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Bernie Sanders Makes Media Democracy An Issue For 2020 Primary Voters

Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign put out a plan for addressing the collapse in journalism in the United States. He became the first presidential candidate to propose solutions to a crisis that has greatly intensified since 2000.

The plan was introduced through an op-ed that was published by the Columbia Journalism Review.

In the op-ed, Sanders contended the decimation of journalism was largely owed to the control technology corporations, like Facebook and Google, have over digital advertising, as well as how “corporate conglomerates” and “hedge fund vultures” buy and consolidate “beleaguered” news organizations, which results in layoffs.

Sanders proposed an end to the “rubber-stamping” of media mergers and a moratorium on future mergers. He suggested that employees should be able to purchase stock in a media company before mergers are approved.

Limits on media ownership have been relaxed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Sanders called for a return to regulations on the number of stations that a broadcasting corporation may own.

Sanders pledged to enforce antitrust laws against technology corporations and seek out new ways to empower media employees so they may collectively bargain with what are effectively monopolies.

Plus, Sanders claimed his “Workplace Democracy Plan” would go a long way toward helping struggling journalists and media employees, and he endorsed a tax on targeted digital advertising, which the media reform advocacy group, Free Press, recommended in February.

“A 2 percent ad tax on all online enterprises that in 2018 earned more than $200 million in annual digital ad revenues would yield more than $1.8 billion a year for a new and independent Public Interest Media Endowment that would hand out grants to news and information projects,” according to Free Press.

Stunningly, as Free Press outlined, “Since 2004, about 20 percent of U.S. newspapers have stopped printing, leaving nearly 200,000 newsroom employees without work and at least 900 communities without anyone covering local news.”

Such a proposal could fund “local news startups, sustain investigative projects, seed civic engagement initiatives, and lift up diverse voices that have long been excluded from traditional media coverage.”

Generally, the “Workplace Democracy Plan” would make it easier for employees of a media organization to form a union. Employees could organize through a “majority sign up process.” A company would not be able to prevent a union by denying a first contract. “Misclassifying” employees as independent contractors would end, and no longer would employees be required to attend anti-union meetings.

Furthermore, Sanders believes a Medicare For All plan would take some pressure off employees in the media industry. It could be especially beneficial for freelancers, who do not have salaried jobs that come with access to employer health insurance packages.

The FCC, led by Ajit Pai, who was a lobbyist and former associate general counsel for Verizon, eliminated a media ownership rule in 2017 that had existed for 40 years. It prohibited corporations from owning newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market.

It was viewed as a gift to companies like the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group that would further enable media consolidation.

“Today’s FCC vote should be a national scandal,” Free Press president Craig Aaron declared. “Chairman [Ajit] Pai has warped FCC policies and process to accommodate the creation of a [Donald] Trump-friendly local-television conglomerate. The Sinclair Broadcast Group’s unabashed goal is to monopolize local television markets and push its pro-Trump brand of propaganda over the public airwaves.”

The vote likely encouraged CBS to re-merge with Viacom. That takes the country back to five corporations controlling 90 percent of the media that most Americans consume.

As far as corporate conglomerates and hedge fund vultures are concerned, Sanders points to “Gannett’s proposed merger with Gatehouse Media,” which “will consolidate hundreds of publications under one mega-corporation’s control and slash $300 million worth of ‘synergies.’” The new Gannett/Gatehouse CEO stands to earn $4.5 million bonuses and stock while any number of employees could be terminated.

Senator Bernie Sanders has long been at the forefront when it comes to making media a political issue.

In April 2002, Sanders, who was a congressman, welcomed people in Vermont to two town meetings. A post by John Nichols and Robert McChesney indicates that he talked about the “rabidly pro-corporate bias in the news media, the ways this bias undermines movements for economic and social justice, and the closing of lines of information and insight that are necessary for informed self-governance.”

Sanders insisted that corporate media was a “part of a corrupt ‘best government money can buy’ system, in particular through their dreadful coverage of political campaigns.”

These meetings were regarded by Nichols and McChesney as a “milestone” event for the U.S. media reform movement that had already forced the government to license low-power FM community radio stations and fueled the spread of “Indymedia” or people’s journalism.

