Almost a year into the Trump presidency and the threats to the free press are rising on all fronts—physical, financial, legal, technological, and, not least of all, political. Their convergence may not form a perfect storm, but it’s laying waste to much of journalism as we’ve known it.
Killing net neutrality, which the Republican-controlled FCC voted to do yesterday, is only the most recent gut punch to a free press. The commission also moved closer yesterday to repealing a TV-ownership rule, in order to allow Sinclair Broadcast Group, a Trumpist mouthpiece and already the nation’s largest network of local TV stations, to nearly double its reach, to 72 percent of American households. Straight out of Bizarro World: The Koch brothers will soon own a big piece of Time Inc., and the publisher of the National Enquirer could take over Time magazine itself. The future of CNN is up for grabs. Journalists are getting locked up and body-slammed for doing their jobs. Armed with secret algorithms and the overwhelming bulk of US digital-ad revenue, Google and Facebook can determine what news is amplified or sidelined. And, whoa, hold on for the coming “digital-news media crash.”
These aren’t just the fears of lefty journalists. President Trump has “engaged in the most direct, sustained assault on a free press in our history,” Fox News’s Chris Wallace said as he accepted an award from the International Center for Journalists last month. Trump is “attacking us institutionally and individually,” and this “concerted campaign” is succeeding, Wallace lamented, citing a poll that found 46 percent of voters believe that news organizations make up stories about President Trump. (Wallace didn’t mention his employer’s leading role in that campaign.)
Moreover, it’s not just Trump, or Fox News, or the spread of actual fake news that threaten a free press and democracy itself. The dangers have been building from long before Trump ran for president and will outlast him—like the Republican Party’s lust for deregulation, which creates ever-larger media monopolies that bulldoze local news and independent journalism. Not to mention the hegemony of digital platforms that don’t produce journalism but do vacuum up the ad revenue that once paid reporters’ salaries.
Of course, it’s not all bad news. Washington Post reporters brilliantly exposed James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas as it tried recently to plant a false Roy Moore story in order to discredit the newspaper. “The net joy created by the story among journalists,” Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, tweeted, “counterbalances roughly 8,746 newsroom layoffs.” I wouldn’t go that far. But there are some numbers to cheer. A “very substantial Trump bump” has led to surges in digital subscriptions at some legacy publications, including the Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, notes a Reuters Institute Digital News report. (The Times says that what it lost in ad revenue in the first nine months of this year, it more than made up for in digital-only subscriptions.) Better yet, the Reuters study says, “Most of those new payments have come from the young—a powerful corrective to the idea that young people are not prepared to pay for online media, let alone news.” That’s wonderfully encouraging, but, as the study’s lead author Nic Newman told Politico, “It’s not going to save journalism.”
Indeed, in June, a Pew Research Center analysis found that the gains made by some of the larger newspapers haven’t carried over to the industry as a whole, as “total weekday circulation for U.S. daily newspapers—both print and digital—fell 8% in 2016, marking the 28th consecutive year of declines.”
The vast, resourceful, multi-headed fourth estate isn’t nearly as easy to dismantle as, say, the administrative state. Great investigative reporting and stinging analysis aren’t about to disappear. But the threats to the free press—whether MSM or alt, digital or print—are growing daily.
So far this year, there have been 109 documented incidents of abuse against journalists in the United States, including 36 physical attacks and 32 arrests, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a project of 30 press groups led by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “The majority of arrests have happened when reporters cover protests, like the J20 or Standing Rock or in St. Louis,” Peter Sterne, the Tracker’s managing editor, told me. Swept up in mass arrests while covering the Trump inauguration, two journalists currently face trial and possibly years in prison for, as the incantation rightly goes, doing their jobs. In the fourth week of the trial for photojournalist Alexei Wood, who was live-streaming the protests, the judge dropped the most serious of the charges, “inciting to riot”; Aaron Cantú, who’s written for The Nation and The Intercept, is scheduled to go on trial October 2018. In May, reporter Dan Heyman was arrested for asking then–Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price a question about preexisting conditions. In September, prosecutors dropped the charges. (Price lost his job, over his lavish use of private planes.) No journalist is immune: Two Fox News cameramen were “physically manhandle[d]” by two Roy Moore staffers at a campaign event last month.
