Will the Day Come When America's Reporters Have to Flee?
Media consolidation that’s happened since the Reagan Revolution makes our overall media landscape much easier to seize, control, and manipulate should our government ever flip fully fascist...
Last week’s holiday weekend gave Louise and me an opportunity to take a week off to visit a few friends and take a break from American politics. Instead, we got a splash of cold water in the face; it’s an amazing story.
We started our trip near Barcelona, Spain, where we spent the day and had a wonderful meal and fascinating, detail-rich conversation with Raw Story editor Roxanne Cooper and her husband, Earl.
You may recall that the Daily Take I wrote from Cádiz the next day, inspired in part by our discussion, was about how Spain had been fascist from the 1930s right up until Francisco Franco died in 1975 and how “normal” life can seem under a fascist regime — just so long as you’re not political or a member of the press.
From there we visited Morocco, the seventeenth-most-dangerous country in the world to practice journalism. A fellow we spent much of the day with absolutely refused to discuss politics and deflected every one of my efforts to raise issues of Moroccan governance or press freedom. He’s a survivor and plans to stay one.
We ended up in Portugal, at the home of an old friend who spent much of his career as a reporter and then senior-level media executive, a retired American who’s now a permanent resident of that country. With his permission I tell this story, although I’m not going to identify him for reasons that will become clear in a moment.
As he drove us to his home and we brought each other up to date on our lives and labors (we worked together in news for about a decade many years ago), he told Louise and me about the new project he’s working on with a loose group of people scattered across several EU countries.
It involves preparing for something that, I confess, hadn’t even been on my conscious radar: helping safely smuggle American reporters and opinion writers — and their families — out of the US in the event of a sudden fascist takeover and press crackdown by a figure openly hostile to reporting like Trump or DeSantis.
That people living in Europe would even consider such a thing as potentially necessary was, for me, a shocking wake-up call about how far America has already gone down the authoritarian road and how clear — from outside our country — this is to those living in nations that have experienced rapid authoritarian transitions in the past.
Just a year before Franco’s death ended formal fascism in Spain, Portugal’s rightwing dictatorship — the longest-lasting one in Europe during the 20th century — was overthrown in 1974 by a military-led leftist coup (the “Carnation Revolution”) which ended press and schoolbook censorship as a first step to guiding the country through a democratic transition.
Today, as a result, Portugal is one of the EU’s more progressive and open nations, particularly with regard to press freedom: they’re number 9 in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders.
There are multiple active networks around the world working to support reporters at risk in repressive regimes; most Americans have heard the stories of hundreds of Russian reporters who fled or were smuggled out of that country after, early last year, President Putin criminalized reporting on his terrorist war against the democracy and citizens of Ukraine.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, for example, has experts and correspondents around the world who support reporters exposing antidemocratic and criminal activity by repressive governments. As their website notes:
“[CPJ] provides comprehensive, life-saving support to journalists and media support staff working around the world through up-to-date safety and security information and rapid response assistance.”
They’re one of multiple organizations working around the world to promote press freedom; many are much smaller and some even operate with no public presence whatsoever, as is the group my friend is currently helping to organize.
The simple reality, known well to the Framers of our Constitution, is that a free, open, and independent press is essential to a functioning democracy. To ensure this in America, in addition to our First Amendment, we had for much of the last century specific laws and rules enhancing press independence, keeping news as news rather than infotainment, and ensuring a broad spectrum of perspectives and ideas were available to the public.
The Fairness Doctrine, for example, which Reagan suspended the enforcement of in 1987 and Barack Obama took off the books in 2011, mandated that when representatives of radio or TV station ownership or management presented opinions on controversial subjects there be equal time given to opposing views.
When I worked in the newsroom of WITL radio and at WJIM TV in Lansing, Michigan during the late 1960s, part of my job was to help find those “opposing voices” who’d record responses to on-air editorials by station management.
The Fairness Doctrine also required us to “program in the public interest,” which was interpreted as having news at the top and bottom of every hour on the radio along with a half-hour to one-hour news block leading into prime time on TV (this was also loosely covered by the “Prime Time Access Rule”).
Back then, news operations lost money; they were the cost of maintaining a radio or TV station license. Starting in 1987, however, they moved under the oversight of network entertainment programming and became profit centers, so nowadays “if it bleeds, it leads.” Clickbait is today more vital to many “news” organizations than information crucial to a functioning democracy, simply because it draws more eyeballs and thus more profit.
Additionally, the Fairness Doctrine required “equal time” be given to candidates for public office, a provision that would have prevented Trump from getting, according to The Street, an estimated “$5.6 billion [in free television coverage] throughout the entirety of his  campaign, more than Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio combined.”
Finally, there were explicit limits on the monopolization of media outlets, known as “media ownership limits.” Some of these were blown up when Bill Clinton signed Newt Gingrich’s Telecommunications Act of 1996, which led to a massive consolidation of newspaper and radio station ownership over the next five years.
Ownership rules were further loosened in 2017 by the Trump administration in a 3-2 FCC vote, with the Republican majority prevailing. Public interest groups sued and it went to the Supreme Court where, in 2021, Brett Kavanaugh, with Clarence Thomas concurring, wrote the Court’s opinion saying:
“The [three Republicans on the] FCC considered the record evidence on competition, localism, viewpoint diversity, and minority and female ownership, and reasonably concluded that the three ownership rules no longer serve the public interest.”
