The governments of Poland, Hungary, and Turkey have become increasingly authoritarian and – like leaders in the Balkans, China, and Russia – increasingly eager to control public discourse. In the United States, too, President Donald Trump relentlessly attempts to discredit the news media, and his administration is unprecedentedly inaccessible to the press.
The age of censors physically redacting newspapers, as I have seen in Vietnam and Myanmar, is mostly over. But, as recent developments show, press freedom remains highly vulnerable, as governments and “vested interests networked with politics,” in the words of the political scientist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, engage in a kind of soft control that can be described as “media capture.”
Economists used the term “capture” after the financial crisis of 2008 to describe how regulators, who often came from (and returned to) the industry they were supposed to oversee, failed to police the sector properly. Media capture works in much the same way, with political leaders either owning media outlets outright (think of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi) or ensuring that media leaders are loyal to them, whether through cronyism or punishment.
One of the first orders of business for Poland’s far-right government, led unofficially by Jarosław Kaczyński, was to adopt a new media law allowing it to hire and fire the heads of public broadcasting networks. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has jailed critical journalists – such as the well-known columnist Ahmet Altan and his brother Mehmet, a professor – and closed down or seized control of media companies, using fear to shape reporting.
In a less extreme version of Erdoğan’s approach, Trump bullies his critics, such as CNN and The New York Times, encouraging others, such as the Wall Street Journal, to treat him favorably. Elsewhere, government cronies do the bullying: in South Africa, the politically connected Gupta family has targeted former Business Day and Financial Mail editor Peter Bruce for criticizing President Jacob Zuma. Leaders may also try to control the narrative by denying access to potentially critical media organizations, as has occurred in the US and, more aggressively, in crisis-ridden Venezuela under President Nicolás Maduro.
Such media capture is vital to enable governments – especially those pursuing what could be unpopular policies – to sustain public support. Trump’s campaign against the “fake news media” has enabled him to retain the loyalty of much of his base, despite revelations that would have buried any other US politician.
Just as media capture shapes public perceptions, it can also shape economic outcomes. The economist Maria Petrova argues that media capture can fuel inequality, particularly if the rich are doing the capturing (rather than politicians, who can often be voted out of office). Likewise, Giacomo Corneo of the Free University of Berlin believes that increased economic concentration makes media bias more likely.
Media capture is not a new phenomenon. But the Internet was supposed to free us from it, at least those in countries without overt online censorship. As entry barriers fell, the proliferation of media outlets, it was believed, would make it difficult to capture them all. Even if some outlets were captured, the media could still be an effective watchdog, so long as there was sufficient diversity. This expectation was reinforced by the assumption that more competition could lead to higher-quality news.
But the opposite may have happened. The rise of digital media rendered traditional media outlets’ business models untenable. Advertisers migrated to the Internet, where slots are cheap, and consumers, with seemingly infinite free options, became less willing to pay for content. As a result, traditional media have endured precipitous declines in revenue and large-scale job losses.
Dwindling resources undermined the quality of reporting, especially because many cash-strapped outlets, as Science Po’s Julia Cagé argues, tried to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. The need to chase clicks on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google eroded the ability of legacy media owners to perform their traditional role in ensuring accountability.
Declining media revenues promoted capture in another key way: it shifted the incentive for owning a media outlet. If a newspaper will not provide much in the way of economic returns, the main inducement for purchasing or running one becomes influence. The billionaire American casino owner Sheldon Adelson, for example, didn’t purchase The Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2015 or capture Israeli media for the money.
As the media landscape increasingly lends itself to capture, political and corporate accountability will only decline. That is why the Center for International Media Assistance has just released a new report shining a spotlight on the phenomenon – and calling for solutions.
Free and healthy news media are essential to a well-functioning democracy. If we are to protect the latter, we must defend the former at all costs.
Anya Schiffrin is Director of the Technology, Media, and Communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs