The FCC is under attack—and so too is the First Amendment. As the primary regulator of how media and information gets to our nation’s citizens, the Federal Communications Commission has a critical role to play in protecting the open Internet, free speech, and free press in our democracy. Though the agency has always enjoyed a cozy relationship with the industries it regulates, ever since the Trump administration arrived in Washington, the FCC’s mission to preserve the public commons has been threatened, assaulted and torn asunder. And like a bad horror movie cliché, these calls to eviscerate the FCC have been coming from inside the agency.
Repealing net neutrality has drawn a huge amount of public visibility—and rightly so—but that decision is just the latest in a string of ominous, industry-friendly giveaways by the Trump administration’s FCC. It has also rolled back local TV station ownership limits on media giants like Sinclair Broadcasting Group and rescinded the longtime “main studio” rule that required local stations to maintain community newsrooms and fostered more local journalism. And the agency’s leadership has begun a campaign to actively abdicate its enforcement mission and pass it over to the smaller, less well-funded Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which lacks the FCC’s deep industry knowledge and proactive regulatory power.
“This is the worst FCC I can remember,” says Michael Copps, bluntly. Copps, who served as FCC commissioner from 2001 to 2011 and now advises Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, says he has watched new FCC chair Ajit Pai’s leadership with growing alarm. “There’s an audacity to it, a lack of process. It’s just God-awful,” Copps says of the agency’s breakneck pursuit of a reactionary, “market-based” agenda. “This FCC is on an outright tear to wreak untold damage on our media ecosystem, on our news and information, free speech, democracy and self-government.”
Death of the Open Internet?
The FCC’s 3–2 vote to repeal net neutrality—with the two Democratic commissioners dissenting—is the most high-profile and controversial step the agency has taken in the Trump era. It reverses a rule passed by the Obama administration FCC in February 2015 that put internet traffic under the “Common Carrier” protections of Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. In effect, net neutrality means the government prohibits cable companies and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from blocking, slowing or otherwise discriminating against the web traffic of their users. Much like a public utility, all content to the consumer must be treated the same—hence, net neutrality. Right-wing opponents of the rule—which included then-Commissioner Pai, who voted against net neutrality—complained it was a case of unnecessary government overreach, and made a series of apocalyptic claims about its potential impact.
“One of the things that’s really outlandish about how this FCC has gone about its net neutrality proceeding is that Pai has just straight-up ignored all the available evidence of the impact of the rule,” explains Craig Aaron, president and CEO of the media industry watchdog group Free Press:
Net neutrality opponents talked about how internet infrastructure will suffer. But if you actually look at what the phone and cable companies are reporting to their own investors since 2015: They’re bragging about deployment, they’re talking about all the faster speeds they’re providing, they’re talking about doing more with less money.
In endorsing a return to the “light touch” status quo ante—which is itself a misreading of the agency’s regulatory history—Pai cites studies that show a slight dip in broadband investment since 2015. But that proof is notably funded by the telecom industry, and other reporting on companies like Comcast contradicts his claims. So, like the widespread passage of draconian voter ID laws to combat a nonexistent epidemic of vote fraud, the Trump administration FCC’s justification for killing net neutrality is a right-wing “solution” to a phony problem. Aaron chalks up this FCC’s unwillingness to accept the truth as proof they don’t really care about consumers or the public interest. “To them, it really comes down to regulation is bad, and regulations passed by the Obama administration are worse.”
Even if motivated by partisan spite, the impact of losing net neutrality could be devastating for all news consumers and a free and independent press. With no legal or regulatory prohibitions stopping them, telecom companies and ISPs would feel emboldened—spurred on by their shareholders—to start picking and choosing one kind of content over another to maximize profits.
Coincidentally, on the same day Pai announced his plan to roll back net neutrality last April, Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company and the owner of NBCUniversal, was caught subtly changing the language of its online net neutrality pledge. Before, the company promised to never offer “paid prioritization” (fast lanes) of Internet traffic; now it merely said it would not engage in “anti-competitive prioritization.” That vague, legalistic language amounts to a semi truck-sized loophole, ripe for abuse.
“There’s just so much incentive for a Comcast, which owns all these channels and movie studios, to give their own content a leg up and they can do it in ways that, as an end user, you might not know what’s going on,” Aaron points out.
