While the majority of reporters identify as Democrats, conservatives have done a masterful job of gaining increasing control of the media. That changes the news we all read.
The stories that get told have a lot to do with who can afford to work in media. Despite the constant “liberal media” refrain in conservative circles, what’s actually happened in the last 20 years is that American media has become increasingly owned by conservatives. To the extent that a bias exists in mainstream media, it’s certainly an urban bias thanks to the shutdown or massive downsizing of local and regional papers throughout the country. And, as I pointed out in part three of this series, there’s a certain amount of bias that goes along with plummeting wages in journalism. But while the vast majority of editors and reporters may identify as Democrats, their employers are conservative, more often than not. The most high-profile example this year is Sinclair Media, an avowedly conservative organization that, thanks to an unprecedented relaxing of FCC rules, may soon control the local news in 72 percent of American homes.
While clear-cut bias tends to work in favor of right-wing sites, winning over readers and advertisers, mainstream media is in a no-win situation wherein it aims for objectivity but gets accused of liberal bias no matter what. A recent Pew study of American news consumption found that while Democrats in general are more trusting of the national media and less prone to see it as biased than Republicans, left-leaning progressive Democrats are as likely as Republicans to call the media biased (just in the other direction). As the conservative media industry has grown, it has pushed the mainstream media to the right, leaving progressive outlets, which rarely attract the sort of big-fish donors that right-wing sites do, largely out in the cold. (Notable exceptions are Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media, which runs The Intercept and Topics newsletter; and The Young Turks, a progressive digital news outlet, which raised $20 million in venture funding this year.)
Ironically, Trump may have changed some of this. Its greatest success—seeding dissent among Democrats and propelling a wholly unsuitable candidate to victory—may bring about conservative media’s greatest challenge: the awakening of America’s progressives. Most progressive news organizations saw what has come to be known as the “Trump bump” in donations over the past year, and many are figuring out smart ways to sustain that bump and (finally!) engage readers and move past the advertising model.
All roads lead to Rush and Rupert
The story of the modern conservative movement is as much a media story as a politics story. Since the 1980s, access to and control of media has been a key tool to separating conservative audiences from the pack and deepening partisan divisions to the point where anything that’s not published by a conservative outlet can be dismissed as “fake” or “liberal.”
To grasp the current situation you have to understand the rise of conservative media, which began in earnest in the late 1980s with the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine—a 1949 FCC rule that required broadcasters to cover controversial topics of public interest and to present contrasting views on those topics. That opened the floodgates for conservative talk radio, where the bloated red mugs of Rush Limbaugh or Alex Jones could spew all manner of conspiracy theories and hatred, unfettered. Then Rupert Murdoch took that model and built a TV network, Fox News, around it. If you started watching news any time past Fox’s launch in 1996 you probably don’t remember how tame and serious, distinguished even, the news once was. With its opinionated hosts and emotional pitch, Fox offered something completely new and viewers ate it up. That wasn’t just blind luck, of course. By the time he started Fox News in 1996, Murdoch had been a media mogul for a good two decades. He founded the supermarket tabloid The Star in the early 1970s, bought the New York Post in 1976, and became a U.S. citizen in the 80s so he could start buying up television stations. He bought an interest in 20th Century Fox (and eventually bought out the whole thing), six TV stations, and the book publisher Harper Collins. In the early 1990s he concentrated on Britain, starting the British broadcaster BSkyB, now Sky UK, the UK’s largest private broadcaster, in 1990, before coming back to the U.S. to start The Weekly Standard and then Fox News.
By 2007, Murdoch had purchased Dow Jones, adding The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s Magazine, Smart Money and a handful of other outlets to his portfolio and Fox was producing nine of the top 10 most-watched cable news shows, prompting audience development execs at all the networks to look at it, shrug, and give the people what they seemed to want: more shouting.
The meteoric rise of Breitbart
Also in 2007, conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart decided the world needed a right-leaning version of The Huffington Post and launched Breitbart News as a site that would be “unapologetically pro-freedom and pro-Israel.” Its biggest competitor at the time was NewsMax, a media company that was founded in 1998 and is still around today, boasting 14 million visitors a month to its site, 5.5 million opt-in newsletter subscribers and 30 million viewers through its TV channel, the vast majority of them Baby Boomers. Although you may have never heard of NewsMax (I hadn’t, before researching this series), you may have seen founder and long-time Trump friend Christopher Ruddy on various cable news shows this year. It was Ruddy who told PBS News Hour’s Judy Woodruff last summer that Trump was considering firing Robert Mueller. Republican fundraisers are very familiar with NewsMax; more than half of its readers have made political donations. In a 2011 New York Times profile, Ruddy bragged: “Every major Republican committee has advertised at one point or another using our e-mails or websites. We’re really the 800-pound gorilla if you want to reach Republican donors in the country. We’ve got the list.”
