The president of the United States tells a TV interviewer, “Much of the media — not all of it — is very, very dishonest. Honestly, it’s fake news.” His chief strategist calls the mainstream media “the opposition party,” and suggests that it “should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” A police officer arresting a reporter who is covering, not participating in, a violent protest, exclaims, “I’m tired of y’all saying you’re journalists!”
Intemperate statements like these from government officials provoke fears of looming authoritarian controls on the media. These fears are understandable, but they are also a distraction. What’s really going on is the breakdown of two strongly held notions about press freedom: first, that the practice of journalism should be an autonomous calling beholden to no one, especially no government; and second, that journalism thrives best in an unregulated market.
These notions don’t apply to the media in most other countries, as the world grows increasingly hostile to good journalism. And they apply less and less to US media outlets, which have changed dramatically in the last few years.
As America’s best journalists work to unravel the connections between Russian intelligence and Trump advisers past and present, the power of our free press seems undiminished. But if citizens miss the importance of this reporting — either because they are ill-informed about Putin’s Russia or because they dismiss all reporters as partisan and biased — how long can news-gathering last?
Put bluntly, it’s not enough to assert that a free press is the lifeblood of liberal democracy. We must also recognize that liberal democracy is the lifeblood of a free press. And if liberal democracy stops working, no one should expect the press alone to fix it.
For most of American history, the notion that journalism is autonomous and beholden to no one existed in tension with other interests and priorities. That changed during the Vietnam War, when reporters defied efforts by the military to shape their coverage. Next came the Watergate scandal, when Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped to topple President Nixon. By 1976, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman were playing the heroes in “All the President’s Men.”
To watch that movie today is to be struck by its confident portrayal of The Washington Post as an autonomous institution loyal only to a code of disinterested truth-telling. A similar portrayal can be found in other Hollywood films about brave whistle-blowers joining with bold investigative reporters to expose wrongdoing at the highest levels of power.
Such stories are dramatic, but for high-level wrongdoing to be corrected, a couple of less dramatic things must also occur. The public must demand action through organized political pressure, and the system must respond in a reasonably constructive and transparent way. It’s obvious to repeat, but these are far more likely to occur in a liberal democracy than in an authoritarian state.
The second notion, that journalism thrives best in an unregulated market, fails to reckon with the fact that good journalism almost never makes money. It is expensive to produce, and its audience tends to be small. As Nabil Khatib, the widely respected executive editor of the Saudi-owned news channel Al-Arabiya, once told me, “If you’re interested in news, you need to be independent of governments. But news isn’t profitable, and that is a challenge that many in our region resolved by relying on government help.”
Until recently, the privately owned media in America resolved this challenge through “cross-funding” — that is, by supporting the less profitable (but worthy) side of the business with revenue from the more profitable side. Newspapers paid for the newsroom with advertising (commercial and classified) and coverage of popular topics (sports, gossip, crime, fashion, etc.). Broadcast networks sustained their relatively small news divisions with earnings from their much larger entertainment divisions.
These arrangements worked so well that we forget that the government also played a significant role in shaping the structure of the news industry. The pre-Internet “legacy” media, newspapers and networks, supported good journalism for intangible motives like tradition, prestige, and public service. But the networks had a more tangible motive: regulation. Starting in 1934, each broadcaster had to apply for a license from the Federal Communications Commission. And in the process, it had to submit evidence that it was providing enough news to “serve community needs.” Broadcasters also had to abide by the Fairness Doctrine, which required coverage of controversial public affairs in a way that included “contrasting views.”
This regime lasted till the 1980s, when, under President Reagan, the FCC sharply reduced the licensing requirements and repealed the Fairness Doctrine. The rationale was that the rapid proliferation of radio and TV channels occurring at the time pointed to a future where the best way to serve community needs and present contrasting views would be through market competition. Under President Clinton, the FCC used a similar rationale to relax the limits on media ownership in any given market.
In retrospect, it seems contradictory to repeal the Fairness Doctrine on the ground that greater market competition will increase the diversity of viewpoints, and then hand the nation’s media over to a few giant companies. But amid the free-market euphoria of the 1980s and ’90s, any action claiming to liberate the media from the heavy hand of government was politically popular. The same is true today. As the legacy media struggle to find a new business model that will allow them to survive in the digital age, their focus remains almost entirely on the private sector.
