Benjamin Cunningham is a Barcelona based writer. He contributes to The Economist, Le Monde Diplomatique, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Aspen Review and is a weekly opinion columnist for the Slovak daily Sme.

The American Interest: The lasting power of legacy media

The American Interest: The lasting power of legacy media

After nearly 80 years, Magyar Nemzet, Hungary’s last independent national daily, closed April 11. “It was so abrupt,” says Szabolcs Toth, a former deputy editor-in-chief and columnist. “I only learned about it from the website.”

Sudden as it was, the timing—just three days after Viktor Orban’s re-election with a constitutional supermajority—was less of a surprise.

Shuttering this moderately conservative paper was but the latest step in Orban’s slow march to consolidate control of Hungarian mass media. In 2016, allies of Orban’s Fidesz party bought and then promptly shut down Magyar Nemzet’s left-leaning rival Népszabadság. Scores of outlets have declared bankruptcy in recent years, and others were brought to heel by owners who opted for the path of least resistance—collaboration with Fidesz. 

Still, Magyar Nemzet’s case was unique. Owned by mogul Lajos Simicska, Orban’s childhood friend-turned-critic, the newspaper had earned special treatment. The government had exerted pressured for at least two years by indirectly subsidizing competitors with state advertising while hindering Magyar Nemzet’s political coverage—by denying its reporters access to government officialsToth watched as pro-government publishers, and their healthier finances, lured away career journalists.

“[Fidesz] regarded us as traitors, which was more dangerous than an opponent,” he says. “They tried to ruin us. Sometimes I ask myself if it was right to ask people to stay.”

Before all this, upon taking office in 2010, Orban purged state television and radio of independent thinkers and restocked the ranks with lackeys. “The public broadcasters are now similar to how they were in the 1960s, so primitive and such low quality, opposition parties have zero chance to present their views,” Toth says. Except for a handful of websites and the magazine HVG, nearly all Hungary’s big news media are now either owned by Fidesz loyalists or state-run. This was a major factor in the OSCE’s assessment that the April elections took place in an atmosphere of rampant “media bias,” in which Fidesz campaign tactics “limited space for substantive debate and diminished voters’ ability to make an informed choice.” 

The Orban playbook has worked well enough that, after its 2015 election victory, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) charted what party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski called a “Budapest in Warsaw” approach to governing. In the media realm, this meant converting public television and radio into propaganda mills, restricting reporter accreditations to parliament and (again) funneling state advertising largesse toward friendly outlets. Thus far, Polish private media, aided by a market that is four times larger than Hungary’s, is still robust, but it’s not for lack of trying by the government. Former Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski has accused the press of colluding with the rival center-right Civic Platform party on a “leftist program” to create a country “of cyclists and vegetarians,” and as recently as the turn of the year PiS pondered laws to curb foreign—meaning German—media owners. Kaczynski and company’s plan looks to be working thus far, as they would handily win any election held today.

In short, in both Hungary and Poland, the media have played a key role as authoritarian populist leaders gained and now maintain power. Notably, however, their success has come primarily by using traditional—not social—media. These tactics are effective because legacy media, brands that began with an offline presence, still exert exponentially more influence on political opinion pretty much everywhere—including online. In combination with larger turnouts by older voters, this means that control of legacy media, especially in the private sector, remains decisive for setting political narratives today. As the global advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather recently summarized: “The predicted demise of traditional media never materialized. In fact, traditional media is more important than ever.”

Though legacy media do harness digital distribution channels to spread content, come election time they remain the most active and influential sources of information. In Germany, during the 2017 election, broadcasters ARD and ZDF and the weeklies Die Zeit and Der Spiegel prompted the most engagement on social networks, according to a study by the Reuters Institute for Journalism at the University of Oxford. During the 2017 French presidential election, 88.43 percent of news-related tweets either originated from or discussed stories that appeared in legacy media. In the United Kingdom, a separate Reuters study defines the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the Daily Mail as the biggest influencers on the media scene, and an August 2017 YouGov poll found that more people reported being influenced by actual print than social media during the election (23 percent versus 18 percent). In the United States, the Reuters Institute shows Breitbart’s influence pales in comparison to core media like CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. It’s no wonder that Donald Trump dedicates so much time to attacking these very brands.

“When we look at the overall web, the nodes in the news networks are legacy media,” says Silvia Mayo-Vazquez, an Oxford scholar and one of the authors of the aforementioned studies. “They are the center of the flow of the audience.”

This means that not only do old guard media dominate offline communication, but they also account for disproportionate discussion online. More and more people do get news via smartphones and social media, but much of the content they interact with still comes from legacy media. Furthermore, plenty of people use legacy media to learn what is happening on social media: Think about the many hours of CNN airtime dedicated to Trump tweets. The accidental genius of the Trump communication strategy is not his use of Twitter, but rather the ability to convince legacy media that those tweets were news worth reporting.

