Monday, October 24, 2022

Journalism’s Bad Bargain

U.S. legislation that lets media cartels collude is the wrong way to foster public-interest journalism 

By Sanjay Jolly and Timothy Karr

Yes, journalism is in crisis in the United States. That’s obvious to anyone observing the job losses and newspaper closures that have wreaked havoc on local news production over the past 20 years. But few of the lawmakers and lobbyists who claim they’re responding to this national emergency seem willing to focus relief efforts where they’re needed most.

Various proposals have gained momentum in Washington. Of these, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) — inspired in large part by Australia’s news media bargaining code — was recently voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support.

JCPA backers describe the legislation as an antitrust measure, but it’s a pro-cartel bill that ignores the fundamental problems faced by out-of-work and struggling journalists, and it does nothing for people in news deserts, those communities with few-to-no local-news outlets. Moreover, it doesn’t address the dearth of news outlets and reporters covering issues of concern to Black and Brown communities.

The JCPA’s supporters seem to believe that offering a convoluted mechanism for corporate handouts to profitable and consolidated media outlets will address the information needs of communities like these — but news deserts are the very places that these large chains routinely fail to serve.

Legislation for whom?
So what does the JCPA actually do? The legislation creates an exemption from antitrust laws, which would allow news publishers and broadcasters to coordinate and conduct joint negotiations with the two biggest tech platforms, Google and Meta. In other words, the JCPA would allow the news-media companies to form cartels and collude to extract higher payments when platforms host their content in any way.

The bill also sets forth an arcane set of rules for conducting these negotiations. Essentially, Congress is telling the platforms that they have to bargain with these new cartels, and if the two sides can’t come to an agreement on their own, they’ll be forced into a “baseball-style” arbitration, where each side submits a final offer and a panel made up of three lawyers chooses whichever offer they decide is more “fair.” But fair for whom?

Supporters of the JCPA, including its lead sponsor Sen. Amy Klobuchar,  believe that by creating otherwise-prohibited cartels and forcing Big Tech platforms to the negotiating table, media companies can generate enough new revenues to make journalism great again.

On its face, that sounds plausible (albeit complicated). But the whole thing falls apart on deeper scrutiny. Indeed, the case for the JCPA is built on a series of false assumptions, misleading conflations, bad economics and a fundamental misunderstanding of what and who needs support. 

At its core, the JCPA isn’t about sustaining a vibrant free press or protecting democracy or ensuring that ordinary people have access to vital information about their communities. Instead, it’s about big corporations getting Congress to help them shake down even bigger corporations so they can get a few extra bucks for their shareholders.

Unrepresented: those who need relief the most
The most vocal proponents of the JCPA fall roughly into one of three camps.

First, there are the media companies. Lobbyists representing the largest corporate publishers and broadcasters, such as Gannett (which owns about 1,000 newspapers nationwide), Sinclair Broadcast Group (which owns and operates more than 200 local TV stations) and the predatory hedge fund Alden Global Capital (which owns more than 200 newspapers) have been most active on Capitol Hill. These companies advocate for the JCPA primarily through their Washington trade groups, including the News Media Alliance and the National Association of Broadcasters.

This first camp’s interest in the JCPA is self-evident, as they stand to make tens of millions of dollars if the bill passes. The JCPA payout would provide an unneeded boost for profitable broadcasters in particular, at a time when the largest broadcast conglomerates have rebounded from the brief ad-market downturn caused by the COVID crisis to report billion-dollar revenues and a record-breaking season for midterm political-ad spending.

The second camp consists of people focused on antitrust and includes Sen. Klobuchar. She and advocates like the American Economic Liberties Project see Google and Meta as possessing far too much power, particularly in digital-advertising markets. They believe the JCPA will help level the playing field between the platforms and news-media companies. The interest this second camp has in the JCPA is less about journalism than it is about reining in Big Tech.

