Media capture is a useful concept for understanding the state of the media today, describing a situation in which governments or vested interests networked with politics control the media.

Who controls the media today? This is the question that a newly released book about media capture tries to answer.

Anya Schiffrin spoke to MediaPowerMonitor about some of the key issues and trends tackled by the book, which she edited. Ms Schiffrin is the director of the technology, media, and communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

MPM: Can you tell us what are the most striking conclusions that one can find in this book? 

Anya Schiffrin: The first thing to note is that the capture problem seems to have gotten worse or at least it’s being written and talked about a lot more. Economists started writing about media capture about 15 years ago and we held a conference on the topic at Columbia University in 2016. At the time, there was not as much awareness of the term. Now it’s a term that many in the journalism and media studies community are aware of and it comes up in conversation regularly. The rise of autocratic governments all around the world has led to more capture – the book includes a chapter on India as well as on Turkey — and we have several chapters on the outsize role that Facebook and Google are now playing.

Rana Foroohar discusses how platforms like Facebook and Google use their influence not just on the journalist narratives but also to shape policy, lobby governments and control what content is available. Noam Cohen’s chapter discusses the role of AI in media capture, and how algorithms further the agenda of Facebook and Google. 

MPM: The very title of the book is “How Money, Digital Platforms, and Governments Control the News.” Can you summarize for us the answer to this really important question? 

Anya Schiffrin: Money, digital platforms and governments control the news by controlling what information is disseminated and who it reaches. Different authors explain how different forms of capture work. One method is the allocation of funding. Some examples, Mary Fitzgerald, Peter Geoghan and James Cusick describe the 2018 revelations that Google and Uber paid The Evening Standard for favorable coverage. Emily Bell discusses risks of tech companies giving grants to media outlets around the world and Andrea Gabor discusses the Broad Foundation in the US which funded education reporting websites with the agenda of promoting charter schools and undermining teachers unions and public education.

Another method is through government-adjacent businesses buying the key media outlets, leading to soft censorship and control of the public sphere, which although less explicit than direct payments, is similarly damaging.

Digital platforms use a variety of methods to control the news. Bell discusses how digital platforms use tools and software to control the media, which she calls “infrastructure capture.” Digital platforms also control much of the revenue streams to media outlets, meaning that the media is more vulnerable to capture by advertisers and conservative funders. 

MPM: In recent years, the government’s role in the media has increased tremendously, both in terms of funding as well as ownership and editorial control. What does your book say about this issue? 

Anya Schiffrin: The chapter on India talks about the pressure that accompanies government advertising in print publications which have traditionally had low cover prices and therefore relied on government adverts. I recently wrote an Oxford Bibliography on media capture and was impressed by how much research has been done recently. Marius Dragomir has written extensively on the processes including the acquisition of outlets in Central Europe and he and others have documented how governments have allocated advertising to their favoured outlets in the Czech Republic, Ghana, Hungary and the Ukraine.

There is quite a bit of new literature on Turkey and in our book Andrew Finkel describes Turkey as a near perfect example of press capture – where a generation of proprietors became entangled in a trap of their own devising, undone by a financial crisis that they did much to provoke. The new Justice and Development Party, which came to power without strong media support, was able to transfer ownership to new pro-government consortia. Yet, paradoxically, while its allies now control over 90% of the legacy press, the government has become increasingly reliant on authoritarian measures to limit freedom of expression through courts, legislation and regulatory agencies. This is the result of what Finkel calls a “Midas Touch” whereby the government captures media at the expense of that media’s ability to maintain influence. Hence the battleground shifts to new and social media, but here the commercial dynamics are entirely different. Finkel shows how capture depends on the convergence between private and state interests but also how this convergence may become derailed.

MPM: Based on the research that has been used in the chapters of the book, what has to happen or what can be done, in your opinion, to effectively combat media capture? 

Anya Schiffrin: We have several chapters on solutions and it’s clear: there are lots of things that can be done to mitigate the problem. The question is do we have the political will to do it? In her chapter on tech platforms and how they can influence the news, Emily Bell talks about the need for taxation. Rather than giving grants directly to journalism outlets, Google and Facebook need to pay taxes and those funds should be redistributed to media outlets. Or grant-giving could be done at arms-length through intermediaries that can cushion some of the influence.

Drew Sullivan from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has a proposal for a trust to support independent reporting, Dean Starkman discusses an effective tax credit for journalism from a surprising source: Hungary’s so-called one-percent law of 1996, which was designed for local charities but has evolved into a vital funding source for Atlatzso, Direkt36 and other independent news outlets. Mark Nelson has a raft of proposals for government regulation but notes the importance of media literacy for civil society organizations so that they can help shape government responses to capture.

MPM: Following the pandemic and taking into account the various trends in the media that the book describes, how do you see the future of independent journalism in the following five years? 

Anya Schiffrin: Our world changes so quickly that predictions are hard to make but I expect that large, respected titles like The New York Times and The Guardian will continue to thrive and do hard-hitting investigative journalism.

The smaller independent outlets will continue to operate on a shoestring, fuelled by the passion and commitment of their journalists as well as small grants, and a bit of revenue from subscribers and activities. Audiences will remain polarized and self-select the information they receive unless there is a massive change of thinking at tech Facebook and Google as to how they present and deliver information.

Photo: RISJ (via Flickr)