Media, Top Stories

Is the New York Times Bad For Democracy?

In a recent column entitled “Why the Success of the New York Times May Be Bad News for Journalism,” media columnist Ben Smith outlines a number of anti-competitive practices by his parent company. His conclusion is that the Times may be well on its way to becoming a monopoly. But why does this matter to readers? I’d like to tally some of the problems that might arise from a lack of viable competition in the journalism industry.

To summarize, the New York Times is now a behemoth in the digital news industry, massively outperforming its competitors when it comes to digital subscribers. It poaches the best editors and reporters from other news organizations, swallows their distinctive qualities whole, and now plans to move into the audio industry, with a potential purchase of Serial Productions (a prominent podcast studio that is currently valued at $75 million). Having talked to many aspiring journalists myself, I know that few would dare to refuse an offer at the Times.

The Times’s success would be welcome were it not at the expense of other news organizations. As the Times continues to report quarterly revenue growth, the rest of the industry flounders. The past two years have reported high-profile lay-offs in both traditional (Gannet) and digital media (Buzzfeed, Mic). The news industry as a whole has no doubt been damaged by the efficiency of digital advertising on social media. But the success of the Times cannot be separated from the decline in the rest of the industry. I’m not saying that the Times is a monopoly; my point is that it is beginning to behave like one. And, because of some unique features of the industry, it is likely to continue on this path.

First, the industry of digital news is not, what Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger called, a “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats” situation. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019, “the vast majority [of readers] only have ONE online subscription—suggesting that ‘winner takes all’ dynamics are likely to be important.” People do not usually subscribe to more than one news organization (a phenomenon sometimes called “subscription fatigue”), which means that the Times is succeeding at everyone else’s expense.

Second, the industry of news is not like other industries in that their core assets are human beings as opposed to physical capital like machinery or technology. This means that industry consolidation occurs much more subtly. When companies in other industries want to consolidate, they have to buy their competitors wholesale—since physical assets and technologies are harder to move. In the news industry, the Times can achieve total consolidation without a single corporate acquisition. Since writers with laptops are effectively the key assets of journalism, the Times simply “acquires” the best journalists (i.e. human capital) from other news organizations. Their expanding content mix (fashion, sports, technology etc.) is a sign that the Times has indeed been acquiring the capital of other news organizations without ever having to fall under the scrutiny of antitrust enforcement.

If the Times is implicated in the declining health of smaller news organizations, then it’s not serving the values of democracy as well as it righteously claims. A poverty of local news erodes community bonds and nationalizes politics into the divisive boxing match we see today. Without local news organizations that cater to the issues of smaller communities, all politics become national—we are forced to search for meaning and identity in problems with predefined ideological categories set by national news outlets: abortion, healthcare, gun control, immigration.

A Times monopoly is also anti-democratic because of its excessive control over information. A dominant player in the news industry has too much power over what millions of readers see. Even if loyal readers trust these outlets, there is still something wrong with a public whose news consumption is dependent on the personal decisions of a few journalists. If readers don’t have a viable alternative news source to turn to, these editors have no real accountability. Without any way for readers to impose a cost on media monopolies, readers are vulnerable to the whims of personal judgments within a newsroom.

We might think that the Times can be trusted because of the reputation it’s built as a balanced and objective news outlet. But no news organization is perfect. In his book State of War, Times journalist James Risen recounts a number of stories, including the NSA spying on US citizens, that were delayed or retracted by the Times after discussions with the Bush administration. When the public is dependent on a single news outlet, these faulty decisions become ever more costly to the public. And these decisions are not democratic: No reader had any way of influencing these editorial decisions.

