarantee a baseline level of news and information for all members of society, not just the privileged few who live in affluent neighborhoods.”
In his email, Sanders wrote that “our Constitution’s First Amendment explicitly protects the free press because the founders understood how important journalism is to a democracy.”
“Quality journalism is not possible when media workers are unable to earn a living wage, and when corporations prioritize profit above all else,” he concluded. “We need to rebuild and protect a diverse and truly independent press so that real journalists and media workers can do the critical jobs that they love, and that a functioning democracy requires.”