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When Billionaires Rule

The demise of Gawker shows that the greatest impediment to media democracy isn't the state — it's the rich and powerful.

Signs of a journalism crisis abound. The newspaper industry is in a downward spiral, and cable television offers little beyond campaign-driven commentary. Reporting that “afflicts the comfortable” can find little sustenance within the vast wasteland of American news media.

But Gawker seemed different. Along with a handful of other profitable (or somewhat sustainable) online news sites, it appeared to be an exemplar of a new kind of journalism — one that could skewer elites while reaping the fruits of digital advertising.

Of course, Gawker tended toward sensationalistic and tawdry coverage. But it was also capable of hard-hitting reporting, and its irreverence allowed it to offer sorely needed scrutiny of the powerful and famous. It inhabited a niche where at least some degree of independent journalism was possible (see, for instance, its exposure of the David Petraeus scandal).

Then along came Peter Thiel. A Silicon Valley libertarian billionaire, Thiel sought vengeance for an earlier piece in Gawker about his sexuality. He bankrolled a lawsuit by Hulk Hogan, forcing the outlet into bankruptcy and single-handedly blowing the Gawker model out of the water. As former Gawker features editor Tom Scocca succinctly put it, the news site folded simply because “one wealthy person maliciously set out to destroy it, spending millions of dollars in secret” — making clear, Scocca concluded, that there’s “no freedom in this world but power and money.”

Beyond such dystopian visions, the Gawker affair has exposed a number of pathologies in our media system and raised troubling questions about threats to press freedoms from the wealthy. More specifically, it has revealed the precarious state of American journalism and the economic forces that shape what can and can’t be published.

Ultimately, Gawker’s destruction is one more example of how our impoverished, commercially dependent news media cannot withstand the might of concentrated economic power. What happened to Gawker could conceivably happen to any media outlet. Journalism costs money; it needs considerable resources and institutional support to survive — and good journalism will inevitably anger the powerful.

Amid the sordid details of Gawker’s closure, it’s easy to miss this bigger story, one that portends a dark future of deferential journalism and unassailable power. Gawker’s destruction is symptomatic of larger shifts in American society, where billionaires and corporations determine what we can see and say in the media.

The Playthings of Billionaires

Throughout American history, wealthy elites have attempted to control the news — from Southern slaveholders and their allies trying to quell abolitionist journalism to press barons like William Randolph Hearst and Robert McCormick opposing FDR’s New Deal. But the tactics used to undermine adversarial journalism in our digital age have grown more subtle and varied.

These attacks coincide with an unprecedented structural crisis for journalism. As readers and advertisers have migrated to the web (where ads contribute pennies-to-the-dollar of traditional print ad revenue), the 150-year-old business model for American commercial journalism — one that’s overly dependent on advertising — has collapsed.

Making matters worse, online advertising revenue is largely going to Google and Facebook. As they become our primary news sources, these new digital gatekeepers and their algorithms increasingly determine what information society receives.

The newspaper industry, still the primary source for actual journalism, has lost over 40 percent of its news staff since its pre-recession peak in 2007. Its revenues have also been in freefall. Following a particularly bad year in 2015, the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media report observed that “the industry may be past its point of no return.”

Rushing into the vacuum left by professional journalism are corporate “sponsored content” and billionaire-backed news, giving rise to a pay-to-play “payola society” in which America’s inequalities are increasingly inscribed into its media system. In this media landscape — marred by digital divides and invasive and deceptive forms of advertising — rich people and corporations can say what they want, but nearly everyone else is censored by market forces.

The financial weakness of the fourth estate renders it vulnerable to further capture from commercial and political interests. Despite the industry’s rapid devaluation in recent years, newspapers still hold significant political power, and they’re easy pickings for rich politicos with personal agendas. For example, the wealthy right-winger Sheldon Adelson purchased Nevada’s biggest paper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, to advance his business and political objectives.

While not all billionaires’ media ventures bolster the Right — eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s funding of The Intercept comes to mind — hoping the well-heeled will fund journalism that takes on fellow elites is not a systemic solution. The whims of the rich and powerful are unreliable parameters for the public discourse.

The fourth estate is meant to act as a countervailing force against concentrated power while fostering alternative visions for society. The commercial press has never lived up to these ideals, but in its current compromised state, it’s even less capable. And it’s likely to get worse.

Corporate Libertarianism

In the classical liberal conception, we need only worry about the state infringing on our First Amendment rights (“Congress shall make no law. . .”). This made more sense in the 1700s, when despotic governments were rightly feared and corporate power was not yet a major force. But in our age of hyper-inequality and lightly regulated monopolies, wealthy elites and corporations often pose a greater threat.

And there’s a vast apparatus that extends this power, with Gawker as Exhibit A: after years of so-called tort reform — abetted by a corporate propaganda campaign — Thiel was able to exploit legal instruments and unlimited funds to drive a media outlet he found offensive into the ground.

More broadly, the First Amendment is increasingly deployed both as a shield against threats to capital and a sword against regulatory incursions. The most famous “money = speech” case in recent years is Citizens United, but this insidious logic is informing various legal discourses that use the First Amendment to advance the power of moneyed interests.

This corporate libertarian paradigm invites a Hobbesian war of all against all, with the wealthy and corporations much better armed than others. We’ve seen this vision hinted at in Donald Trump’s rhetoric when he says he wants to “open up” libel law “so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”

While the influences undermining news media are typically more economic than legal, they lead to similar power relationships, with money the driving force.

Beyond Gawker

Any progressive agenda worth the name must fight for an adversarial news media that provides accurate information about social problems, challenges powerful interests, and opens up a forum for unpopular and under-represented voices and viewpoints.

The US media system both reflects societal inequalities and helps perpetuate them. But given the right structural conditions, journalism can also be a force for social justice. While unhooking media from profit imperatives and commercial pressures isn’t a panacea, it’s a necessary starting point for creating a more vibrant press.

Commercial news values typically bolster the status quo; they rarely challenge it. Absent social-democratic policies that subsidize noncommercial media, it’s difficult to imagine ways to support journalism that isn’t profitable. Left entirely to the market, anything that doesn’t attract advertisers and wealthy interests is likely to go unsaid, and anything that does attract dollars, from shouting heads on cable television to clickbait online, is likely to get amplified.

Unfortunately, market forces are often treated as the natural order of things, the guarantor of a free people and a free press. Media outlets are conceptualized as mere commodities, not public goods that require non-market support mechanisms. Contrary to its faux-populist “give the people what they want” mythology, such an approach naturalizes the powerful and profitable and treats oppositional journalism as a risky anomaly.

As the long history of failed media reform efforts attests, the commercial media system was never well-suited for democracy. But we’re now facing a perfect storm of concentrated corporate power, an overclass of billionaires, and an eviscerated press that’s desperate for ever-diminishing revenues.

Seen in this light, Gawker’s demise is one more sign that we need a radical project for media democracy. Otherwise we’ll be forced to confront a future where petulant billionaires crush media outlets and corporations choose which stories get told.