In the aftermath of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, perhaps we should reflect on how we went from our first African-American president to Donald Trump, whose recent racist rant directed at Haiti and all of Africa has once again cast our president as a white supremacist in the eyes of the world.
Those remarks followed on President Trump’s controversial response to last year’s Nazi rally and torchlight parade in Charlottesville, on the hallowed grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. Over that weekend, an anti-Nazi protester was mowed down by an apparent white supremacist who drove his vehicle into a crowd. Later in the day, two Virginia state troopers were killed when their helicopter crashed accidentally.
“This represents a turning point for the people of this country,” said KKK leader David Duke during the rally. “We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.”
The president cast the violent turn of events as one where the Nazis and their opponents were morally equivalent because there was hate “on many sides.” Organizers of the “alt-right” march were heartened by the president’s refusal to condemn them and wrote in their Daily Stormer that it was a clear sign that he was in their corner.
News versus infotainment
Our nation is deeply and bitterly polarized. It is increasingly unlikely we can move forward collectively as a nation because we have been torn asunder, armed with competing news narratives. Our news is now a melange of social-media echo chamber and media outlets pitching us what they think we want to read, with confirmation-bias analytics as their guide. It's a perennial cyber-war, one that can only end when the other side is totally annihilated with a flash and a bang. Our past ignorance digs us in ever deeper.
This collapse of civility has come with the loss of a national common fact-pattern on which we can debate the issues of our day. To a large degree it is the consequence of a multinational corporate news media complex that has decimated independent local news coverage in the pursuit of profit over the public interest. In their quest for global domination and saturation they have been abetted by the Federal Communications Commission and a Congress that (at least to some degree) they bought and paid for.
Public trust and corporate plunder
The airwaves and radio frequencies are a public asset that were originally licensed to broadcast companies as a conditional public trust that could be revoked if those companies operated only in their own self-interest. They were subject to heavy regulation in exchange for access to these lucrative platforms that brought them into every American home.
Here was the deal: Broadcast corporations were required to provide local news and information that was in the public interest. Under the Equal Time Doctrine they had to make an effort to provide equal time to political candidates. When covering controversial issues they had to comply with the Fairness Doctrine, which mandated they provide balanced and fair coverage.
Also baked into FCC laws and regulations was the precept that the concentration of ownership of newspapers, TV and radio stations by monopolies posed a threat to democracy. But in waves of bipartisan media and telecom deregulation, especially under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the media giants got their way and the public’s interest was sold out.
Exit local news; enter aggregated free content
No doubt the advances in communication technologies have radically altered the journalistic landscape and created a crisis for the old newspaper and broadcast journalism business model. According to a recent Pew Center report, over the last few years the nation’s overall newsroom workforce experienced its sharpest decline since 2009.
"According to the American Society of News Editors’ Newsroom Employment Census, after falling 6% in 2012 and 3% in 2013, overall newsroom employment was down 10% in 2014 – the most recent year for which figures are available – to 32,900,” reports Pew. “Between 1994 and 2014, the profession has shed over 20,000 jobs, representing a 39% decline.”
In November the Columbia Journalism Review, citing the Bureau of Labor Statistic, reported that over the last 15 years, more than half the jobs in the news industry had disappeared. In January 2001, the industry employed 411,800 people. By September 2016, that number had plummeted to 173,709.
Between 1981 and 2014 the nation went from 1,730 newspapers to 1,331. According to the website Newspaper Death Watch that decline continues, not just in terms of newspapers closing down altogether, but in reporters having their pay cut by double digits and being forced to take furloughs so their publisher can keep them employed while bringing down labor costs.
At the same time, decades of influence peddling and millions of dollars in campaign contributions paid off, as the public airwaves increasingly became more like privately held real estate. Make no mistake, this betrayal of the public trust has been bipartisan, enabled by a revolving door between government and industry.
The golden revolving door
Take Ajit Pai, a former top lawyer for Verizon whom Trump appointed as chair of the FCC. In Pai’s career he cashed in his service as a government lawyer and regulator in service to the same kinds of media conglomerates he used to regulate. He was first appointed to the FCC by Barack Obama. It was Pai who led the charge to end net neutrality, which will allow the same corporatist interests Pai had served to throttle the speed of the internet as they see fit.
Back in 2004, the late New York Times columnist William Safire foresaw the long shadow of media consolidation clearly:
The reason given by giants to merge with other giants is to compete more efficiently with other enlarging conglomerates. The growing danger, however, is that media giants are becoming fewer as they get bigger. The assurance given is "look at those independent Internet Web sites that compete with us" — but all the largest Web sites are owned by the giants.
How are the media covering their contraction? ... Much of the coverage is "gee-whiz, which personality will be top dog, which investors will profit and which giant will go bust?"
But the message in this latest potential merger is not about a clash of media megalomaniacs, nor about a conspiracy driven by "special interests." The issue is this: As technology changes, how do we better protect the competition that keeps us free and different?
You don’t have to be a populist to want to stop this rush by ever-fewer entities to dominate both the content and the conduit of what we see and hear and write and say.
Is it merely coincidental that this breathtaking concentration of corporate media power comes as the well-documented concentration of wealth continues to accelerate in this country?
