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A Free Press Is Too Important to Trust Capitalists With

Bernie is right: corporate ownership of news outlets is a problem, and we need to promote independent journalism. But we can go further and imagine truly independent and free socialized media.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters at a rally at Civic Center Park on September 9, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images)

At the end of August, Bernie Sanders wrote an op-ed for the Columbia Journalism Review. He expressed concern about the consolidation of corporate ownership of news outlets and outlined a plan to “reform the media industry and better protect independent journalism at both the local and national levels.” Predictably, the most unhinged reaction came from right-wing writer and podcaster Ben Shapiro, whose tweet made it sound as if Bernie was proposing to create an American version of Glavlit, the censorship agency that had offices in every newsroom in the Soviet Union.

Liberal reactions to Sanders’s concerns about media ownership haven’t been much warmer. When he’s linked the Washington Post’s relentlessly negative coverage of him to his advocacy for the rights of workers in Amazon warehouses also owned by Jeff Bezos, centrist Democrats accused him of peddling “fake news” conspiracy theories. Indeed, critic after critic has claimed that Bernie’s critique of corporate media ownership makes him just like Trump.

The liberal argument against Bernie on this point can be summed up with this little syllogism: Bernie has criticized the media in general and the Washington Post in particular. Trump has criticized the media in general and the Washington Post in particular. Ergo, Bernie’s criticisms and Trump’s criticisms must be equivalent.

Similarly, when Ben Shapiro warns us of the danger of putting Bernie Sanders of all people “in charge of how a free press operates,” or when NewsBusters’ Tim Graham ominously talks about Bernie’s “socialist” plan for the media, these conservative critics seem to be suggesting this argument: Bernie is a socialist. Stalinists who advocated a state media run from the top down with no editorial independence were socialists. Ergo, Bernie’s media plan must be bad for press freedom.

Like the liberal syllogism, this one commits the fallacy of the undistributed middle. More important, if we actually turn to his op-ed, we can see that Bernie’s proposal is almost the opposite of what you’d expect if you listened to either set of critics.

What’s Actually in the Plan

The main “media reform” that Donald Trump has floated is making it easier to sue journalists for libel. Bernie’s proposals go in the opposite direction. He wants to safeguard a media environment in which multiple points of view can be expressed by imposing stricter limits on how many outlets can be owned by any one company. He also wants to make it easier for journalists to unionize. He points out that this will not only have material advantages for journalists but make it easier for them to pursue stories that might incur their bosses’ displeasure:

I have publicly supported journalists’ efforts to unionize. Unions not only fight for media workers’ wages and benefits, they can also better protect reporters from corporate policies that aim to prevent journalists from scrutinizing media owners and their advertisers.

Contrary to the implications of right-wingers like Shapiro and Graham, Bernie’s proposed solutions to the problems of consolidated corporate ownership don’t involve nationalizing anything. But how bad would it be if he did propose bringing the media under some form of social ownership?

Even many people with progressive instincts are likely to reject this idea. Take social-democratic pundit Cenk Uygur, who said in a recent debate with his more radical Young Turks colleague Hasan Piker that nationalizing health insurance is one thing, but the state has no legitimate role to play in the production of ordinary commodities like “blue jeans, sneakers, and hamburgers.” Those industries should stay in the hands of their current owners.

If you have this conception of the proper balance between instituting social democratic reforms and maintaining the underlying capitalist structure of the economy, there’s a good chance that you think at least some privately owned media outlets should stay on the blue jeans/sneakers/hamburgers side of that line. For one thing, you may worry that nationalizing the media would give the state too much control over the flow of information.

If this is your view, three points are worth considering. First, social ownership doesn’t have to exclusively mean state ownership. Many democratic socialists conceive of what a post-capitalist future might look like in terms of a combination of ownership forms, with the “commanding heights” of the economy being nationalized and much of the rest being left to some sort of private or quasi-private sector of competing worker cooperatives.

Instead of classifying the media as a whole as either a “commanding height” or something best left to the cooperative sector, socialization could happen from multiple directions at once, with major outlets being nationalized and smaller outlets being given incentives to reorganize as news cooperatives.

Second, socialists typically advocate that nationalization be combined with some form of worker control. What this might look like might vary in different cases, but any scheme that gave journalists more of a say in what happened on the job would be good for their autonomy to pursue important stories without excessive editorial meddling.

Finally, there’s an odd tension in the views of those who are willing to accept the testimony of Washington Post editors that Jeff Bezos gives them complete editorial freedom — and who are apparently satisfied to simply count on Bezos and other owners to continue to voluntarily show such benevolence — but who are also very concerned that public ownership of media would open the door to elected officials meddling with the content of the news. It’s worth checking this fear against the actual record of public media in democracies.

During the run-up to the Iraq War, for example, British television viewers were far more likely to see voices critical of Blair’s invasion plans on the BBC than on a private channel like Sky News. Conversely, pro-war Tory Andrew Neil (who amusingly interviewed and embarrassed Ben Shapiro a few months ago) doesn’t need to be worried that he’ll lose his job at the BBC if Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister in the next election: the BBC is an independent body, and Corbyn couldn’t influence its hiring and firing. Rupert Murdoch, on the other hand, would be within his legal rights to fire any Sky News employee he wanted gone.

In practice, even under the current system, public enterprises aren’t generally under the direct control of politicians. This point applies with even more force in an American context where the First Amendment protects public employees from being fired for their political beliefs.

There’s room for disagreement among socialists about exactly what a socialized media would look like. What’s very clear, though, is that if you care about giving journalists the autonomy to report on stories of public interest, the worst thing you can do is leave the media in the hands of capitalists.