Musk’s Money Is Playing Old Games With New Media

For the right-wing press, Musk—who backed the Republicans in the recent midterm elections is a social media savior

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Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has been difficult to satirize. The company is losing revenue (Reuters, 11/7/22), thanks in large part to the $1 billion in additional debt payments Musk has saddled it with. His idea to sell blue-check verifications for $8 was widely ridiculed (Variety, 11/2/22)—predictably resulting in a flood of fake posts from “verified” accounts—and mass layoffs have put the website’s infrastructure in jeopardy (MIT Technology Review, 11/8/22). A lockdown of the company offices had many wondering if Twitter would survive the pre-Thanksgiving weekend (Daily Beast, 11/17/22).

For the right-wing press, Musk—who backed the Republicans in the recent midterm elections (Reuters, 11/7/22)—is a social media savior who is appalled by content moderation, factchecking and the banning of certain extremist content. Fox News (11/16/22) lauded him for reducing spending at Twitter, and others say he’s a free-speech champion trying to end Big Tech censorship (Deseret News, 11/1/22). The New York Post (11/11/22) said that the advertiser boycotts of Musk’s Twitter were signs of a liberal conspiracy to enforce wokeness online, while Matt Taibbi (Substack, 11/15/22)—who once wrote about the greed of big banks for Rolling Stone—attacked critics of the anti-union billionaire media baron for conducting a pro-conformity witch hunt.

For all of Twitter’s problems—mean-spirited fights, harassment, bots, extremist content—the social media network has been a liberating way for writers, activists and academics to build platforms and followings free from corporate media filters. Under Musk, Twitter could become such a cesspool of hate speech (Scientific American/Nature, 11/8/22) and impersonators (CNN, 11/9/22) that it becomes unusable, or the stress caused by layoffs and the revenue losses could bring down the whole thing.

Monied parties
This would be a loss for a lot of users, but such a situation is hardly new in US media. There’s a long history of monied parties taking over media and watering them down, even breaking them up for parts. It’s just that this time it involves the world’s richest man and social media.

Look at American radio. “Since passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Clear Channel”—now called iHeartRadio—“has grown from 40 stations to 1,240 stations,” which is “30 times more than congressional regulation previously allowed” (Future of Music Coalition, 11/18/02). The company famously silenced the trio the Dixie Chicks on its stations in retaliation for the group’s antiwar stance (Jacksonville Business Journal, 3/18/03; Cracked, 1/14/22), and its news and talk stations are home to right-wing commentators—including, formerly, the late Rush Limbaugh (AP, 3/27/12). These owners’ biases have had enormous political implications due to the consolidation of the radio market.

Meanwhile, Sinclair Broadcast Group, which operates nearly 200 local television stations, was staunchly supportive of the Trump administration (CounterSpin, 8/11/17; Vox, 4/3/18), and the group has given generously to Republicans (Center for Public Integrity, 4/3/18). The group has the largest local television reach in the country, and its influence is only growing (New Yorker, 10/22/18).

It’s an old story in newspaperland as well. Columbia Journalism Review (7/15/13) reported on how Wall Street investors took over Tribune Company, “liquidating the newspapers” and “taking declining businesses and effectively selling off their remaining assets that are stable or growing.” It’s a story later retold by Vanity Fair (2/5/20) and Atlantic (10/14/21) as the situation with Tribune papers worsened.

McClatchy was similarly purchased by Chatham Asset Management (New York Times, 8/4/20). As the American Prospect (10/1/20) noted, these deals often force papers to shed staff and even close down papers, due to the “practice of cutting costs to the bone to maximize short-term returns.” For example, McClatchy recently outsourced its design and typesetting work (Poynter, 3/29/21).

In both of these cases, consolidation of local media ownership hasn’t just skewed content to the right, but it has created local news deserts where, if papers and stations exist locally, local coverage is either scraped together with barebones staff or audiences and readers are left to dine on warmed over wire copy. This is a deficit for democracy.

Advancing mogul politics
And consider for a minute that Musk, the CEO of Tesla, is the world’s richest person, while No. 2 is Jeff Bezos of Amazon, who also owns the Washington Post. Like Musk, Bezos is another rich, corporate boss who wants to influence the public discussion through control of a major media outlet. It’s unclear how much editorial sway he has, but FAIR (10/3/17) has pointed out the Post’s factchecker (10/2/17) defending Bezos against Sen. Bernie Sanders’ accusation that Bezos has a lot of money. The Columbia Journalism Review (9/27/22) speculates that Bezos has at least passively influenced the direction of the Post’s news and opinion sections. Musk and Bezos are two sides of the same coin here.

Or consider when the late Republican mega-donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal for $140 million, prompting columnist Jon Ralston (New York Times, 1/2/16) to say, “I find it hard to believe that he would have so dramatically overpaid for that paper without having some agenda in mind.” Under Adelson, the paper (11/7/16, 10/3/20) endorsed Donald Trump for president twice. Adelson, who was an ardent conservative Zionist, also set up a free Israeli newspaper, Israel Hayom, that until recently “served as an unofficial mouthpiece” for Benjamin Netanyahu (AP, 1/12/21).

Moguls use their money to advance their politics, both through campaign contributions and through media acquisitions. In addition to Musk’s recent endorsement of Republican candidates, his interest in conservatism grew after the presidential election of Donald Trump. “Starting in 2017, Musk’s donations began to skew much more heavily toward Republicans than Democrats, spending nearly seven times more on GOP campaigns,” Business Insider (6/15/22) reported, adding that Musk “accepted positions on two of Trump’s White House councils.” He cheered on a coup in Bolivia (Jalopnik, 10/19/20) and is outspokenly hostile to unions (NPR, 3/3/22).

Musk’s acquisition of Twitter seems like a new chapter in history, but his choice to either skew Twitter to be friendly to the right (as his right-wing cheerleaders believe he is doing) or to run the network into the ground is only the latest episode of monied interests pillaging our communications infrastructure for financial or ideological gain. Musk’s Twitter takeover seems new, because it impacts new media rather than the old. But what Musk is doing to social media has long been done by monied interests to traditional media—much to the poverty of our journalistic culture.

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