Even if the Times is, in general, highly professional, there are at least two other reasons we should be wary of powerful media. First, self-regulation is always prone to fail. In politics, we expect politicians to act with virtue and integrity but no one is under the illusion that this is enough. By design, periodic elections serve as external checks that keep politicians from abusing their power. Similarly, in our government, the three branches of power are “checked” by each other so we’re not asked to rely on self-regulation. The media is sometimes referred to as the “fourth estate.” But what checks this power if not citizens who can threaten to go to another publication if the outlet abuses its position? The assumption that it is sufficient for big media to regulate itself is anathema to our republican heritage. “If men were angels,” Madison writes in The Federalist Papers, “no government would be necessary.” Allowing a media monopoly to exist is to expect journalists to be angels.

There is also the reality that journalism is not a diverse profession. Many come from white, middle-class, liberal backgrounds and the Times is almost certainly dominated by these groups. This means that even if racial diversity can be achieved through affirmative action, its political diversity will be limited, and will not capture a good part of the political spectrum. When news organizations with narrow political ideologies grow more powerful it creates a media backlash. Different political news sites sprout up that seek to provide a corrective or alternative viewpoint. These sites are created in direct contrast to the media “establishment,” which fosters a news environment where outlets are organized according to oppositional principles. Monopolies in media contribute to polarized environments.

The news industry is no stranger to this “reactive” dynamic. The American media landscape today—where the media is split on ideological lines—is in part a product of the media’s consolidation a few decades earlier. As historian Matthew Pressman writes in On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News, the dominance of news organizations coupled with their liberal bent helped fan a new conservative backlash. “The modern conservative movement has long viewed itself as an insurgent group being victimized by the liberal establishment,” he writes. Conservative media, which in part arose from the frustration with a myopic mainstream, would not be as successful but for the major consolidation of news over the past few decades. Today, the growing success of the Times threatens to repeat this dynamic, bringing with it the risk of exacerbating political tensions.

One of the functions of a strong, independent press is the ability to scrutinize government to protect citizens from abuse. But as media companies grow larger, their power can come to be abused. And, unlike the government which was designed to handle such abuses through checks and balances, we have no way of dealing with media monopolies except placing our blind trust in well-behaved journalists. We should be worried about the Times’s expansion. A monopolistic media ultimately undermines the democracy it purports to defend.

 

Chang Che is a master’s student in political theory at Oxford. You can read more from him on his website and you can follow him on Twitter @changxche

Comments

  1. “The media is sometimes referred to as the “fourth estate.” But what checks this power if not citizens who can threaten to go to another publication if the outlet abuses its position?”

    This notion of the media as the fourth estate is a crock of sh#t fiction created by narcissistic journalists. The job of the media is to pander to an audience and sell it information. Is there any other profession that spends as much time telling people how vital, fair and noble it is? The modern media peddles a point of view as fact regardless of the actual truth.

  2. Seriously? Who might think this? Their reputation was questionable 20 years ago but it has been thoroughly debunked in the last few years even to the point of self admission of their bias. Even today with the hopeful use of chloroquine a treatment for the Coronavirus, instead the NY Times had to use it as another opportunity to throw stones at the president. They are a menace.

    They still have use as a weather-vane to determine which way leftist winds are blowing.

  3. Because the progressives, as disorganised, self-destructive and fucked-in-the-head as they are, are still more organised than the conservatives.

  4. The Times ’s success would be welcome were it not at the expense of other news organizations.
    But the success of the Times cannot be separated from the decline in the rest of the industry. I’m not saying that the Times is a monopoly; my point is that it is beginning to behave like one. And, because of some unique features of the industry, it is likely to continue on this path.

    Reasons suggested:

    1. Subscription fatigue
    2. Human capital & industry consolidation

    Then the author:

    If the Times is implicated in the declining health of smaller news organizations, then it’s not serving the values of democracy as well as it righteously claims. A poverty of local news erodes community bonds and nationalizes politics into the divisive boxing match we see today.

    Can the NYT be described as a monopoly? Nothing in the article suggests anything remote. Is the NYT damaging other news outlets? Again, nothing.

    In the news industry, the Times can achieve total consolidation without a single corporate acquisition. Since writers with laptops are effectively the key assets of journalism, the Times simply “acquires” the best journalists (i.e. human capital) from other news organizations. Their expanding content mix (fashion, sports, technology etc.) is a sign that the Times has indeed been acquiring the capital of other news organizations without ever having to fall under the scrutiny of antitrust enforcement.

