How the U.S. free press could wither and die

Trump with newspapers

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

Jeff Shell, NBCUniversal’s new chief executive, is reportedly considering replacing CNBC’s prime-time lineup with “right-wing talk shows,” New York Times media columnist Ben Smith reported Sunday. That drastic shift would run counter to CNBC’s business news branding, and it would put the network in competition for viewers already served by several entrenched cable channels that specialize in right-wing commentary, including Fox News. But according to Smith, the move “could allow Comcast,” the massive telecommunications conglomerate that owns NBCUniversal, “to extend an olive branch” to President Donald Trump and his supporters. The implication is that the company thinks it could get more favorable treatment from federal regulators if it gives the president more of the fawning coverage he craves.

This is how the free press could wither and die in this country. Not with federal bans on independent media outlets, or widespread government censorship. But by shifting the incentives of the corporate giants that own major news outlets just enough to convince them to voluntarily shift their business strategy to produce pro-regime propaganda. 

Trump constantly seeks to delegitimize journalists, tarring those who provide anything short of abject praise for his administration as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.” But in recent months, he’s repeatedly targeted not just NBC’s reporters, but also its parent company. “NBC, I think, is worse than CNN,” Trump said at a February rally. “And Comcast, a company that spends millions and millions of dollars on their image -- I’ll do everything possible to destroy their image because they are terrible.”

When Trump denounces media outlets, federal retribution often follows. He went after CNN, and then his Justice Department sought to block AT&T’s purchase of CNN’s parent company Time Warner, while his attacks on the “Amazon Washington Post” have been matched by federal efforts to deny Amazon a hefty federal contract and increase its postal costs (Jeff Bezos owns both companies; also, disclosure: my wife works for the Post). Nor is this vindictive streak limited to news outlets -- Trump issued an executive order targeting social media companies last week following a multiday feud with Twitter.

But Trump’s authoritarian approach matches carrots with its sticks, showing corporations that they can avoid presidential ire -- and federal regulatory actions -- if they truckle to his whims and produce propaganda supporting his administration. Fox News is the closest thing the country has to state TV, and that support for the president has repeatedly paid off for its founder Rupert Murdoch’s business interests. Facebook hired GOP political operatives to steer its policies to favor Trump, and so the president publicly favors its bootlicking chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg.

CNN and The Washington Post have continued to produce critical reporting and commentary in spite of this, and Twitter isn’t backing down from holding Trump to its terms of service. But there’s no guarantee that will last, and no telling where the breaking point might be for their owners. When will AT&T decide it would rather CNN’s coverage not anger the president? When does Bezos decide it's no longer worth the price the Post costs him in federal actions against Amazon? Smith’s report suggests that at least one company that owns news outlets is starting to hedge its bets and consider producing coverage more favorable to the president for corporate benefit. Will others follow, and either change their programming to suit the White House, or offload their news assets altogether?

If that becomes the new normal, there will still be independent journalists who produce critical reporting. But they will increasingly be pushed to the margins as corporate-owned outlets bend to the president’s will.

That’s what happened in Hungary, whose fragile democracy was dismantled over the past decade. Under Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian leadership, the government used tactics like the selective blocking of mergers to push private media companies into the hands of his supporters, who then ensured that their coverage aligned with his interests. Orbán has numerous fans among American conservatives, who see his success in molding Hungary as a positive example for the U.S.

Trump doesn’t need to destroy the free press to bring authoritarianism to America. He can just let its owners do the work for him.