As we enter a new year with a frightening new president-elect, American pundits have been discussing, with some urgency, various flaws in American democracy. Leaks from hackers allegedly collaborating with state actors, an archaic Electoral College, Donald Trump’s hostility toward the press and Facebook’s electoral news judgment have all been the focus of a great deal of discussion in the dominant media.
But while pundits on cable news outlets argue about these issues, media executives who sign their paychecks are positively elated about the 2016 election, which thanks to $2.4 billion in political ad spending and record ratings, was great for Big Media’s bottom line. “This is the best year in the history of cable news,” said CNN President Jeff Tucker in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
This jubilation is rooted in the two biggest threats to any semblance of democracy, both rarely examined by the media: (1) the pervasive role of corporate money in our elections, and (2) the fact that the media outlets that should be vigorously investigating this trend are owned by the same corporate interests that profit so much from it. This scenario is not merely a conflict of interest but a crisis of democracy.
A Post-Citizens United World
Much of this problem can be traced back to 2010 and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Citizens United allowed corporations to spend limitless amounts on Super PACs, which started up as a result of the ruling. It was a blow to democracy but a windfall for media conglomerates. The decision, wrote the Associated Press at the time, constituted a virtual “stimulus package” for broadcast and cable corporations, which benefit from billions in added political advertising revenue. An analyst for SNL Kagan called it “a political ad revenue treasure trove for broadcasters.”
In 2010, the first election after the decision, media broadcasters benefited from record-breaking political ad spending surpassing $3 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), which noted that spending was made “considerably easier” due to the Citizens decision. “We knew this election could make spending history, but the rate of growth is stunning,” said Sheila Krumholz, CRP’s executive director.
During 2012, amidst the first presidential election following the ruling, the exorbitant spending continued. “Super PACs may be bad for America, but they are very good for CBS,” CBS President Les Moonves infamously said, while celebrating 180 million in new profits.
Moonves’ statement is honest enough, and ensuring these profits is his job — which is the crux of the problem. It is not, however, his job to make sure the public is properly informed, despite the fact that his organization’s mission statement makes bold promises to provide “some of the most aggressive investigative reporters in the business” and give you the information “we believe you have the right to know.” Corporations, whether they produce media content or paperclips, serve a sole purpose. These executives have a fiduciary responsibility to put shareholder profit above all else — even the public good.
This was a troubling dynamic long before the 2010 Citizens decision. It has accelerated a media agenda that, “bounded within certain limits,” to use Noam Chomsky’s phrase, generally amplifies elite interests. “They determine, they select, they shape, they control, they restrict — in order to serve the interests of dominant, elite groups in the society,” he said. The loosening of campaign finance restrictions gives the media yet more incentive to maintain the status quo — which is a political and electoral system dominated by private capital.
Trump and 2016: “Bad for America, Damn Good” for Dominant Media
As CNN’s Tucker explained, 2016 was even better for many broadcasters than past elections. Political ad spending for the 2016 cycle reached an estimated $2.4 billion with more than 3.3 million airings, according to research from the Wesleyan Media Project. Among the beneficiaries were CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, which will “combine for approximately $1.96 billion in gross as sales in 2016,” said a Politico report, citing projections from SNL Kagan. “Compare that to $1.72 million in calendar year 2015 (which saw a number of high-profile primary debates), and $1.56 million in calendar year 2012, the last presidential election year.”
In particular, CNN made $100 million more in ad revenues this year than in past election years. The Time Warner-owned subsidiary, according to Fortune, may earn $1 billion in profits this year. This would be a first for the company, which, as Truthout documented in July, has openly embraced a sharp ideological shift to attract conservatives, in part, by hiring Trump apologists during the campaign.
These massive profits occurred despite what was an unexpected decline in political advertising revenue, due to Trump spending far less on television ads than past GOP nominees, instead relying on Twitter and free television coverage. So, while the money spent on political advertising is still incredibly high, it was projected to be much greater had a more conventional Republican candidate been the nominee.
Trump’s relative lack of ad spending was in many ways the media’s own fault. While Trump frequently complained about the corrupt media, he benefited greatly from the sheer volume of coverage he received from it — the equivalent to almost $5 billion in free “earned media,” according to data from MediaQuant, which analyzes media trends. Trump, therefore, was outspent by a 3-1 ratio. While this meant fewer-than-expected ad buys, the media were profiting in a different way: Trump was a ratings monster.
In a flashback to his 2012 statement on Super PACs, the ever-quotable Moonves made this point. The Trump campaign “may not be good for America, but it is damn good for CBS,” Moonves said at a Telecom conference during the primaries. Moonves celebrated not only the ad revenue but also the high ratings generated by the “bomb throwing” and the “circus” atmosphere. “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us,” Moonves said. “Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” Trump obliged. As Forbes reported on November 10:
Total primetime viewership was up 50 percent from last year across CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, and viewership in the lucrative 25-54 demographic was up 55 percent. This increased viewership translated directly into ad dollars. SNL Kagan, a media analytics company, predicts ad revenue for cable news networks to reach almost $2 billion in 2016, which is up 15% from 2015 and 25% from 2012, the year of last presidential election. CNN will reportedly see almost $1 billion in gross profit in 2016, which marks a 14% year over year increase. According to SNL Kagan, Fox News will also have a record-breaking year, with gross profit topping $1.67 billion.
Ratings were so high that, according to Ad Age, CNN was demanding “40 times its normal rate for commercial time” in the September 16 Republican debate. While there were no commercials during the general election debates — which drew around 70 million viewers — Variety reported that it cost “between $200,000 and $225,000 for a 30-second ad during” CNN’s post-debate coverage. Even the mighty NFL saw its ratings decline when Trump’s reality-show-style campaign hit its peak.