The third camp is a group of Republican lawmakers like Sen. Ted Cruz who want to stick it to the social-media companies for deplatforming Donald Trump and attempting to curb the spread of his Big Lie about the outcome of the 2020 election. There’s no real substance behind their argument beyond that. It has little to do with saving journalism — but Klobuchar is ignoring all of the red flags and rhetoric to preserve the bipartisan coalition needed to ensure the bill passes.

Lost in this mix are newsroom workers and the communities that have been hit hardest by the failed economics of news production. A growing number of communities across the country lack access to the high-quality local journalism they need to stay informed and participate in civic affairs. That is the heart of the journalism crisis. The financial and technological headwinds faced by for-profit (and in most cases still profitable) news chains are certainly relevant, but they do not in and of themselves present a problem in need of a public-policy solution.

Propping up cartels
By presenting the journalism crisis simply in terms of news companies’ lost revenues, JCPA proponents suggest that the government must prop up incumbent commercial publishers and broadcasters without considering whether this would help address communities’ information needs. In a strategic sleight of hand, the large news-media companies want us to conflate the public importance of local journalism with their own bottom lines. But what’s good for Gannett and Sinclair is not what’s good for America.

Local-accountability journalism — including coverage of city-hall beats and investigative reporting — is a public good that the commercial markets have been unable (or unwilling) to produce effectively or profitably. That’s because today’s local-news giants spent decades buying up local outlets, driven by the idea that consolidated ownership would create economies of scale and generate profits that could be extracted from local communities. Their buying sprees burdened many of these conglomerates with massive debts that they’ve had to service by laying off newsroom staff and downsizing daily editions.

While they once dominated the distribution of news and information in local markets, news chains were reluctant or slow to adapt to a digital world that opened up audiences to numerous other ways to engage with information, newsworthy or otherwise. These companies responded to these changes in consumption by cutting costs further or shuttering operations altogether. Between 2005 and 2020, the United States lost more than a quarter of its newspapers, and the number of newspaper-newsroom employees shrank by more than half.  

They’re often depicted solely as victims of the big, bad platforms, even though consolidated news-media companies have played their own part in the demise of their brand of local news. Ironically, the companies that stand to benefit most from the JCPA are the ones that have slashed news production while continuing to buy back stocks, go deeper into debt as they acquire more outlets, and use other financial gimmicks to enrich their owners, executives and shareholders.

Their self-inflicted wounds don’t mean we should ignore the evolution of digital technology and its impact on news production. Communications advances over the past 20 years have laid bare the reality that the commercial market for local journalism — and print news in particular — was always precarious. The advent of online news consumption brought down high barriers to entry (printing presses and distribution networks) and undermined the traditional business of local news as well.

Once we recognize the miscues and market failures driving the journalism crisis, the justification for simply handing money over to these same incumbents evaporates — while the case for treating local-accountability journalism as a public good becomes unequivocal.

Distorted economics
More than ever before, the newspaper industry is dominated by consolidated corporations, with less than a third of the nation’s 5,000 or so weeklies and only 10 of the 100 largest circulation dailies remaining independent. Time and again, we have seen newspaper chains that are owned by investment firms, hedge funds and private equity groups lay off journalists en masse to help pay for debt-fueled mergers and stock buybacks. It’s all too likely that the news-media companies would allocate any income from the JCPA to accelerate these types of actions or fatten the wallets of their own executives — rather than spending this money on local civic-affairs reporting.

The JCPA doesn’t require news-media companies to actually invest the money they would receive from the platforms in journalists. Even if a small fraction of that additional income went toward increasing the ranks of local reporters, cartel bargaining is just about the least efficient means of achieving that end. It’s no surprise, then, that journalist unions and associations of small news publishers, which comprise the real beating heart of the Fourth Estate, have expressed serious concerns about the bill for its failure to tie revenue distribution to the hiring of newsroom workers.