    This point demolishes the author’s own claim that there can be a monopoly as such. Journalism outlets struggles with Facebook, Google, and to a lesser extent Twitter is well noted.

    The Ben Smith article explains better about the prominence of the NYT. Important, it does not use the word monopoly to describe the NYT. The thrust of this article is that somehow NYT is a monopoly. It does not explain why or how.

  5. One of the reasons why we’ve seen viewpoint diversity decline so much in recent years is because of social stratification. DIE policies may ensure ensure an ethnically diverse campus at any elite university that one cares to mention, but this largely comes at the expense of the exclusion of qualified prospective white students from the bottom 80% of the socio-economic spectrum. Somebody has to pay the bills, after all. And whilst DIE candidates are far more likely to be socially conservative in their outlook (a factor largely determined by circumstances of birth)- to break from the political constituency which is seen by many to most actively support DIE, is somewhat akin to heresy amongst many communities.

    The unfortunate consequence of this clustering by political affiliation, is that it kills off the opportunity to learn about the other side of the political coin. Worse still, it allows for the festering of pathologically divisive political philosophies like intersectional feminism, which not only brooks no challenge to it’s prevailing worldview, but refutes to very concepts of reason, logic and empirical evidence as the tools of oppression and white supremacy, with some going so far as to describe both Time and Maths as white patriarchal constructs.

    And whilst reputable surveying organisations like Pew and Gallup show that both political parties drastically overestimate the percentage of the other side which hold marginal and unpopular viewpoints, the greater empathy gap lies on the Left-leaning liberal side. In his landmark book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt describes that, whilst conservatives are relatively good at pretending liberal viewpoints, liberals attempting to emulate conservative perspectives hold grossly distorted opinions of what most conservatives believe, almost like a caricature.

    But the real problem for liberals in failing to imagine what a conservative might think or feel, on a particular topic, is that it may well result in their exclusion from political power for a generation. They may well dominate in media, education, the universities, tech, finance and all areas of business, other than remaining heavy industries and agriculture, but the reins of political power have never been further from their grasp. With the wholesale rejection of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party at the primary ballot box, Trump’s political land grab of blue collar workers is likely new cemented for the foreseeable future.

    We are now in the midst of the biggest political realignment since Reagan and Clinton between them fomented the political changes first tepidly begun under Lyndon Johnson. It’s not a phenomenon unique to America either, it has been sweeping across most Western countries, particularly within the Anglosphere. What many have described as populism is actually a working-class revolution, and a wholesale rejection of the cosmopolitan liberal globalist worldview. And whilst globalism may have been great for the mostly liberal top 10%, and not so bad for the similarly aligned next 20%, who provide support and relatively high-value services to the privileged few, it hasn’t been great for the other 70%.

    What should alarm Democrats and liberals most of all, is that there are strong signs that the marginal communities that they were hoping to rely on, for a permanent revolution based on demographic change, are beginning to desert the Party in droves. Support for Trump within the African American community, which once languished around the 8% mark, has now almost doubled, with over 14% firmly declaring their intention to vote for him. The Latino vote share is even worse for Dems, with a recent Atlantic article claiming the Latino support for him has grown from 28% to 30%. In the UK, a similar working-class revolt has taken place with the mainly cosmopolitan liberal Momentum wing of the Party, causing candidates to double down on such political irrelevancies as the Trans Pledge.

    As in the Clinton era, it is economic opportunity, not ill-defined social progress that most voters want. And when, historically, the level of foreign-born citizens rises to around 14% and are combined with the economic downturn which is sure to follow from Coronavirus, the forces of “populism” are sure to rise. In these changing times, it is doubtful whether The New York Times will be able to understand the political changes going on around them, let alone convey them to their readership in a sense-making format likely to ensure long-term brand loyalty. It may well be that in ten years time, the New York Times readership may become an increasingly fringe outlier on the political landscape, with existing or new print media rushing in to fill the gulf. Because quality of writing and journalism notwithstanding, it doesn’t really matter how well you write, if you no longer have anything relevant to say.