On some level, it is good that 70 million Americans are engaged enough to watch a debate, or to follow election coverage. But the problem is that the Trump-related ratings boosts were largely a product of his outrageous, crude, sexist and racist comments and policy proposals. Meanwhile, the substance of the candidates’ platforms was sparsely covered by corporate media; instead, coverage “focused on the horse race over the issues — to the detriment of candidates and voters alike,” as a 2016 Harvard study on the election concluded.
Media Fail to Cover Campaign Finance Issues
While most networks followed a basic strategy of covering Trump’s every movement for over a year, they continued to ignore the crisis of corporate money in politics and the influence of Citizens United.
When they did cover political advertising and corporate spending, most media missed the point, said Paul S. Ryan, Vice President for Policy and Litigation at Common Cause, in an interview with Truthout.
“The problem isn’t so much a lack of coverage of money in politics,” said Ryan, whose organization Common Cause has been working to overturn the ruling. “The problem is the emphasis on horserace coverage — on how this money may help a candidate win or lose.”
Indeed, questions over which billionaires and industries will back which candidate, or how much of a war chest each campaign has, are common focuses of coverage. Far less common, however, are questions about how this incentive for politicians to endear themselves to powerful corporate interests affects elections and, more broadly, democracy.
In late 2015 Bloomberg Politics published a study showing a stunning consensus: 78 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, want to overturn Citizens United. Yet, the story failed to gain traction in much of the major media outlets. The New York Times’ search engine, for instance, reveals the paper didn’t even cover the Bloomberg Politics study.
“The ever-more-concentrated corporate media really don’t want to discuss Citizens United or the public’s overwhelming desire to overturn it,” progressive columnist Thom Hartmann has argued. “In fact, even though our TV networks have spent hours breaking down every single Donald Trump poll, they’ve so far completely ignored that amazing Bloomberg study on opposition to Citizens United.”
The Media Lobby at Work
In addition to all the added profits, Citizens United also gives media conglomerates the chance to spend as much as they want to influence policy through donations, Super PACs, lobbying and so on. While the media lobby, like a lot of industries, favored Clinton over Trump in 2016, the Center for Responsive Politics notes, “the commercial television and radio station industry historically has leaned Republican.”
CRP’s data show how lobbying from broadcast media partners has spiked directly in correlation to the Citizens United decision:
One goal of the lobby will no doubt be further concentration of media ownership. Of particular concern is an effort for AT&T to buy Time Warner, which owns CNN, HBO, TBS and TNT, among scores of other media holdings. The $85 billion merger would be one of the largest such mergers in history and is opposed vigorously by media activism groups, such as Free Press, which works to “ensure that diverse viewpoints are represented in the media.
“This merger would create a media powerhouse unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. AT&T would control mobile and wired internet access, cable channels, movie franchises, a film studio and more,” writes Candace Clement at Free Press. “That means AT&T would control internet access for hundreds of millions of people and the content they view, enabling it to prioritize its own offerings and use sneaky tricks to undermine Net Neutrality. This merger would give one bad company way too much power.”
The CEOs of both companies recently appeared before a Senate subcommittee on antitrust to advocate for the merger. Should they succeed, it would exacerbate the problem of media concentration. At this point, about 90 percent of the country’s major media companies are owned by six corporations, including Time Warner, which brought in $28 billion in revenue in 2015.
In addition to defending media consolidation, the media lobby is also likely to press Trump’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman on several urgent matters, such as net neutrality and universal broadband. It is not certain who that will be yet, but Trump has sent ominous signals by choosing Jeff Eisenach and Mark Jamison to handle the FCC transition. Jamison came through the revolving door as a former Sprint lobbyist, while Eisenach once referred to net neutrality as “crony capitalism.”
“Both scholars are affiliated with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and both have expressed a desire topare back the scope of the FCC, shifting many of its currentduties to the Federal Trade Commission,” reports Forbes. As April Glaser wrote in Recode, “Trump’s FCC transition team may spell the end of net neutrality.”
Clinton made universal broadband access a key plank for her campaign, and President Obama’s FCC was also pushing this kind of proposal. The policy is touted for providing high-speed internet to those who lack it — almost one-third of Americans, as of 2011. Some also argue that investing in tech infrastructure would provide more economic stimulus than the brick-and-mortar infrastructure programs that Trump has promised. “Would you prefer your son or daughter lay fiber for a publicly-traded ISP or lay concrete for a government contractor?” asked Forbes magazine. But Jamison has been a critic of these plans, and Big Media, a major competitor with Internet providers, will be pushing the FCC hard as well.
These examples show even more ways in which our nation’s inequitable campaign finance policies give media companies incentive to ignore the implications for democracy in their coverage, while also pushing regressive policies.
The Way Forward
When corporations have the power to spend limitless amounts on advertising, broadcasting and cable companies will benefit. When politicians’ outrageous, offensive ruminations garner great ratings, the dominant media will happily provide them the platform to spread their lies and insults, so long as viewers tune in and advertising costs spike. And when corporate America is given more power and access, corporate media get more power and access too.
This dynamic makes it impossible for mainstream media to function as a press must function in a real democracy: as a vital civic tool to inform the public.
The perverse fact that the Donald Trump campaign made 2016 the best year in the history of cable news should scare Americans. It should also motivate the public to organize and liberate our political system — and the press — from the grip of corporate control.