By 2011 that 90% was owned by six gigantic media conglomerates. Today there are five. Professional journalists seek to discover and provide objective information, and their ethic dominated the smaller companies. But the media conglomerates are driven by the MBA ethic of their professional managers: maximizing shareholder value. The programming mix underwent a sea-change, accordingly: entertainment and spectacle attract and retain far larger audiences--and hence sell more advertising--than stodgy news programming.
And such programming is far less expensive to produce: the newsrooms were savaged, the news-gatherers decimated. Bring on the Kardashians. Investigative journalism is indispensable for well-informed democracy to thrive. If not arguably dead, it is rarely visible today. For entertainment and spectacle, the Kardashians can't lay a finger on professional football. For half the year the mass media are saturated with it, exploiting its irresistible attraction of ongoing conflict and suspense: the preseason, the regular season, the playoffs, the Super Bowl. The spectacle of football is unmatched for generating advertising revenues.
There is one exception: the presidential election process, which displays the same attraction of ongoing conflict and suspense. The parallels are striking: early debates as preseason, primaries as regular season, conventions as playoffs, and then a political Super Bowl in November. And the season is three times as long, advertising revenues three times greater.
The media conglomerates quickly transformed presidential politics into a spectacle of sport. Football programming is lucrative because audiences are predictably large and constant, and they are strongly polarized. Opposing fans are enemies, and nothing in the football experience is either complex or sophisticated. The conflict is everything and resolution simple: who will be victorious, who vanquished? Could politics be fashioned into a similar experience, with divisions in the audience equally as stark?
The media succeeded in doing so.
When Rupert Murdoch replaced objective journalism with political evangelism, the process was underway. Created as the voice of hard-right conservative ideology, Fox News became the house organ for the Republican Party. Rupert Murdoch's financial success made Fox News the template for corporate journalism, and MSNBC was soon the countervailing force of liberalism and the Democrats. Their formats are identical: cheer leading, sarcasm, and ridicule--species of entertainment and spectacle.
The sense of collective citizenship among the American people soon yielded to vigorous, even rabid partisanship. Democrats and Republicans became the fans of opposing teams, and we follow the presidential campaign with passion and malevolence, hoping our team will crush the opponent, finally, in the political Super Bowl. Civil discourse, respectful disagreement, reasoned argument have disappeared in our culture; they are not displayed by the fans of opposing teams.
The media conglomerates have made us a nation of sports fans, uninformed, unaware of democracy's decay.
The Corruption of the Rule of Law
Tilting the primaries in Hillary Clinton's favor was briefly noted by the media conglomerates--after Julian Assange exposed it--and then put out of mind. No questions raised, no investigation undertaken, not even a normative comment. Breaking the rules was abjectly condoned.
It was condoned by Hillary Clinton's appointment of DNC Chair Wasserman-Schultz to a prestigious post in
the campaign. It was condoned by President Obama, who praised Wasserman-Schultz' for her work with the party.
Monstrous violations are tolerated. President Bush lied to Congress about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The criminal behavior was massively evident, but no prosecution was suggested by the mainstream media. No questions raised, no investigation undertaken, not even normative comment. Mr. Bush then invaded two sovereign nations without provocation, violating the United Nations charter. The media corporations delighted in the spectacle, treating warfare as a mortal sporting event, but addressed the criminality not at all. (The media conglomerates never uncovered this brute fact: the Bush Administration's decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq were made early in 2001, many months before the terrorist attacks on 9/11.)
Years later the Wall Street mega-banks--in another heavily concentrated industry--were near collapse from their fraudulent activities. The Bush Administration chose not prosecute them for breaking laws but to reward them with trillions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts. By his oath of office Mr. Bush was sworn to prosecute criminality, not to encourage it, but the media said nothing.
When Barack Obama took office he elected not to pursue his predecessor's lawlessness. He, too, violated his oath to support the Constitution, which states, "...the president shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed." There are no asterisks. The media conglomerates noted the new president's desire, as he said, "...to look forward, not backward," and then fell silent.
The Obama Administration did address Wall Street's lawbreaking, but the response was a travesty. Mr. Obama's Attorney General Eric Holder joined government service from Covington, Burling, a law firm listing the guilty banks among its long-term clients. Instead of prosecuting the bank executives, he negotiated financial penalties to be paid from corporate funds. This was political window dressing; the fines were trivial, and the executives never faced trial. Mr. Holder then walked back through the revolving door to his post at Covington, Burling. His was not faithful execution of laws, either, but the corporate media raised no questions, undertook no investigation....
Democracy is threatened by casual respect for the Constitution.
The Corruption of Campaign Finance
The total cost of the Congressional and presidential campaigns in 2008 was $5.3 billion. Two years later the Supreme Court rendered its infamous Citizens United decision, creating Super PACs and allowing corporations to make unlimited political contributions. In 2012, consequently, campaign spending jumped by nearly a third, to $7.0 billion.
Much of that money sluiced in from corporations, but America's mega-wealthy individuals displayed their patriotism as well. $396 million--60.4% of all the funds pooled by Super PACs--was donated by 132 wealthy men and women.
On a pie chart of the 2012 campaign spending published by Demos, contributions from individual citizens totaled less than of 1%.
Running for office is obscenely expensive. In 2012 the costs of a senatorial campaign averaged $10.5 million, a House campaign $1.7 million, and the presidential candidates each spent more than $1 billion each.
Elected officials strapped to such extravagant costs brush close to indentured servitude; they enter a symbiotic relationship with their various benefactors, and share an interest in sustaining it.
The extravagance and servitude are utterly unnecessary and wholly unprecedented. The Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1910 limited not contributions to political campaigns, but capped instead the candidates' expenditures. It is pointless to raise money you can't spend; the modest limit of $10,000 for Senators and $5,000 for Representatives could be raised quickly from personal assets, family, and friends. It had to be: corporations were explicitly prohibited in the law from making political contributions.
The law was repealed in 1971.