There’s new evidence and urgency about the power of conspiracy theories to grip average Americans, not just extremists. The FBI believes that most who violently broke into the Capitol were convinced that the election was stolen from President Donald Trump. Studies of those rioters (see The inspired terrorists …were your neighbors) concluded they were largely middle-class ordinary Trump supporters who were inspired mainly by extremist narratives and conspiracy theories.
At the heart of any conspiracy theory is the belief that some group secretly controls the government to manipulate our lives and elections. That belief goes back to the beginning of our nation.
One of the earliest significant conspiracy theories was in opposition to President Andrew Jackson’s re-election in 1832. Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party, was accused of following the Masonic Order’s directions. The Masons are a secret society whose membership at that time consisted mainly of wealthy Northeastern businessmen. Many Constitutional Convention attendees, and three presidents, Washington, Monroe, and Jackson, were Masons. Conspiracy theorists formed the Anti-Masonic Party, which eventually evolved into the Whigs and then the Republican Party. One could say that a conspiracy theory gave birth to the Republican Party.
The most recent conspiracy theory goes back to the 1950s with McCarthyism and the John Birch Society. Both U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and the Birch Society made unfounded accusations that a vast communist conspiracy existed within the U.S. government. Many federal employees and elected officials, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, were accused of being in cahoots with communism and hence were disloyal to the nation.
But if these conspiracy theories are deeply rooted in American soil, can a free press counter them? Freedom of the press is guaranteed in our constitution, meaning that the government does not control expression. However, the constitution is silent on what happens when a few hawkers dominate the marketplace, and the free press is effectively narrowed to near-monopolies controlling most outlets.
Let’s put aside for now the complex issues of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The owners with the most presses have more eyes viewing their newspapers, T.V. networks, cable stations, and listening to their radio stations. In essence, they have the freedom to create and distribute misinformation that could be fictitious or slanted to benefit their own financial and political interests. Two examples of this practice stick out: one from a hundred years ago and the other occurring today.
William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers made money and built readership by promoting sensationalist and distorted news. His efforts whipped up the public sentiment to help cause the Spanish-American War of 1898. At his peak in 1935, Hearst owned 28 major newspapers (including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) and 18 magazines and several radio stations, movie companies, and news services. His total readership amounted to about 12-14 percent of the entire daily newspapers’ readership in the mid-1930s. In 1936, he accused President Roosevelt of being a Socialist, Communist, and Bolshevik and carrying out a Marxist agenda.
Hearst is a mere blip on the scale of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. In 2000, Murdoch’s News Corporation owned over 800 companies in more than 50 countries, with a net worth of over $5 billion. Among his newspaper holdings are the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. His TV flagship is Fox News; according to Statista, the combined number of prime time viewers for CNN and MSNBC were only 81% of Fox’s share in Q4 2020. According to Nielsen Media Research, in 2020, Fox had its 19th consecutive year as the number one cable news network in total day and prime time cable TV viewers. Commentators on Fox receive some substantial credit for convincing the 70% of Republicans who believe that Biden and radical-socialist Democrats stole Trump’s election.
Over the last 40 years, Congress and Presidents have abetted the consolidation of media ownership and the consequent weakening the public’s access to balanced and reliable news reporting. The federal government once had provided a more level playing field among the media owners. As Thom Hartmann points out in American Oligarchy, “the telecommunications laws from the 1920s and 1930s kept most newspapers, cable systems, internet providers, and radio and TV stations locally owned to prevent oligarchs from asserting singular control over information and news across our nation.”
No longer. Now, large media monopolies can use their outlets as a powerful megaphone, which is as good as a large donation to a political campaign, and it is not reportable. Ronald Reagan’s campaign team credited Murdoch’s paper, The New York Post, for his victory in New York in the 1980 presidential election. Once in office, Reagan “waived a prohibition against owning a television station and a newspaper in the same market.” Murdoch directly benefited because it allowed him to continue to control The New York Post and The Boston Herald while expanding into television in those cities. Reagan also vetoed a Democratic attempt to codify the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine into legislation.
Afterward, Reagan had the FCC abolish the Fairness Doctrine, which was established in 1949 to “devote broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance.” In 1949, the FCC issued a report that established broadcast licensees’ duty to cover controversial issues in a fair and balanced manner, with equal time for opposing views.
The Congressional Research Service identified the Doctrine’s essential requirement to be that broadcasters “devote a reasonable portion of broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance” and “affirmatively endeavor to make … facilities available for the expression of contrasting viewpoints held by responsible elements with respect to the controversial issues.” However, it only applied to broadcast licenses, not cable, satellite, and Internet platforms.
A further slide into enabling the growth of monopolies was the Telecommunications Act of 1996. President Bill Clinton enthusiastically signed the law after the Telecom industry lobbyists had spent tens of millions of dollars on both parties’ legislators getting the bill to Clinton’s desk. Hartmann concludes that the Act “wiped out those protections for local media, turning our nation’s cable systems, internet service providers, newspapers, and radio and TV stations over to a small handful of media oligarchs.”