While large news outlets claim they are just trying to get their “fair value” when platforms link to their published content, the JCPA expressly prohibits the arbitration panel from considering the economic benefits that accrue to news-media companies when platforms distribute or aggregate their content. This is a dead giveaway that the JCPA isn’t about economic fairness at all. Instead, it’s a classic shakedown. As the journalist Cory Doctorow noted last spring, the JCPA’s negotiating framework is “just a way to force two different groups of rapacious monopolists to divide up their ill-gotten gains in a slightly different way.”

Waiving antitrust restrictions is likely to harm competition and consumers, entrench incumbents, and increase their unhealthy codependency with the platforms. This will only create larger barriers to entry for new and innovative models for engaged, independent, local journalism. 

Accountability journalism as a public good
The JCPA is based on a misdiagnosis of the problem. Bad policy interventions like this only further distort markets when better and more direct remedies are at hand.

Again, any solution to the journalism crisis must start by treating local journalism as a public good — and that means increased public subsidies directly tied to the production of local journalism. As in other cases of market failure, it is a routine function of governments to support public goods when the commercial market cannot produce them efficiently. The U.S. government has always played a crucial public role in media markets, from postal subsidies that allowed newspapers to proliferate in the early republic, to assigning public-interest obligations in exchange for news broadcasters’ free use of spectrum, to creating the computer network that later became known as the internet.

As with other public goods like parks and libraries, high-quality local journalism requires public funding, and these funds need to be specifically targeted to invest in local reporting. Fortunately, state-level initiatives can help point the way for larger federal efforts. In New Jersey, the independent nonprofit New Jersey Civic Information Consortium is distributing millions of dollars of state-funded grants to community-journalism projects. And in California, the state recently allocated $25 million to subsidize the salaries of early-career journalists in underserved communities. Free Press Action organized and advocated for both of these results.

As Free Press Action has long advocated, Congress also could establish a public trust funded by a tax on digital advertising that could be administered by a new independent agency or by a retooled Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In turn, the funds would be disbursed to locally situated grantmaking bodies — such as municipal foundations, community boards, state universities and public libraries — that are best suited to identify their communities’ information needs.

This approach would still use massive digital-advertising revenues as a source of funding, without depending on hoped-for trickle-down impacts from cartels and conglomerate collusion. Unlike the JCPA, this sort of publicly administered and community-centered approach would invigorate the production of high-quality local journalism while strengthening communities and safeguarding a free and independent press.

Sanjay Jolly is the C. Edwin Baker fellow at Free Press Action, where Timothy Karr is the senior director of strategy and communications.

Saturday, July 02, 2022

Who’s Going to Protect Reproductive Rights Online?

Chicago protests, June 24. (photo: Timothy Karr)

Co-authored with Nora Benavidez for Tech Policy Press

Following the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade13 states have or will soon have laws that criminalize abortion, and at least five more are ready to follow. Those trying to determine how and where they can obtain reproductive healthcare face added layers of complexity when they use the internet and their smartphones to learn more. Law enforcement can now weaponize online data to investigate, harass and take legal action against people seeking abortions.

Despite the severity of the situation, social media platforms and other tech companies are failing to grapple with how the Supreme Court ruling should alter their content-moderation and user-privacy guidelines. Few could muster a coherent response when reporters from MIT Technology Review asked for clarity. 

We can already tell from recent reporting that they’re making a mess of it. Companies including Meta and Google have overcorrected for the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision in ways that could further jeopardize the health and liberty of millions of people. 

Before they do more harm, online platforms and internet service providers must change how they collect data about their users and ensure that they’re not sharing information that puts abortion seekers at risk. Congress, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and tech companies themselves each have power to safeguard the rights of those seeking reproductive health services. 

Privacy and the Digital Dragnet

This situation was decades in the making. Authorities can access pretty much anything we do online and via our smartphones. And there’s little that social-media platforms and other technology companies can do if police with a legal warrant or court order seek the user information these businesses have collected.

