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When Media is the Problem
Many outlets were complicit in the rise and normalization of Donald Trump. They'll do it again. Corporate media is in a conflict of interest as it tries to make a profit from being a public good.
In 2015 and 2016, U.S. media made a fortune on the Donald Trump circus. After the election, his presidency was a boon to network, cable, print, and online outlets, driving viewership and clicks and subscriptions. Even while handwringing about the rise of right wing authoritarian populism and fascism, networks and newspapers and magazines and websites banked on the phenomenon. It saved their asses. I don’t doubt that more than a few of them hoped Trump would retain the presidency, or at least hang around after he lost.
Writing in The Dispatch, Sarah Isgur looks ahead to CNN’s upcoming Trump town hall in New Hampshire. “If this thing is a ratings boon for CNN,” she writes, “it’s hard to imagine that a bunch of news organizations that are currently laying off employees aren’t going to see a quick way out of their misery.” She points out that back in 2015-2016, Trump managed to nab US$2 billion in free media attention. She paraphrases a network suit who said Trump “may not be good for America, but [he’s] damn good for CBS.” She gets it.
Corporate media is in an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to covering just about everything, but some things are worse than others. As a democratic institution, media is essential to self-government. It is meant to act as a check on power—the power of political parties, the state, corporations, and plenty of others. It is meant to inform people and provide perspectives you won’t find from corporate and government and state elites. And yet corporate media, particularly of the hulking, conglomerate, multi-national sort, exists first and foremost to return a profit to its private owners and/or shareholders.
Individual journalists may work their asses off to get the story, get the story right, and hold power to account, but they must work within a structure with its own (cynical) imperatives. And management and owners decide who to hire, which tends to privilege a narrow band of views from a narrow band of sorts of people (look at diversity in news rooms, or a lack thereof, for example). When push comes to shove, and often even when it doesn’t, those who own and direct media outlets will exploit dangerous political phenomena for ratings, ads, clicks, eyeballs, subscriptions, and profit. They’ll air the same old, familiar voices. They’ll sell out the public in a heartbeat if the price is right.
On Twitter today, economist Jim Stanford wrote “More unusual suspects finally acknowledging what's been clear in the data for 18 months: profits, not wages, have been the driver of post-COVID inflation.” He cites a Wall Street Journal article that discusses the role of corporate profits in keeping prices high and driving them higher. The mainstream commentators, for months, have been blaming government spending and worker wages, and underwriting central bank rate hikes while mostly ignoring corporate depredations. That’s been the narrative, even though heterodox voices such as James Galbraith were able to make some space for themselves here and there, as he did in The Nation when he argued against raising interest rates.
A combination of a corporate media that is willing to sell out the public good for profit while simultaneously parroting the orthodox “common sense” narrative of the day is bad news for democracy. When that happens, you get the worst of both worlds: normalized lunacy alongside normalized structural exploitation by way of a crooked “free” market and a “democratic” politics that entrenches power at the top and excludes everyone else. It’s lousy stuff.
In Canada, the right wing has declared war on public broadcasting, attacking it as a bastion of government-supported censorship and pro-Liberal shilling. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation isn’t nefarious, as the right would have you believe. It’s got plenty of problems and needs deep reform, but it’s a run of the mill centrist organization fixed in the middle of the news media firmament. That won’t stop cynical right wingers from raising money off attacking it or fueling their bogus culture war by denigrating it, though. That’s dangerous because while the CBC is no saviour, it tells stories others won’t, backstops local coverage areas that would otherwise be news deserts, and tries, as few can or would bother, to reach across the entire country from sea to sea to sea. It could be also made to be much better than it is, but not by defunding it.
Public and independent media must be part of the counterbalance to cynical corporate media, and we must support and protect these folks. These outlets give space to voices you wouldn’t otherwise hear, or hear much of, and they facilitate discussions and platform perspectives that would otherwise see little of the light of day beyond streaming channels and blogs and message boards. Of course, those online spaces are increasingly critical to information flows, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, as they circumvent the usual gatekeepers. Substack is one such space. And that means that non-traditional spaces must also be part of the counterbalance.
We can’t count on corporate media to balance themselves as they go about enabling the rise of the worst elements among us, as if those people and corporations and phenomena were just assets on a balance sheet. Watch them as Trump rises again and businesses blame workers for economic ills. It’s the same as it ever was. But it doesn’t have to be.