In a recent Twitter survey I conducted, nearly 90% of people rated their trust in mainstream media as either “very low” or “low.” And is it any surprise? Ever-mounting media consolidation has narrowed the perspectives the public is privy to, ownership and funding of these corporations are riddled with conflicts of interest, crucial stories keep suspiciously getting buried, and big tech companies are outright censoring and demonetizing independent outlets trying to break through the noise. The media is supposed to function as a power check — and a means of arming us with vital information for shaping the society we want to live in. It’s never been a more important industry. And it’s never been more at risk. In this series, I’ll tackle each factor threatening the media’s ability to serve our democracy — with input from journalists, media critics and professors, and other experts.
Earlier in April, I kicked off this series with a piece about the problematic history of media consolidation. Read Part 1 here.
“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” A. J. Liebling, 1960
When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million in 2013, he made a written promise to employees: “We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.” It was an admirable commitment, but as they say, actions speak louder than words. Here are a few editorial decisions that were made in the years following that acquisition:
The Post ordered “no pardon” for whistleblower Edward Snowden — after not only using him as a source for its groundbreaking NSA stories but then accepting a Pulitzer for that series.
One month after the editorial board demanded that Snowden’s leaks on U.S. spying come to a halt, Amazon became a beneficiary of that spying when it won a contract to host CIA data. The Post refused to provide disclosure of this when covering the CIA.
WaPo stories about Uber routinely failed to disclose that its owner, Bezos, had billions of dollars worth of stock in the car-sharing company.
Closely following the 2016 presidential election, the Post promoted research by the ultra-shady anonymous group PropOrNot, which unjustifiably blacklisted hundreds of independent news sites, denouncing them as Russian agents or assets. (Ironically, PropOrNot’s “fake news” detection system later lost credibility and was deemed to be fake news itself. The WaPo quickly distanced itself from the operation.)
At the end of 2016, The Washington Post falsely reported that Russian hackers penetrated a U.S. electricity grid. In actuality, Burlington Electric had searched its computers and found malware on a laptop that was not connected to the grid, but the Post never bothered to contact the Vermont utility provider before publishing the piece. After Burlington Electric provided a statement clarifying what happened, the Post updated the headline — but the revised headline still claimed Russian hackers were responsible.
Perspective: Toxic media destroys democracy. Here’s what to do about it. https://t.co/BhAPqLlxwg
— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) December 27, 2020
That’s not at all to say that these occasional missteps were Bezos’ fault, nor that there weren’t any positive outcomes from that acquisition as well. At the time that Bezos purchased The Washington Post, it had been facing years of declining revenues. His capital allowed the company to drastically increase staff, and within three years, become profitable again while doubling its Web traffic. That’s no small feat in today’s journalistic apocalypse. But while billionaires who buy legacy newspapers are often presented as benevolent saviors of a dying industry, might it be naive to assume these are really just acts of civic charity with no invisible strings attached? What’s stopping these moguls from using publications as a mouthpiece to promote their own personal interests, amplifying or burying stories accordingly?
This isn’t just an unfounded fear — owners can, and sometimes do, meddle. In 2019, former New York City mayor and Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Michael Bloomberg announced he’d be running in the presidential race — and sent a memo to 2,700 Bloomberg journalists prohibiting them from doing any investigative stories on him or his campaign. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who quietly snapped up The Las Vegas Review-Journal for $140 million in 2015, is also often cited as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a rich and powerful man owns a prominent newspaper. When Adelson requested that Review-Journal reporters start monitoring the judge handling a lawsuit threatening his casinos, it became pretty clear that he planned to use the newspaper to further his own agenda.
“At a minimum, the outlet should be completely transparent and reveal these conflicts of interest — in Adelson’s case, his casino and real estate developments, local public subsidies in support of these projects, lawsuits in which he was embroiled — where there’s a danger of news being distorted in ways that could benefit the owner at the public’s expense,” Rodney Benson — a sociologist and NYU professor of media, culture, and communication — told me in an interview. “And the fact that an increasing number of owners, whether individuals or corporations, now come not from news media but from Silicon Valley and other industries means that the threat of conflicts of interest is only going to grow.”
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