The Journalism Crisis: Profit Over Truth

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Manufacturing Consent" by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s causing the journalism crisis? Why can’t for-profit journalism be trusted?

These days, news media is, for the most part, nothing more than big business. And since journalists don’t want to write something that would insult those who pay their bills, they censor what news they share. This means that big media outlets can’t be trusted to share the whole story.

Here’s why you should be careful where you get your news.

Money Controls Information

In their book Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman argue that corporate media outlets value profit above truth or news value. This is because they cater to advertisers, shareholders, and wealthy individual investors.

Further, they contend, many outlets are owned by powerful conglomerates or by ultra-wealthy individuals that have business interests in non-media industries like e-commerce, energy, consumer goods, and financial services. This pushes news coverage to reflect the preferred views of industry and, by extension, to marginalize consumer, labor, or anti-capitalist views. This is causing, what some call, the journalism crisis.

(Shortform note: Indeed, some mainstream news editors are remarkably frank about their pro-capitalist bias. In 2017, then-New York Times editorial section chief James Bennett spoke to fellow Times employees about the paper’s need to be objective and for the op-ed section to be a welcome place for voices from across the political spectrum. But he made a notable exception to this mandate for objectivity: capitalism. Bennett declared that the Times was unequivocally pro-capitalist, citing capitalism as history’s greatest engine for lifting humanity out of poverty.)

For example, The Washington Post is solely owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos—who, as of January 2022, has an estimated net worth of $191 billion, making him one of the richest people in the world. It’s true that The Washington Post is not owned by Amazon itself. But the e-commerce giant (which also has investments in its video streaming platforms, film production, and even retail supermarkets through its ownership of Whole Foods) and the newspaper do share an owner—and some critics would argue that this arrangement creates an inherent conflict of interest for the newspaper. 

For instance, it might be difficult for Post journalists to objectively cover (or for readers to expect the paper to objectively cover) controversial topics related to Amazon—like the allegedly dangerous conditions in the company’s warehouses—knowing that the paper’s owner has a direct financial stake in what happens with Amazon.

Further, media companies (or the conglomerates that own them) typically do business with large banks and other financial institutions when they do IPOs or acquisitions; meanwhile, banks and other economic power centers are themselves heavily in media as a business. For example, The Walt Disney Company’s top shareholders include investment advisor The Vanguard Group, asset management giant BlackRock, and insurance conglomerate State Farm. In practice, this means that the media shares the same profit motive as the powerful corporations they’re supposed to be covering objectively. 

The “Journalism Crisis” and the Effort to Solve It

Some industry observers argue that corporate control of the news media and the subsequent pursuit of profit above all other concerns has contributed to a “journalism crisis.” In an effort to reduce costs (and thereby increase profits), media conglomerates have cut journalism jobs at an alarming rate. One study showed that approximately 28,000 journalists, photographers, editors, and other workers in the media sector lost their jobs from 2008 to 2018, with newsroom employment falling by an alarming 26% over that time. This has hit local newspapers the hardest, as 1,400 cities and towns across the country have lost their local newspapers over the past 15 years.

Some prominent politicians, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, believe that this represents a grave crisis for American democracy that makes it difficult for ordinary citizens to stay informed about important issues happening both in their communities and in the country as a whole. In response, they have proposed plans to wrest control of the media away from powerful corporate entities—including a moratorium on major media mergers, mandatory disclosure of plans to lay off journalists, and giving employees the opportunity to purchase media outlets through their own joint stock-ownership plans before corporate mergers can be approved by the Federal Trade Commission.

The Pursuit of Ad Revenue

Chomsky and Herman further argue that the pursuit of advertising revenue gives big media another tool they can use to undercut competition and stifle alternative viewpoints.

Major media outlets attract advertising revenue because the size of their audiences makes them desirable places for large corporations to place ads. Beyond just the size of their audiences, elite publications like the Wall Street Journal or New York Times tend to have more affluent audiences—which means that their readers have greater buying power, which makes these outlets more attractive to advertisers. For example, 38% of both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times audiences report earning more than $75,000 per year—while just 26% of the public reports family incomes that high.

When major media outlets attract advertisers, they are able to lower subscription fees or even offer their content for free online with no paywall—giving them a powerful market advantage over smaller rivals. These smaller or non-mainstream outlets—which are more likely to showcase alternative political and economic ideas—lack such an option. They can’t attract the same amount of ad revenue because their readership or viewership figures are too small for major advertisers to place ads with them.

Further, contend Chomsky and Herman, media outlets that wish to draw in ad revenue often bend over backwards to make themselves desirable places for large advertisers. This means moderating content to weed out any tone or viewpoint that large and powerful business interests might find threatening. For example, a publication whose official editorial position advocates massive increases in corporate income and capital gains taxes, the breakup of corporate entities with more than a 10% market share, and the mandatory inclusion of labor representatives on corporate boards is extremely unlikely to draw in lucrative ad revenue from major corporations vehemently opposed to such policies.

As a result, such publications and others that are geared toward radical, working-class, or anti-establishment audiences are forced to rely solely on subscriptions or donations to remain solvent. For this reason, they tend to have a much narrower reach. In practice, this gives economic elites another powerful veto over how and what news is presented to the public.

Media Co-Ops: A New Business Model for Media?

Some media commentators have suggested that media co-operatives could be a viable alternative to for-profit or advertiser-dependent business models, and could help prevent some of the abuses that a reliance on advertising brings. Media co-ops are relatively common in the UK, where they’re financed through community shares, a form of joint-stock ownership that enables the public to purchase shares of various enterprises, from professional sports teams to shops, pubs, housing projects—and, now, media outlets. The investors don’t earn a financial return from their equity stake, but they do earn a “social return” from enabling socially valuable enterprises to keep operating—like independent media organizations. 

Community shares are more democratic than traditional stocks—each shareholder receives one vote at the annual general meeting, regardless of how many shares they own, and also has the right to run for positions on the board. Therefore, no wealthy individual or corporation can buy a large enough equity position to seize control of the enterprise. 

For media outlets, this ownership model could serve as an important check on corporate and advertiser power. Customer-owners would be able to exercise a meaningful say over how the enterprise operates; they could, for example, block advertising from disreputable sources or halt a proposed takeover by a media conglomerate.
The Journalism Crisis: Profit Over Truth

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Here's what you'll find in our full Manufacturing Consent summary :

  • How the American media frames events and creates narratives that serve the elite
  • How elites indirectly censor media and avoid censorship laws
  • Why corporate media outlets value profit above truth or news value

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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