Democracy Dies in Darkness.
This four word phrase was plastered below the Washington Post’s online masthead on February 24th, 2017, about a month after Donald Trump assumed office. Nearly three years later, it remains – and for me at least – so remains the prevailing feeling it evokes…but not in the way you might assume.
Darkness does seem an apt word to describe the first month of 2020. Indeed, this new decade has kicked off with the drumbeats of war, a relentless fire, the death of a beloved icon, a viral disease, and an impeached president run rampant, his opposition divided. Seeking out any outlet for hope, for “lightness”, is as bleak as it is exhausting.
Such were the roots of the enduring WaPo tagline, as the paper’s owner and founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, intimates:
“I think a lot of us believe this, that democracy dies in darkness, that certain institutions have a very important role in making sure that there is light.”
Bezos apparently heard the phrase from legendary investigative reporter and Watergate champion, Bob Woodward, also a Post associate editor. Woodward said he referenced it during a presentation at a conference that Bezos attended in 2015.
Let’s make some assumptions here.
- The “certain institutions” that Bezos refers to are mass media outlets, of which WaPo is surely one.
- That “light” in this context is meant to signify truth, or understanding, or accurate derivative meaning.
- “Darkness” is a bit more tricky to define. Deceitful narratives? Misdirection? Unreflective of true public discourse?
Let’s go with an amalgam of the three – “Democracy dies [when information is slanted, lacking nuance, and/or truth-obscuring],” and then revisit Bezos’ quote given our assumptions:
“[Mass media outlets] have a very important role in making sure there is [truth]”
Now that we have some assumptions, and ideas to examine, let’s extrapolate off the concepts of light and darkness in the context of the media we consume, and the challenges we have facing us in 2020.
You and me(dia)
In this blog post, I explored how, much like other industries, mass media has seen a dramatic consolidation of power over the past 40 years. What was once owned by 50 companies in 1983 is now controlled by just five mass media conglomerates (this chart is dated – Viacom and CBS merged into ViacomCBS, and AT&T’s acquisition of WarnerMedia puts them on the media titan shortlist).
A growing player in the space, Amazon does not yet stand with these goliaths. Yet Bezos’ acquisition of the storied institution that is WaPo does reflect more of the same – massive companies swallowing up smaller mainstays, integrating them into a colossal, globalized corporate model.
The results of this sector-wide consolidation are too numerous to list or dissect. Perhaps the most easily observed consequence has been this: that our media has become assimilated to drive a narrative that comes directly from the top, from an ever-shrinking inner circle of telco elites.
Take for example former CEO and current chairman of Fox News, staunch conservative Rupert Murdoch. A $20 billion man, Murdoch has built and cultivated a sweeping, multinational media empire that funnels an often verbatim narrative straight from the mothership to local airwaves (watch this video).
Or take Bob Bakish, CEO of ViacomCBS who began earning $31 million annually, a 55% pay jump, after the two titans merged in 2019. Or John Stankey, whose pay rose by 64% in 2018 to $17 million per annum when, as CEO of WarnerMedia, he led the integration planning team for AT&T’s takeover of Time Warner.
Or take the $115 billion net-worth Bezos.
A common theme emerges – obscenely wealthy men becoming more obscenely wealthy by spearheading telco mergers and acquisitions. Of course, the winner’s purse does not stop with CEO’s (though it doesn’t extend much further, either). Top floor executives, large shareholders, board members – these are some of the small, elite segments that benefit from consolidation that brings more diversification, influence, and profit opportunity, to their portfolios.
But what does this evolution of the media landscape mean for you and me, as consumers of media?
At the last democratic presidential debate, the host network, CNN, came under fire on social media for their perceived bias and slanted questioning. Disgruntled viewers took to Twitter, and within hours, #CNNistrash began trending.
CNN’s parent company is the aforementioned WarnerMedia, which is owned by the aforementioned AT&T. The CEO of CNN is Jeff Zucker, another telco consolidation beneficiary, who served as CEO of NBC Universal before taking a $30 million exit deal when Comcast acquired NBC in 2010.
During the 2016 presidential election, CNN placed a heightened focus on on-air debates between partisan pundits surrounding issues relating to the candidates. In an interview with The New York Times, Zucker stated that aspects of its election coverage were influenced by sports channels, explaining that “the idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.”
In 2016, CNN reached a monthly average of 105 million unique visitors to its television, web, and mobile properties.
A few years prior, mired by falling ratings and a general struggle for survival, Zucker faced a tall task when he ascended to the helm of CNN. Luckily, a prize horse that he helped breed resurfaced to fuel his nascent “sporting” political tilt.