Rather than compete directly with Fox News or NewsMax on the news front, Breitbart went straight for the culture wars. “Politics,” he often said, “is downstream from culture. I want to change the cultural narrative.” In doing so, he hoped to have greater influence over politics than he would have by focusing directly on legislation or any particular candidate. As conservative Bethany Mandel pointed out in an op-ed for NBC News, “That was why, when he started expanding Breitbart.com beyond publishing news wire stories, his focus wasn’t politics, but liberals’ stranglehold on Hollywood, journalism, academia and government. Andrew understood that changing the progressive bent of those mechanisms for influencing public opinion would be more effective means for achieving long-term conservative victories than supporting particular politicians or candidates.”
Around the same time that Andrew Breitbart was getting Breitbart News up and running, Steve Bannon was busy making various conservative documentaries in an effort to become the Michael Moore of the right. The two met and became fast friends, so when Breitbart met billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah in 2011 at a conference organized by the Club for Growth, a conservative group, he quickly introduced them to Bannon. Bannon and Breitbart worked up a growth strategy for Breitbart News that would have the site opening regional outposts every few months, and the Mercers agreed to throw $10 million at the plan provided Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs staffer, was put on the board.
It was also in 2011 that Bannon met Bloomberg Business Review reporter Josh Green (whose 2017 book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency shot up the bestsellers list). In a recent interview on Breitbart radio, Green said this about his initial meeting with Bannon: “What had really interested me about Bannon and what led to the big cover story I did about Bannon in BusinessWeek in 2015 was this elaborate plot that he had conceived with Peter Schweizer, with Breitbart, to take down Hillary Clinton—who we all knew, even back then, was going to be the Democratic nominee. Bannon’s analysis of where she was vulnerable and how conservatives could take advantage of that, I thought was really true because I covered Clinton’s campaign very deeply in 2007 and 2008, so I felt like I had a good feel for Clinton’s vulnerabilities and honing in on the financial relationships, the buck-raking, the speeches to Wall Street, that sort of thing. I had always thought that is where she was most vulnerable. Steve and Peter Schweizer had figured that out, too, and I thought that warranted a profile.”
The following year, Andrew Breitbart died suddenly of a heart attack, and Bannon was made the site’s executive chairman, overseeing content. He moved quickly to execute his long-game attack on Clinton, to collapse the three arms of Breitbart—Big Hollywood, Big Government, and Big Journalism—into Breitbart News, and to create what he later described as a “platform for the alt-right,” a move that Breitbart’s friends have since argued would not have been what he wanted. After the announcement of Bannon’s departure from Breitbart this year, former Big Journalism editor Dana Loesch said, “I’m thrilled that Bannon is leaving Breitbart and I hope he’s really leaving. He took an amazing, groundbreaking media entity that focused on battling bias in media, Hollywood, and academia, and turned it into a DC-insider apparatus to propel him to a position of greater influence.”
The battle for local TV news
If you’re under the age of 40 and college-educated, you may have only seen local news via bloopers clips on YouTube. But the vast majority of the country still gets most of its information from these broadcasts. In a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 46 percent of Americans said they often get news from local TV, compared with 31 percent for cable and 20 percent for print newspapers. Local news is also more heavily consumed by lower-income, less educated Americans, according to Pew.
And local newscasts receive the lion’s share of political ad dollars. Seven of the largest publicly held local TV station companies—Tribune, Nexstar, Sinclair, Tegna, Gray, Media General and Scripps—report political advertising revenues separately from other types of revenues in their SEC filings. In 2016, these seven reported a total of $843 million in political advertising revenue.
Last year, Sinclair announced its intention to buy Tribune in a $3.9 billion merger that would give it control over the local news broadcasts in 72 percent of American homes. Under previous FCC rules, Sinclair would have had to sell off some stations after the merger to keep it from controlling more than 39 percent of the market. But after various changes made in November 2017 that requirement has been loosened. Regulations changed at the FCC’s November meeting include a lifting of the ban on a media company owning both a TV news station and a newspaper in the same market, on owning a radio station and TV station in the same market, and on owning more than one station in a single market. The FCC also voted along party lines to reinstate the “discount” for UHF channels (higher frequency channels), which means such channels (most of both Sinclair’s and Tribune’s channels are UHF) would only be counted at half of their actual market size for purposes of calculating whether the company has reached the 39 percent cap. After the November meeting, Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said at a news conference: “We have engaged in a series of media policy changes at this agency that are striking in the one thing that they have in common: They are all custom-built for a company called Sinclair Broadcasting.” [note: the company’s name is Sinclair Broadcast Group]
The new rules are expected to take effect next month, although the FCC does reserve the right to evaluate new mergers on a case-by-case basis. Meanwhile, in December, the Federal Communications Commission’s Enforcement Bureau slapped Sinclair with a $13.4 million fine for failing to disclose that segments its stations presented as news were actually sponsored content, paid for by the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. If the merger goes through, Sinclair will dominate several important primary markets in the 2020 presidential race, including Des Moines, Iowa; Portland, Maine (a station that also covers parts of New Hampshire); multiple parts of South Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia.
If this all makes you feel as though the media war has been won, and not for your side, take heart: Progressive media has a long history in this country, and it’s making a comeback, as we’ll see in the fifth and final installment of this series.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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