For example, you might try to watch a Democracy Now! broadcast and you get that spinning wheel of death. It’s not loading, so unless you’re really committed to seeing it, you’ll probably go somewhere else, like NBC News, that loads quicker. That’s the kind of advantage they want. It’s like a big horserace, except they own the track and can give themselves a head start, and even if it’s only a few seconds in load time or a certain percentage in quality difference, that’s a big deal.
The backlash to the repeal has been ferocious. Just between Pai’s announcement in April and the end of August, the FCC received nearly 22 million public comments about the rule change. Most of these comments opposed the repeal: a Pew analysis found six out of the seven most prevalent comments supported net neutrality. And public polling also finds a majority of Americans prefer to keep net neutrality.
There was also a large-scale campaign of fraudulent FCC comments using 1 million stolen identities, which the FCC is refusing to help investigate. On the day before the repeal, 18 state attorney generals went public with a letter calling on Pai to delay the vote until the million-plus fraudulent public comments could be properly investigated.
Part of the overwhelming response can be attributed to comedian John Oliver, whose May segment in support of net neutrality went viral and has garnered more than 6 million views online. But the resistance runs far deeper than that.
An open letter signed by more than 50 mayors of US cities, from New York City to Salem, Virginia, called on the FCC to abandon its repeal. On the same day Michael Flynn pleaded guilty, the entire front page of Reddit was devoted to supporting net neutrality and expressing outrage at industry-funded lawmakers who failed to support it. (Even in the r/NASCAR subreddit, the most upvoted story ever is now about the need to protect net neutrality.) Members of Congress have been deluged with calls and comments as well. During the week of Thanksgiving, Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley reported 4,204 constituent calls supporting net neutrality, 0 against. Even the “father of the Internet,” Vint Cerf, and numerous other tech leaders have spoken out in support of net neutrality.
“Net neutrality has become a new third rail,” Aaron says. “This is very much a political issue now.” Despite the broad grassroots opposition, not to mention the unanswered questions about the legitimacy of some of the FCC comments, Pai and his fellow Republicans on the commission pushed ahead and voted to end net neutrality anyway.
Gutting Big Media Accountability
“What Pai is doing is moving us to an anti-competitive, ‘pay to play’ system of the internet, one that makes it harder for citizen journalists who have a camera or a phone to report and compete with big media companies,” explains Phillip Berenbroick, senior policy counsel for the open internet advocacy group Public Knowledge. And a mostly overlooked element of this plan, Berenbroick adds, is Pai’s push to strip the FCC of its regulatory and enforcement duties.
“In effect, the FCC is trying to dump enforcement of the Internet onto the FTC, which is already overtaxed,” Berenbroick explains. Pai justifies this move as a step toward more accountability, and he often calls the FTC, which oversees everything from diapers to airlines, the “nation’s premier civil law enforcement agency.” This tough talk is just a ruse, however, and glosses over the fundamental weaknesses inherent in dumping the FCC’s enforcement responsibilities onto another agency. Even FTC commissioner Terrell McSweeny acknowledged back in April that his agency would not be as capable as the FCC at policing internet blocking or tiered-content prioritization.
First of all, Berenbroick points out that the FTC lacks deep institutional knowledge of the communications industry, making it unlikely to effectively deal with technical or legal issues that could lead to anti-competitive behavior by massive media corporations. The agency also has roughly 550 fewer employees than the FCC, and Trump has just proposed cutting its fiscal year 2018 budget to $306 million, $16 million less than the FCC’s.
Most importantly, the FTC can only enforce “unfair and deceptive trade practices.” In effect, it can only police companies after the fact for failing to live up to their own voluntary commitments. With legions of lawyers at their disposal, giant media corporations are unlikely to be swayed by consumer complaints of internet traffic discrimination when these same companies are able to write (and rewrite) the rules they’re supposed to follow.
Of course, the Trump FCC’s abdication of its regulatory duties is not surprising. One of Trump’s early telecom policy advisors, Mark Jamison, talked openly about eliminating the agency during last year’s presidential transition period. Just weeks before Trump’s election, Jamison had written an op-ed for the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, not-so-subtly titled: “Do We Need the FCC?” (Of note: Jamison previously advised cell phone corporation Sprint on regulatory issues.) In the post, Jamison claims one reason the FCC is no longer necessary is that “telecommunications network providers and ISPs are rarely, if ever, monopolies.” In fact, Pai’s predecessor, former FCC chair Tom Wheeler, pointed out in 2014 that four out of five Americans had only one choice for an ISP at basic broadband speeds of 25Mbps.