As journalism jobs disappear, and pay and benefits erode for those who continue to work in the field, the consolidation of the news media industry continues to accelerate, with multimillion-dollar payouts for the architects of journalism’s downsizing.
The Tribune-Sinclair affair
There’s no better example of the anti-democratic corporate news media consolidation than the pending deal between Tribune Media and Sinclair Broadcast Group. Last year Sinclair announced it had agreed to buy Tribune for $3.9 billion, securing access to more than 70 percent of American households, with local stations in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
Back in 2004, it was Sinclair that planned to pre-empt regular programming two weeks before the November presidential election to air a “documentary” that accused Sen. John Kerry, then the Democratic nominee for president, of betraying American prisoners during the Vietnam War. Sinclair has stations in swing states like Ohio, Florida, Iowa and Wisconsin, although at the time it only reached 24 percent of U.S. television households.
But the company's bold move of going to air with the anti-Kerry hit piece, which had already been rejected by the major networks, sparked a firestorm. More than 100 Democrats in Congress asked the FCC to step in and review Sinclair’s decision. The Democratic National Committee filed a formal complaint with the Federal Elections Commission and activists launched a shareholder action against Sinclair. Ultimately, after significant pushback, the right-wing broadcaster aired only excerpts of the Kerry-bashing film.
A few months earlier Sinclair had ordered seven of its ABC-affiliated stations not to air an episode of "Nightline" that carried the names of American soldiers killed in Iraq because the company did “not believe such political statements should be disguised as news content.”
The New York Times reported that during the 2016 election the broadcaster developed an alliance with the Trump campaign. “More recently Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and now a senior adviser in the White House, said at a meeting with business executives that the Trump campaign had reached an agreement with Sinclair to give more access to Mr. Trump and the campaign under the condition that the interviews be broadcast without commentary on the company’s affiliates, according to two people who had attended the meeting but were not authorized to discuss it,” the Times reported. “Taped in Sinclair’s Washington bureau, the interviews with Mr. Trump were broadcast across several swing states.”
Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner who now advises Common Cause, has described Sinclair as “the most dangerous company most Americans haven’t heard of.” Copps took specific aim at the right-wing broadcaster's practice of requiring local stations to carry commentaries from former Trump White House official Boris Epshteyn.
“So much for community news. So much for real news. So much for journalism. So much for fair and open media,” Copps said. “No one company should have such power over the news and information that citizens must have.”
According to SEC documents, the Sinclair-Tribune deal will pay Tribune’s interim CEO Peter Kern $3.25 million to “reward his efforts” when the deal goes through this year. Also on Tribune’s board of directors is New York Public Radio’s president and CEO Laura Walker, whose compensation for running the NPR affiliate WNYC, along with her Tribune post, earn her $1 million a year, according to the New York Times.
Flying blind without local reporting
Over the arc of American history, it was a robust local press that often reported the stories about those in society who were the most marginal and vulnerable to exploitation. So much of Dr. King’s work that moved the nation and the world was documented by an army of local newspaper and broadcast journalists in the places where he preached and protested. Our situational awareness of local conditions was made possible by these journalists and their outlets, now largely extinct.
This local news reporting void, which has only grown worse over time, created the blind spot that caused the national corporate news media to miss the widespread economic decline of Main Street America that Donald Trump cynically exploited. The Federal Reserve and the Clinton campaign hailed the aggregate unemployment data as a sign of a robust economy. But voters don’t live in the aggregate.
When we honor Dr. King, we must remember that for him the American story was not all about race.
During King’s last year, marked by the April 4, 1967, speech he gave at Riverside Church in New York, his critique of America remains as subversive now as it was then. He railed against the obscenity of America’s military spending and the continued prosecution of the Vietnam War. He decried the nation’s vast wealth and income disparity.
Usually, our corporate news media likes to keep the King remembrance focused on civil rights and racial progress. It's much less threatening to the established order that way.
“We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” King said. “We must rapidly begin … the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
What would Dr. King find today? America’s wealth and income gap has grown exponentially, reaching its highest since 1928 and continuing to accelerate. “In 1928, the top 1% of families received 23.9% of all pretax income, while the bottom 90% received 50.7%,” according to the Pew Research Center. “But the Depression and World War II dramatically reshaped the nation’s income distribution: By 1944 the top 1%’s share was down to 11.3%, while the bottom 90% were receiving 67.5%, levels that would remain more or less constant for the next three decades.”
Beginning in the mid- to late 1970s, the Pew analysis continues, "the uppermost tier’s income share began rising dramatically, while that of the bottom 90% started to fall.”
By 2015, the average annual income for the bottom 90 percent of American households was $34,074 while the average income for the top one percent was $1.36 million, according to a research paper by Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1968, before King was killed, he organized the Poor People’s Campaign, meant to dramatize the plight of the nation’s impoverished people of all races. After his death, Dr. Ralph Abernathy took over the national crusade, but its impact was muted and its mission soon forgotten. In the early 1970s the United States had about 25 million poor people; by 2014 that number had nearly doubled. What side of the Sinclair-Tribune deal do you think Dr. King would be on?