Then there’s Greg Gianforte. Running in a special election for the US House in May, the Republican candidate body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, who had the gall to ask if he supported the House’s just-passed bill to repeal Obamacare. Gianforte, who was elected the next day, was sentenced to 40 hours of community service for misdemeanor assault and, in a lemons-into-lemonade squeeze, had to donate $50,000 to the CPJ—which used it to launch the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
The Trackers’ 109 incidents of abuse also include denial of access, border stops, and “chilling statements.” “We don’t even try to document every single statement, because there are so many,” Sterne told me.
No surprise that so many come from the First Amendment–blind POTUS. “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it,” he told reporters in mid-October. And he proposed how to do it, tweeting that “network news…licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked.” Actually, no one can do that—national networks don’t have licenses.
But Trump does have the power to endanger reporters’ lives with peevish carelessness like this, tweeted over Thanksgiving weekend: “@FoxNews is MUCH more important in the United States than CNN, but outside of the U.S., CNN International is still a major source of (Fake) news, and they represent our Nation to the WORLD very poorly. The outside world does not see the truth from them!” That kind of language “gives a green light to despotic regimes around the world as well as their supporters to take actions against these journalists,” Frank Smyth, head of Global Journalist Security, told CNN. As if on cue, Libyan media flagged that tweet to try to discredit a CNN report on that country’s modern-day slave auctions.
Little is as chilling as a president letting dictators dictate US policy toward the US press. But on his recent trip to Asia, Trump accepted China president Xi Jinping’s refusal to hold a joint press conference and chuckled when Philippines president and self-proclaimed human butcher Rodrigo Duterte called reporters “spies” and sent them out of room. (The Philippines, where 177 media workers have been killed since 1986, is “one of the most dangerous countries to practice journalism,” Human Rights Watch says.)
Suppression of press freedoms is increasing across the world. In its just-released annual report, the CPJ found that “The number of journalists imprisoned worldwide hit another new record in 2017.” That’s 262, and while the majority of them were arrested on vague “anti-state” charges, the number imprisoned for producing “false news” rose to a record 21.
Using different methodology, the British human-rights organization Article 19 turned up similarly dismal numbers in its recently released study on the state of free speech and expression in 172 countries. “Global media freedom,” it found, “is at its lowest level for a decade. In 2016 alone, 259 journalists were imprisoned worldwide, and 79 were killed.” In addition, “Internet censorship has become more pervasive” and “governments are using unprecedented legal and other measures to silence dissenting voices.” “Unfortunately, our findings show that freedom of expression is under attack in democracies as well as authoritarian regimes,” Article 19 Executive Director Thomas Hughes said.
Americans like to think that we have the strongest press protections in the world, and we certainly do have some. Yet we fare poorly in the annual Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries on their levels of journalistic freedom, safety, pluralism, independence, and quality of legislative framework. We’re not No. 1! We’re not No. 1! Norway is. This year, we’re 43, down from 41 in 2016—right behind the UK, Belize, and Burkina Faso. (The Philippines is 127.) Among the factors for our miserable rank, the Index says, are Trump’s verbal attacks on journalists, the Obama administration’s war on whistle-blowers, and the fact that “American journalists are still not protected by a federal ‘shield law’ guaranteeing their right to protect their sources and other confidential work-related information.”
Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions threaten to top Obama’s and former AG Eric Holder’s terrible record. Sessions proudly announced that the Justice Department has opened 27 leak investigations—an 800 percent increase over the nine in the previous three years. Furthermore, Sessions won’t rule out throwing reporters in jail for refusing to reveal a source, and he says the DOJ is “reviewing” policies on media subpoenas. Hard-won improvements—like giving journalists advance notice of subpoenas—were hammered out in 2015, after it was revealed in 2013 that the Obama DOJ had secretly obtained access to AP phone records and a Fox News reporter’s e-mails.