“The FCC, as the expert regulator of the communications industry, is far better positioned to deal with internet regulation, because it has the authority to write rules that prohibit bad behavior from happening in the first place,” Berenbroick notes. “If I were a cable company [Pai’s plan] is exactly what I would want.” For his part, Pai, a former lawyer for telecom giant Verizon, seems unconcerned about the appearance of bias. In fact, at a telecom industry dinner last week—hosted by Sinclair—the FCC chair joked about his “love” of his former company.
Wheeler, who led the fight to pass net neutrality, has likewise criticized the FCC’s efforts to dump enforcement on the FTC, calling it an “abomination.” In an op-ed last week, Wheeler noted the irony of such a move, since telecom giant AT&T recently won a court case where it successfully argued that the FTC had no jurisdiction over its internet traffic activity.
Sensing the fury aimed at this naked surrender to industry, Pai released a joint Memorandum of Understanding just two days before the repeal about how the FCC and FTC would work together to monitor the internet. But the substance of the plan was little changed; it was little more than a blatant attempt at damage control. Democratic FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn blasted it as a “confusing, lackluster, reactionary afterthought.” The repeal vote still happened, however. Because in the Trump era FCC, the prospect that multi-billion-dollar media conglomerates could fall through the cracks, and their online control over the nation’s news and information could go essentially unregulated, is more a feature than a bug.
Undermining Local Journalism
The damage wrought by this FCC doesn’t stop with repealing net neutrality, though. As that more public battle has raged, the agency quietly gutted media ownership rules last month, opening the door to even more local TV consolidation, which could have a catastrophic impact on news diversity and local journalism. “Net neutrality has gotten more attention, because consumers can better understand the idea of my Netflix feed slowing down and buffering if I don’t pay Verizon more for video streaming,” notes University of Delaware public policy professor Danilo Yanich. “But media consolidation suffers because it is an abstract concern for news consumers; it’s hard for viewers to be outraged about the stories your new local TV station doesn’t cover.”
Local TV, which just a few years ago was considered a dying backwater, has become among the hottest properties in the media industry recently. Between 2013 and 2016, the local TV news industry saw more than $20 billion in mergers and acquisitions deals, with hundreds of stations changing hands. As a result, several dominant players, among them Sinclair Broadcasting and Nexstar, have emerged. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of BIA Kelsey data, by the time 2017 arrived, five companies owned 37 percent of all full-power local TV stations in the country. This has translated into $2 billion in additional revenue for these companies since 2014.
“The mantra from these big media groups now is ‘go big or go home,’” says Yanich.
Mergers create more leverage for local TV media groups to charge broadcasters and cable companies more money for retransmission. And the reason they can say that is because they now control dozens or hundreds of stations across the country.
But local TV has also turned into a lucrative cash cow thanks to the radically changed landscape of political advertising in the wake of the 2011 Citizens United ruling, he explains. After analyzing the finances of seven major TV station corporations, a Pew report found that their combined political ad revenue jumped from $574 million in 2012 to $696 million in 2014 to $843 million last year. And those numbers are projected to grow even more in the future.
“Local TV news remains an extremely important vehicle for political communication,” Yanich explains. That is, in part, because local journalism is the most trusted form of news. Currently, Yanich is working on a book studying the relationship between political ads and news content in the 2016 election. He notes that this trust factor, plus the fact that local TV reaches a large number of voters who aren’t hardened partisans, makes it an appealing target for political influencers. “So a lot of money will keep going into local TV for political ads in 2020, because that’s the best way to get the message across to these undecided voters.”
Greater media consolidation may be good for the bottom lines of local TV conglomerates, but it’s not good for journalism. “This has huge implications, and it’s going on in the backyards of America, but most folks don’t know it because it’s simply not covered,” Yanich says.
It’s certainly not covered in depth in the mainstream press. It might be covered by FAIR or industry journals, but a local TV station in Philadelphia is certainly not going to tell you about the duopoly it has with another local station. What it instead says is: “We are extending the reach of the primary station.”
That’s why the FCC’s under-the-radar accompanying decision to rescind the “main studio” rule is so damaging. Previously, local TV stations were required to maintain a newsroom in the communities they covered, the goal being to keep their journalism centered on local issues. But with the rule lifted, local TV giants are now free to gobble up more and more stations, and then shut down those newly acquired local newsrooms to pad their profits. They can then pipe in pre-packaged news produced in faraway studios to save even more money. “You end up with the same anchors, same videos, same narrative,” Yanich explains. “Coupled with the move to end net neutrality, more media consolidation will have the effect of squelching dissent, whether for ideological or commercial reasons.”
