Written by Nick Licata | Originally published 3/28/21
While Congress was in session, the Capitol’s violent invasion illustrates the power of conspiracy theories to grip average Americans.
The FBI believes that most who violently broke into the Capitol were convinced that the election was stolen from President Donald Trump. Studies of those rioters (see The inspired terrorists …were your neighbors) concluded they were largely middle-class ordinary Trump supporters who were inspired mainly by extremist narratives and conspiracy theories.
At the heart of any conspiracy theory is that some group secretly controls the government to manipulate our lives. That belief goes back to the beginning of our nation.
Past conspiracy theories have shaped national politics
One of the earliest significant conspiracy theories was in opposition to President Andrew Jackson’s re-election in 1832. Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party, was accused of following the Masonic Order’s directions. The Masons are a secret society whose membership at that time consisted mainly of wealthy North-Eastern businesspeople. Many Constitutional Convention attendees, and three presidents, Washington, Monroe, and Jackson, were Masons. Conspiracy theorists formed the Anti-Masonic Party, which eventually evolved into the Whigs and then the Republican Party. I guess one could say that a conspiracy theory gave birth to the Republican Party.
The most recent conspiracy theory shaping our national dialogue goes back to the 1950s with McCarthyism and the John Birch Society. Both U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy
and the Birch Society made unfounded accusations that a vast communist conspiracy existed within the U.S. government. Many federal employees and elected officials, including
Republicans, like President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, were accused of being in cahoots with it and hence were disloyal to the nation. This logic is a similar accusation that President Trump and his supporters levied against those not accepting that Trump won the election.
Media monopolies have the biggest megaphones for shaping public beliefs
Freedom of the press is guaranteed in our constitution. It is understood to mean that the government does not control it. Anyone can publish what they wish in the marketplace of ideas. However, the constitution is silent on what happens when a few hawkers dominate the marketplace, and the free press is effectively narrowed to those controlling the most presses.
When analyzing the relationship between public media and the government, the role of social media providers, like Facebook and Twitter, must be considered separately. The Congressional Research Service issued a legal analysis of how federal courts and laws extend special protections from lawsuits, which are not available to public media. Consequently, I will not discuss how social media providers relate to media monopolies and conspiracy theories.
With that issue put aside, the owners with the most presses have more eyes viewing their newspapers, T.V. networks, cable stations, and listening to their radio stations. In essence, they have the freedom to create and distribute information that could be fictitious or slanted to benefit their own financial and political interests. Two examples of this practice stick out: one from a hundred years ago and the other occurring today.
William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers made money and built readership by promoting sensationalist and distorted news. His efforts whipped up the public sentiment to help cause the Spanish-American War of 1898. At his peak in 1935, he owned 28 major newspapers and 18 magazines and several radio stations, movie companies, and news services. His total readership amounted to about 12 – 14 percent of the entire daily newspapers’ readership in the mid-1930s. In 1936, he accused President Roosevelt of being a Socialist, Communist, and Bolshevik and carrying out a Marxist agenda.
Hearst is a mere blip on the scale of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. In
2000, Murdoch’s News Corporation owned over 800 companies in more than 50 countries, with a net worth of over $5 billion. Among his newspaper holdings are the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. His T.V. flagship is Fox News, which according to Statista, the combined number of primetime viewers for CNN and MSNBC were only 81% of Fox’s share in Q4 2020. According to Nielsen Media Research, in 2020, Fox had its 19th consecutive year as the number one cable news network in total day and primetime viewers. Commentators on Fox receive some substantial credit for convincing 70% of Republicans that Biden and radical-socialist Democrats stole Trump’s election.
Legislation has helped create media monopolies
Over the last forty years, Congress and Presidents have contributed to the consolidation of media ownership and weakening the public’s access to balanced news reporting. The federal government had provided a more level playing field among the media owners. Thom Hartmann points out in American Oligarchy, “the telecommunications laws from the 1920s and 1930s kept most newspapers, cable systems, internet providers, and radio and T.V. stations locally owned to prevent oligarchs from asserting singular control over information and news across our nation.”
In other words, laws made it a bit more difficult for them to use the free press to benefit their financial interests. The monopolies use their press as a powerful megaphone, which is as good as a large donation to a political campaign, and it is not reportable.