Activism around media reform issues grew throughout the 2000s, especially while President George W. Bush’s administration moved to relax media ownership rules. There was optimism for legislation that could address some of the most critical problems. However, nothing came of it. By 2010, more than a year into President Barack Obama’s administration, there had been an epidemic of newspapers shutting down.

Nichols and McChesney described what was happening as a “dire moment for democracy,” but their recommendation that government subsidize newspapers was rejected as an idea that would “foster totalitarianism,” despite the fact that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and others had instituted postal and printing subsidies to ensure freedom of the press.

Two of the country’s leading advocates for media democracy further noted:

As 2009 wore on and the crisis extended–with the venerable Christian Science Monitor cutting print production from daily to weekly, newspapers in Seattle and Ann Arbor ceasing print publication to exist solely online, with papers in Denver, Tucson and other cities closing altogether, and with talk of closures from San Francisco to Boston–the urgency of the moment, and the recognition that journalism would not be reborn on the Internet or saved by foundation grants, made it harder to dismiss subsidies. By year’s end, the Columbia Journalism Review was highlighting a report by Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson that proposed requiring “broadcasters, Internet service providers, and telecom users to pay into a fund that would be used to support local accountability journalism in communities around the country.” CJR called the idea a “radical suggestion.”

Downie was the executive editor for the Washington Post, and Schudson is a Columbia University journalism professor. Their proposal was put forward to achieve many of the same goals Sanders would like to achieve through a tax on digital advertising.

With the Democratic presidential primary unfolding, this is the state of journalism, as summarized by Sanders.

Over the past 15 years, more than 1,400 communities across the country have lost newspapers, which are the outlets local television, radio, and digital news sites rely on for reporting. Since 2008, we have seen newsrooms lose 28,000 employees—and in the past year alone, 3,200 people in the media industry have been laid off. Today, for every working journalist, there are six people now working in public relations, often pushing a corporate line.

Most recently, the Pacific Standard was cut off from Sage Publications, its primary source of funding, and shut down. Governing, which published reporting on state and local government for 32 years, also shut down after management concluded the publication was no longer sustainable in the present media environment.

To reflect on his 2016 presidential campaign, but ensure that movements he aligned with and energized would continue their work, Sanders wrote Our Revolution: A Future To Believe In. The final chapter before the conclusion is “Corporate Media And The Threat To Our Democracy.”

“Media shapes our very lives. It tells us what products we need to buy and by the quantity of coverage and nature of coverage what is ‘important’ and what is ‘unimportant.’ Media shapes our political consciousness and informs us, as to the scope of what is ‘realistic’ and ‘possible,’” Sanders stated.

It highlighted how issues the richest one percent of Americans want to promote receive airtime while issues important to working families, like poverty, receive little to no airtime.

“Political coverage is the drama of what happens on the campaign trail,” Sanders contended. He acknowledged the way in which politics is presented as entertainment. The way corporate media presented Donald Trump’s presidential campaign directly benefited him because he was a reality television star.

Previously, the Sanders campaign argued most in the establishment press dislike him and even see his supporters as “annoying.” The campaign specifically singled out the Washington Post for its publication of editorials, op-eds, and reporting that consistently sustain the most negative prejudices toward the campaign. They suggested it may have something to do with the fact that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns the newspaper.

“We are taking on corporate America. Large corporations own the media in America, by and large, and I think there is a framework, about how the corporate media focuses on politics. That is my concern. It’s not that Jeff Bezos is on the phone every day; he’s not,” Sanders said.

Critiques of the media have opened up the campaign to comments from pundits that equate Sanders with Trump, who regularly labels media coverage he does not like as “fake news.” But Sanders’ media plan exposes the shallowness of this viewpoint.

Sanders sees democratizing media as an objective that is crucial to movements for social justice. His campaign understands that news personalities have “generous contracts,” which make them inclined to present perspectives favored by wealthy and corporate individuals.

The Sanders campaign is not promoting solutions that will enable “real journalism” in order to make it easier for him to amass power if he is elected, and “real journalism” is not some catch-all phrase that is the opposite of “fake news.”

Sanders has proposed meaningful reforms so that pervasive corruption, like mortgage fraud, is less likely to go unreported or under-reported. He also recognizes that the only profession protected under the Constitution is in deep crisis, and the country will be worse off if the government does not step in to try and save journalism.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."