Indeed, greater local media consolidation will make it much easier to manipulate the news to fit the agenda of a corporate parent. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Sinclair Broadcasting, the largest TV station owner in the country, which has a well-established track record of coloring its news to favor right-wing ideology. A recent example: Back in May, when Montana Republican Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte physically attacked a reporter on the eve of a special election, the local Sinclair affiliate refused to cover the story, even though numerous other news outlets did and a Fox affiliate witnessed and had an audio recording of the assault. Even more egregious, Sinclair forces its affiliates to run long, pro-Trump commentaries in its news broadcasts as many as nine times a week. Now Sinclair wants to bring this kind of broadcast mindset to even more of the country—in May, it proposed a massive acquisition of the fifth-largest local TV company, Tribune Media, which would give it more than 200 stations nationwide, and broadcast access to three out of four American homes.
The consequences for the homogenization and hollowing out of local and independent news are ominous. “As a viewer in a community, I’m better served if there are multiple newsrooms trying to hold public officials accountable. You want competing sources of information, different viewpoints and voices,” Free Press’s Aaron points out:
But if it’s all under the same corporate roof and literally produced by the same people, you can’t have that. In multiple communities right now, if you’re clicking through on Election Night, your local outlets might be simulcasting the same content on multiple channels.
The Fight Ahead
While this flagrant rollback of media consolidation rules looks unlikely to be reversed anytime soon under the Trump administration, net neutrality stands a better chance of being preserved. The political pressure on Congress to protect Title II internet regulation shows little signs of stopping. And numerous free press and civil liberties groups plan on suing the FCC to temporarily halt and, ultimately, reverse the repeal.
“We think this FCC completely botched the process. It has just ignored the public and never addressed the apparent fraud happening in the comments,” Aaron says. Likewise, the FCC’s public review simply disappeared the more than 50,000 consumer complaints lodged against internet providers since net neutrality went into effect. Notes Aaron:
When it comes to the FCC and administrative law, the fact that there is a new president, in and of itself, is not a winning argument for changing rules. There was a 10-year fight to get net neutrality, and then the decision was upheld in court. So here comes Ajit Pai who says, “Sorry, new sheriff in town, we don’t need any of it.” There’s a legal burden there to prove that. We will sue him, it will go to federal court and we like our chances.
That legal fight could take more than a year to reach a final resolution, almost guaranteeing that net neutrality will be a key campaign issue in the 2018 midterm elections. Republican Sen. John Thune has been at the forefront of this issue, publicly calling for a bipartisan, congressional fix to settle the open internet issue once and for all. Some media giants, like AT&T, have echoed his call for a legislative solution as well. But upon closer inspection, these Republican and corporate definitions of “open internet” would still shortchange consumers and make it harder on the independent press. No Democrats have signed on to sponsor his bill.
“We shouldn’t fall for a compromise that is 5 percent less awful than what the FCC is doing,” Aaron warns:
Senator Thune’s bill codifies basic internet protections, but strips the FCC of any ability to adjust or adapt to new abuses or tactics. It will also prohibit tactics the telecom and media companies don’t have any intention of doing anyway. They will call it “net neutrality,” but it will be a toothless version.
Getting the American public more involved in a real, transparent debate over net neutrality—along with a broader discussion of what kind of media and news environment we want to encourage—is critically important to the future of our country, says former FCC commissioner Copps. And it would stand in stark contrast to Pai’s cloistered approach, where he rarely ventures outside a friendly bubble of conservative think tanks and the airwaves of Fox News to tout his industry-first policies.
“The American people need to know what he wants to do, and he needs to really hear what the American people think,” Copps says of Pai. The former FCC commissioner points to two dark forces at work right now gaining ever greater control over our national discourse: the power of big money and big media, and an extreme, right-wing ideology that thinks an unfettered free market is the cure for all evils.
“We have this technology that has the potential to be the town square of our democracy, but this FCC is setting up fewer and fewer, huge gatekeepers to that,” he says. As a result, cherished ideals like freedom of expression and freedom of the press are now under threat from a Trump administration that prioritizes multinational telecom and corporate media profits above all else. “Big media sees you and me and all the people in the United States not as citizens,” Copps says, “but as products to be delivered to advertisers.”