Meanwhile, the US government has spent 75 years working to spread the benefits of a free press to the rest of the world. Starting in 1942 with the Voice of America’s first broadcast into Nazi Germany, government-funded news organizations such as Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and others have trained foreign nationals to practice Western-style journalism in their own languages and countries. In doing so, these organizations have expanded into every media platform and built a sturdy firewall to protect their news operations from political meddling. Similar work has been done by other Western governments, via outlets such as the BBC World Service, Radio Canada International, Deutsche Welle, and Radio France Internationale. And since the 1990s, the cause of press freedom has been taken up by thousands of private-sector nonprofits.
These efforts have had many successes but, according to the latest report from Freedom House, have stagnated more recently. The portion of the world’s people living in countries where the press is free is now 13 percent, with another 41 percent living in countries where the press is “partly free,” and 46 percent living in countries where it is “not free.” Global press freedom has receded to its worst point in more than a decade, the organization concludes.
This bleak picture is not brightened by the news that, during his last month in office, President Obama signed into law a hastily drafted bill giving direct operational control of Voice of America and the US international media system to a presidentially appointed CEO. Perhaps Obama thought this reform would empower his Democratic successor. Instead, it will tear down the firewall and expose the system to the political whim of the Trump White House.
This bad news resonates overseas, because the decline in press freedom reported by Freedom House tracks a “10-year slide” in democracy itself, with 61 countries becoming more democratic but 105 becoming less so. In many nations, dictators, oligarchs, and other powerful people have been asserting control over state-funded media, buying private news organizations and reducing them to political mouthpieces, and cracking down on free-expression nonprofits that refuse to register with the security police.
In the United States, we don’t believe these trends involve us. If Americans seem unperturbed by the global decline in press freedom, one reason may be that our own media rarely report it. Indeed, few US news organizations report any foreign news, because a big part of their survival strategy is to slash international coverage and hope wire coverage, social media, and citizen journalism will fill the vacuum. This isn’t happening, at least not for the average citizen. Educated elites are more likely to follow international news through new media. But they, too, seem unconcerned.
Our American belief in journalism as a freestanding, autonomous activity that thrives best in an unfettered market blinds us to certain harsh realities. We find it more congenial to challenge state-controlled media in countries like Russia, China, and Iran than to scrutinize patterns of intimidation and control in countries where the media appear privately owned and politically diverse, but are in fact deeply compromised.
On a recent visit to Indonesia, I spoke with a broadcast journalist whose TV station was owned by a wealthy businessman who had recently become involved in politics. During a hotly contested election, the owner’s candidate lost the first round of voting, and the owner reacted by asking the station not to cover the rest of the campaign. In the past, there had been pressures to boost ratings and sell ads. But this type of request was new. Some reporters objected, but that only infuriated the owner. Rumors began to circulate about the reporters’ moral character, and they quit.
Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country, where many restrictions on press freedom are imposed in the name of religion. But as this episode suggests, other restrictions are imposed for reasons found everywhere: ambition, cronyism, and greed. In many countries, journalists earn very little, leading some to accept bribes from powerful people in exchange for favorable coverage. In Indonesia this happens despite the fact that media companies make a lot of money from advertising.
Clearly, private ownership is no guarantee of journalistic standards. When media tycoons work in tandem with powerful political figures, the already ruthless competition for eyeballs and clicks becomes a contest for votes, and what used to be called “news” becomes a shrill, nasty cacophony disrespectful of truth and corrosive of social trust. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the same pattern is threatening to emerge in America. And that, more than authoritarian control, is the real danger facing us now.
Is regulation the answer? In America the question is moot, because there is no political will for a crackdown by the FCC. And even if there were, there is no technologically feasible way to so do without copying the efforts of rulers in China, Russia, Iran, and other “not free” nations to herd their people into tightly controlled “intranets” where they can be entertained and distracted while also being cut off from the rest of the world.
In an open society like ours, the only alternative is vigilance — not just among journalists but among citizens — and a renewed commitment to professional standards of truth and objectivity. This is not the first crisis facing the American tradition of press freedom. But it is an insidious one, hard to detect because of our stubborn but illusory faith that good journalism will naturally thrive in a wide-open, unregulated market. It won’t.
Martha Bayles, who teaches humanities at Boston College, is the author of “Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad.”