Graphic by MEREK ALAM
On December 15th, 1791, The United States of America ratified the first 10 amendments to our constitution. The first amendment enshrined a right to a free press, one that could not be threatened or controlled by the government. What 18th century America couldn’t have foreseen were the threats that profiteering and corporate control also posed to a free press. Now both are having devastating effects on our democracy.
The problem is simple enough to identify: Profit-driven media is more loyal to advertisers and shareholders than they are to the public good. The advertisers are the real money makers for the company, and thus the news media only needs to remain legitimate enough for there to be viewers watching these ads. Unfortunately, over the last couple decades, media conglomerates have been merged together until everything we watch and read is now being controlled by a handful of corporations with this profit-motive written into their very DNA.
You simply have to tune into one of these channels to watch this in action. Candidates like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders get routinely overlooked by news networks because their policies would require heavy taxes on the wealthy, which includes the controlling shareholders of these very same news networks. They get their health care plans smeared by debate moderators because the commercial break slots for these debates are filled with lobbyist ads from the very health insurance companies Warren and Sanders are trying to abolish. The truth is something that can be disregarded if there’s money on the line.
It turns out that the truth isn’t profitable at all. The President of CNN, Jeffrey Zucker, has been incredibly open about using CNN, not for seeking the truth, but as an entertainment venture. “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way,” said Zucker to The New York Times in 2017. Instead of spending their millions of dollars on longform journalism or serious investigation, CNN spends their time and money platforming talking-heads who scream falsehoods at each other from their respective boxes in gladiatorial-style combat between sponsored breaks where pharmaceutical companies try to sell you heart medication.
It might be tempting to write this off as a problem the progressive younger generation will solve when they get into journalistic positions, but getting these jobs in the first place is increasingly difficult. Undergrad journalists require internships in order to get gigs later on, but very few of these internships are paid. Undergrads also quickly realize that publishing enough articles online to make up this monetary difference is unrealistic. This causes a selfselecting cycle where the type of students who make it into high-level journalistic positions come from wealthier families who have cash to burn through. This means that members of the younger generation who fill these positions often still leans towards reinforcing these profit-driven operations instead of dismantling them.
This also assumes that there will be any journalistic positions left. Another cost of monopolizing media corporations is the bankruptcy or cooptation of important local newspapers and news stations, with more than 1 in 5 local newspapers closing since 2004. A college graduate trying to make a difference in their community may be faced with no job at all or a job under a corporation like Sinclair Broadcasting (who own 193 channels, enough to reach 39% of all American homes), which forces local news anchors to repeat conservative viewpoints verbatim from a script.
Even if your main worry continues to be the government instead of the corporations exerting increasing control and surveillance into our lives, what happens when the interests of the government and these mass media corporations align? What happens when CNN begins merging with a private military company whose best interests are starting a new war? What happens when the MSNBC board decides that tax-cuts would actually be beneficial to them? What happens when Jeff Bezos owns both the Washington Post and Amazon sponsored labor camps funded by contracts through the government?
All we have now is a promise from these media conglomerates that these scenarios won’t happen. Promises that news outlets are completely independent of its legal owners. Promises that these media companies have the American people’s best interests in mind. As long as these corporations are run explicitly for profit, these are promises that we can’t believe. Any quality news story that comes out is a miracle of a corrupt system, and these miracles are getting rarer and rarer. We must strive for the truly independent media this nation set out for, not controlled by the government or these money hungry corporations. We need a news media funded by the American people and for the American people.