An op-ed by the president of the right-wing human rights group Freedom House, published in the New York Times Monday (12/11/17)—later boosted by New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker—warned of the menace of “commentators, trolls, bots, false news sites and propaganda,” and their negative effects on democracy. Missing from its analysis was any account of how the government that funds their organization—86 percent of Freedom House’s budget comes from the US government, primarily the State Department and USAID—uses social media to stir unrest and undermine governments worldwide.
What the reader was left with was a very selective, curated impression that online social media manipulation is something done exclusively by brown and black people and those dastardly Slavs. The column condemns “surreptitious techniques pioneered in Moscow and Beijing to use the internet to drown out dissent and undermine free elections,” going on to cite online skullduggery in the Philippines, Kenya, Turkey, Mexico and Iran.
Missing from the piece by Freedom House’s Michael Abramowitz is any mention—much less discussion—of numerous reports detailing online manipulation by US and allied governments and Western PR firms.
No mention of the Defense Department’s $100 million program Operation Earnest Voice software that “creates fake online identities to spread pro-American propaganda.” No mention of the US Air Force’s 2010 solicitation of “persona management” software designed to create hundreds of sock puppets, “replete with background, history, supporting details and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent.” No mention of USAID (the same government agency, incidentally, that funds Freedom House) secretly creating an entire social media platform to “stir unrest” in Cuba. No mention of the US State Department’s newly-created $160 million Global Engagement Center, targeting English-language audiences with unattributed Facebook videos combating, in part, “Russia propaganda.”
Nor was there mention of the UK’s “team of Facebook warriors,” “skilled in psychological operations and use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age.” Or reference to the half-dozen reports of Israeli troll farms promoting pro-Israel propaganda online.
Though the op-ed had a particular focus on “governing parties” using covert online tools to “inflate their popular support and essentially endorse themselves”—warning that this “devastating new threat to democracy” is used to “undermine elections, political debate and virtually every other aspect of governing”—there was no acknowledgement of the fact that the Hillary Clinton campaign spent $1 million in the 2016 primary to promote its candidate using unattributed social media personas. Nor was there mention of a torrent of pro-Trump bots that infected the 2016 campaign on social media.
None of this merits mention, much less investigation. Instead, the piece primarily consists of little insight or larger discussion as to the scope of the problem. “The United States and other democracies” are positioned as the victims of online manipulation, never its author. Amidst platitudes about “the future of democracy” and “malevolent actors,” the West’s place as noble defenders of Real Information online is simply taken for granted, with, by implication, their ideological satellites—like Freedom House—as neutral arbiters of what is and isn’t propaganda, never practitioners of propaganda themselves.
The US Department of Defense admitted in 2011 that it runs fake social media accounts in Farsi; the vast majority of Farsi speakers live in Iran. What were these accounts doing? Did they influence any elections there? Does Freedom House ask the question, much less attempt to answer it? Of course not; Iran can only be guilty of “[manipulating] discussions…on social media,” never the victim of it.
Should the New York Times have disclosed that the author of a piece about government propaganda runs a group overwhelmingly funded by the US government? The reader could theoretically do research on their own time to find out who backs the benign-sounding “Freedom House” (who doesn’t love freedom?), but this is a fairly tall order for the average media consumer, doubly so when one considers the whole point of the piece is criticizing unattributed propaganda.
Also missing from Freedom House’s cartoon narrative of Good Western Democracies vs. Bad Governments in the Global South is the issue of sophistication. One of the reasons groups like Freedom House know about clandestine attempts by these governments and affiliated parties to influence online messaging is they’re mostly bad at it. Hacky, easily identifiable bots, sloppy knock-off websites, transparent “fake news.” The software solicited by the US Air Force in 2010, which would allow each user to control up to ten social media personas at once “without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries,” would presumably be much more difficult to detect.
Social media manipulation is a major problem in urgent need of robust discussion. But outlets like the New York Times—and others, such as Buzzfeed—that focus only on attempts by Official US Enemies, and never direct any criticism inwards, aren’t concerned with having an earnest discussion of the problem. They are, instead, using the specter of online manipulation to smear those in bad standing with the US State Department while deflecting any conversation about what the most powerful country in the history of the world may be up to online.
At the beginning of December, liberal TV hosts Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow—the anchors of MSNBC‘s primetime schedule—were confronted with ever-escalating breaking news. In the span of a week, from December 1 through December 7, President Donald Trump shrank two national monuments, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, saw his travel ban upheld by the Supreme Court and possibly began to create his own spy network. Meanwhile, the Senate passed a tax “reform” bill that would radically restructure the US economy at the expense of poor and middle-class Americans, and climate change-fueled wildfires devastated Southern California.
