Lately, Republican presidential candidates have found a political target that’s easier to hit than their primary rivals or even Hillary Clinton: the media.
For instance, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) scolded the moderators of last month’s CNBC debate, saying, “The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.” Likewise, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) declared, “The Democrats have the ultimate super PAC. It’s called the mainstream media.” And more recently, Ben Carson accused the media of reporting “a bunch of lies” that called into question parts of his biography. “I think it’s pathetic, and basically what the media does is they try to get you distracted,” he said.
Republicans are right to criticize the mainstream media, but they are doing it for the wrong reasons. That’s because the biggest problem with the media today is not their alleged liberal bias. Rather, it’s a corporatized system that is rigged against the public interest and failing our democracy. If they are truly interested in making the media better, here are three principles that politicians from both parties should embrace.
1. No more mergers. Earlier this year, Comcast abandoned its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable after the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Justice signaled that they would oppose it. The collapse of the deal between the country’s two largest cable companies, which opponents argued would lead to higher prices and worse customer service, was an important victory for consumers and media reformers alike. As former FCC commissioner Michael Copps wrote at the time, “combining America’s two largest cable providers would have been anti-competitive, anti-consumer and anti-democracy.” But the merger’s defeat, while critical, was only one battle in a much larger war against media conglomeratization.
Almost immediately after Comcast dropped out, Charter Communications, the fourth-largest cable company, initiated its own bid to take over Time Warner Cable. A coalition of reform groups, including Common Cause and Free Press, is campaigning against the deal and asking supporters to sign a letter of opposition to the FCC. “If the transaction were approved,” the coalition warns, “New Charter and Comcast together would form a national broadband duopoly controlling nearly two-thirds of existing customers and the telecommunications wires connected to nearly 8 out of every 10 U.S. homes.
2. Protect the open Internet. As I’ve written in the past, net neutrality is essential to our democracy because it preserves equal access to the Internet and prevents corporate interests from putting up barriers to the marketplace of ideas. In 2014, the FCC received about 4 million public comments on its proposed net neutrality rules, shattering the record set after Janet Jackson’s televised “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl a decade earlier. President Obama responded to the American people’s clear demands by calling on the FCC to adopt “the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality,” specifically endorsing the reclassification of the Internet as a public utility.
The FCC approved important regulations in February despite the objections of cable and telecommunications companies, as well as near-unanimous opposition from Republican lawmakers. Cruz, for example, has disparaged net neutrality as “Obamacare for the Internet.” Though the rules went into effect earlier this year, the fight is not over. In addition to introducing legislation to repeal the regulations, a group of House Republicans filed a legal complaint in early November contending that the FCC lacked the authority to act on net neutrality without input from Congress.
3. Enforce disclosure rules. The 2016 election is expected to cost significantly more than the $6 billion spent in 2012. According to one estimate, television ads alone will account for some $4.4 billion in spending, much of it from super PACs and secretive “dark money” groups. For now, the avalanche of big money in our politics is inevitable, but there is a way to better inform the public and hold billionaire donors accountable. As Copps wrote in 2013, “All we need is for an independent agency, the Federal Communications Commission, to enforce a campaign finance disclosure requirement that is already on the books.”
In fact, there has been a rule in place since 1934 that requires television broadcasters to disclose the “true sponsor” of all advertisements. If properly enforced, the rule would entitle viewers to see not only the name of the group sponsoring political ads but also the donors behind them. Last month, Common Cause, the Sunlight Foundation, the Campaign Legal Center and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation sent a letter calling on the FCC to force the disclosure of who is paying for campaign ads. “Voters across the land are under assault from shadowy secret money groups,” said Copps, who is now an adviser to Common Cause. “The FCC has the authority it needs right now to shine a light on all those anonymous broadcast and cable ads.”
While the three principles above are essential, the mainstream media obviously have more problems, too: their dedication to false balance, their bias toward sensationalism, their neglect of consequential issues, their policing of the debate. As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said during this weekend’s Democratic debate, “What I would like for the media now is for us to be talking about why the middle class is disappearing, why we have more people in jail than any other country, why we have massive levels of income and wealth inequality, and we’re the only major country on Earth without paid family and medical leave. We’ve gotten off the Hillary’s e-mails, good. Let’s go to the major issues facing America.”
But the mainstream media will never do those issues justice as long as they are more accountable to powerful corporate interests than the people they serve. That’s why, as 2016 approaches, it’s as important as ever for keep building the movement for reform. “Without media reform, we simply cannot reform our country,” Copps told me. “No matter what issue a voter cares about, it won’t get anywhere with the media corporate-speak and infotainment that we’re being fed. Big media gatekeepers are America’s embarrassment.”