Google, for example, received more than 20,000 U.S. location data warrants between 2018 and 2020. This included dragnet orders demanding data about everyone who was near a particular location. In the hands of law enforcement seeking to charge abortion seekers, this would give them the power to locate a person at an abortion-services provider’s address at a given time. Google, which produces the Android operating system for hundreds of millions of mobile devices, says that as a matter of company policy it is required to respond to legal warrants.

There’s an additional risk to people who search for reproductive health-care information, such as how to order “abortion pills” via any of the online providers of this medicine. Internet service providers can keep records of the websites their users visit. When you send a text via SMS, your phone company stores copies of all those texts. These can be turned over under a warrant.

AT&T, for example, received 77,996 criminal subpoenas for user information from federal, state and local authorities in just the last six months of 2021. Like other companies that hold user data, AT&T says it is required under the law to provide customer data in response to court orders, subpoenas, lawful-discovery requests and other legal requirements.

What Congress Can Do

The absence of clear federal data privacy laws is a major concern. Layer over that the patchwork of state-level prohibitions on abortion and things become far more confusing for people seeking reliable abortion information online. The glut of websites and social-media posts featuring inaccurate medical and legal advice makes matters even worse. The platforms’ own rules for addressing these issues remain murky and are inconsistently enforced. 

One fairly straightforward solution is for these companies to stop collecting data about what their users are doing online, and where they’re going offline. Platforms, search companies and internet service providers must change their data-collection and retention practices so that they no longer gather or store individualized search and browsing histories and unnecessary customer-location information. 

To that end, Congress is considering several privacy bills that limit the data companies can collect. Various pieces of legislation currently on the table would reduce or prohibit the collection, retention and use of sexual health information, while others protect healthcare, genetic, biometric and geolocation data more generally, or even ban any use of such data in a way that violates people’s civil rights. But online entities still would be able to use such data with individuals’ consent, in order to respond to the requests that users make for information on these crucial topics.

Free Press Action is part of a large coalition of civil and digital rights groups fighting to minimize the personal information platforms and data brokers can collect and limit how they can use it. Another strong legislative proposal is the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, which closes a loophole that currently allows these brokers to sell our data to police without a warrant.

While none of these proposals are a perfect fix for this complex and crucial set of issues, these bills are meaningful measures that — if passed — could begin to ensure that tech companies are doing more to safeguard the privacy necessary for protecting reproductive rights.

What the FTC Can Do

The FTC is charged with oversight of unfair or deceptive practices related to the harvesting, sharing or sale of personal data, including health-related information.

For months now the agency has been teasing plans to begin a rulemaking proceeding to rein in the misuse of online data by social-media companies and other data brokers. In May, the Senate confirmed the agency’s fifth commissioner, Alvaro Bedoya, an experienced privacy advocate who has supported agency action alongside FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan and Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter. 

The agency has put a proceeding on its summer calendar and has the majority it needs to establish clear rules against abusive data practices that undermine reproductive rights and access to health care. Through an open and participatory rulemaking, the FTC can build a record of the harms related to the trafficking of personal and geolocation information and establish guardrails against unfair and deceptive extractive data practices. Such a rule would help mitigate these harmful data practices embedded in every sector of society, which we know to especially harm historically disadvantaged communities.

What Platforms Can Do

Legislation and FTC rules together won’t fix everything. People researching reproductive health-care options are seeking information on social-media platforms. With state-level abortion restrictions, sharing this kind of information in those states presents a significant content-moderation challenge.

Recent research finds that content from less reliable sources referencing abortion has more than doubled since the Dobbs ruling was leaked in May. Platforms have yet to apply the sorts of user-warning labels to abortion misinformation that they’ve applied (albeit in a haphazard fashion) to inaccurate posts about COVID-19 treatments and elections.

