President Donald Trump was roundly criticized last week for tweeting that “network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked” (Twitter, 10.11.2017). This tweet was written in response to NBC reporting that asserted that the president had pushed for a massive increase in the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Thankfully, U.S. media is not regulated in the hyper-centralized fashion that Trump so often imagines. Commercial broadcast channels like NBC, CNN and ABC are not granted single licenses. Rather, individual local stations are granted licenses to show NBC, CNN and ABC content. The Trump administration would have to move against thousands of separate entities instead of a handful of powerful large media companies, and the administration would be blocked anyway from revoking licenses for political reasons because of the protections of the First Amendment.
Trump’s threat is, of course, little more than empty bluster, but since it came from the highest office in the land, it received frenzied coverage.
Meanwhile, a much quieter but more insidious threat to the continuing vibrancy and freedom of the American press remains woefully under-reported. The greatest challenge today to the preservation of a free and active press is the unchecked power and all-encompassing reach of Facebook and Google.
The rise of the internet was both a blessing and a curse to traditional media. Millions more potential readers could be reached online, but print circulation and, ultimately, revenue went down. Print advertisements did not yield the level of profit they had in their heyday, and so papers were forced to cut pay, lay off staff or shutter all together. Local and regional newspapers were hit particularly hard, and today millions of Americans outside of major metropolitan areas plainly do not have access to the quality of local reportage they need to make informed political decisions and to hold the powerful to account.
Although local news remains in crisis, major media sources like The New York Times and The Washington Post seemed to have successfully transitioned to the digital age and adapted to an online informational ecosystem alongside purely digital news outlets like Buzzfeed.
However, the media outlets that have achieved success online have done so by subordinating themselves to the algorithms and search engine optimization (SEO) preferences of Facebook and Google, the two largest conduits of web traffic and recipients of over 60 percent of internet advertising revenue in the United States. The financial dependency on arbitrary and often changing algorithms fabricated by an outside—namely, private—party has had deep consequences for the overall quality of reporting and financial stability of news outlets.
The wave of layoffs at Mic.com in August is a tragic case study of this phenomenon. Mic built its brand around a socially just political orientation and effective clickbaiting tactics. In a piece for The Outline, Adrienne Jeffries details how Mic.com—even though it occasionally tried to shift to more serious in-depth progressive reporting—kept having to move back to clickbait to avoid a fall in profits because clickbait was engineered towards mass dissemination on Facebook and higher results in Google search results. As Jeffries writes, “Mic’s fixation on traffic bothered reporters, who were sick of being forced into reductive headlines and catering to an echo chamber while being told they were changing the world.”
Eventually, once this clickbait model was wrung dry, 20 reporters were fired as the company announced a “pivot to video.” Does the editorial leadership at Mic sincerely think their video operation is a better conduit for information than the hard-hitting journalism their former writers would have produced? I don’t think so. Their motivation is simple: video boosts a website’s SEO for Google.
Legacy media like The New York Times or The Nation, with their built-in name recognition and inherited following from the pre-digital age, are not as exposed to online precarity as Mic. They do, however, still lose a significant amount of potential revenue because of the duopoly of Facebook and Google. The two companies have become the two foremost sources of news distribution, so instead of going directly to The New York Times, people now access their stories through Facebook or Google News, and so tech companies take a slice of the revenue that would otherwise rightfully go to news companies, whose staffing and resources crucially depend on adequate funding to produce quality journalism.
This dynamic shifts disproportionate power and influence to fringe outlets like Breitbart or The Daily Caller, since they do not require the same amount of resources as many other, more credible sources. Because they source their writing from their own paranoid fantasies rather than from proper investigation and evidence, and because they simply do not place a high premium on fact checking, the functionality of these fringe websites is not especially impaired by ceding advertising revenue to Facebook and Google. They do not need to make the same investments as do their more legitimate competitors.
Already, a coalition of over 2,000 national and regional news outlets called the News Media Alliance is seeking the right to collectively bargain with Facebook and Google. This requires that they be granted a limited antitrust exemption from Congress.
It is clearly in the interest of a truly free press and a healthy democracy that this antitrust exemption be granted, and it is high time that the duopoly of Google and Facebook be acknowledged as being no less harmful than the telecommunications, steel and oil monopolies of years past.