Indeed, it was Zucker who, in 2004 as president of NBC Entertainment, originally broadcasted “The Apprentice” at a time when Donald Trump was little more than a fledgling real estate promoter, beset with failing casinos, lawsuits abundant, and massive debt. Zucker made Trump the everyman’s billionaire (with a lower case “b”), put him on prime-time, and charted his course toward being a household name.
In 2016, Zucker’s new network, CNN, devoted countless hours of airtime to Trump. They prominently featured his rallies, “policy discussions” that never really were, and his otherwise ridiculous tweets, soundbites, and general strongmanning.
Of course, CNN was far from the only news organization to provide saturation coverage of the Trump campaign. The media measurement firm mediaQuant calculated that Trump received the equivalent of $5.8 billion in free media — known as “earned media,” as opposed to paid advertising — over the course of the election.
Strictly looking at the bottom-line, Donald Trump’s ascension has proved fabulous for CNN’s balance sheet:
“CNN, now part of the AT&T megalith, just reported $1.5 billion in profits on a mere $2.3 billion in revenue, despite Trump’s repeated complaints about its coverage of his administration, and repeated disparaging comments about its ratings. And while AT&T overall had relatively flat earnings this past quarter, its executives were already touting the bottom-line benefits of its acquisition of CNN and the rest of what’s now called WarnerMedia.”
Fox News, MSNBC, NYT, and yes, WaPo, have also enjoyed the “Trump bump”, churning out whatever combination of high ratings, subscribers, viewers, clicks, and profits, much to the delight of media conglomerate shareholders, who have seen steady rise in stock performance during Trump’s tenure.
So again we ask, what does this all mean for us?
It means that, much like the corporate consolidation we see in other verticals, the gains of the very few come at the expense of the many.
The likes of Zucker, Murdoch, and Bezos, along with their small circles at the top, have made out like bandits in the age of media consolidation and “sporting” political discourse. The rest of us are left with a devolved news cycle that seeks only to deliver a narrative straight from media mogul war rooms, one designed with a specific goal in mind: to drive profit and allay shareholder pressure. As our sources of understanding have become crunched together and dropped in the laps of the very few, less people now have more control over the narrative than ever. And that narrative has to be profitable.
Most importantly, it leaves us in darkness – to the detriment of the light.
Zero Dark Bernie
In April of 2015, a Vermont Senator and self-described democratic socialist decided to run for President, and the world shrugged. Polling at just 3%, the wacky, arm flailing, would-be revolutionary, is an afterthought.
What very few expected would happen over the following year, happened. As the primary progressed, he shattered record after record in donation volume and dollars raised from small donors. His message of political revolution give birth to the undeniably largest, most prolific grassroots campaign this country has ever seen.
Did you know that, back in 2016?
You would not have learned it from mainstay media outlets. Like most of what the candidate says, his cries of a “media blackout” were and are rooted in a profound, ugly reality. That, in spite of an unprecedented insurgency, Bernie Sanders has long been benched by the mainstream media.
To bring truth (or light) to this blackout (or darkness), let’s examine two charts presented in this data-rich study on media bias conducted by decisiondata.org (obviously, a study you’d never see done by the media titans, as they’re the ones implicated):
The research tells us that, in spite of overwhelming public interest (and record-setting investment) in his campaign, Sanders did not receive commensurate media coverage.
How is the most successful grassroots campaign this country has ever seen not newsworthy?
On April 10th, 2016, almost a year to the day exactly after he announced his candidacy, Sanders’ meteoric rise peaked. He narrowed a 57% polling gap to a mere 1%.
We all know what happened next. Despite a fledgling campaign devoid of momentum, using blanket media coverage and objective collusion with the DNC, the powers-that-be shoehorned their heir-apparent into her nomination.
Even if you don’t accept the above [coverage/searches] metric as full-proof, what can’t be denied is that the coverage Sanders *did* get from the mainstream media is overwhelmingly slanted, truth-obscuring, and lacking nuance (remember, our three tenets of “darkness”).
This is a trend that has bled over into the 2020 election cycle. I’ll pause my verbosity and instead allow pictures to tell the story.
If you prefer a video that captures the above trend, here ya go.
Did you notice the WaPo content mixed in above? This brings us full circle back to our friend, Jeff Bezos.
The *~Official~* Wayward Duck 2020 Presidential Endorsement
It’s taken us a while to get here, so let’s get to it.