We’ve already seen risk-averse social-media companies overreact to abortion-related content. Meta, for example, technically has a gun-sale ban on its platforms. Yet it allows users to violate that policy 10 times before penalizing them. Meanwhile, just in the last week Facebook and Instagram have removed individual posts about sales of abortion pills. It seems likely that these companies will also ban ads for abortion services in states that have outlawed abortions.

If they’re forced to do so, they and other online advertisers must also refuse to accept advertising dollars from entities seeking to mislead people seeking abortions (for example: by posing as clinics that provide these services or spreading disinformation).

Social-media platforms have an ethical responsibility to invest in moderators who are specifically trained to spot such harmful content. These companies must ensure that people seeking abortions aren’t targeted for abuse or exposed to disinformation.

The difference between 2022 and 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, is that we now live in an era in which data about what we do, with whom and where, is in the hands of tech companies and data brokers that are willing to sell this information to the highest bidder — or hand it over to federal, state and local authorities.

As tech companies wield increasing power over everyone’s digital rights, they must collect and archive less user data and establish clear standards for sharing potentially lifesaving reproductive health-care information. The Supreme Court’s abortion decision makes the need for comprehensive action more urgent than ever. Congress, the FTC and tech companies must do what is necessary to protect reproductive rights.

Nora Benavidez is the senior counsel and director of digital justice and civil rights at Free Press Action, where Timothy Karr is the senior director of strategy and communications.

Friday, March 25, 2022

The Future of Local News Is Noncommercial

(Originally published by Columbia Journalism Review)

IN FEBRUARY, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota reintroduced the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which is designed to make Silicon Valley’s billionaires pay for the harms they’ve inflicted on the news industry.

“What does Big Tech’s dominance over the news mean for Americans?” Klobuchar asked during a recent hearing on the legislation. Her answer: “Less revenue for local news, fewer journalists to do in-depth high-quality reporting, more exposure to misinformation and fewer reliable sources.”

The decline of local news is a tale often told against the rise of Silicon Valley. But equating the shuttering of local newspapers with the flourishing ad business at companies like Google and Meta (formerly Facebook) doesn’t get the story entirely right.

The news-business model itself — rooted in the belief that journalism must live or die by the dictates of the marketplace — is a primary reason that tens of thousands of newsroom jobs have been lost.

It’s easy to see why some blame journalism’s demise on the rise of digital platforms. Between 2008 and 2020, more than a thousand newspapers ceased printing, and the number of newspaper newsroom employees shrank by more than half. But while these numbers are alarming, they reveal only a part of the problem. Free Press found that more than 40 percent of the jobs lost in the newspaper industry since 1990 occurred prior to 2008 and the boom years for online advertising.

In other words, local dailies were shedding jobs long before a few tech platforms reported ad revenues in the tens of billions of dollars. It’s a trend that points to a deeper problem with the business of local news — and to the need for solutions that don’t merely make Big Tech subsidize old ways of producing journalism.

Solving the right problem

To be sure, the popular adoption of the internet and the way the platforms changed how we consume information undermined the local-news economy. But we can’t ignore the ways that conglomerate and hedge-fund media ownership subjects news production to the predatory demands of profit and growth. Decades of mergers and acquisitions also saddled consolidated media companies with sizable debts that their top executives chose to service not by cutting their own salaries but by downsizing local newsrooms.

We need to reinvent the news economy from one that serves a few owners to one that serves the needs of democracy — including holding leaders accountable, challenging disinformation, and exposing corruption — while supporting the jobs and content communities need.

No amount of tinkering with free-market mechanics can restore the business fundamentals that sustained local news in the twentieth century. This peak era for daily newspapers was due in large part to their unique ability to bundle local information with daily advertisements targeted to local audiences. This newsprint formula no longer functions in a media world where connections are instantaneous and attention is the main commodity.