Yet on the days their shows aired during those seven days—the weekdays, December 1 and 4–7—both Hayes and Maddow bypassed all these stories to lead with minutiae from the ongoing Russia investigation that has consumed MSNBC‘s coverage like no other news event since the beginning of the Trump presidency. Topical news of the day, whether on legislation or natural disasters, took a backseat. The Comcast-owned network’s two most popular personalities used their position to focus endlessly on speculative coverage of Russia’s role in the 2016 election—devoting the bulk of each show’s 15-minutes opening segment to the story, at a minimum.
The streak was broken on December 8, when Hayes’ All In show led with the sexual harassment scandals roiling the nation, though he still devoted substantial time to Russia later in the broadcast: “The plot to stop Mueller is growing,” Hayes ominously intoned during the introduction, letting viewers know the story was coming.
While Hayes devoted his December 8 show to the allegations of sexual assault and harassment surrounding the president and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, Maddow devoted her full Friday hour to her much-hyped special on “The Dossier”—a full hour devoted to a year-old document, as if it contained fresh news, complete with a graphic misusing Russian typography.
“We’re going to step back and look at the 35-page Trump Russia dossier,” Maddow said in the opening of the special. “And depending on which way the news is blowing, the allegations contained in this document can sound outlandish, or they can sound freakishly spot on.”
If this focus on Le Carré–style foreign machinations at the expense of all other news seems like a wild departure from the network’s nominal liberalism, then you’ve not been paying attention to FAIR’s reporting on MSNBC from the last two decades. There’s always been an air of discomfort around MSNBC at the way the cable news channel has in the last decade become—almost by default—a go-to spot for liberals seeking news and analysis. It took on this role only after repeated failures to share the conservative media market with Fox News.
When disgraced Reagan official Oliver North was hired by MSNBC in early 1999, along with John McLaughlin and Laura Ingraham, FAIR (2/5/99) called it “a familiar format to viewers grown accustomed to the pairing of rabid right-wingers with tepid centrists supposedly representing the left.” Two years later, after the 9/11 attacks, NBC chief Robert Wright instructed his subordinates to tilt right: “We have to be more conservative than they are,” Wright said of Fox.
This hope was frustrated by Phil Donahue’s progressive talkshow becoming the network’s highest-rated show—though that experiment was cut short by the coming of the Iraq War, when Donahue was fired after one executive expressed fears that the show could become “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” This was followed by the short-lived cash grab of giving a show to virulent right-wing radio host Michael Savage in 2003 (FAIR.org, 1/12/03), just when the far right seemed to be ascendant in American politics. As Democracy Now!‘s Amy Goodman said at the time:
Five months ago, MSNBC overhauled their schedule. The network’s most progressive voice Phil Donahue was out. A team of well-known conservatives were quickly hired.
While Savage’s inability to rein in his hate-filled rants soon cost him his TV show, another of those “well-known conservatives”—former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough, who had a 95 percent lifetime approval rating from the American Conservative Union—is still with MSNBC, co-hosting the crucial morning slot that sets the tone for a cable network’s news day.
After unsuccessfully attempting to sell audiences on Tucker Carlson in 2005, the channel grudgingly turned to the left—giving Maddow a show in 2008 and hiring Hayes in 2011. Yet even as the network has promoted nominal progressives to anchor the lineup over the past decade, the nagging feeling that MSNBC would rather be pursuing a different agenda has never gone away.
That’s allowed the Russia story to fill an important role: It’s both a way for liberals to blow off steam and grumble at the sinister plots of the Trump administration, and for MSNBC executives to obfuscate policy in favor of tabloid-style reporting.
Though a personality like Hayes has substantial pull and influence in liberal circles, he didn’t use that influence to push his audience to pay attention to the tax bill making its way through the Senate. Rather, on Friday, December 1, as the GOP-led Congress was voting for legislation that would rewrite the code of the American economy, lay waste to the healthcare system and effect one of the greatest transfers of wealth from the 99 Percent to the 1 Percent in US history, the tax plan merited only a brief mention, 45 minutes into the show, when Hayes got the thoughts of right-wing Utah independent Evan McMullin on the bill.
