This post originally appeared at Benton Foundation.
I believe the American people got pretty much the 2016 presidential campaign coverage that Big Cable and Big Broadcasters wanted us to have. The elections made Big Media piles of money, required nothing from them in the way of resource-intensive investigative journalism and were aimed spot-on to entertain, not to inform, us. Our civic dialogue descended into the gutter, literally, and politics turned into one big reality show extravaganza with little connection to the real business of democracy.
And don’t think this was a one-time aberration. Without some serious changes to how our democracy conducts its civic dialogue, we can expect more of the same. 2016 is very likely the new norm.
If it weren’t so pitiful, it would be almost humorous to watch media “analyze” its 2016 campaign coverage. Much of their internal critique boils down to asking how they got the polls so wrong. I thought pollsters were supposed to do polling and journalists were supposed to do journalism, but it turns out much of journalism’s spending on the campaign went to financing polls, sometimes daily, to measure which candidate was up and which was down. The network news would blast “Breaking News” every night about some poll, somewhere, that showed some demographic breaking this way or that. The issues? “Oh, time for a commercial.”
Some of the better self-analysis admitted that maybe the press ignored the Rust Belt and rural America. Well… yeah. But how about media’s inattention to all the many serious issues and pinning the candidates down on how they’d meet the challenges the country confronts? What does “replace Obamacare” mean, Mr. Trump? How do you enforce that Syrian no-fly zone, Secretary Clinton? Climate change? Well, prime time can’t cover every issue, can it? Especially when so much of every hour is devoted to commercial advertisements. CBS chief honcho Les Moonves was at least candid about it: “It [the Trump candidacy] may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he told the investment community.
You see, this election was not about bringing candidates to voters, nor about bringing voters to better understand the candidates. It was about bringing citizens — you and me — to advertisers. It was the biggest commercial mega-show of all time. Our credibility as a nation knowing how to practice the art of self-government and how to chart a wise passage to the future suffered a body blow from which it may not recover.
What’s absent here is media founded on reliable public information, aka as journalism. I won’t repeat at length here what I’ve written about so many times, but we have permitted our media to inflict unprecedented harm on the common good. With its never-ending consolidation, buying up of community outlets, closing newsrooms, firing journalists (we’ve lost maybe half of our newsroom employees since 2000), Big Media has failed its obligation to sustain a vibrant public discourse. This past year will be remembered more for fat pigs, little hands, ugly people and threats of jailing candidates than it will be for anything approaching a respectable discussion about issues that imperil our future.
We can’t just blame media, because it has been wildly wrong-headed public policy that permitted Big Media to become such a democracy-constricting giant in the first place. Broadcast licensees have been relieved of almost all the obligations they once had to advance the public interest, and both Congress and the Federal Communications Commission created the foundation for the last 20 years of media merger mania. Lobbyists awash in cash, candidates looking under every rock for campaign contributions and regulators grown too close to the industries they are supposed to oversee have undermined and very nearly destroyed our political and civic dialogue. Someone remarked a few years ago that this dialogue had been seriously “dumbed-down.” Now the question is if that dialogue is dead.
But I’m not giving up. And I hope you won’t either. Let’s begin by realizing what is at stake here. Then talk about it, write about it, organize ourselves, make an issue of it, in our communities and workplaces and everywhere we can. The odds were against network neutrality — but the people spoke, we won, and took a long step toward keeping the internet open. The odds heavily favored the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger — but the people spoke, we won and showed it is possible that citizens working at the grass roots do indeed have the power to stop merger mania. And President-elect Trump has already said he opposes the newly proposed AT&T-Time Warner deal. So let’s build on whatever we can find to build on.
How do we hold the powerful accountable when media decimates its Washington, statehouse and overseas bureaus? How do we dig up the difficult-to-unearth facts when reporters are spread so thin? And, importantly, how do we free journalism from the Wall Street-Madison Avenue mentality that subordinates news to the bottom line? Information is coin of the realm if a society is to be self-governing; it is a public good that must be nourished and spread over the land. If the media industry itself is not interested in making this happen, then we must have an urgent national discussion to make it happen in spite of Big Media.
I’m not given to rhetorical extravagance, but I’ll say this: Big Media is strangling our democracy, and it can only get worse on its present course. It’s “wake up” time in America.