“The only amount of power that a billionaire should have over a paper they own is zero.” So says Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times, author of “Winners Take All.” “Members of a new Gilded Age are again in control of many of the country’s most venerable media outlets,” The New York Times reports, in the tradition of William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and Henry Luce.
It is an odd complaint. The media landscape is dominated by six conglomerates: AT&T, Comcast, CBS, Disney, Viacom, and 21st Century Fox. This represents only a slight reshuffling of the deck chairs since 2011, when 232 media executives controlled roughly 90 percent of America’s media diet.
If NBC News impeded Ronan Farrow’s blockbuster reporting on the Harvey Weinstein scandal (which the network denies), what does that say about corporate domination of the news? If disgraced former CBS CEO Les Moonves could declare coverage of the 2016 campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” what does that say about the status quo?
Striking that a news story painting tech entrepreneurs as among the controversial new media moguls fails to observe that companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter are among the only viable competitors to America’s highly consolidated media sector (and arguably pose greater threats to traditional local media). Why are these companies less problematic than their owners?
A close reading of The New York Times coverage suggests an answer. Those in and around the profession of journalism do not really care who owns media companies or platforms. Rather, they care very much about “journalistic independence,” which is a lofty term synonymous with absentee ownership. Anyone who has rented from an absentee landlord probably has stories to tell about how well this arrangement works.
Nevertheless, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is lauded for not “meddling in the news or the editorial operations of The Washington Post.” Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, “has earned similarly high marks for her work at The Atlantic over the last year.” And Patrick Soon-Shiong, like Lord Bezos, gets plaudits in the story, not only for promising editorial independence, but also for “investing” in the Los Angeles Times (as opposed to the horrified response to past rumors that the Koch brothers were interested in the paper).
Giving people money without much accountability turns out to be as virtuous in journalism as many seem to think it is in politics.
Conversely, the villains in this narrative are the dilettantes who dare to presume that ownership might have its privileges. The decision by Facebook billionaire Chris Hughes to update The New Republic for the digital age resulted in a mass walkout by the staff, perhaps the most free-market move most of them ever made. Casino owner Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of The Las Vegas Review-Journal, while occasionally raising legitimate conflict-of-interest issues, roiled the staff mostly because of his Republican politics.
Perhaps worst of all, conservative billionaire Joe Ricketts is to be condemned for shutting down two Chicago media outlets after their staffs voted to unionize. Given the precarious financial position in which most non-conglomerate media finds itself in the internet age, perhaps the scribes for such outlets might have contemplated taking a less adversarial relationship with new ownership from jump street.
The unionization examples, however, are particularly enlightening insofar as they make explicit the guild mentality, which is merely implicit in the other examples. Elite journalism seems to be rife with people who believe they are entitled to pursue their own agenda with minimal guidance or editorial direction from ownership. The trend seems to be that reporters believe they should be running the institutions at which they toil.
Who runs The Atlantic when triggered staffers can get a writer as talented as Kevin Williamson fired before he even logs a byline? Who runs The New York Times when editors feel compelled to conduct a series of “town meetings” over the hiring of columnists who discomfit reporters in the newsroom? Who runs The New Yorker when internal complaints ultimately dictate who gets invited to conferences the magazine sponsors?
The above examples share an obvious common thread: progressive journalists obsessed with keeping their institutions cleansed of all but the most anodyne varieties of non-leftist influence. After all, aspiring journalists at the top schools have a burgeoning desire to do good, to make the world a better place.
Why do smart people go into jobs as journalists? I think by far the main motivation is to make the world a better place.When you’re young, successful in school, and you’ve been achieving and have survived typically four years of liberal arts education at a good university and *totally* empathize with the downtrodden of the world, you want to do something about it.
Such is the gentrified, post-Watergate progressive groupthink of modern journalism. Most of those involved went to institutions where they could have learned that Noam Chomsky would call it manufacturing consent. Because of this culture, no one is shocked that only 7 percent of journalists identify as Republican.
Accordingly, the way the Sulzberger family has run The New York Times apparently makes it a bulwark of democracy, while the way Julian Sinclair Smith’s family has run the Sinclair Broadcast Group makes it a threat to the republic.
Journalists believe they know how to make the world a better place. They just want people who have run enormously successful businesses providing valuable goods and services to give them trucks full of money and stay out of their way.