Media coverage of the 2020 Democratic presidential campaigns began in earnest well over a year ago — but it is not providing citizens with the news and information we need in order to cast informed ballots. To be sure, we get suffocating doses of who is up and who is down and what the latest polls are reporting. But the 2020 elections are not about a horse race; they are about the future of our democracy. We are two former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairmen who believe one critical issue the media is avoiding is … the media itself.
Our nation faces a major crisis in journalism. Approximately one-half of the nation’s newsroom employees have been terminated since the early 2000s. According to a recent report, about 3,000 journalists have been laid off or offered buyouts in the first five months of this year alone. In conjunction with newsroom layoffs, media conglomerates have gobbled up thousands of television and radio stations in a rush to consolidate their industry. These mergers have left many communities, particularly at the local level, without any way to report their own news and information.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under this administration has paved the way for the latest wave of consolidation — and subsequent layoffs — by relaxing or eliminating many of the rules intended to prevent one entity from owning too much media. We have also seen the current FCC repeal its net neutrality rules that prohibit cable and telecom companies from blocking, throttling, or charging fast lanes for prioritized internet access. Ongoing consolidation combined with a lack of net neutrality allows a handful of media companies to have too much power over the news we see, hear and read.
The high level of consolidation and corporatization that exists in the industry today speaks to media’s lack of interest in addressing the current shortfall in our news and information. In fact, consolidation has been the major driver in journalism’s decline. Just six conglomerates control 90% of traditional media, and social media is controlled by even fewer companies.
In addition to harms caused by consolidation, we now have President Donald Trump waging war on the media. He refers to the press as “an enemy of the people” almost every day. He calls any coverage critical of his administration “fake news.” He has mocked a disabled journalist, and he illegally revoked the press pass of a reporter. Clearly he lacks any understanding of the role of a free press in a democratic society.
We need a robust news and information system with independent and diverse voices so we can make informed decisions about the future of our country and hold our public officials accountable based on facts and deep-dive investigative journalism. What voters know about campaigns comes mostly from the news they watch, read and listen to. Campaign coverage was never meant to be infotainment or a reality show with almost unrelenting focus on candidates’ verbal gaffes and personal idiosyncrasies.
In an important ruling, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals last week overturned many of the FCC’s attempts to eliminate its media ownership rules. This is a major victory for the public interest that should put the brakes on some of the big media consolidation happening today.
So in the coming months and during the presidential debates, the public and the candidates themselves should demand that media hold itself accountable in campaign coverage. Reporters should begin asking candidates why we don’t have net neutrality and an open internet despite polls showing 85% of the public — Republicans, Democrats and Independents — support it. Reporters should be asking the candidates if media consolidation troubles them and what they might do about it. Reporters should be asking why so many communities live in news deserts today and what they would do to fix this.
To be sure, some journalists have written insightful pieces on the problems plaguing the industry. But we need more of them to ask the candidates where they stand on these issues. Journalists need to be a contributing part of the solution to the declining state of their own craft. It’s their responsibility, and it is our democracy that is at stake. We can no longer afford for the media to continue ignoring itself in covering presidential campaigns.