This year I am actively campaigning for and will vote for my favorite wacky, arm-flailing, grandfather-figure, Bernie Sanders. Here’s why.
Bernie has demonstrated that he will do the right thing and fight for everyday people, even when it was hard. From protesting segregation to fighting for LGBT rights, he has been on the right side even when it wasn’t politically expedient. There’s no other candidate who has a record like he does and there’s no other candidate who deserves our trust as much as he does.
Bernie is the only 2020 candidate who cautioned us about the war in Iraq, and he was absolutely right. He also raised awareness of the dangers of climate change more than 30 years ago, and he was absolutely right again. In fact, his message has been incredibly consistent for decades.
Bernie has been fighting for us since before most of us were born, and he has a long list of accomplishments. Many of which came in the face of opposition, and resulted in compromise. Indeed, even when he lost the nomination in 2016, he did the hard (but right) thing and went to 19 states and gave 39 speeches in support of HRC – a good 20 more speeches than Hillary gave for Obama when she lost the primary to him in 2008.
In nearly four decades of public service, Bernie has not wavered in his advocation for an economy that works for the many, not the few. Moreover, his once radical ideas of medicare-for-all, universal education, a $15 minimum wage, ending endless wars, bold action on climate change, getting money out of politics, and reforming our broken criminal justice system, just to name a few, now form some of the core pillars of the Democratic Party’s platform.
He is the only candidate with the message, momentum, and voracious, unrivaled grassroots support to take on the large corporations, military industrial complex, prison industrial complex, big pharma, big oil, and the rest of the powers-that-be that have variable interests in the above policies not coming to fruition.
…and we can’t forget our friends at the media conglomerates, right?
As we’ve discussed, the ever-consolidating media titans constantly make baseless attacks on Bernie’s character, or omit him from coverage altogether, in effort to foment a “sporting” political bend and drive profit.
Indeed, the news mentions Biden four times as much as Bernie despite similar polling numbers. They also mention Warren more than twice as much, and they even mention Buttigieg more often despite the fact that he’s polling far below. Leftwing media is giving him such bad coverage that Fox News viewers are more likely to support Bernie than MSNBC viewers are.
The powers-that-be, spearheaded by a controlled mass media narrative, are trying to steer this election just like the last one. So of course they’ll do their best to downplay the fact that Bernie has the most supporters by far, he’s surging in the polls and he has overwhelming support amongst young voters. And they’re definitely not going to tell you that a recent Emerson poll found that Bernie is the only candidate beating Trump in a nationwide head-to-head.
Jeff Bezos and Bernie Sanders have a famous feud, so of course Bezos donated large sums to Hillary Clinton’s campaign 2016. Of course Amazon, AT&T, Comcast, and the rest of the “who’s who” of media magnates who, in addition to fomenting objective slandering across their channels, are currently (and have been) using Super-PAC’s as a vehicle to contribute unfettered capital to the campaigns of their preferred candidates, often under the guise of anonymity, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
The only candidate who hasn’t taken a dime of that money, and thus is beholden not to corporate interests, but to the interests of the common person, is…well you already know who it is.
Straight from Bernie Sanders.com:
Sanders’ plan would create $150 billion in grants and aid for local and state governments to build publicly owned broadband networks as part of the Green New Deal infrastructure initiative. The total would mark a massive increase over current funding for broadband development initiatives. The proposal would also break up what the campaign calls “internet service provider and cable monopolies,” stop service providers from offering content and end what it calls “anticompetitive mergers.”
“We are facing an ecological crisis in our time. One would think CBS, NBC would be doing primetime specials and having scientists on, but they don’t. We have to deal with the fact that media is more and more owned by large conglomerates whose sole function is to sell ads.”
“In 1983, 50 corporations controlled a majority of American media. Now that number is six. We cannot live in a vibrant democracy unless people get divergent sources of information.”
If you see as I do that, unlike the Washington Post tagline might suggest, our contemporary media has abetted the darkness in our democracy…
If you see as I do that there is indeed light in these dark times in the form of the most progressive, revolutionary grassroots movement this country has ever seen, poised to take on the political establishment, private interests, and the media conglomerates that suppress this light…
If you see as I do, I implore you to join me, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Pramilla Jayapal, countless scientists, climate activists, union leaders, scholars, academics, teachers, over one million “average joe” volunteers and small donors like you and me, and even Ariana Grande…
JOIN US in reclaiming our democracy from the darkness.
Donate, canvas, organize, host an event, phone bank.
(I’ve been making calls on the Bernie dialer like I did in 2016 – it’s a lot of fun and they make it really easy!)