After the news industry laid off some 2,100 workers from Vice, Gannett, McClatchy, BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blamed “tech monopolies” that have no “incentive to disseminate high-quality, true information.” President Trump blames the press itself: “Fake News and bad journalism have caused a big downturn.”
While these diagnoses of journalism’s ills appear contradictory, both stem from the same root. Allowing a few platforms to control financing and distribution exacerbates the groupthink Mr. Trump rails against.
More than two-thirds of Americans get news from social media. Google and Facebook control a large majority of the digital advertising market that used to be a major source of revenue for the news industry. Tech companies have leveraged their control of news distribution to entrench their advertising dominance. Facebook’s Instant Articles publishes the full text of an article in the platform and shares ad revenue with the publisher. Google punishes publications that raise revenue through subscriptions rather than advertising by downgrading search results of paywalled sites that don’t provide free clicks. Google loosened its restrictions after criticism from publishers and threats of European antitrust enforcement, but it also introduced a “Subscribe With Google” service.
Instant Articles and Subscribe With Google may be convenient, but they also give the duopoly more control over the media’s revenue and data, further centralizing news distribution. Google and Facebook have gained editorial influence over the press. They enact content guidelines as a condition for participation in advertising services. Both companies consult with left-wing groups such as Media Matters to determine what sites to exclude.
Now Google and Facebook are offering journalism grants to try to make up for their impact on the news industry. Last March the Google News Initiative pledged $300 million to aid publishers, and Facebook promised a similar amount last month. Charity from Big Tech makes the news industry more dependent.
The flow of funds also reflects the companies’ Democratic tilt. In 2016 Google sponsored the “Electionland” initiatives with ProPublica, the New York Times, USA Today and Univision, among others, for the stated purpose of “ensuring all Americans could freely exercise their right to vote by shining a light on problems that might get in their way.” In practice Electionland’s scores of articles universally criticized then-candidate Donald Trump or reinforced the liberal position on issues like voter ID and voter fraud.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observed that power in America is control of the means of communication. Mr. Trump—who has also accused Google, Facebook and Twitter of political bias—should be more concerned about the concentrated power of Big Tech than any news outlet.
While antitrust law focuses on economic effects, the Supreme Court said in Red Lion Broadcasting v. Federal Communications Commission(1969) that it also complements the First Amendment’s “uninhibited marketplace of ideas,” which does not “countenance monopolization of that market.” The antidote to media bias isn’t schadenfreude over a few publications’ travails but antitrust policies to ensure news outlets across the political spectrum can be independent of Silicon Valley.