For instance, Ronald Reagan’s campaign team credited Murdoch’s paper, The New York Post, for his victory in New York in the 1980 United States presidential election. Once in office, Reagan “waived a prohibition against owning a television station and a newspaper in the same market.” Murdoch directly benefited because it allowed him to continue to control The New York Post and The Boston Herald while expanding into television
Reagan then vetoed a Democratic preemptive attempt to codify the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine into legislation. Afterward, he had the FCC abolished it. The Doctrine was established in 1949 to “devote broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance.” In 1949, the FCC issued a report that established broadcast licensees’ duty to cover controversial issues in a fair and balanced manner. The Congressional Research Service identified the Doctrine’s essential requirement to be that broadcasters “devote a reasonable portion of broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance” and “affirmatively endeavor to make … facilities available for the expression of contrasting viewpoints held by responsible elements with respect to the controversial issues.” However, it only applied to broadcast licenses, not cable, satellite, and Internet platforms.
A further slide into enabling the growth of monopolies was the Telecommunications Act of 1996. President Bill Clinton enthusiastically signed after the Telecom industry lobbyists had spent tens of millions of dollars on both parties’ legislators getting the bill to Clinton’s desk. Hartmann concludes that the Act “wiped out those protections for local media, turning our nation’s cable systems, internet service providers, newspapers, and radio and T.V. stations over to a small handful of media oligarchs.”
The result was an acceleration of concentrating the ownership of media outlets. In 1983, 90% of U.S. media was controlled by 50 companies; as of 2011, 90% was owned by just 6 companies, and in 2017 the number was 5.
The spread of conspiracy theories has consequences
Because of their broad reach and centralized editorial command, media monopolies supply oxygen to spreading conspiracy theories to the public. They attract more viewers/readers than just reporting boring factual news. Conspiracies don’t cost much to produce. Once some bare-bones facts are tossed into the narrative, no further research is necessary. Think of conspiracy theories as clickbait for attracting anyone wanting to know who is behind the screen manipulating the truth.
Consequently, there is less need for real journalists doing investigative reporting. Brier Dudley, the Seattle Times Free Press editor, mentions a 2018 study that found declining local political news coverage reduces citizen engagement. The decline in local coverage is due in large part to the dramatic reduction in newsroom staffing.
According to the executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, in 2019, there was a record loss of 16,160 newsroom jobs lost, a 200% increase in losses over a year. And Pew Research Center reported on top of that; the previous decade saw a 51% loss. The cumulative effect is that opinion-makers have replaced paid journalists over this period in print and even more widely in social media. News based on journalistic ethics is being replaced by opinion leaders who pick portions of facts that support their position.
This trend is that the difference between facts and opinions is blurred, and trust in all media and government sinks. According to the 21st annual Edelman Trust Barometer, (January 2021), which measures confidence in institutions, Americans’ trust in the media and government has fallen to a historic low.
However, business is the only institution perceived as both ethical and competent, with more than half in the Edelman survey (53 percent) believing corporations are responsible for filling the information void. There is a slight irony here that some corporations benefit from conspiracy theories that significantly reduce government oversight of corporate activities.
Another significant survey found similar results. A report assembled by Gallup and the Knight Foundation surveyed 20,000 Americans in the three months before Covid 19 hit America. The report found that roughly three-quarters of the respondents believe the owners of media companies are influencing coverage. Fifty-four percent said reporters intentionally misrepresent facts, and 28 percent believe reporters make the facts up entirely.
Nevertheless, news media is either critical or very important for a functioning democracy, according to 84 percent of Americans. That need is not being met if conspiracy theories undermine the public’s trust in our government and mainstream media. Knight Foundation’s senior vice president Sam Gill, said the report’s findings revealed shattered confidence in America’s news media and were “corrosive for our democracy.”
Laws fighting misinformation can lead to authoritarian governance
The U.S. faces a challenge in sustaining our media’s independence from government control while serving our citizen’s desire to have reliable factual based news media. The trend for the last four decades has seen the concentration of ownership in the media that distributes anti-democratic conspiracy theories.
But to fight this trend, we must avoid what Hungary’s parliament, dominated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, adopted. With a vote of 137–53, they passed a law to allow the government to jail for up to five years “anyone who intentionally spreads what the government classifies as misinformation.”
