Attempts to control the media are certainly not new, but the ways in which they are being carried out today are cause for worry — and swift action. Our new book, titled Media Capture: How Money, Digital Platforms and Government Control the News argues that the villains are less obvious than in the past: barons of industry have morphed from cigar-chomping newspapermen into t-shirt-clad bros, bringing with them a false sense of democratization while continuing to influence and manipulate (through their algorithms) what we consume.
Last month, when Belarus dissident Roman Protasevich’s plane was forced down en route from Athens to Lithuania and he was arrested upon landing, the world witnessed a dramatic — and old school — example of an authoritarian ruler’s attempt to silence a journalist.
Unfortunately, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk are also sizable threats. In Media Capture: How Money, Digital Platforms, and Governments Control the News, a collection of journalists and scholars address how subtle forms of capture can be particularly dangerous, with no less ominous implications for democracy. They represent a full-scale narrowing of the freedom of expression by journalists. As bad as things are now, it should be clear: we are on a trajectory in which matters could become even worse.
The last few years have seen the problem of capture spread; it is now regularly discussed at journalism conferences and panels. It is also a topic that receives increasing traction in a wide spectrum of the media. In his New York Magazine article, for example, “Tech vs. Journalism: Inside the nasty battle between Silicon Valley and the reporters who write about it,” Benjamin Wallace describes the often antagonistic relationship that has developed between the two. Uber-popular TV journalist Jake Tapper of CNN recently did a podcast called “Is Jake Tapper For Sale?” for the New York Times, discussing how media outlets are being bought up by large tech companies like Facebook or Apple, and what effect this could have upon reporting.
The three sections of the new book cover the history, contemporary methods of, and possible solutions to media capture. Contributors give firsthand accounts and analysis of how media capture happens and what can be done about it. Here’s a brief overview:
History of an idea
While the idea of soft control of the media is old, the actual term “media capture” was first coined at the beginning of the 21st century.
According to political scientist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, who came up with the best working definition of media capture, it is a situation in which news media are controlled “either directly by governments or by vested interests networked with politics.”
Early work on media capture could not fully take into account the dramatic effects the internet would have on information. Because the impact of the internet has become impossible to ignore, we argue that it’s time to review theories of media capture, broadening its definition to include how capture works in the digital age.
Platforms such as Google and Facebook act as gatekeepers, making algorithm-based decisions as to which information is made accessible and therefore what news is consumed.
Included in this section are “How Silicon Valley Copied Wall Street’s Media Capture Playbook” by Rana Foroohar. She describes the influence network of Google and Facebook and their efforts in Washington, D.C., including the vast amount of money they have poured into “partnerships” with journalism organizations and media outlets, thus guaranteeing the tech companies a spot at every journalism conference as well as influence over content and distribution.
Multiple perspectives on media capture in the digital age
This section explores how the internet age has created possibilities of capture at multiple levels. This includes examinations of the ways in which we consume news and the risks of modern platforms.
Josh Marshall’s “A Serf on Google’s Farm” addresses the present situation, where the large platforms control much of the revenue stream, making media outlets and their audiences increasingly vulnerable. In the chapter, “Digital Payola: Policing the Open Contributor Network,” James Ledbetter describes how individual journalists are captured through ethically dubious native advertising schemes, where agencies representing different companies will offer small sums to writers in exchange for a mention in a story.
Donors and media capture: A solution with some strings attached
In dealing with solutions, it’s worth noting that foundations and philanthropists have stepped into the breach to fund independent media outlets in many parts of the world in order to alleviate the financial crisis faced by much of journalism and offset the effects of capture. But it’s something of an uphill battle because no matter how much they give, it’s dwarfed by the flow of money from the media moguls.
It’s clear we don’t yet have a solution to fix the problem in an internet age, but in the book we identify ways to begin to address the issues. These include:
Strengthening free and independent media is a standard solution that is offered by those thinking about how to avoid or at least to counterbalance media capture. The advantage to government interventions is that they can grow and endure.
Government funding of quality public-service broadcasting that has worked in Sweden and the United Kingdom, among other countries. Public broadcasting systems enjoy broad popularity among both citizens and governments alike and have been shown to be more resistant to capture by the states responsible for their funding than traditional for-profit media are to capture by advertisers.
Taxation of Facebook to pay for journalism is another idea that gained traction in 2018 and 2019 thanks to the efforts of Victor Pickard at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
Brave journalism is not likely to be enough. Viable alternatives, funded by nonpartisan public agencies committed to pluralism and diversity and truth-telling, are essential. This book, by documenting the processes by which capture occurs, its consequences, and what can be done about it, will promote public discussion and action.
Much needs to be done — and the time is now.
Anya Schiffrin is the director of the Technology, Media, and Communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is the editor of Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Reporting from Around the World (2014) and African Muckraking: 75 Years of Investigative Journalism from Africa (2017), among other books.