    EDIT: Bad writing on my part. I should have stated that whilst their readership will continue to expand, they will largely become a political irrelevancy- because they no longer represent the views of mainstream America. They are effectively becoming a very successful niche business. 80% of Americans wouldn’t want to read anything written by the woke- they certainly disagree completely with their Rotten Tomato ratings.

  6. I don’t think so. I just think the SJW side of progressivism has been successful in one of its aims of dividing the working class against themselves.

    In terms of his experiences in everyday life, a black cab driver in New York has a lot more in common with a white coal miner from the Appalachians than he does with his white PR manager passenger, however “woke” he is, but SJWs’ emphasis on identity politics obscures this - not necessarily from the cab driver, who isn’t as dumb as the PR manager likes to think, but from public discussion.

    It’s much easier for the white middle class to use “woke” philosophy to divide the black working class from the white working class than it is for them to, say, pay higher taxes or prices for good and services to improve the lives of the working class.

    Much the same goes for other marginalised groups. Most transgendered people, after all, are not living lives like Jenner, but are living in serious poverty. Divide and conquer.

    Once you understand that “woke” philosophy is motivated by a desire not to improve people’s lives, but to divide the working class and marginalised groups against each-other so as to maintain the privileged position of the wokesters, their conduct makes a lot more sense.

    Most conservatives have not been intelligent enough to see this, let alone fight against it. And that’s because many of the poorer conservatives do in fact have biases against other members of the working class (just nowhere near as strong as the SJWs present), and other marginalised groups, and the wealthier conservatives benefit from those divisions just as the wealthier progressives do.

  7. No working class person even considers a ‘career’ in journalism. Just as with publishing, the only people who can afford to become a journalist and risk the extremely low pay and poor job security are either a) independently wealthy or those with wealthy parents and/or b) young people from Ivies who are so indoctrinated they believe they’re priests on a mission.

    It’s self-selecting. The Woke mentality is very appealing to such people. For a certain type of upper class, it’s a great feeling to be able to do everything that an upper class status implies - send kids to private all white schools, elite sleepover camps, boarding schools, ‘volunteer’ trips to African/South American countries to help the ‘natives’, live in gated communities - all while saying how moral & virtuous they are for not being (theoretically) racist, and how stupid & ignorant the lower classes are (the NYT literally says that, in several articles).

    They get to feel like noble ministers ‘instructing’ the great unwashed with their wisdom of Wokeness. If it’s for garbage pay, if the career is completely unpredictable, if it requires an expensive Ivy education–well then, those are the sacrifices they must make.

  8. Media, education, entertainment, and most intellectual fields are liberal by nature. The right wing is a coalition of commerce, religion, traditionalists, and the military. These are just tendencies, by no means fixed or absolute boundaries. I once was debating on-line with someone whose line of argument was “Keynesian economics is proved true by virtue of nearly every academic being on my side.” I countered with “this is equal to validating Catholicism thanks to every Cardinal and Bishop being in agreement with Catholic Doctrine”. In other words, the media self-selects and will only promote those people who tow the liberal line. If you work for a media company and suddenly decide to express moderate or right wing views, then you’ll be fired.

  9. Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one. The cause of subscription fatigue is most people don’t care to pay for opinions. The so called news is mostly opinion which is why the moniker “Fake News” sticks. Furthermore news is very unserious and trivial. On several sites I visit one third of the stories are: Starlet turns 50. See her bikini pics; Read handsome movie star’s opinion on COVID-19; Actress responds to actor’s negative tweet.

    Honest news would begin like this: “Liberal Democrat reporter X’s take on the tax cut bill.” or “Conservative republican reporter Y’s view on the Climate Change initiative.”