It’s not as if Hayes didn’t know that the news was breaking, important, and that the Republican-led chamber was making law on the fly. “The Senate GOP is in such a massive rush to give benefits to corporations and the wealthy,” Hayes said during his December 1 segment, “it is literally rewriting the American tax code at this hour by hand.” This was not as urgent, though, as covering the latest turn in Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s Russia ties.
Things were better, though not much, for the next week. Hayes did make his way to telling the stories of the day, which ranged from Trump’s prodding of international tinderboxes and desecration of domestic resources, though these stories were frequently overshadowed by ever-growing and ever more ethereal visions of Russian machinations.
But Hayes was positively devoted to broad coverage of the news compared to his counterpart in the 9 p.m. hour. The channel’s crown jewel of liberalism for a decade, Rachel Maddow, has been Russia 24/7 for months. (It took Maddow 45 minutes to get to the tax bill on December 1, too.)
As FAIR reported over the summer (6/29/17), the Russia obsession is not unique to Maddow, or even to MSNBC—after all, it was CNN president Jeff Zucker who allegedly said his network’s prime news goal should be “let’s get back to Russia.”
Yet even in corporate media, Maddow stands alone in her devotion to the Russia story at the expense of all else. That was made clear on December 4, when Maddow told her audience that the news of the day was almost overwhelming: The Supreme Court had upheld the president’s ban on Muslims entering the country, the tax bill had been passed, a potential government shutdown, the shrinking of natural resources in the west by presidential fiat, the Olympics banning Russia, and the Alabama Senate race were all topical, important and worthy of coverage.
But for Maddow, they were a subordinate distraction to the only story worth covering.
“All those stories happened today,” Maddow told her audience:
Any one of these stories might reasonably have been expected to start the world spinning backwards on its axis at any other time, right? In any other administration, at any other time in modern life. But in this administration, all this stuff is happening at once, and it’s all happening in the context of the most serious criminal and counterintelligence investigation that any US president has ever faced.
After 11 months in office, the Trump administration is covered on the nation’s nominally liberal cable news channel in a way that makes clear that the priority isn’t to explain the reality of the administration and the human cost of the things that it does—but rather to blame the existence of Trump on a foreign conspiracy, and offer hope that a white knight in the form of a special prosecutor will come to our rescue. Along with that concentration on Russia comes the deprioritization of the real-world effects of the Trump presidency and active political efforts to oppose them—and that tells us all we need to know about the priorities at Rockefeller Center. MSNBC is a hopped-up Cold War cover band, and its two lead singers are Maddow and Hayes.
You can send a message to Rachel Maddow at Rachel@msnbc.com (or via Twitter: @Maddow). Chris Hayes can be reached via Twitter: @ChrisLHayes. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.
A Washington Post article (12/9/17) on the Republican tax proposals being considered by Congress implies that they are a sharp departure from the plans Donald Trump put forward in the campaign in the benefits they provides to the rich. The headline is “As Tax Plan Gained Steam, GOP Lost Focus on the Middle Class.”
This description is pretty much 180 degrees at odds with reality. While Donald Trump always promised to help the middle class, the proposals he put forward during his campaign were hugely tilted toward the rich. The Tax Policy Center’s analysis of the last tax cut plan he proposed before the election showed 50 percent of the benefits going to the richest 1 percent of the population.
In fact, the Republicans are putting in place a tax plan similar to what they campaigned on. If the fact that it mostly helps the rich is a surprise to anyone, it is due to the poor quality of reporting during the campaign.
A version of this post originally appeared on the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s blog Beat the Press (12/10/17).
President Donald Trump declared that the US saw Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced the US would move its Israeli embassy there—reversing decades of policy and removing any pretense of US neutrality in negotiating “peace” between Palestinians and Israelis.
Though both Congress and past presidents of both parties have supported the move in principle for decades, much of the US media establishment is now fretting about the Jerusalem announcement, continuing to push the illusion that a nebulous “peace deal” is still right around the next watchtower.
The American “recognition” of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital further entrenches and condones Israel’s occupation, ethnic cleansing and colonization of Palestinian land. But outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and CBS, in editorials and straight reporting, downplayed and skirted matters of substance, reserving critical attention for questions of optics or process.