American journalists do, however, enjoy strong protections against libel. Trump has vowed that he’d “open up our libel laws.” But it’s not so easy. There is no federal libel law, only a set of 50 state libel laws. First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams told the CPJ that “what [Trump] really seems to object to is the First Amendment case law beginning with New York Times v. Sullivan, 1964, which makes it much harder for a public official to recover in a libel suit.” To do so, the offending speech has to be proven false, defamatory, and said with malice—that is, with knowledge that a statement was false or probably false.
Trump could conceivably stack the Supreme Court to overturn New York Times v. Sullivan. Abrams thinks that’s unlikely, because in recent years it’s been a “First Amendment–protective court,” and that includes Trump’s first Justice pick, Neil Gorsuch. Abrams seems more concerned that Trump would bring a libel suit just to wipe out a defendant’s financial resources. Trump tried that once, when he sued journalist Timothy O’Brien, whose Trump biography, the president claimed, underestimated his wealth. Abrams: “Trump said later, after the case was dismissed, [he] made them spend a lot of money. Our press today, indeed, the best of our press today, is not the well-funded press that it used to be and is very concerned about every dollar because it has so few of them.”
A strong federal anti-SLAPP (anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) law would help prevent that kind of abuse. Anti-SLAPP laws protect free speech, for the public as well as the press, by preventing lawsuits brought to silence or harass critics by drowning them in legal expenses. Only 28 states have anti-SLAPP laws, and they’re of widely varying quality.
For instance, Florida’s anti-SLAPP law was useless when Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump supporter Peter Thiel put Gawker out of business. Thiel never forgave Gawker Media’s Valleywag for outing him as gay, in 2007. He went on to (at first, secretly) fund Hulk Hogan’s unrelated lawsuit against Gawker. Though Gawker was likely to win on appeal, it went bankrupt after a Florida jury awarded Terry Bollea (Hogan’s real name) $140 million in 2016. (They settled last year for $31 million.) Rich people wreaking revenge by funding proxy litigants now stands as a terribly clever, and perfectly legal, way to undermine press freedom.
As a coda, Thiel may try to buy Gawker.com, which is still online. By owning it, he’d have the right to delete its 14 years of archived stories, including those about him. Were he to do this, he would not only have killed a publication, he would have disappeared a piece of history. Which is the extreme result of deciding that whatever you don’t like is fake news.
It looks as if Joe Ricketts, another right-wing, Trump-donating billionaire, tried a similar memory-wipe last month after he killed his own popular network of local-news websites, DNAinfo and Gothamist. He had created the former and acquired the latter earlier this year. But one week after the New York staff voted to unionize, Ricketts shut down both sites. Didn’t put them up for sale, just killed them. And apparently as bonus spite, he deleted several years of archives, leaving 115 newly unemployed workers unable to access the clips they’d need to look for new jobs. After an outcry—and the sharing of workarounds to resurrect the archives—the sites went back up, though, like Gawker, they’re frozen on their death day.
GOP mega-donor and casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson didn’t like the negative press he was getting in his local newspaper, the well-regarded Las Vegas Review-Journal, so he secretly bought it. Nevada’s largest paper is now a shell of its old self, and features columnists like Wayne Allyn Root, who, within hours of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, tweeted, “Clearly coordinated Muslim terror attack.” (More on the Thiel and Adelson sagas can be seen on Netflix in the Brian Knappenberger documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press, in which I appear.)
But no right-wing billionaire media takeover seems quite so radical, or depressing, as Charles and David Koch’s invasion of Time Inc. With an infusion of $650 million, the brothers Koch made it possible for Meredith Corp., publisher of Family Circle and Better Homes and Gardens, to buy the struggling Time Inc., home of Money, People, Fortune, and, of course, Time. Meredith says the Kochs won’t have any editorial or managerial influence. But how, for instance, will employees of Time Inc. properties—over 100 of them throughout the world—report on climate change, knowing that their paycheck derives in huge part from the climate-denying oil-and-energy magnates?