  10. Thanks, I found your view a very insightful way to look at it. I can get an opinion from anywhere for free but why pay for one when even the supposed hard information is badly tainted. If the product is useless, the value is worthless.

    Case in point, back in 2014 there was an avalanche at 18,000 feet on Mt Everest that killed 13 Sherpas. It was a fascinating story of tragedy and social dichotomies that outlined how sherpas spent days maintaining passages over dangerous ice falls so climbers could pass though in mere minutes. The sherpas who exposed themselves to the huge risks were poorly paid by western standards, far less than the well equipped climbers could afford, yet the sherpas were the high earning elites in their communities.

    The sudden death of thirteen of their colleagues was devastating to the small community and they shut down the mountain for the remainder of the year. At the time I read much of the developments with interest from many sources as it was a melancholy human interest story about complicated interactions between disparate societies. Interesting that is until I got to the NY Times and the WaPo. In their “stories” it was made entirely about “climate change”, as you well know global warming is a real bitch at 18,000 feet. (where is the sarcasm font?) These outlets added nothing to the story in terms of understanding but used the tragedy merely as another opportunity to peddle their propaganda. I think Elon Musk mentioned it a year or two ago that when you have extensive knowledge in an area that somehow gets into the news, you get the opportunity to see demonstrated how badly the main news outlets get it very wrong.

    I am uninterested in paying for what they are pedaling, opinions dressed up as news stories.

  11. Bad writing on my part. I should have stated that whilst their readership will continue to expand, they will largely become a political irrelevancy- because they no longer represent the views of mainstream America. They are effectively becoming a very successful niche business. 80% of Americans wouldn’t want to read anything written by the woke- they certainly disagree completely with their Rotten Tomato ratings.

  12. Michael Crichton said it best.

    “Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

  13. Though I think you are being a bit tongue and cheek, you make a good point. Throughout history “news” has really been nothing more than glorified pamphleteering. The notion that back in the “good ol days” journalism was a noble vital truth seeking mission is bunk. Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Duranty Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times in reports overlooked and denied the famine occurring in the U.S.S.R. in 1931-33. When Ty Cobb was playing in New York he went for a drive in Central Park (possible back then) a police officer pulled Cobb over and began picking at the hotheaded Cobb. Finally Cobb had enough and the encounter escalated into blows. Suddenly a reporter emerged from the bushes to photograph the escapade. The cop was an imposter hired to help generate the story. These are just a few examples of the glorious history of journalism. I am not anti-media or information. I welcome the resources at our fingertips. I do push back against the notion journalists are some type of super hero crime fighters. As @DOK pointed out, journalism is in the business of selling subscriptions.

  14. It’s education, specifically at the top. It’s a side effect of a few generations of gatekeeping.

    Anyone on the highest track of academic achievement has minimun requirements for eligibility. To even be considered, you need a flawless academic record.

    A single politically active Gen Ed professor can eliminate your perfect GPA, this closes doors. Think of it like modern HR screens for, say, a programming job based on a specific set of languages- GONOGO admittance. So, promising, brilliant conservative student goes to a second tier grad school/program.

    No big deal, right?

    Well, hiring is also discriminatory. Ivies before non-Ivy League, doctorate before master’s, within Ivy League, Harvard and Yale first.

    So the very top end is matriculating not the brightest students, but the brightest Left students. In turn, this has a trickle down effect on professorships and tenure at lower tier schools. Once critical mass is hit, lower tier programs are also incidentally screening for liberal credentials, because outspoken conservative students suffer or go radio silent to survive.

    This means your top-rated programs for, say, journalists are only graduating top level Left journalism students. So something like the Times ends up peopled with a bubble of groupthink, who assume no conservative is on their intellectual level.

    Near as I can tell, this rot started with Vietnam stateside. Graduate enrollment=deferrment, so you had a lot of young, anti-conservative, activist professors enter academia in the late 60s through the 70s. We’re 50 years on from that. What I am unclear on is whether American cultural dominance infested Europe, or if Europe ended up with a bastard child with the deconstructionism movement.

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