This law resulted from Orban’s financial allies creating a vast propaganda machine to enable his Fidesz party to retain control of the nation’s government. In 2019, a team of European Union NGOs specializing in press and media freedom reported on how Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has been treating the press. They concluded that without introducing the overt authoritarian laws that Russia and China have instituted to censure their media, Orban had constructed a pro-government media empire. As a result, large parts of the public are denied access to critical news and reliable information. An uninformed electorate can easily be swayed by who has the loudest megaphone.
So, what steps are needed to avoid Hungary’s draconian legislation and still hinder a political party or a nation’s leader from colluding with media monopolies to overshadow access to reliable news to the public?
Legislation can diminish the extent of conspiracy theories
Congress is considering proposals to address some issues that have contributed to the spread of conspiracy theories. One of them is the downward trend in the number of journalists and outlets in the print and digital media platforms that had produced original local journalism. U.S. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Arizona, and Dan Newhouse R-Wash. have proposed the Local Journalism Sustainability Act (HR 7640). It was introduced in July 2020; as of November, it had 78 co-sponsors (20 Republicans and 58 Democrats).
Although it might seem odd that Republicans support this legislation, its primary thrust is to provide economic incentives to help publishing businesses. The bill allows individual and business taxpayers certain tax credits for the support of local newspapers and media. Specifically, individual taxpayers may claim an income tax credit of up to $250 for a local newspaper subscription. The bill also allows local newspaper employers a payroll tax credit for wages paid to an employee for service as a journalist and certain small businesses a tax credit for local newspaper and media advertising expenses.
The Missouri Press Association representing 229 newspapers in Missouri, which is approximately 99.5% of all newspapers, strongly supports the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Their Executive Director of the Missouri Press Association, Mark Maassen, spoke at a public forum noting that “nearly 36,000 employees and newspapers have been laid off, furloughed, or have had their pay reduced during this (Covid 19) crisis.”
He strongly recommended that its members contact their members of Congress in support of the legislation.
With over 99% of local papers in Missouri supporting the legislation, Missouri Republicans may find it awkward to oppose it. All but one of their six Republican congressional representatives objected to the certification of the election results in conformity with the election was stolen conspiracy theory. Will they vote to eliminate local jobs or be influenced by the media monopolies to oppose it?
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, the Senate Education Committee’s new 2021 chair, issued a report in October 2020. It recommended that a limited antitrust exemption from Congress be granted to news publishers to allow them to collectively negotiate for better terms with the tech platforms. Senate Bill 1700, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which was introduced in 2019, would allow for that. The News Media Alliance trade association, representing approximately 2000 newspapers and multiplatform digital services, helped write the bill.
The bill currently sits in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It has significant bipartisan support, with both Senators Mitch McConnell [R-KY] and Sherrod Brown [D-OH] becoming co-sponsors of the bill in 2020. One of the most ardent believers that the election was stolen from Trump is Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. He sits on the Committee and will have to vote to pass it out of the Committee or not. The Missouri Press Association could play a role in moving him to vote it out of Committee. Former Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker and Senator Amy Klobuchar and the new Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff are part of the Committee’s membership. Their combined high national profiles could mobilize support for this senate bill and the related House Bill (HR 7640). Chairman Dick Durban will decide when to bring it up to a vote.
The bipartisan support for both the House and Senate bills must argue that the nature of maintaining a free press has been handicapped with the introduction of new social media technology, which has lower labor costs and reaches a broader audience. The result is that they have fatter profit margins for distributing opinions instead of distributing news based on facts and in-depth research.
Another change would be to resurrect the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine that required stations to “program in the public interest.” It required an equal division between local and national news. More importantly, stations that aired “editorials” from owners or management had to be balanced by an outside source with a different perspective. Those changes would have to be initiated by the FCC. Currently, the commission is evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Biden will appoint another a fifth commissioner to give the Democrats a majority.
The above legislation and regulatory changes will require a significant public education effort to overcome resistance from an expected well-funded lobbying campaign by the media monopoly owners. Even if these measures are passed, it will require ongoing monitoring of the media to assure that these minimal steps to provide balanced reporting are followed.
Failure to pass these laws or enforce them will result in the continued unchecked proliferation of conspiracy theories being broadcasted throughout the public media. As we have witnessed, that practice foments fractionalization of our national principles and distrust in a democratic society.