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A Bill Intended to Protect Journalists Could End Up Boosting Far Right Media

A bill crafted to give local news leverage over Big Tech has drawn fierce criticism despite bipartisan support.

Critics say loopholes for broadcasters would allow right-wing networks such as Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group to enter into "cartel" negotiations with social media companies.

The Senate Judiciary Committee recently advanced the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA), a bill with the noble goal of supporting local and independent journalism by allowing news publishers to “collectively negotiate” with the Big Tech platforms they depend on to reach readers. Critics worry the legislation would empower conspiracy theorists and feed media conglomerates with a stranglehold on local news.

As local newspapers shutter and misinformation scatters across an online landscape dominated by the likes of Google and Facebook, supporters say the legislation would require the corporations to share massive ad revenues from sharing news links with the people who actually make the news. However, an unusual coalition of unions, liberal media watchdogs and libertarian tech groups have opposed or called for sweeping changes to various iterations of the bill. They say union-busting companies and far right propaganda outlets stand to benefit much more from the bill’s current language than would struggling local journalists.

Championed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and a bipartisan list of cosponsors, the JPCA would temporarily carve out protections in anti-trust law to allow news publishers to join up and negotiate with large web platforms over payment for “content.” Facebook and Meta are implicit targets, although many online platforms with more than 50 million users in the U.S. would also be required to negotiate publishing terms and share revenues from the targeted ads that follow news readers online.

Under the bill, eligible publishers engaged in “standard newsgathering practices” would create “joint negotiating entities” — critics call it a “cartel” — and hammer out agreements before a federal arbitration board on content display and subsidies from ad revenues. A social media company such as Twitter would be barred from removing links to publishers that demand to be paid for driving traffic and, as part of the negotiations, news outlets would be allowed to jointly withhold content from a given platform.

Eligible outlets would jointly negotiate over content placement and subsidies from the ad revenue generated from clicks on social media and search engines, for example. The idea is to break the monopsony of Big Tech platforms that act as gatekeepers to millions of news consumers.

“To preserve strong, independent journalism, we have to make sure news organizations are able to negotiate on a level playing field with the online platforms that have come to dominate news distribution and digital advertising,” Klobuchar said in a statement after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill on September 22.

Yet journalists had concerns about Klobuchar’s proposal from the start. They worried large, powerful publishers would elbow out local and independent newsrooms in negotiations to maintain their dominance on the big platforms. The current version of bill now limits eligible outlets to those with fewer than 1,500 employees, excluding companies such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and most national broadcasters.

However, critics say loopholes for broadcasters would allow right-wing networks such as Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group, which own or partner with local news stations across the country, to enter into “cartel” negotiations with social media companies, meaning they could negotiate for content placement and subsidies.

“The main problem with the JCPA is that it aims to ‘save journalism’ by allowing large media conglomerates to form cartels, by which they can extract payments from companies like Meta and Google for featuring their content,” said Tim Karr, communications director for the media and tech watchdog Free Press, in an interview. “But the companies that would benefit from this arrangement, including Fox Television, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Alden Global Capital, share a healthy portion of the blame for journalism job losses and other cuts to local newsroom operations that created the crisis in the first place.”

Adam Kovacevich, founder of the center-left Chamber for Progress, which is funded by tech companies, argues that far right propaganda networks and websites such Alex Jones’s Infowars, One American News, Breitbart and Newsmax — as well as a widening array Trumpist pundits and conspiracy theorists moonlighting as sources of “news” — could also demand that their links appear on searches and feeds, even if moderators decide they are promoting the kind of violence and misinformation that led to the January 6 riots.

“[The JCPA] permits a news outlet to bring a legal action against a platform to hold it liable for limiting the reach of content the platform owner finds offensive or contrary to its terms of service or community standards,” said Lisa Macpherson, a senior policy analyst at the media watchdog Public Knowledge, in an email to Truthout.

After facing a legislative challenge from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who demanded that content moderation be off limit for negotiations, Klobuchar settled for a compromise that gained bipartisan support in the Judiciary Committee. However, Macpherson said the compromise amendment is based on the idea that conservatives are singled out for censorship on tech platforms, a claim that has been repeatedly refuted by researchers.

“[The bill] will, if anything, increase the amount of disinformation and hate speech on the internet, totally contrary to its goal of improving our information landscape by ensuring more legitimate news,” Macpherson said.

Still, by redistributing ad revenue and ensuring news can reach readers, the JCPA could be a boon for independent and nonprofit newsrooms of all political stripes that rely on donations and social media exposure to survive. Such outlets have increasingly replaced traditional newspapers in local and state markets as ad revenue dries up and vulture capitalists close and consolidate local newsrooms. Meanwhile, the remaining local newspapers could negotiate for a new source of revenue and better online exposure.

Yet local journalists could still be left out under the current version of the bill, according to Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-CWA, a union that has organized a number of struggling newspapers facing consolidation. Despite recent amendments requiring publishers to report how much revenue they receive from platforms and how much goes to journalists, Schleuss said media consolidating corporations would still have incentives to gobble up struggling newsrooms to take advantage of a new source of profit while laying off workers and journalists.

“I believe that we need stronger language to ensure that the revenue from this bill goes to the workers that make journalism possible and is invested in the high-quality local journalism that those workers produce,” Schleuss told the Judiciary Committee last month.

The JCPA is reportedly headed to the Senate floor for a vote, but the NewsGuild-CWA is urging lawmakers not to vote on the legislation until further improvements are made. Macpherson said Congress should focus on different legislation entirely, including the American Innovation and Online Choice Act and the American Data Privacy and Protection Act, which would “rein in the excesses of Big Tech in a meaningful way.” Together, the bills would establish consumer rights for online data protection and allow for regulation of Big Tech companies under antitrust law.

Meanwhile, after a decade of changing their business models to succeed on Silicon Valley’s terms, corporate outlets and the publishing industry — the employers who would ultimately negotiate with Big Tech — are touting the JCPA as a success that would “correct the competitive imbalance” in news distribution as the age of print media fades.

Klobuchar has struck a nerve with the JCPA. Journalists and lawmakers on both sides are eager to break the Big Tech monopsony and revive local news, a pillar of civic and electoral life that has eroded in the age of cable news and polarizing algorithms. Unfortunately, despite Klobuchar’s invariably upbeat statements, nobody seems to agree on how to do it. .

Full disclosure: The Truthout team is represented by the United Media Guild under the NewsGuild-CWA.