Thus the frame that dominated headlines as news of Trump’s announcement broke was not on the meaning of the move, but on potential reaction to it, specifically vague “fears of violence” from Palestinians and Muslims throughout the Middle East:
- “Fears of Violence Amid Talk of Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital” (CBS News, 12/5/17)
- “Trump’s Jerusalem Announcement Could Spark Violence, State Department Warns” (Daily Beast, 12/6/17)
- “Warnings of Violence Ahead of Trump’s Jerusalem Embassy Move” (The Week, 12/6/17)
- “Trump Says US Recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital, Despite Global Condemnation; World Leaders Warned Trump That the Move Could Spark Violence and Would Create a Major Impediment to the Israeli/Palestinian Peace Process” (Politico, 12/6/17)
Editorials in the Washington Post (“possibly trigger violence, including against Americans”—12/6/17) and the New York Times (“perhaps inciting violence”—12/5/17) used similar language. Neither opposed Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem or Israel’s brutal, illegal occupation of East Jerusalem as such. Both had lots of Concerns and leveled minor critiques on process grounds (the most popular being that the move could “harm” peace efforts), but neither of the two leading papers in the United States could bring themselves to condemn Trump for his radical departure from US policy and international law in and of itself.
This is often the case when it comes to Israel/Palestine: Media focus is on the reaction to injustice, not on the injustice itself. The illegality of Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem is rarely mentioned. Nor is the fact that the United States is now virtually alone out of the 195 countries on Earth in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or that the city has been, and is still, designated by the United Nations as a corpus separatum since 1947; that is, a separate territory under international jurisdiction. (The Economist—12/7/17—was one of the few who did point this out.) Likewise ignored are the UN Security Council’s repeated condemnations of Israel’s 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem and its 1980 declaration of the city as its capital, on the grounds that “acquisition of territory by military conquest is inadmissible.”
The broader context of the 60-year military occupation is likewise out of the picture, along with the dozens of international laws Israel breaks on a daily basis. Many of these relate directly to Jerusalem, including the expulsion of residents from the occupied territory of East Jerusalem and the transfer of hundreds of thousands of colonists there since 1967.
The primary focus is, instead, the possibility of “fresh violence in the region,” which evokes tropes of mindless Arab rage and barbarity. As Marya Hannun explained over at Slate (12/6/17), when we center “angry Arab” cliches, we perpetuate the notion that violence is the alpha and omega of resistance:
There is also a more insidious message being sent by warnings about the potential for a “third intifada” in response to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, one that has long haunted, not just the conflict over Palestine and Israel, but also other instances where human rights, civil rights and sovereignty are violated. When we focus on violence as the only preventive force against unjust policies, we reinforce the notion that violence is the only effective means of resistance. Perhaps more often than not, these assessments prove to be accurate, but it’s a dangerous game, and only aids those who see no point in working toward peace at all.
By leading with warnings of a “Middle East on edge” (NBC News, 12/7/17), where “Palestinians Vent Their Anger” (New York Times, 12/7/17) and “clashes escalate” (Washington Post, 12/7/17; BBC, 12/7/17), the media double down on dangerous stereotypes, marginalize legitimate frustration and resistance, and obfuscate history in favor of the ever-convenient, shoulder-shrugging, “they’ll just never get along” narrative.
No mention of redoubling of efforts of the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, or other civil-society efforts to resist Israel aggression. No mention of calls for solidarity by Palestinian activists. A singular focus on violence (albeit violence that, it should be noted, is sanctioned by international law) reduces Palestinians to cartoon hotheads rather than a deeply disenfranchised population suffering decades of displacement, discrimination and occupation, while the most powerful country on the planet condones, funds and arms their continued dehumanization.
A Morning Edition segment on the Republican tax cut plan made comparisons to the Reagan tax cuts, referring to the “boom” that occurred following those cuts. While the economy did grow rapidly in the years from 1983 to 1986, the main reason was the severity of the 1981–82 recession. Economies tend to bounce back quickly following a severe recession.
We saw the same story in the 1970s. The economy grew at a 5.7 percent annual rate in the 13 quarters from the fourth quarter of 1982 to first quarter of 1986. This is not hugely different than the 5.3 percent annual growth rate from the first quarter of 1975 to the third quarter of 1977. The key to the more rapid growth in the Reagan recovery was the somewhat greater severity of the 1981–82 recession, which pushed unemployment to almost 11 percent.
It is also worth mentioning the poor performance of investment following the reduction in the corporate income tax in 1986. The tax reform act passed in that year lowered the corporate rate from 46 percent to 35 percent, roughly the same size reduction as is included in the current bill. Rather than leading to a boom, investment actually fell as a share of GDP over the next three years.
A version of this post originally appeared on the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s blog Beat the Press (12/7/17).