To make matters worse, this digital marketplace down-ranks the kinds of journalism that inspire people to participate in community affairs, support local charities, or speak out against injustice. Researchers at MIT found that information that prioritizes sensationalism over accuracy is most effective at keeping eyes glued to your app or website. As such, platforms have a built-in commercial incentive to engage users with “low value” content that holds viewers’ attention — and not the often costly news reporting that bolsters civic participation and holds local officials to account.

It’s not clear how the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act will alter that basic equation or create a sustainable news model for the thousands of communities across the country where people have little to no access to credible and comprehensive local-news sources.

The legislation would give broadcasters, publishers, and other news producers an “antitrust exemption” to collectively negotiate for payments from powerful online platforms. Its primary beneficiaries would likely be national and international news conglomerates, the companies least in need of a bailout. When Australia implemented a similar rule — encouraging payment negotiations between news businesses and the platforms that sometimes feature or link to their content — the country’s largest media outlets were the first in line for payouts from Google and Facebook.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is getting tens of millions of dollars a year from these arrangements, writes Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton. “Meanwhile, the small fr[ies] in Australia media are getting bupkis.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the lobbyists representing consolidated media groups like News Corp, predatory hedge funds like Alden Global Capital, and consolidated broadcasters like Sinclair Broadcast Group are among the most vocal supporters of Klobuchar’s US legislation.

If news outlets are to survive over the long term, it won’t be because we’ve grafted their operations to digital enterprises that are more efficient at connecting advertisers to consumers — but less capable of separating fiction from fact, or disinformation from reporting that fosters democratic participation.

Doubling public funding is a start

Far too many of the bills circulating in Congress, including Klobuchar’s legislation, are designed to benefit existing media giants — many of the very same commercial operations that have gutted local newsrooms and profited from runaway media consolidation.

Clearly there’s a better way forward. Congress would better spend its time on bills that treat journalism as a public good. This is done by allocating public funds to support local innovations in noncommercial media.

The US hovers near the bottom of the list of advanced democracies when it comes to per-capita spending on federal funding for public-interest media. We spend about $1.50 per capita each year, while per-capita spending by Japan exceeds $50; per-capita spending in Germany and Sweden is more than $100. The concept of such funding for public broadcasting routinely receives high levels of bipartisan support in the United States.

As a start, Free Press has called for a doubling of public funds for noncommercial news and information. This kind of congressional commitment would recognize that propping up private industry alone won’t create a viable model for local journalism.

Dramatically increased public investment in locally engaged reporting would help support the wide array of new nonprofit outlets that are focused on meeting the information needs of communities that commercial media too often ignores.

To get there, Free Press has proposed a new tax on digital advertising to fund the kinds of innovative news production that’s now needed. A tax of 2 percent would generate more than $2 billion annually, enough to support new distribution models, especially those that don’t rely on data harvesting and targeted ads for revenue.

In New Jersey, Free Press helped conceive and create the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, an independent nonprofit funded by a state-budget appropriation. The consortium, including representatives from public colleges and universities across the state, supports inventive local-news projects like the Newark News and Story Collaborative and the Bloomfield Information Project, which train local residents to report the news from their own perspectives.

This New Jersey experiment, which received overwhelming bipartisan support, could be replicated by other states to help put journalists on local beats from Key West to Anchorage.

It’s been encouraging to see the recent growth in other not-for-profit news models, especially those that amplify the voices of people of color. State and federal funding could also help spur the sort of attempts at hybrid commercial-noncommercial media that are being explored by dailies in Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and elsewhere.

These and other good ideas have been testing new strategies for news production. But they can’t fill the massive gaps left by the collapse of for-profit newspapers. One thing is certain: legislation that sends tax dollars to hedge funds or keeps an antiquated commercial model on life support isn’t the solution.

Lawmakers should provide comprehensive funding for noncommercial news instead of wedding a sputtering business to a Silicon Valley attention engine that can’t possibly foster the sort of journalism that is vital to civic health.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The 'F' Word and the Media

Just before Thanksgiving break, former President Donald Trump told Fox News that he had met Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse at Mar-a-Lago, where the two smiled for a photo that was custom built for right-wing social media.

