Focusing blame Google and Facebook for the decline of in-depth news reporting and print journalism ignores the real and long-standing problems that lie at the heart of our troubled relationship with corporate media. Insisting that these companies should fund existing corporate media, or that we should solve the problem by allowing even more consolidation, would be a disaster for democracy.
Almost 20 years ago, I left private practice to work for a nonprofit law firm called Media Access Project (MAP). MAP focused on promoting policies designed to encourage the production of diverse news and views in the electronic media. When I joined MAP in July of 1999, we were facing a crisis of consolidation in the news industry, the rise of polarization, and the dissemination of “fake news” for both commercial and political purposes. Academics and pundits lamented the death of serious journalism, the tyranny of the ever faster news cycle, and the poisoning public discourse with increasingly coarse, angry, and vile commentary that pandered to people’s worst instincts. A new class of wildly popular and increasingly influential pundits sowed distrust for the “MSM” (“mainstream media”) and denounced anyone who disagreed with them as enemies of freedom. Meanwhile, the increasingly vertically and horizontally concentrated news industry cut costs by dramatically cutting reporting staff and reporting resources, and chased “synergies” by using the news to shamelessly cross-promote their entertainment and publishing products. News coverage was increasingly turning into “infotainment” (or, more politely, “soft news”). To the extent political coverage existed outside the polarized world of political punditry, it was reduced from genuine analysis to “horse race” coverage. No one in the news, it seemed, wanted to discuss actual substance – only which political party or politician was “winning” or “losing.” Even worse, a new cottage industry emerged to create and promote “fake news” in the form of Video News Releases and national syndicated broadcasts designed to appear both local and live.
Small wonder that audiences for news increasingly declined, and distrust of the media reached historic levels. To make matters even worse, the “cure” proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was to relax the remaining broadcast ownership rules, inviting further consolidation. Only by increasing consolidation, the industry argued, could the news industry survive in the face of fragmenting audiences, emerging competition from the internet, and declining newspaper revenues.
That was back in the late 1990s and early 00s. To quote Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again.” Except this time, instead of blaming “the internet” and the public’s supposed lack of interest in real news, people now blame Google and Facebook. Why? Because they are big. Because they derive their revenue from digital advertising at a time when print journalism has seen revenue from classified advertising drop precipitously low. Because “Google and Facebook, we hates it precious!,” and one should never miss an opportunity to link a problem to Google and Facebook and proclaim “delenda est!” Likewise, the proposed remedies have a very familiar feel. Allow the news media to consolidate further by relaxing the FCC ownership rules and creating exemptions to existing antitrust law, and/or preserve their historic revenue stream from classified ads (either by destroying Google and Facebook or making them pay tribute to existing media companies). These solutions have particular appeal to incumbent publishers, as they simultaneously absolve the existing media of any responsibility for the current state of journalism and cement the dominance of the existing corporate media giants.
It is precisely because the stakes are so high, however, that we need to look with extreme skepticism at proposals primarily designed to prop up the current consolidated and dysfunctional media landscape. If we want to address the very real problems created by a dysfunctional media, we need to separate which of these problems can properly be attributed to dominant platforms and which to structural problems in the traditional news industry. Additionally, legitimate fears of the ability of dominant platforms to act as gatekeepers, or concerns about their outsized influence on the economics of news production and dissemination, should not justify solutions that destroy the extremely important role these platforms have played – and continue to play – in civic engagement and enhancing the creation of new and independent outlets for news.