Media Monopoly and Corporate Greed: The Platform of Fascists and their Imitators
To say there’s a clear line of succession from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is to state the obvious. But what is increasingly apparent, and in need of greater attention, is how well GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump fits into their political trajectory — abetted, as were they, by the media.
To my mind, for Trump, the single most compelling and relevant comparison is to Berlusconi, so much so that I would not be surprised to learn that Trump’s campaign is deliberately patterned after the disgraced former Italian prime minister.
Like Trump, Berlusconi’s career in politics was unexpected. When electoral reform in Italy threatened ruinous consequences for the system of bribes that the billionaire relied upon to exempt his private television monopoly from regulation, the principal benefactor of those payoffs, Socialist party leader Bettino Craxi, advised Berlusconi to go into politics himself. “You can reach that part of the electorate that is disoriented, confused,” Craxi told him, sketching a path to electoral victory that deployed “the weapon” of Berlusconi’s empire of Canale television channels.
Journalist Alexander Stille recounts this shrewd calculation that gave birth to Berlusconi’s rise in politics in his biography of the former Italian prime minister called (appropriately enough) The Sack of Rome. It’s impossible to read it today without being struck by the numerous parallels between Berlusconi and the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. Not surprisingly, Stille updated his 2006 manuscript with a piece in The Intercept that sketches out those similarities in detail.
Stille’s focus on the dangers inherent in media concentrations of power, evident in both his biography and his commentary, reinforces the alarm raised by Lee Fang’s recent Intercept article, “Media Executives See Huge Payday Fueled by Donald Trump’s Campaign.” After reviewing investor calls hosted by corporate media, Fang noticed that executives are no longer worried that their extension of so much free media to Trump (estimated to be worth over $2 billion) would discourage the campaign from purchasing advertising in the fall. Apparently they feel that Trump will fundraise, and spend, in the amounts necessary to their bottom line.
The symbiotic relationship between corporate media’s profits and Donald Trump’s campaign has come to resemble mutual addiction more than convenient alliance. The amoral profiteering of especially television news provides the unstated premise to Michael Wolff’s recent observation that, if elected, Trump would “rule by media.” Though this might sound odd in light of Trump’s constant badgering and frequent abuse of the press, it is a paradox, not a contradiction. Trump detests journalists, but he thrives on media. According to Wolff, he has cultivated extremely close relations with “every significant member” of the corporate news business, including Les Moonves of CBS, who notoriously rejoiced at the ratings Trump generated by noting that Trump might be bad for the country, but good for his corporation’s bottom line. In his interview with Trump, Wolff learned that Trump, a racist demagogue with authoritarian inclinations, finds Moonves be a “great guy. The greatest. We’re on the same page.”
This might be an idle endorsement, or at most isolated damage, were it not for the dangerous concentration of power in today’s news media. Six companies (Comcast, News Corp., Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS) own an astonishing 90% of the US media market. There are two distressing components to this. One is the absence of meaningful regulation: once forced to abide by the “Fairness Doctrine,” a rule that stipulated equal time for opposing political views, television news was freed of this burden when the Reagan administration abolished the rule. Television held no special power worthy of government attention, the FCC decided; it was merely a household appliance, a “toaster with pictures.” Stille makes this point explicitly. “There is another element, “ he writes, “a systemic one — that helps explain why Italy and the U.S. are the only major democracies in which a billionaire circus has raised its tent: the almost total deregulation of broadcast media.”
The second and more alarming feature is industry-wide consolidation that places the power of news media (including television) in the hands of a select few. When businessman and Trump surrogate Peter Thiel secretly backed a privacy lawsuit designed to put the media site Gawker out of business, The New York Times took the opportunity to place the story in its business context, namely: “an aggressive bid by the very wealthy to control the American news media at a time when it is in a financially weakened state, struggling to maintain its footing on the electronic frontier’s unstable terrain.”
In an era of corporate monopoly, the press is susceptible to control in ways that can be detected by the reading or viewing public — as when Sheldon Adelson compels The Las Vegas Review-Journal to do his bidding, for instance — and in ways that cannot. Though examples of the first raise alarm, the latter is a more pernicious danger. Simply by omitting relevant information, minimizing important stories, or framing alternative views in unfavorable ways, the media exercises enormous influence. Even so-called “new media” is heavily staked by legacy media owners, affording a level of editorial control to corporate powers that remains hidden from public view.
Censorship can take overt and covert forms; it can take place voluntarily, when a reporter persuades herself that a story involving the failure of regulators in mortgage securitization would endanger her career, for example; or it can be formalized into a practice of policing and punishment by outside authorities, such as was the case in mid-twentieth century fascism.
The comparison between those more drastic forms of censorship and Les Moonves’ investor calls is an imperfect one, even when confined to the period of time preceding fascist rule, when much of the press in both Italy and Germany operated as official party organs and made no pretense of neutrality.
