Tuesday, May 16, 2023

CNN, Trump and the Media Mainstreaming of Demagogues

The pageantry of lies that passed for a town hall last week was yet another low point in CNN’s coverage of Donald Trump.
   To absolutely no one’s surprise, the former president used the media attention to paint an alternative view of recent U.S. history — one in which he features not as the twice-impeached, criminally indicted sexual abuser who lost the last presidential election, but as a decisive and winning strongman, the only person with the power and charisma to make America great again. It’s a script that appealed to his many MAGA supporters in the New Hampshire auditorium last week; they cheered on their man as he mocked the victim of his sexual battery and called CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins “nasty” for her often futile efforts to fact check Trump in real time. (Prior to the live town hall, a floor manager reportedly told audience members that they could cheer but not boo during the show.) And the Trump loyalists inside the town hall weren’t the only ones cheering on cue. The day after the program aired, CNN CEO Chris Licht praised the event, telling staff that “America was served very well by what we did.” Really? That trainwreck was a public service? Licht’s self-flattery echoed comments other media execs have made when defending their network’s decision to amplify all things Trump. In 2016, then-CBS CEO Les Moonves offered a more accurate view: Devoting so much airtime to then-candidate Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said, referring to the bumper crop of political ad dollars brought in during the contentious 2016 election. Trump’s media makeover At least Moonves was being honest. The media’s Trump binge harmed the nation but helped their bottom lines. Licht, on the other hand, is trying to convince everyone that democracy itself benefits when the media give Trump a megaphone. Licht likely learned that from his predecessor at CNN. Jeff Zucker has arguably done more than any single person to burnish the 21st-century caricature of Donald Trump. While an executive at NBC, he greenlit The Apprentice, which remade Trump from a bankruptcy-spawning loser into a boardroom genius with impeccable business savvy.   When Trump entered the political arena in 2015, he did so with an Apprentice tailwind. Zucker, who by then had transitioned to the top job at CNN, trained the network’s cameras on his celebrity candidate while denying equal time to Trump’s Republican opponents.  Early in the 2016 campaign, The New York Times estimated that the major networks had already given Trump the equivalent of $2 billion in free advertising — with much, much more to come by election day. The media chose Trump well before most Republican voters had a chance to vote for any of the other GOP candidates in the race. Mainstreaming fascism All of this is to say that last week’s town-hall debacle is just more evidence of the dangers inherent in a commercial media system that mainstreams lying demagogues for profit.   Absolute disregard for the facts and mythologizing of strongmen are pre-conditions for fascism, say historians Fred Turner and Ruth Ben-Ghiat.  Turner, who teaches at Stanford, has written about the parallels between Donald Trump’s leadership style and that of Benito Mussolini’s early rule in 1920s Italy. The difference, according to Turner, is that we now live in a virtual world where people can surround themselves with a “fake news” media sphere all their own.  “The real problem is actually more of a structural problem,” he told an interviewer in 2016. “Media firms in lots of different subsets need to make money on advertising. When you are dependent on advertising, controversy is good,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. What matters is that it gets a lot of attention.” Like Mussolini, Trump is a master at manipulating media attention to amplify his propaganda, says Ben-Ghiat, a NYU professor who has studied authoritarian patterns worldwide. Many in the U.S. media have been “slow to catch on to what Trump [is] doing,” she said Or perhaps news outlets don’t care. As long as Trump’s hijacking of media attention makes them richer, why should media execs worry about the consequences?    CNN has faced a storm of criticism for its decision to give Trump a primetime slot, and deservedly so. But the network’s choices are symptoms of a larger problem. The commercial U.S. media system needs to undergo deep reckoning for its role in accommodating the rise of camera-friendly authoritarians. Without this serious assessment of the failings of top news execs like Zucker, Moonves and Licht, the media will never quit its Trump habit.   As an antidote we also need to support a noncommercial public-interest media system that promotes democracy and civic information. This includes funding public structures to support the production of local and diverse news and information, and the sort of investigative reporting that holds abusive leaders accountable.  While this approach doesn’t pretend to address every threat facing democracies today, it recognizes that a more robust noncommercial media can serve as a bulwark against the democracy-destabilizing forces of 21st-century demagogues. And it can do so in ways that prominent commercial outlets like CNN have failed to.

