(CN) – Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders announced plans Tuesday to shake up the business of journalism and crack down on media monopolies, vowing to shore up local news and revitalize an industry beleaguered by consolidation if elected in 2020.
In an op-ed published in the Columbia Journalism Review on Monday, Sanders decried the years-long “assault on journalism” by the elite billionaire class, “hedge fund vultures” and corporate conglomerates.
The senator from Vermont argues corporations owning the lion’s share of news markets have contributed to a national shrinkage of newsrooms. The consolidations often lead to layoffs, he argues, and in turn, fewer reporters work local beats and fewer pieces of critical news uncovering corruption are published.
Sanders wants to put the squeeze on technology giants like Facebook and Google by strengthening oversight at the federal level. He would appoint an attorney general at the Federal Trade Commission and a litany of other officials to better enforce existing antitrust laws.
His plan features a reversal of a controversial Trump administration maneuver from November 2017. At the time, the FCC made it easier to win approval for mergers between massive companies. Sanders would close the loophole.
“What Trump has done allows cross-ownership of newspapers and television or radio stations; he has also given the green light to owning multiple stations in the same market,” Sanders wrote.
The FCC’s reversal created a situation where communities have little diversity in their news coverage, an issue that affects not just what people read but even the cost of living. A May 2018 study cited by the senator outlines this phenomenon: When local news dries up, overall costs to taxpayers increase because there is less scrutiny on the government.
Under his plan, major media groups would have to disclose whether their merger would involve significant layoffs. It mandates that media employees receive a chance to purchase outlets through employee stock ownership plans too.
Steven Thrasher, a professor of journalism at Northwestern University, said among the more notable proposals outlined by Sanders is his suggestion to tax targeted ads online and use those funds to prop up “nonprofit civic-minded media.”
“Various municipal, state and federal government programs have produced ‘civic minded media’ for decades, from WNYC to NPR and PBS. Readers of Sanders’ plan ought to think of taxing targeted ads as just, well, taxed,” Thrasher said. “Say Facebook or Google or Apple put up a preview link on their platform to a story I wrote. Only a fraction of the readers will click through my story, but Facebook or Google or Apple get the benefit of letting their viewers get the most important info from my work.”
The company could place an ad next to a headline and it may sell that information to another company, Thrasher continued.
But in this example, neither the writer of the piece nor the publisher see any profit.
“Nor will these companies pay much, if any, taxes on the exchange. How is that fair? These companies get the benefit of the labor of journalists without paying them or into the public good?” Thrasher said.
While some may disagree with the targeted ad tax, the premise triggers a valuable discussion, he added.
“It gets people to think critically about how media is made and it implicitly makes the case that journalists need an economically fair world in order to work. We cannot sit around pretending like we are not workers or people who need housing or people who need clean air to breathe,” Thrasher said, noting he hasn’t “signed off” on all of Sanders suggestions.
“But I concur with him that the owners of the media work diligently to create an economy which serves their interest,” he added.
Jim Naureckas, editor of FAIR.org, the nonprofit group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, said Sanders’ plan serves a dual purpose.
“First, it distinguishes Bernie Sanders’ criticisms of corporate media from Donald Trump’s attacks on reporting he doesn’t like. Sanders is for journalism and Trump is against it and this plan helps make clear that difference,” Naureckas said.
Conservative bloggers and news sites criticized Sanders’ plan as a “socialist takeover” of the media, but Naureckas and Thrasher dispel the suggestion.
“This is very much a capitalist proposal in that it’s talking about antitrust regulations that keep the media industry from becoming too consolidated. It doesn’t change ownership, it prevents that ownership from being monopolized and that anti-monopoly approach is standard capitalist philosophy,” Naureckas said.
Thrasher emphasized the so-called socialism some critics point to already exists.
“The handful of companies which control media in the U.S. ask for socialism all the time but they call it lobbying. Apple, for instance, has aggressively been aggregating news media for its products without paying for its production, all the while paying no taxes. That’s corporate welfare,” he said.
The current arrangement for mass media also tends to pick winners and losers.
When local or smaller news markets are gutted by way of lucrative corporate takeovers, readers have less overall choice of what to read and fewer journalists to turn to.
This is particularly impactful for journalists of color and what happens to these journalists has a national impact, Thrasher said.
“Sanders’ plan acknowledges how mergers and deregulation hurt black journalists and other journalists of color the most. Nearly 90% of journalists are white in a country plagued by racism. And if the public had more journalists of color, their media literacy would be far better in critically thinking about the issues of racism, migration and white supremacy,” he said.
Tim Gleason, a professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, found Sanders proposal to be a “well-intentioned effort” but far from groundbreaking.
“While the focus on creating a broader and more diverse media ownership landscape is appropriate, it does not address the fundamental issue that is driving the current ownership and consolidation trends. The reality is that the funding model to support high quality journalism is broken,” Gleason said.
Noting Monday’s 22-page print version of an Oregon paper purchased in 2018, before the recent Gannett-GateHouse Media merger, Gleason observed it was bereft of advertisements: just three pages of classifieds and less than one full page of display advertising.
“You can’t support a quality newspaper with that level of advertising, no matter who owns the paper. There is no reason to believe this trend will change given the business model for GateHouse,” he said.