But it is worth reminding ourselves of the preconditions to authoritarian rule and formal censorship nonetheless. Not surprisingly, corporate media monopoly is a prominent one. For example, though it is no secret that Hitler relied upon proactive and pervasive censorship to govern, it is less widely noted that in years before he assumed power, most of the close to 4,000 ostensibly “neutral” provincial papers unaffiliated with a party fell under the control of the Hugenberg Trust. All of them consistently published feverishly nationalistic content simply because Alfred Hugenberg, an ally of Hitler, wanted it that way. Long before there was government censorship, there was editorial conformity.
As is true with other comparisons between them, Mussolini’s hold on the media was more lethargic than the Germans who emulated his fascist philosophy. But it was menacing and impressive in its own right, and yields its own lessons. Though appointed as prime minister in 1922, Mussolini only got around to forming a “High Commission” to monitor journalists in 1929, and even then his efforts were not as convincing as those of the Germans. (Only later, as he watched Nazi efforts unfold, did Mussolini become inspired to wield more control.) But, for precisely these reasons, his earlier and less concerted endeavors remain compelling for us today.
While insisting that he would not interfere with “free press,” Mussolini benefited from a press corps unaccustomed to autonomy. In 1915, the Italian government promulgated wartime censorship rules for journalists, forbidding publication of pacific or critical views. The remnants of this control lingered in the postwar years: newspapers routinely buried stories of violence, for instance, if it was felt publishing them would interfere with tourism, Italy’s most valued industry. A press corps willing to place the news subservient to business interests is, as Mussolini discovered, already disposed to and effectively practicing censorship. One need only organize their obedience.
In 1925 Mussolini launched those efforts in earnest, promulgating instructions that the press preserve the “public order” by showing “discipline.” He moved to place the country’s most important editorial posts directly under fascist control, preferably in the hands of someone who, in the words of one historian, “could be relied on not to think too much.” Communist and other papers went underground, their leaders sometimes subject to physical assault. Rather than view this campaign of silence as reactionary, most journalists expressed a feeling that, in the wake of postwar upheaval, they were doing their part to restore order and build a strong Italian nation. It would be wrong to assume that censorship is always exercised under duress; sometimes, it is embraced and rationalized. In Nazi Germany, aggressive censorship produced prisoners. Less energetic forms, such as what Mussolini exercised in his earliest days, can be detected in uniform perspectives and news priorities.
Although the terrible machinations of classic fascist leaders deserve to be treated as distinct, they demand our consideration. Their stories help to sharpen the distressing features Berlusconi’s rule in Italy, including his unabashed efforts to deploy the news as a “weapon” in his service, as Craxi had counseled him to do. This project went beyond his own networks to public media, where, according to Stille, he “placed his own people in strategic positions.” The hand-in-glove cooperation that resulted made it difficult to parse business from state interests — and, in the eyes of many in the news media, unnecessary to do so. What was good for the bottom line was good for Berlusconi, and vice versa.
Nothing about his alliance with “post-fascists” — self-professed followers of Mussolini — disrupted these cozy relations. During the early aughts, Berlusconi’s television networks in Italy provided him with four times the coverage of his main rival in the election. (Perhaps this amounted to over $2 billion in free television!) But the nature and implications of his alliance with the racist and anti-immigrant Northern League as well as the neo-fascist National Alliance were not among the subjects covered. Once elected, Berlusconi persecuted Roma; he punished and emboldened racism against migrants from North Africa. Years after a scandal-ridden Berlusconi left office in disgrace, Italy is still recovering from the damage he inflicted, both on its politics and economy. Yet the irrepressible Berlusconi is embarked on a course to change election law to allow him to run for office once again. If successful, his candidacy will surely be favored by a servile news media more vested in quarterly earnings than functioning democracy.
These analogies make the dangers posed by US media structure and practice more vivid. As media companies consolidated, foreign and statehouse bureaus closed; veteran reporters who cultivated sources lost out in favor of a new breed of journalists focused on “generating content.” In 2007, the Bush administration FCC lifted the ban on simultaneous ownership of a newspaper and television station in one market. Other forms of deregulation will follow; that’s not a comment on politics, that’s an observation on the power of monopoly to dictate its own operating environment.
Despite a plethora of seemingly independent outlets, the lion’s share of the news “output” is the product of corporate priorities. It should not shock us that a handful of craven executives elevated Trump for the sake of ratings; it should surprise us only that the “infotainment” of corporate news, ready to play host to a “circus candidate,” has not itself taken on carnival attributes in every last respect.
Though Trump embodies the hazards of corporate media monopoly, he did not precipitate these changes. He has, however, fully exploited them, and brought their inherent weaknesses to a natural conclusion or culminating point. With $2 billion in free media and amenable relations with compliant business executives who control so much, Trump commands the stage, and the media, his willing supplicants, dutifully platform his mendacity and racist worldview.
It is long past time to reconsider the structure and regulation of the news. This election should be regarded as its own sort of “shareholder meeting;” as affected investors, the American people have every right to be unhappy.