“Fake” News Isn’t Only Issue Facing Media and Our Democracy

So-called "fake" news isn't the only issue people should be concerned about with respect to the media. Even real news has an "infotainment" quality that lends itself to a herd mentality and the corporate mergers that consolidate decision-making in distant corporate HQ that care more about profit and dividends than covering city hall or the school board.

I’m alarmed at the state of our news. Fake news, “real” news, just about all news–the made-up stuff that comes without corroboration and from God knows where; the infotainment masquerading as news from the media outlets that should know better; and the tweets and mistruths that spew forth daily from the White House that attempt, with considerable success, to determine what the rest of us will talk about on that particular day.

Don’t get me wrong: there is still good news reporting to be had. And there are still great newspapers, public broadcasting, and community media that have unearthed news about the current political climate that would not otherwise have seen the light of day. Hats off to them! But too many other media enterprises are just coattail riders, uninterested in developing their own news, and dramatically and purposely down-sized from what once they were. And, to be fair, even those doing

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 25: Michael J. Copps, Federal Communications Commission commissioner, during the House Energy Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet hearing on the national broadband plan. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

some of the really good work focus too much on one story and not enough on other developments that are critically important to keeping a self-governing society informed.

There are plenty of culprits. We all know about fake news and bots. Then there is the fake news from the top. Donald Trump has mastered the “art” of dominating the news more than any President before him, including such great communicators as FDR, JFK, and Ronald Reagan. The current President trumps them all. It is Trump, more than anybody, who sets the agenda for the daily news cycle. Pillory Jeff Sessions one day and excoriate NFL players the next. If one pre-dawn tweet doesn’t go immediately viral, tweet another castigating immigrants or a foreign leader Trump is trying to intimidate that particular day. It’s all designed to distract and distort, to crowd out other, more damaging (to him) stories—and, let’s be frank, it’s worked pretty well for him. Perhaps this “talent” will fade as the going gets tougher and the ditch gets deeper for the President, but thus far his use of the internet surpasses FDR’s efficacy with radio and JFK’s with television.

So every tweet becomes “breaking news” and TV panels of wizards and wise men and women are instantaneously convened to tell us ad nauseum what it really means. Journalists who should be out investigating real stories affecting real people find themselves talking, writing, and tweeting about the same thing—until the next day brings forth another over-heated communiqué from the Commander-in-Chief. So the wheel turns, day after agonizing day.

Maybe things would be different if we hadn’t lost one-third to one-half of our newsroom employees just since the year 2000. If unemployed journalists were walking their old beats holding power accountable instead of walking the streets looking for jobs, perhaps we wouldn’t be dug so deeply into the present disinformation hole.

Media industry consolidation dramatically diminished the world in which real journalism once thrived. After all, those multi-billion dollar media mergers have to be paid for, and the record is clear that the first place the media giants look to cut spending so they can pay off their debts and buy back their stock is…the newsroom. Results: shuttered or starved newsrooms across the land, laid-off journalists by the tens of thousands, important beats no longer covered, and communities not given a clue about what’s happening at the city council, the mayor’s office, the school board, even the state capital. Instead, we get news feeds written from distant corporate headquarters, and often with a decided corporate slant—because big media is, after all, corporatized media, marching to the unforgiving expectations of Wall Street and Madison Avenue.

Journalists lucky enough to still hold a job are forced to ply their craft in a dramatically changed, and I would say hostile, workplace. It’s not just Sinclair I am thinking about; for years, big media’s frenzied merger binge has been the driving force behind the wholesale elimination of community media, local journalism, diverse ownership, and independent viewpoints. Media consolidation is killing the news democracy requires.

I’m an admitted news junkie. I watch the network evening news, surf the cable shows (driving my lovely wife to distraction), and read multiple papers. I guess it’s habit now because really it’s all the same. One or two major stories sliced, diced and dished out by different people saying the same things night after night after night. It’s like nothing happened that day except the President’s latest questionable utterance. Usually, the one-minute BBC news summary on the internet has more diverse news-that-matters than the half-hour network broadcasts. It used to be, back in the supposedly quaint days of black and white 15-minute news programs, that the networks had news bureaus all over the place: London, Paris, Bonn, Rome, Tokyo, the list went on. I believe that in many ways we had better global news and information then than we have now. Absent an act of terror or natural disaster, we seldom hear about what’s actually happening overseas. The same goes for media bureaus in the capitals of our states. More laws by far are passed at the state level than by our strait-jacketed Congress, yet many bureaus have been shut down and, as a consequence, we know little to nothing about what’s going on there. And, believe me, the special interests have been having a grand time in those capitals gutting states’ powers that protect citizen and consumer interests.

The guiding purpose behind the establishment of the Federal Communications Commission was to provide public interest oversight to the media of the day in order for the American people to have access to news, information, and diverse viewpoints.  For years, radio and TV stations, with their licenses frequently up for renewal, knew they were expected to at least make a half-way credible effort to serve the public interest. That was then. Now they get their licenses renewed with seldom a question asked (it’s not called post-card renewal for nothing). Long-standing rules on the number of stations a corporation could own; guidelines to ensure localism, competition, and diversity; the whole idea of media serving the common good—all are gone because of big money influence and outlandish corporate lobbying, a compliant FCC, and a Congress in thrall to the powers-that-be. The end result is a media industry that employs profit-maximizing business models at the expense of covering news, airing diverse and independent programming, and otherwise serving the public interest.

The state of our media affects every issue the country confronts. If power is unaccountable, if corruption is allowed to hide beyond the reach of journalism, if important beats are ignored, tell me how will we ever get our country back on track.

It’s time to tackle this head-on. The FCC needs to instill basic public interest obligations on traditional media, instead of the current pell-mell rush to eliminate these necessary safeguards.

We urgently need to engage in a national conversation about the future of the internet and journalism. Why are there no models or incentives to encourage independent journalism online, and how about some pay-back from the social media giants who make billions on news that others develop?  And isn’t an open internet, with real net neutrality, crucial for a vibrant democratic dialogue?

How about more support for public broadcasting? (Other democracies do this; it’s not rocket science.)

Why not stop green-lighting every media merger, both traditional and online, that Big Media and Wall Street can dream up?

And for any reporters reading this, how about organizing yourselves to fight the forces decimating your craft? Risky?—probably. Necessary?—for sure.

Over time, a society deprived of real news and information will begin to make decisions that work against its better interests. Many (including me) would argue this has already happened. Dumbed-down corporate media encourages (maybe guarantees) a dumbed-down civic dialogue. We can’t afford that. An uninformed electorate is democracy’s real enemy.

Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC’s Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of “the public interest”; outreach to what he calls “non-traditional stakeholders” in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation’s media and telecommunications industries. In 2012, former Commissioner Copps joined Common Cause to lead its Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest.

This essay was first published by the Benton Foundation. Benton believes that communications policy—rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity—has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Communications-related Headlines is the only free, reliable, and non-partisan daily digest that curates and distributes news related to universal broadband, while connecting communications, democracy, and public interest issues.