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

How Lawmakers and Regulators Are Helping Sinclair Destroy Local News

Sometimes lawmakers write legislation that would do the opposite of its stated goal. Nowhere is this more evident than in two recent bills — one introduced at the state level and another in the U.S. Congress — that are supposedly designed to “save local news.”  Both the California Journalism Preservation Act (CJPA) and the federal Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) would allow news publishers — including broadcast companies — to extract payments from large social-media enterprises like Alphabet and Meta in exchange for linking to their content. This would apply to any content regardless of its accuracy or news value. One of the bigger beneficiaries of California’s CJPA and the U.S. Senate’s JCPA is a conglomerate that seems determined to get rid of local news and replace it with right-wing spin produced at a “National Desk” far removed from the communities this broadcast company is legally obligated to serve. That conglomerate, Sinclair Broadcast Group, recently announced plans to eliminate entire local newsrooms at local-television stations in five broadcast areas. Sinclair is also drastically cutting newsroom staff at an additional five local stations, pushing all of these stations to fill the resulting news hole with National Desk boilerplate. That means zero local coverage — and lots of the sort of cookie-cutter conservatism that Sinclair has pumped out via the public airwaves for decades. Saving local news by throttling it Sinclair doesn’t care about the benefits that local-news coverage brings to communities. The company owns and operates several stations that broadcast to regions of California, including KAEF in Eureka, KBAK in Bakersfield, KMPH in Fresno, KRCR in Redding and KRXI around Lake Tahoe. Any of these newsrooms could be next on its chopping block. But lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington are ignoring Sinclair’s dismal track record and moving forward with legislation that would reward Sinclair as it undermines local news. On Tuesday, the CJPA passed through California Assembly’s Judiciary Committee just a few days after the Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection advanced it. And in Washington, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has reintroduced the JCPA, which failed to pass in the previous Congress after facing headwinds from a coalition of local-news advocates and media-democracy groups.  Both bills would create a convoluted mechanism for corporate handouts to highly profitable and consolidated media outlets — and both bills would allow these chains to continue to neglect the information needs of the communities they’re supposed to serve. That these bills have any momentum is largely due to the powerful Big Media lobby pushing them. This includes lobbyists working on behalf of Sinclair as well as Gannett Co. and predatory hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which have also cut local newsrooms to the bone even as they’ve continued to buy back stocks, go deeper into debt to acquire more local outlets, and use other financial gimmicks to enrich their owners, executives and shareholders.  These companies aren’t journalism’s saviors. In many places they’ve created news deserts after shuttering local operations. Lawmakers shouldn’t reward them for such slash-and-burn tactics. Instead, policymakers should pass bills that support local-accountability journalism by putting reporters back on local beats and expanding coverage in communities that companies like Sinclair have neglected. The FCC must step up, too The Federal Communications Commission has done next to nothing to discipline these companies for their misuse of the public airwaves. 
An FCC mandate is to “protect and advance diversity, competition and localism in the media marketplace.” The agency has instead allowed Sinclair to consolidate control over nearly 200 local stations. And in 2018, the conglomerate misled the FCC about the nature of its control over the many stations it already owned in a failed attempt to gobble up even more. In exchange for exclusive access to so much of our public airwaves, Sinclair thumbs its nose at public-interest obligations, delivering the bare minimum required by the FCC. It created sham businesses and shell companies to evade FCC station-ownership limits. It forces these local-TV stations to air “must-run segments” filled with propaganda seemingly pulled straight from a MAGA rally. And it routinely cuts back on local-news staffing while its top executives get rich off the bumper crop of political campaign ads that come around every two years. Whether it’s via state or federal legislation, or a federal agency that has too often bucked its obligation to serve the public interest, regulators seem intent on saving local news by ignoring — or even perpetuating — the problems that led to its collapse in the first place.  Once we recognize the miscues and market failures driving the journalism crisis, it becomes hard to justify simply handing money over to these same incumbents. This recognition requires we shift our focus away from bills like the CJPA and JCPA toward public policy that creates funding for local-accountability journalism, including noncommercial initiatives.  The FCC needs to take a long-overdue look at its legacy of failure. Promoting competition, localism and diversity means giving more locally owned outlets access to the public airwaves — outlets that will serve their communities in ways Sinclair has not.  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. When companies like Sinclair lobby for these bad bills, they want us to forget their actual record of mistreating their own reporters. They want to pretend they’re not getting rich by maintaining this broken system that’s misusing our airwaves and poisoning our democracy. The problem is that too many of our elected representatives and appointed media regulators are all too willing to give Sinclair a pass, and have opted to “save local news” by becoming accessories to its demise.