As a result, a handful of right-leaning New York hedge funds and private equity firms now own more than half of all the local newspapers in the US, the CEO of a network with hundreds of stations broadcasting rightwing talk radio 24/7 told me and a US Senator to our faces that he’d never put anybody on any of his stations “who advocates raising my taxes,” and the single largest network of TV stations in the country is owned by the openly and proudly rightwing Sinclair Broadcasting.
There literally is no equivalent national media infrastructure on the left here in the United States. None.
All of this media consolidation that’s happened since the Reagan Revolution makes our overall media landscape much easier to seize, control, and manipulate should our government ever flip fully fascist, as my friend in Portugal fears could happen.
In my opinion, the “soft fascist” model pursued by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is the most likely to prevail here in the US should a Republican win the White House: Orbán simply used his government’s influence to facilitate the takeover of virtually all the consequential media in that nation by a handful of friendly oligarchs, so every radio and TV station in that country now most closely resembles Fox “News” and praises Orbán’s every move, day after day.
One could argue we’re already more than halfway there. When my radio program was carried opposite Rush Limbaugh on Air America, we’d leased 54 radio stations from Clear Channel and broadcast into virtually every major metropolitan area in the US. We did well, had an audience of millions, and I frequently beat Limbaugh in the ratings in our daypart; some suggest without Air America Barack Obama may not have been elected president in 2008.
After Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital private equity firm took over Clear Channel, however, one-by-one we lost our stations as they were flipped to sports programming until Air America no longer had a large enough audience share to support an advertising revenue model and went bankrupt. Virtually every one of those radio “pods” now program rightwing talk radio and the last two to carry my show went rightwing in the past five years.
Thus — lacking a broad and nationally-penetrating progressive radio, TV, and newspaper infrastructure — should a Trump, DeSantis, or other Republican fascist become president and outlaw “fake news” altogether, I and my colleagues may be faced with the choices confronting journalists in other authoritarian nations: leave broadcasting or, for our own safety, even leave the country.
This is the path reporting has taken in Russia, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Brazil, India, Venezuela, Poland, Cuba, The Philippines, Turkey, parts of Mexico, China, Colombia, and Nigeria.
And it’s not like we’re doing well: news media in America is already in crisis.
Reporters Without Borders ranks America 45th in press freedom, far below every other advanced democracy in the world. Other countries with freer and more open news organizations and systems include Tonga, the Dominican Republic, Croatia, Montenegro, Andorra, Cabo Verde, Jamaica, Moldova, South Africa, Costa Rica, Namibia, Samoa, and pretty much every “western” European nation.
The media consolidation scenarios described above account for much of that low position.
Arguably, the transition from a free press to our infotainment/clickbait media today began with media strategies laid out by Reagan and Bush consultants Lee Atwater, Roger Stone, and Putin’s man Paul Manafort. During the 1992 election Rich Bond, then the chairman of the RNC, explained why Republicans had spent the previous twenty years claiming there was a “liberal bias” in the media when there was and is measurably no such thing.
“There is some strategy to it,” Eric Alterman quoted Bond as saying. “If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.”
Four decades of this constant harassment of our media by Republican politicians and their toadies has led to today’s both-sides-ism, where many reporters are afraid to even mention Republican crimes or perfidy unless they can come up with some equivalent — no matter how thin or weak — by Democrats.
Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House and a former editor and White House correspondent for The Washington Post, told Neiman Reports:
“There is no question we are living through a democracy recession. … We are in a very difficult situation and focusing on protecting journalists and their ability to do their jobs safely and helping to make journalism more economically viable is critical to restoring democracy. …
“I think we’re on a terribly dire course right now. All the threats to journalism today are honestly to me so much greater than when I was a journalist. … That’s what the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was all about.”
Across the world, dictators, authoritarians, and wannabee dictators are using Trump’s epithet “fake news” to attack journalists with a vengeance. Turkey recently cracked down on reporters, jailing several, having passed a law that explicitly uses the phrase “fake news.”
Two months ago, on the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, the United Nations held a conference about this issue of a free press and its necessity to functioning democracies.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the situation was dire:
“Freedom of the press is the foundation of democracy and justice. It gives all of us the facts we need to shape opinions and speak truth to power. But in every corner of the world, freedom of the press is under attack.”
His concerns were echoed by the Publisher of The New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger, who added:
“The Internet also unleashed the avalanche of misinformation, propaganda, punditry and clickbait that now overwhelms our information ecosystem, often drowning out credible journalism and accelerating the decline in societal trust.”
Republican calls for violence against reporters are also getting louder every day. Just this past month Kari Lake threatened our press, saying:
“I have a message tonight for Merrick Garland, and Jack Smith, and Joe Biden. And the guys back there in the fake news media, you should listen up as well, this one’s for you.
“If you want to get to President Trump, you’re going to have to go through me, and you’re going to have to go through 75 million Americans just like me.
“And I’m going to tell you, most of us are card-carrying members of the NRA. That’s not a threat, that’s a public service announcement.”
Clearly it was a threat, and a threat of violent death at the hands of gun owners.
Meanwhile, Trump and other Republicans have amped up their attacks on the media, including threats of imprisonment and worse directed at journalists, should Republicans seize power in the 2024 election.
From Russian troll farms pumping lies and propaganda directly into American homes via social media, to useful idiots in America who echo them for political gain, to Republican politicians openly calling for an end to a free press in this country, my friend in Portugal may well be onto something.
The Hartmann Report is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.