The result was an acceleration of concentrating the ownership of media outlets. In 1983, 90% of U.S. media was controlled by 50 companies; as of 2011, 90% was owned by just 6 companies, and in 2017 the number was 5.
Because of their broad-reach and centralized editorial command, media monopolies can supply oxygen to spreading conspiracy theories to the public. These sensational theories (and their vehement denials) attract more viewers/readers than just reporting boring factual news. Conspiracies don’t cost much to produce. Once some bare-bones facts are tossed into the narrative, no further research is necessary. Think of conspiracy theories as clickbait for attracting anyone wanting to know who is behind the screen manipulating the truth.
Consequently, there is less need for real journalists doing expensive investigative reporting or covering key beats. Brier Dudley, heading The Seattle Times” Save the Free Press Initiative, mentions a 2018 study that found declining local political news coverage reduces citizen engagement. The decline in local coverage is due in large part to the dramatic reduction in newsroom layoffs, as often happens when heavily leveraged media companies buy local outlets and need to reduce costs to pay the debts.
According to the executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, in 2019, there was a record loss of 16,160 newsroom jobs lost, a 200% loss over a year. And Pew Research Center reported the previous decade saw a 51% loss in newsroom employment. The cumulative effect is that opinion-makers have replaced paid journalists over this period in print and even more widely in social media. News based on journalistic ethics is being replaced by opinion leaders who pick portions of facts that support their position and bolster their personal brands.
As a result, the difference between facts and opinions is blurred, and trust in all media and government sinks. According to the 21st annual Edelman Trust Barometer, (January 2021), which measures confidence in institutions, Americans’ trust in the media and government has fallen to a historic low. Meanwhile, business is the only institution perceived as both ethical and competent, with more than half in the Edelman survey (53 percent) believing corporations are responsible for filling the information void. There is another perverse incentive here: some corporations benefit from conspiracy theories that significantly reduce government oversight of corporate activities.
Another significant survey found similar results. A report assembled by Gallup and the Knight Foundation surveyed 20,000 Americans in the three months before Covid 19 hit America. Their report found that roughly three-quarters of the respondents believe the owners of media companies are influencing coverage; 54 percent said reporters intentionally misrepresent facts, and 28 percent believe reporters make up the facts entirely. Knight Foundation’s senior vice president Sam Gill said the report’s findings revealed shattered confidence in America’s news media and were “corrosive for our democracy.”
What to do? One problem would be having more government control. Consider the law that Hungary’s parliament, dominated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, adopted. With a vote of 137–53, they passed a law to allow the government to jail for up to five years “anyone who intentionally spreads what the government classifies as misinformation.” This law resulted from Orban’s financial allies creating a vast propaganda machine to enable his Fidesz party to retain control of the nation’s government. China and Russia have overt authoritarian laws to censure their media.
Congress is considering proposals to address some issues that have contributed to the spread of conspiracy theories. One of them is the downward trend in the number of journalists and outlets in the print and digital media platforms that had produced original local journalism. U.S. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Arizona, and Dan Newhouse R-Wash. have proposed the Local Journalism Sustainability Act (HR 7640). It was introduced in July 2020 and has gained 78 co-sponsors (20 Republicans and 58 Democrats).
The proposal’s primary thrust is to provide economic incentives to help publishing businesses. The bill allows individual and business taxpayers certain tax credits for the support of local newspapers and media. Specifically, individual taxpayers may claim an income tax credit of up to $250 for a local newspaper subscription. The bill also allows local newspaper employers a payroll tax credit for wages paid to an employee for service as a journalist and certain small businesses could earn a tax credit for local newspaper and media advertising expenses.
The Missouri Press Association representing 229 newspapers in Missouri, which is approximately 99.5% of all newspapers in that state, strongly supports the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Their Executive Director of the Missouri Press Association, Mark Maassen, spoke at a public forum noting that “nearly 36,000 employees and newspapers have been laid off, furloughed, or have had their pay reduced during this (Covid 19) crisis.” He strongly recommended that its members contact their members of Congress in support of the legislation. That kind of unified support by publishers will make it awkward for politicians to oppose it,even in a state where all but one of six Republican congressional representatives objected to the certification of the election results, echoing the election-was-stolen conspiracy theory.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, the Senate Education Committee’s new 2021 chair, issued a report in October 2020. It recommended that a limited antitrust exemption from Congress be granted to news publishers to allow them to collectively negotiate for better terms with the tech platforms. Senate Bill 1700, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which was introduced in 2019, would allow for that waiver. The News Media Alliance trade association, representing approximately 2,000 newspapers and multi-platform digital services, helped write the bill.
The bill currently sits in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it has significant bipartisan support, with both Senators Mitch McConnell [R-KY] and Sherrod Brown [D-OH] becoming co-sponsors of the bill in 2020. One of the most ardent believers that the election was stolen from Trump is Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who sits on the committee and will have to vote to pass it out of the committee or not. The Missouri Press Association could play a role in moving him to vote it out of committee.
As for resurrecting the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine that required stations to “program in the public interest,” such changes would have to be initiated by the FCC. Currently, the commission is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and so stalemated. Biden will appoint a fifth commissioner to give the Democrats a majority.