But wait! Speculation is that, because Meredith is experienced primarily in monthlies, it may want to ditch the weeklies like Time, and sell them to someone who’s had designs on Time for a while. That would be American Media CEO David Pecker, not a billionaire but the publisher of the National Enquirer, the tabloid that linked Ted Cruz’s father to the JFK assassination—a lie Trump happily ran with during the primaries. Trump and Pecker are supposed to be buds, so maybe the new owner could guarantee that Trump would be Time’s “Person of the Year” every year.
But then so could billionaires Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who bankrolled Steve Bannon and Breitbart News, and whose Renaissance Technologies bought up nearly 2.5 million shares of Time Inc. earlier this year. Either way, far-right 1 percenters are at the liberal-media gate.
The threats to press freedoms and to financially struggling independent news organizations extend beyond a bunch of bad news billionaires; there are also urgent structural, financial, and technological dangers. Ajit Pai, the Trump-appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission, and a former lawyer for Verizon, is on a regulation-killing spree. Over just the last few months, the Republican-controlled FCC has voted 3-2 along party lines to rip away long-standing rules that have kept media conglomerates from completely devouring what’s left of the local, independent press.
Yesterday, the commission voted to destroy net neutrality, which my colleague John Nichols aptly calls “the First Amendment of the Internet.” Without these rules, adopted by the Obama FCC in 2015, Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon will be able to “play favorites because they disagree with the message being delivered or want to charge more money for faster delivery,” the ACLU warns. Among the many legal challenges expected to follow, the public-interest group Free Press plans to sue the FCC and is urging on Congress to reverse the decision.
Net neutrality is the best-known target of the Trump administration. But earlier this year the FCC also voted to repeal a gaggle of rules that limit media monopolies, such as cross-ownership rules, which prevented a single company from owning a daily newspaper and TV and radio stations in the same market, and a “main studio” rule, which required local TV and radio broadcasters to operate an actual, physical studio in the communities they’re licensed in. (Rupert Murdoch was granted the first permanent waiver to the cross-ownership rule in 1993 when he acquired the New York Post.) And Thursday, with everyone’s focus on the net vote, the agency also voted to review (read, kill) the national TV-ownership cap, set by Congress, which limits companies from owning TV stations that reach more than 39 percent of the national audience.
All local TV station empires, from Murdoch’s Fox Television Stations to the lesser-known Nexstar, will benefit from axing the old rules. But they seem tailor-made for the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Without the national TV-ownership cap bumped up (and a loophole called the “UHF discount” resurrected), the FCC couldn’t approve Sinclair’s proposed $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media. Already the nation’s largest owner of local TV stations, Sinclair now runs 173 stations in 81 markets; with the Tribune bounty, it will control 233 stations and reach 72 percent of the country.
Unlike Fox News, rife with logos and crowing self-references, Sinclair stations don’t identify themselves as such. So their audiences have little way of knowing who owns their local station, or that some faraway power is forcing these ostensibly apolitical enterprises to air pretaped political screeds daily. These “must-runs” include pro-Trump rants by former Trump spokesman Boris Epshteyn and a segment that argued that African Americans and Latinos should not support Hillary Clinton because Democrats are the “party that gave this country slavery.” And what if the must-run “terrorism alert desk” has no new terrorism to alert us to? Well, as Jon Oliver showed, Sinclair will find Muslims doing something—like women wearing banned burkinis in France. “What the fuck!” Oliver said. “That is not about terrorism, it’s just about Muslims!”
“Congratulations, Ajit Pai,” Free Press wrote in an open letter—“You’ve removed the last barrier preventing one voice from monopolizing every aspect of news production in America’s smaller communities, ensuring future generations will remain ignorant of the corruption taking place around them.”
No one really believes that a Trump administration that’s greasing the skids for Sinclair is suddenly concerned that AT&T’s $85 billion bid to buy Time Warner is an acquisition too far. That’s because Time Warner owns CNN, Trump’s number-one “fake news” enemy of the people. The Trump DOJ has sued AT&T to prevent the merger on an antitrust basis—and it should be blocked. During the 2016 campaign Trump pretended to have scruples, vowing that, if elected, he’d stop the merger “because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few”—right move, but almost certainly for the wrong reason.
