WHEN YOUR only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail to be pounded. When you're Bernie Sanders and your only tool is socialism, every problem looks like a capitalist to be bashed.
Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.
The septuagenarian senator from Vermont is an unabashed lifelong socialist, whose solutions to most problems involve more government, less freedom, and higher taxes. This week, in a 1,700-word essay published in the Columbia Journalism Review, he proposed a "plan for journalism" involving — can you guess? — more government, less freedom, and higher taxes. The capitalist-bashing begins in the second sentence: "Today's assault on journalism by Wall Street, billionaire businessmen, Silicon Valley, and Donald Trump presents a crisis — and [is] why we must take concrete action."
But Sanders, like Trump, is quick to impugn journalists' motives. And much of the "action" he proposes would interfere with media companies that try to save themselves.
If elected, Sanders says, he would use the power of the federal government to crack down on media mergers that would lead to layoffs, consolidate news outlets under fewer owners, or "adversely affect" women and minorities. He would "reinstate and strengthen" the old cross-ownership rule that blocked TV and radio stations from owning newspapers in the same market. And he would require the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission to "more stringently" pursue antitrust litigation against Facebook and Google, whose success has come in part at the expense of traditional media outlets.
Sanders also raises the prospect of taxing online ads and using the revenue to fund "nonprofit civic-minded media" and to "substantially increase" government subsidies for public journalism. That won't do anything for struggling private newspapers and magazines, but it will certainly boost the power of PBS and NPR and their decidedly left-wing worldview.
Nothing in Sanders's plan is fresh or novel. How and whether to rein in Big Tech, to expand racial and gender diversity in the media, to tax advertising and Internet services, to underwrite nonprofit media — all of these have been perennial topics of debate when the agenda turns to the ailments of the news business. In his essay, the senator vowed to impose an "immediate moratorium" on corporate media mergers like the proposed combination of Viacom and CBS. But media consolidation has been a left-wing bugbear forever. "Remember back in 2000 when the merger of AOL and Time Warner spelled the absolute doom of an independent press?" asks Nick Gillespie in Reason magazine. "Better yet, can you even remember AOL or Time magazine, once massive presences in media that are now desiccated ruins of their former selves?"
Sanders acknowledges the ravages that the news industry has undergone in recent decades. "Over the past 15 years, more than 1,400 communities across the country have lost newspapers, which are the outlets local television, radio, and digital news sites rely on for reporting," he writes. "Since 2008, we have seen newsrooms lose 28,000 employees — and in the past year alone, 3,200 people in the media industry have been laid off." But Sanders seems far less interested in the plight of journalists than in exploiting their excruciations to score ideological points.
Like so much of what America's best-known socialist says and writes, his media plan drips with hostility for capitalists and capitalism. He repeatedly decries the lack of "real journalism" in America, and blames it on his standard villains: the "forces of greed that are pillaging our economy," the "corporate conglomerates and hedge fund vultures," the "oligarchic business models," the "billionaires who ... use their media empires to punish their critics and shield themselves from scrutiny." Sanders is particularly hostile to Jeff Bezos, the billionaire who owns the Washington Post. He suggested recently that his criticism of Bezos is the reason the Post "doesn't write particularly good articles about me." At times, his attacks on the integrity of publishers and the motives of reporters have been almost indistinguishable from President Trump's.
Lord knows the news business is in dire straits these days, but socialist nostrums aren't going to stop the cataclysmic changes unleashed by the digital revolution. As someone who has worked in newsrooms for more than three decades, I mourn for the lost era when nearly every home subscribed to a newspaper. I wince with vicarious pain at every newspaper shutdown or round of layoffs. But the media aren't in extremis because they weren't regulated enough. If anything, some daily papers might yet be alive if, for example, the cross-ownership rule hadn't deprived them of a potential lifeline.
Trashing the entrepreneurs and investors who are keeping some of the nation's legacy news organizations alive admirably suits Sanders's anti-capitalist shtick, but it will do nothing to save the business of journalism. "We cannot sit by and allow corporations, billionaires, and demagogues to destroy the Fourth Estate," says Sanders. That's the way he always talks — a one-tool politician with the same scapegoat for everything.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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