Corporate control influences reporting. To suggest otherwise is cynical at best.

Francis Taylor
Aug 14 · 5 min read
Source: Gage Skidmore; via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Several media outlets have just laid a fresh charge against US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.

Both CNN and MSNBC have accused Sanders of launching Trump-like attacks on the free press. This is in light of some recent comments he made concerning the Washington Post.

A consistent critic of Amazon, Sanders lambasted the corporation for not paying taxes at a town hall appearance in New Hampshire. He then went on to discuss his coverage in the Washington Post, saying the following:

“See, I talk about that all of the time. And then I wonder why The Washington Post — which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon — doesn’t write particularly good articles about me. I don’t know why. But I guess maybe there’s a connection.”

Shortly afterwards, Marty Baron, editor for the Washington Post, accused Sanders of subscribing to a “conspiracy theory”. He asserted that Jeff Bezos allows his newsroom to run with full independence. Politico echoed this sentiment, with a headline that read “Sanders walks back suggestion Bezos meddled in Washington Post coverage”.

But Sanders didn’t suggest anything of the sort.

He has never claimed that Jeff Bezos directly interferes in the Post’s reporting. The fact that so many high-profile journalists are insisting otherwise should give anyone pause.

Sanders merely argued that ownership influences coverage. As he later clarified to CNN, the corporate media generally ignores issues of wealth inequality and mass poverty. And this is hardly surprising given how many of these networks are owned by massive companies and billionaires.

This claim is also supported by academic research. As I have mentioned before, a considerable body of scholarship has found that the news media centers the interests of corporations and investors over the interests of the general workforce when reporting on the economy. And the notion that corporate ownership has nothing to do with this strains credulity.

Now, this is not to say that any of the journalists at the Washington Post are lying. Reporters like Anne Gearan are likely telling the truth when they say they don’t receive direct edicts from Jeff Bezos.

But corporate ownership rarely plays such a conspicuous role in the news media.

News organizations often indirectly influence their journalists. Reporters gradually pick up on the unspoken rules of a newsroom the more they work there. They learn how employers prefer them to frame stories and what issues to avoid. This is often communicated by the feedback they get from editors, internal newsletters and the comments of executives.

Such was the contention of Warren Breed in his landmark study “Social Control in the Newsroom” (1955).

To prove his point, we can look at General Electric in 1989. This was back when the large multinational owned NBC. A reporter conducted a story on the defective bolts that GE had accepted without certification from one of their suppliers. The report then went to air on the Today show. But when it did, all references to GE had been completely omitted.

One year later, the Today Show also failed to mention General Electric during a segment on boycotts. This was during a time when one of the biggest boycotts in the country was being waged against GE.

In both cases, no evidence emerged to suggest that GE had ever pressured NBC about these stories. But according to Todd Putnam, who dealt with NBC during the boycott segment, its producers showed serious reluctance to criticize GE. One even bemoaned that he’d be “looking for a new job on Tuesday” if the GE boycott got air-time.

Even at its most benign, corporate ownership impacts journalism for the worse. And this is what makes the accusations against Sanders so galling. Far from attacking the free press, he has drawn attention to its greatest threat: the concentration of media ownership. A dwindling number of individuals who have the ability to shape mass communication.

But by criticizing the corporate media and its owners, Sanders has undoubtedly made enemies. On MSNBC, one analyst complained that Sanders made her “skin crawl” while another spread misleading information about a speech of his. And the Washington Post has been no less vicious in their coverage.

Adam H. Johnson, a media analyst for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, has already covered this in some depth. He noted that the Post ran 16 negative stories on Sanders within a 16-hour timeframe back in 2016.

In an amusing development, Callum Borchers (a then-reporter for the Post) released an article titled “Now the Washington Post ran 16 positive stories on Bernie Sanders in 16 hours #bias!” one day later. Not mentioning Johnson’s name or article.

The piece contained examples like “Why Michigan’s Primary results are great news for Democrats” and “Winners and losers from the March 8 primaries”. Praise for Sanders buried beneath the headlines. But even the most glowing article, “Why Bernie Sanders’s win in Michigan matters so much” lacks the vigor of “‘Excuse Me!’: Bernie Sanders Doesn’t Know How to Talk About Black People” or “And the Most Partisan Senator of 2015 is… Bernie Sanders!”

Thankfully, the Post has relented a touch. This year, they only ran four negative stories about Sanders in a two-day period. To suggest that bias did not play some part in this is deeply insulting.

Corporate ownership breeds a corporate culture. It seems unlikely that journalists who see Sanders criticizing their boss, their industry and the integrity of their profession would hold much love for the left-wing candidate. And journalism has become an increasingly precarious career. As such, it seems equally unlikely that they’d go out of their way to praise Sanders. Even an imagined consequence would deter them.

Sanders is not wrong to question why the corporate media is so hostile to candidates who promise to raise taxes on the wealthy or threaten the profits of massive companies. Nor is he wrong to suggest that ownership might have something to do with it.

In contrast, the media’s response has been deeply disappointing. Were Sanders comments simply beyond the pale, then there would’ve been no need to misrepresent him. Instead, mainstream journalists accused Sanders of spreading lies and conspiracies. And in doing so they showed a complete inability to tolerate the slightest criticism.

This has all unfolded in an environment where journalistic standards have plummeted and less than 50% of the public trust the media. And until news outlets can respond to their critics in good faith, these problems will steadily get worse. In the meantime, one can only hope that some reporters take Sanders’ words to heart.

Francis Taylor

Written by

Freelancer. Fantasy and Sci-Fi Writer. Blogs about Art, Culture and Politics.

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