Exactly how does blocking this merger punish CNN? Is Trump trying to leverage more positive coverage out of the cable channel? Trying to get one of his many frenemies, CNN president Jeff Zucker, fired? Or, by forcing Time Warner to sell CNN, does he hope a new, more conservative owner—a Koch, a Mercer, an Adelson—might neuter it for him? Or even restore it to its glory days when CNN, like MSNBC and Fox, ran uninterrupted Trump campaign rallies? Oh, those were the days.
But those old-media giants look positively tiny next to the new-media behemoths, Facebook and Google. “A small handful of monopolistic tech companies like Facebook have life-or-death power over media companies,” Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone. “They can steer traffic wherever they please simply by tweaking their algorithms. Firms that don’t themselves create news content wield this monstrous influence.”
Some of those tweaks may have caused dramatic drops in readership of some lefty online publications. In trying to block “fake news” and offensive search suggestions last spring, Google announced Project Owl, algorithmic changes that would “help surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content,” as Google VP of engineering Ben Gomes wrote in April.
Soon afterward, the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) began to notice a sharp drop-off in Google-generated search traffic. The site estimated that by August such traffic had fallen by 67 percent, and said that the new algorithm was shunning search terms like “Russian revolution,” “UAW,” and even “Flint Michigan” that once drew readers. WSWS’s Andre Damon wrote “of the top 150 search terms that, as late as April 2017, connected the WSWS with readers, 145 no longer do so.” (A New York Times story in September goes into more detail.)
Google seems to say, Them’s the breaks. “[W]e are constantly improving our algorithms,” a Google spokesperson says in an e-mail, and that “does mean some sites may lose visibility. Those that do, often complain, but others gain visibility…. Most importantly, we have never re-ranked search results to manipulate political sentiment.”
But losing visibility can be devastating. “The longest-lasting threat to journalism today is coming from Google and Facebook,” Don Hazen, executive editor of Alternet, told me. “Their algorithms are invisibly censoring news outlets.” At Alternet, he says, “Google search traffic dropped 40 percent since the end of June. It’s continuing where our traffic is down an average of about 1 million unique visitors a month just from Google search compared with the last several years.”
“There is a SEO [search engine optimization] angle to this,” he says. “But something bigger has happened. It’s part of a huge kind of upheaval on part of big corporate advertisers.” It appears, he says, that in running as far from fake news as possible and seeking “brand safety,” advertisers are wielding more clout over the ad platforms—and small, independent news sites are getting marginalized in the process.
“The so-called brand safety issue has forced Google and Facebook to make major changes in how their ad systems operate,” Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, explained in an e-mail. “The leading advertisers used the controversies generated by the election—ads on hate speech sites, fake news, etc.—to press their long standing grievances against Google and Facebook—which are seen as too powerful, unaccountable, etc. The ad industry has been able obtain major concessions from the 2 giants, including forcing them to open up to 3rd party measurement firms (such as from Integral Ad Science, comScore), etc. They have expanded so-called ‘whitelists’ and ‘blacklists’ used to determine which content can be monetized. Briefly, I see this as a global marketer coup d’etat in a way against the leading ad platforms—forcing them to share power (esp. data) with the financial and political goals of Fortune type brands.
“The impact of this realignment of power threatens alternative voices, such as Alternet and others.”
If so, the impact hasn’t been uniform. Common Dreams also found a steep drop in Google-generated traffic since Project Owl, but other progressive sites I checked with—among them, The Intercept, Salon, Counterpunch—say they haven’t seen a change. There’s been “no impact” at The Nation, Executive Editor Richard Kim says. “But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hit other sites,” he adds. “There are lots of possible reasons why—URL structure, or whatever Google doesn’t like—and that’s a problem. All of this points to that there needs to some level of transparency.”
Alternet and the Media Consortium are organizing a meeting of independent media organizations for early next year to help progressive media deal with the impact of the digital duolopy. (Disclosure: The Nation is a former member of the Media Consortium.)