The message behind the encounter is brutally simple: The ostensible leader of the U.S. Republican Party endorses deadly violence against any and all enemies — in this case, anyone exercising their First Amendment right to protest police brutality against Black people.
With this meeting, the Republican Party’s embrace of political violence came into full view. And it’s a story that some in traditional media have finally started to tell.
“One of the nation's two major political parties appears increasingly tolerant of at least some persistent level of violence in American discourse, or at least willing to turn a blind eye to it,” wrote the Associated Press’ Jill Colvin in November.
“Faced with this alarming trend, a responsible political party would damp down its incendiary rhetoric and urge its supporters to moderate their zeal,” Max Boot wrote in The Washington Post. “That is not what Republicans are doing.”
With the evidence too hard to downplay or ignore, journalists are now dispensing with the tired practice of reporting down the political middle on a story that’s about the evils of just one party.
It took a lot to get many in the media to this point: the right’s “lionization” of Rittenhouse; its refusal to condemn Rep. Paul Gosar for promoting an animated video that depicts him murdering Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s call for supporters to be “armed and dangerous” as we head into the midterm-election season.
All this has happened against the backdrop of a party leadership’s abandonment of its pledge to honor the peaceful transition of political leadership — codified in the U.S. Constitution — in favor of an illegal power grab. 
It’s called fascism
The GOP’s tolerance of political violence didn’t begin on Jan. 6. It’s a byproduct of a larger, longer and more worrisome trend: A sizable chunk of people in the United States are turning away from democracy toward something sinister.  A survey by the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats found that one in 10 adults in the United States — or about 21 million people— agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency.” 
This is where we are today. None of the 20th-century fascist movements in the United States came so far as to undermine our democratic institutions and laws and replace them with a political system that privileges white power and authoritarianism. 
The GOP’s full-throated embrace of autocracy is on display in statehouses across the country, where legislatures are passing laws that make it easier to get away with killing racial-justice protesters. According to a PEN America report from earlier this year, Republican lawmakers have proposed at least 100 “anti-riot” bills in 33 states, with more on the drawing board. This includes legislation that would grant criminal immunity to people who crash their cars into so-called “rioters” blocking roadways.
It’s going to get worse in 2022. As political discourse grows more gruesome in the runup to the midterms, the threat of political violence will only increase. 
A media reckoning
The Republican Party, which threw in its lot with outspoken extremists like Trump, Roger Stone and Steve Bannon, is almost entirely at fault for this. But many writers tracking these worrying developments have reasonably placed the blame for 21st-century fascism at the doorsteps of some usual suspects in conservative U.S. media.
“[A] true reckoning requires more than just observing this trend. It also requires reflecting on the instrumental nature of propaganda like that coming from [Tucker] Carlson,” writes Greg Sargent of The Washington Post. “Much of the discussion treats the possibility of violence as a mere incidental byproduct of that propaganda, depicting it merely as conspiracy-theorizing-for-profit getting out of control.”
Fox News regularly engages in the types of othering that shaped the 20th-century fascism that led to World War II. Fascism relies on creating scapegoats; Tucker Carlson’s primetime commentary routinely paints a target for his millions of devoted viewers on the heads of immigrants, Black and Brown people, “globalists” and the “liberal elite.”
Other right-wing media are just as bad. One America News Network and Newsmax have spread disinformation to undermine free and fair elections and the government response to the greatest health threat of the past century. Fascism thrives in an environment where facts are disregarded and dismissed in favor of myths.  
Sinclair Broadcast Group, a conservative conglomerate that owns and operates hundreds of local-television stations, has repeatedly aired falsehoods  about critical race theory and stoked fears that it’s overtaking the curricula of local schools.
