In the run-up to the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton won the endorsement of an exceptionally high number of newspapers. In the case of the The New York Times and other center-left outlets, that’s not the least bit surprising. Given the nature of her opponent, it wasn’t really all that shocking that she won the nod from large papers with conservative editorial boards that had endorsed Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in 2012 (Houston Chronicle, Arizona Republic, San Diego Union-Tribune). They were organs of the GOP Establishment that Trump had vanquished, not cheerleaders for the insurrection.
It got weirder.The right-leaning Chicago Tribune endorsed Libertarian Gary Johnson. USA Today, which had no endorsement in 2012, backed “Not Donald Trump” — as did the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. (Think about how passive-aggressive that is, considering that editorials are unsigned.) Lots of conservative papers had no endorsement at all. Of the 54 largest U.S. newspapers by circulation, not even one endorsed Donald Trump. The 55th-biggest was the Las Vegas Journal-Review.
In light of the outcome of the election, you could look at that record and conclude that presidential endorsements are pointless exercises in self-important grandstanding. (They are.) Or go farther and say that print media is moribund and out-of-touch with its own readers. Or you could paraphrase Stephen Colbert and note that basic human decency has a well-known liberal bias now that facts are merely entertainment for smart people. But two summers later, the president has embarked on an at-times frightening campaign of retaliation against unfavorable press coverage, frequently shrieking like a tinpot dictator who equates his personal ego with the glory of the nation. Beyond singling out individuals like Jim Acosta or April Ryan, or railing against Jeff Bezos over leaks to the Washington Post, Trump has called the press the Enemy of the People in dozens of tweets.
That’s ugly talk. Five journalists in Annapolis, Md., were killed this summer for doing their jobs. But it’s also true that the Obama administration fought relentlessly against unfavorable journalists covering the national-security state in its wider war on whistleblowers — even spying on them. (In the case of James Risen, he had to battle his own editors at The New York Times because they feared reprisal.) Just because Obama never tweeted a personal vendetta against Risen doesn’t mean that didn’t amount to state persecution. It did.
In any event, today we’ve had a concerted response to Trump, emanating from the Boston Globe. It’s a little sad to see the media laid so low, honestly. Defiantly crowing, “We matter!” undercuts the thesis a little bit. And of course, the president’s favorite media target isn’t even a newspaper, but CNN. At the same time, because everything Donald Trump does obeys Newtonian physics and creates an equal and opposite reaction, the temptation is to say that the enemy of the media is Donald Trump and the benighted forces of darkness he can marshal again and again.
I’ve never stood in a stadium and heard a chorus of 20,000 people chant, “SF Weekly sucks,” which I imagine would be most unpleasant. But the enemy of the media is not Donald Trump, or hordes of proto-fascists shouting down journalists. It’s not Craigslist, and it’s not even Google and Facebook hoovering up 85 percent of all online ad dollars between them. No: The enemy of the media is billionaires and private-equity firms that buy journalistic properties in order to destroy them.
It’s no coincidence that the largest pro-Trump paper was the Vegas Journal-Review. That wasn’t because Vegas is a right-wing place; Clark County is home to more than two-thirds of Nevada’s voters and backed Clinton by 10 points. Rather, it’s because the Journal-Review had been bought the year before by casino magnate and Republican hyper-donor Sheldon Adelson.
Adelson tried to conceal it. The paper’s staff had to apply their own journalistic acumen to unearth the identity of their new owners, and once they found out, they published a list of editorial principles intended to assure readers that coverage would remain independent and factual in spite of any conflicts of interest Adelson’s ownership introduced. It didn’t last. Within months, the reporters who broke the story were gone, forced out or ground down by attrition in a protracted battle against their billionaire boss.
It’s happened elsewhere, too. LA Weekly saw its staff terminated in a clumsy — as in, very clumsy — journalistic putsch after one Semanal Media bought the paper. (Point of clarification: It hadn’t been part of the same company as SF Weekly in many years.) Semanal is controlled by a still-nebulous group of pro-free-market, libertarian types who’ve transformed its editorial stance, extending even to social media. After the July standoff at a Los Angeles Trader Joe’s, LA Weekly posted a strange Instagram post mourning the victims in language that came suspiciously close to NRA talking points. The old LA Weekly‘s staff follows every move, using a hashtag that has got to sting: #VichyLAWeekly.
The Washington Post under Bezos may needle the president via the tag “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” but the world’s richest human is neither hands-off nor pro-labor. You know who else isn’t pro-labor? TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, who shut down DNAInfo and Gothamist (including SFist) last year out of spite over a union. The owners of Thrillist have frozen their unionized employees out of their work emails because they chose to strike.
Last month, Tronc slashed the New York Daily News‘ staff by 50 percent. While catastrophic on the merits, that move was also troubling because the somewhat left-leaning Daily News had long been engaged in one of the U.S.’s last heated newspaper rivalries with Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing New York Post. Gutting the Daily News doesn’t just hurt “New York’s Hometown Paper.” It beefs up News Corp, too.
The way a free press dies is not through rage-tweets from the Glorious Leader. It’s through the financialization of everyday life. Pious rhapsodies about the constitutionally enshrined importance of the Fourth Estate sound etched in marble because they really are corny relics from another time. In the 21st century, everything is a commodity before it’s anything else — certainly before it’s a public good. (Not even water is exempt.) Instead, we live under a neoliberal doctrine that encourages hedge funds and ideologically motivated investors to purchase journalistic outlets, trim costs to the bone and squeeze out whatever profits they can, then repackage them as “leaner” or “more nimble” underdogs, scrapping for a fight.
No matter the industry, having Corporate swoop into your office for an all-hands to say, “Everybody’s just going to have do more with less” is always demoralizing and depressing. But in the last 10 or 15 years, that phenomenon has hit newsrooms especially hard, leaving dozens of U.S. metro areas bereft of local coverage, running AP wire stories in lieu of maintaining a bureau in their own state capital, and desperate to hang on a little longer. Just as Mitt Romney and Bain Capital killed Toys R Us by sucking the marrow out of it and tossing the indigestible cartilage aside, private-equity bros are killing journalism. Endless layoffs and budget cuts ultimately suppress information, and Fox News, Breitbart, 4chan, and the rest sprouted in that vacuum. Misinformation wants to be free.
It used to be that we heard the phrase “liberal media.” Then it became “mainstream media,” as conservatives tried to reinvent themselves as some kind of genuine counterculture. They’re not defenders of an entrenched Establishment; oh no, they’re warriors waging a lonely fight against an axis of uncompromising cultural liberalism that extended from Google’s H.R. department to the dorms of Oberlin. Whatever the framing, it’s kept journalism on the defensive, which results in some painful bouts of overcompensation for perceived blind spots. (“No, we aren’t unfairly biased toward cosmopolitan liberals with disposable incomes, promise! Please enjoy this billionth story on Real Americans at a shuttered bottling plant.”)
In reality, the press will always be quote-unquote liberal because it will always be a counterweight on power, and power is always an inherently conservative force. And the greatest threat to the continued existence of a free press is rich people buying it up in order to eliminate checks on their wealth and power. All signs point to this trend continuing. But if nothing changes, there won’t be many newspapers left around to endorse.