Meanwhile, a much larger group of publishers is trying to take on Facebook and Google through collective bargaining. The News Media Alliance is the main news-industry trade group, with some 2,000 members of mostly mainstream news outlets, print and digital, ranging from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal (Rupert Murdoch bargains collectively!) to midsize dailies like Minneapolis’s Star Tribune to community papers and local digital networks like Spirited Media. But the NMA needs Congress to grant it an antitrust exemption before it can negotiate collectively with the duopoly. The goal: better compensation for the journalism they provide essentially for free. “All our members hire and pay journalists. We’re focused on people who pay reporters,” NMA president and CEO David Chavern, told me. “There’s no such thing as a free news business.”
So what we have are three enormous forces determining how the news gets out and how well the free press can survive: Big Advertising, Big Platforms, and, with net neutrality as roadkill, Big ISPs. They may dicker with each other over codes and cash, as Chester says. But they neither produce journalism nor pay for it. Google and Facebook eat up more than 60 percent of all digital-ad revenue (and an incredible 99 percent of the ad-revenue growth). Thousands of sites scramble for the crumbs. There’s simply not enough advertising to support them all. The bubble is going to burst, Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo says, and you can see it starting in the rise and fall of the much-hyped “pivot to video.”
In the last year or so, “digital publishers have announced either major job cuts or in some cases literally fired their entire editorial teams in order to ‘pivot to video,’” Marshall says—publishers like Vice, Sports Illustrated, MTV News, and The Huffington Post. As Digiday says, “pivoting to video at media companies has become synonymous with layoffs.” It can also mean audience numbers tanking, as they did at Mic, Vocativ, and Fox Sports. It’s not that readers have been clamoring for videos that automatically start babbling when you visit a website. It’s that advertisers preferred that their ads sit next to video rather than text, and, desperate for ad dollars, news sites accommodated them. If and when the audience shrinks, so do the rates they can charge for advertising, advancing the downward spiral. The problem isn’t only that there’s not enough ad money to support the expanding multitude of (often duplicative) sites. As Marshall points out, investors who’ve been keeping some of these sites on life-support with venture-capital money look at all this and realize that “they were investing in a mirage and don’t want to invest anymore.” He says he’s “noted before that digital news media [is] in the midst of a monetization crisis. But it’s more than that. It’s a full blown crash.”
Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, accepts the crash premise, but believes the resulting misery will be “unevenly distributed.” The secret to surviving “the media apocalypse,” he says, is to “pivot to readers,” to return to “a dusty business model that relies more on readers, and less on advertisers.” Citing the example of the Times above, whose subscription surge more than makes up for the loss of ad dollars, Thompson says that, of course, publications must make themselves “vital and irreplaceable” with excellent journalism in these unstable times. But they should also be “experimenting with various forms of direct advertising, events, subscriptions, and memberships.”
Another survival method is to foment media literacy. Don’t know how much good it will do, but CNN—with its online series “Free Press: What’s at stake” and its “Facts First” TV ads (“This is an apple. Some people might try to tell you it’s a banana—they might put banana in all caps. You might even start to believe this is a banana. But it’s not. This is an apple”)—is at least trying. And the WashPo’s pithy daily reminder that “Democracy dies in darkness” may seem melodramatic, but we are living the ultimate melodrama now.
And we haven’t even considered the many ways the press threatens itself—by censoring itself, for instance, as NBC did in rejecting the Ronan Farrow story on Harvey Weinstein, or by rushing to groupthink, which had the press cheering the Iraq war, assuming a Hillary victory, hailing Trump’s bombing of a Syrian airfield, and thinking that his demeanor would magically “pivot” to presidential any day now.
I have several journalist friends who fear that the press is putting too many eggs in the Russian-collusion basket—and that if anything less than unequivocal evidence of Donald Trump’s criminality is determined, then an even more severe media backlash could be in the offing. By then, their thinking goes, so many news outlets could be dead or marginalized that Trump could just kick in the rotting door and blow out the candle. I don’t subscribe to that fear yet.