The first amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the right to a free press (TV, radio, newspapers, blogs, social media). This is a right worth fighting for. The press that you don’t like today might be a very important friend at other times in your life.
Elon Musk is a living example. Mr. Musk is a renowned inventor, on par with the best in history. He is the founder, CEO, and lead designer of SpaceX; co-founder, CEO, and product architect of Tesla, Inc. On May 23, he complained via Twitter about the hypocrisy of the press and observed that journalists are under pressure to maximize advertising income for their employers. He proposed a new website that would issue credibility scores for journalists and publications, while also protecting against bot disinformation campaigns.
This is the same Elon Musk who benefitted from highly sympathetic press reports from 2013 through 2016 detailing his battle to market his new Tesla cars despite legal barriers put up by traditional gasoline engine car dealerships. That press was probably worth millions in revenues to his car company. Most recently, a critique from Consumer Reports about Tesla braking performance led to rapid corrections that earned Tesla a positive Consumer Reports recommendation by May 25th. This will probably mean many millions more in revenues.
Friends one day, enemies another, friends yet again. That’s how it is with the press. That’s why our Constitutional right to a free press must be protected. We hope Mr. Musk agrees.
We hope you agree too. Your favorite politician may or may not be benefitting from good press right now – but almost all politicians depend upon the press for their election campaigns and almost all benefit when the press digs up evidence of wrong-doing by your politician’s opponents. The press has also been helpful in defending your pocketbook, your health, and your property in all sorts of ways – stories about tricksy money lenders, unfair regulations, identity theft, opioid suppliers, and the abuse of eminent domain laws in land grabs to name just a few.
Yet, Mr. Musk is not wrong to complain that too much “journalism” is aimed at maximizing advertising revenues – especially on television and social media. Much of what is presented to us as “news” is actually a series of right-versus-left tugs at our emotions rather than factual descriptions of events, policies, options, and implications. Some of it is “hate bait” designed to generate fear and distrust, designed to make us forget our common identity as Americans, all equally deserving of our respect, one American to another.
Mr. Musk could help clean up this mess, not by attacking journalists, but rather by helping find a fix for the incentive system that drives them.
Frankly, the journalism situation is quite dire. The number of independently owned news providers capable of covering state level stories, much less national or international stories, has been falling for years – along with the number of journalists – especially in the heartland away from the coasts. This collapse is happening because revenues have been diverted away from them by thousands of websites for job seekers, car buyers, banking services, and so on – and by news aggregators such as Facebook and Google who provide free access to many new stories produced at cost by newspapers and other media companies. And by ad blockers. We consumers take advantage of all of this. So, yes, the “journos” are indeed starving for clicks. Perhaps the solution is news in return for a subscription – as in the past when we used to pay to have a newspaper or magazine delivered to our door (and now our electronic device) – along with an end to free access via news aggregators.
Competition would help too: it would be lovely to see Mr. Musk mount a legal fight to break up each of the six companies that own almost all of our radio and television stations. Instead of 6, it should be hundreds.
If he could help fight off the disinformation bots, well, that would be very welcome frosting on the cake.
Want to learn more?
- See our Elements of Democracy page and search for Freedom of the Press.
- Pew Research Center, June, 2016, “State of the News Media 2016”
- Does the FCC Care About the Heartland?
- “6 Corporations Control 90% of the Media In America.”
- The Columbia Journalism Review
- University of North Carolina, School of Media and Journalism
- Pew Research Center: Acquisitions and Content Sharing Shapes Local TV News in 2013
- Radio Television Digital News Association Research: Local news by the numbers