“We need to rebuild and protect a diverse and truly independent press,” the senator from Vermont and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wrote.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) unveiled a sweeping plan to protect American journalism on Monday, decrying President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media, a spate of megamergers of media companies and the rise of Silicon Valley behemoths leeching advertising dollars from the news industry.
“Today, after decades of consolidation and deregulation, just a small handful of companies control almost everything you watch, read, and download,” Sanders, a 2020 presidential candidate, wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review. “Given that reality, we should not want even more of the free press to be put under the control of a handful of corporations and ‘benevolent’ billionaires who can use their media empires to punish their critics and shield themselves from scrutiny.”
Newsroom employment across the U.S. has plummeted since 2008, and the Pew Research Center said last month that the total number of journalism jobs was slashed by nearly a quarter over the past decade. The cuts were largely seen at newspapers, but other massive digital enterprises have seen dramatic rounds of layoffs in recent years, including BuzzFeed, Vice and HuffPost.
From January to May of this year, about 3,000 people working in the news industry were laid off or offered a buyout package, according to an analysis by Bloomberg.
At the same time, news companies have been scrambling for ways to become profitable as traditional advertising dollars dry up (or hunted for billionaire benefactors, such as Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post or Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong’s of the Los Angeles Times).
Sanders noted that much of that cash still exists, and as of this year, digital advertising outpaces both print and television ad revenue. But the money largely flows to Google and Facebook, who control about 60% of the digital advertising market.
“We need to rebuild and protect a diverse and truly independent press so that real journalists can do the critical jobs that they love, and that a functioning democracy requires,” Sanders said.
Were he to unseat Trump in the 2020 election, Sanders said he would issue an “immediate moratorium” on mergers of major media corporations and instead focus on protections for local, independent news outlets. The senator also said he would appoint an attorney general to oversee tech giants like Facebook and Google to stop efforts to “cannibalize, bilk, and defund news organizations.”
“Trump’s authoritarian bullying of the media is totally unacceptable and it must be denounced and rejected,” he wrote. “But let us be clear: that alone will not solve the journalism crisis. Moreover, a further expansion of oligarchic business models in the media industry could make matters worse.”
Sanders said he planned to further support initiatives to unionize newsrooms as well as pushing for a plan that could see employees buy their media outlets through a stock-ownership plan before the companies are sold.
Sanders has been a leading contender among the crowded Democratic presidential field. A new national poll released Monday showed the senator in a virtual three-way tie with former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) (although it’s still early to put much faith in such numbers before the primaries even begin, and other polls have had different results).
Recode notes that the Sanders campaign has grown frustrated with the media in the past, lambasting the “corporate media” at times. Earlier this month, Sanders suggested that Bezos influenced The Washington Post’s coverage and was more critical of him than other candidates. The remarks prompted the executive editor of the Post to fire back, calling the idea a “conspiracy theory” while assuring readers that the newspaper operates with “full independence.”
Regardless of the tiff, the plan presents a dramatic and novel effort among the Democratic candidates to better protect a free press, a far cry from Trump’s blistering criticism of anyone and everyone critical of his administration.
“Our constitution’s First Amendment explicitly protects the free press because the founders understood how important journalism is to a democracy,” Sanders wrote on Monday. “More than two centuries after the constitution was signed, we cannot sit by and allow corporations, billionaires, and demagogues to destroy the Fourth Estate, nor can we allow them to replace serious reporting with infotainment and propaganda.”
Read the full Sanders article in the Columbia Journalism Review.