In fascist states, language becomes a vehicle for emotion rather than facts, a way to spread fear, amplify prejudices and seek revenge against hated groups. “Attempting to counter such rhetoric with reason is akin to using a pamphlet against a pistol,” writes Professor Jason Stanley, whose 2018 book How Fascism Works describes how division and othering set the stage for political violence and authoritarianism.
But how have centrist or moderate media responded to the GOP’s embrace of violence?
There’s no middle path
Eric Boehlert of Press Run frequently points to how outlets like CNN, The New York Times, Politico and The Washington Post have sought to normalize the violent extremism that has infiltrated Republican  politics.
“Despite the GOP’s nearly universal support [for Rep. Paul Gosar and his murderous video], Politico insisted the episode highlighted the ‘fringe’ side of the party, while the Beltway media outlet Punch Bowl reduced the threatening, unnerving Gosar chapter to Democrats and Republicans just not trusting each other,” Boehlert wrote.
“CNN’s Chris Cillizza recently bemoaned how ‘we’re all just so damn angry,’ but could only find examples of far-right bullies lashing out in public,” he adds.
“Both-sides journalism” is frequently criticized by Boehlert and other media scolds who blame this crutch of 20th-century reporting for mainstream media’s failure to call the right’s embrace of political violence and white power precisely what it is: fascism.
“I don’t think ‘moderate’ has any independent political meaning,” NYU Professor Jay Rosen told author Nicole Hemmer. “Instead, like ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ journalism, it tries to locate a midpoint between extremes, and then it associates that midpoint with a sort of unadorned truth.”
Journalism that strikes a balance between democracy and fascism should never be the goal. Rosen told Hemmer that reporters got a glimpse of the perils of such false equivalency in the runup to and aftermath of the 2020 vote. “For a moment there, their own need to protect American democracy was front and center,” he said. 
“This sort of wholesale treatment of this [Stop the Steal] movement as illegitimate, not founded in truth, was a pretty mainstream position. And to me, that was a breakthrough moment where journalists said …  we could really lose this democracy if Trump succeeds in his campaign to throw out the results.”
But this moment of clarity didn’t last into the Biden administration’s first year. Many reporters have fallen back on old habits: playing political stories as both-sided, or failing to see the larger context, including the alarming similarities to right-wing movements in the 20th century.
Repairing broken media
Both national and local news outlets must recognize that the future of our democracy is under as much threat today as it was on the afternoon of Jan. 6.
There are threats to our fundamental civic rights that reporters must make urgent to their readers. The media waited too long to start reporting on the politicized redistricting process and still aren’t paying enough attention to the adoption of voter-suppression laws aimed at undermining the voting rights of people of color. It will surely wait too long to cover the streams of political violence that are rushing toward the 2022 midterm elections.
Beyond that we need to acknowledge a broken media culture, undergirded by structures of media ownership that have withheld control of news outlets from the Black and Brown communities that are primary targets of fascism. 
Decades of federal policies have resulted in inequitable access to media-ownership opportunities. According to Federal Communications Commission data, Black people owned only 18 full-power TV stations as of 2019 — or just over 1 percent of all stations. Meanwhile, media corporations have aggressively and successfully lobbied to further consolidate their power over the sector, with no regard for the impacts on people of color, who make up an estimated 43 percent of the U.S. population.
Building a pro-democracy media means we first must acknowledge the history of white supremacy that’s baked into U.S. media policies. Only then will we be able to begin to create a media system that serves as a bulwark against 21st-century fascism.
Yes, Republicans are the problem, but so is a dysfunctional media that tends to normalize the party’s endorsements of political violence. There’s no future for a multiracial democracy without a serious redress of the white-power structures that dominate U.S. media ownership, and that seep into newsroom coverage. 
Calling 21st-century fascism by its name is an essential condition to defeating it. Journalists and their bosses have an important role to play. They need to stand against right-wing extremism and for a more just and inclusive U.S. media system that rejects political violence out of hand.