In February 2016, in the heat of the presidential campaign, the MIT Media Lab calculated that Trump was the top election influencer, leading the matrices measuring social media influence. He also, however, led both statistical categories gauging impact on the mainstream news cycle. The report concluded Trump was a “master of both domains.” More strikingly, not only was Trump able to drive the mainstream news cycle, but in doing so he “succeeded in shaping the election agenda,” according to an analysis by the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University. “Coverage of Trump associated with immigration, jobs, and trade was greater than that on his personal scandals,” the report noted. MediaQuant, an organization that tallies media mentions for business brands, found that Trump received $4.96 billion in free publicity during the presidential election campaign—mostly via the news churn of legacy media. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” the company’s CEO and Chairman Leslie Moonves famously said of the election-related financial boon for his company.

Though it’s clear that Trump’s victory derived from his domination of narratives on- and offline, there is strong circumstantial evidence that in 2018 influencing legacy media coverage alone may still be enough. Until very recently, in Russia, Vladimir Putin largely ignored domestic web communication to focus on control of television. This works because even young people—54 percent of 18-24 year olds, and 72 percent of the overall population—use state television as their main source of news, according to a 2017 study by the Levada Center. Tempting as it is to dismiss this as a Russian anomaly explained by lower internet penetration, according to Pew Research, local television still reaches more American adults than any other news platform. At the same time, while 67 percent of Americans do receive some news from social media, just two in 10 report doing so often. Meanwhile, a paltry 6 percent of the people who get news on Twitter are over the age of 65—a demographic encompassing 50 million Americans, 53 percent of whom voted for Trump.

Social media use is no longer limited to young people, but they are still more likely to use it as a primary news source. Plenty of old people heard about Trump calling Kim Jong-un “little rocket man,” but few encountered it via Twitter. Many saw it on television, for example, and even people who saw it on Twitter can encounter it via a legacy media tweet rather than from Trump’s account. No doubt, news consumption habits and demographics continue to evolve, but for now social media’s strongest political asset could be its ability to influence the legacy media news cycle. In the United States, the Baby Boomer generation still accounts for a larger number of voters than millennials (48.1 million voters in 2016 versus 34 million millennials) and votes at a higher rate (69 percent of eligible voters as compared to 49 percent).

Central Europe is a more extreme manifestation of this same phenomenon because these societies are aging faster than any in human history. For example, it is no surprise that more Hungarians use television to get news (72 percent) than use Facebook (64 percent), given that the number of people living there will fall 14.8 percent by 2050, according to the UN. In his election campaign, Orban actually used snail mail flyers and manual surveys to stoke fears of mythical Muslim hordes or Soros-directed conspiracies. “Low income, mostly rural voters decided this election by turning out en masse,” Toth said.  

Sound familiar?

In Poland (whose population is set to fall 15.1 percent by 2050) and Slovakia (down 8.9 percent), political control of public media is the biggest problem. “They didn’t tell us why they did it,” says Matus David, a longtime foreign news reporter for Slovak state television who was fired with three colleagues on April 27. “Every journalist now feels the same atmosphere of fear.” But Central European trends are all the more relevant as examples of naked political interest overwhelming private media too. In what remain open, export-oriented economies in the world’s largest single market, this is cause for concern among legacy media in the United States, Western Europe, and elsewhere, as authoritarian populists look to smash traditional institutions.

“Competition among [web-based] platforms to release products for publishers is helping newsrooms reach larger”—not smaller—“audiences than ever before,” a report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University concluded last year. But those larger audiences no longer translate into proportionate growth in revenues. As of 2017, Facebook and Google were vacuuming up 84 percent of global digital advertising revenue (excluding China). This means that even as legacy media play an outsized role in setting political agendas, they operate in precarious financial conditions. This generally leads to market consolidation, as strong brands carrying debt are sold for cheap, often to owners with political motives. In Central Europe, this phenomenon accelerated after 2008 as foreign—again, German—media houses vacated the premises to local actors amid flagging profits. Hungary ended up the most extreme, but not the only, variant. “We need an urgent discussion to repair the business model of mainstream media, because this could happen anywhere,” Toth, formerly of Magyar Nemzet, says.

In the Czech Republic, where public media maintain relative independence (for now), political actors invert the Hungarian and Polish models, and use media control as a vehicle to achieve political power. Most notably, billionaire Andrej Babis bought two daily newspapers in 2013, finished second in an election that year, and then first four years later (his ANO party won in October 2017 but has been unable to form a government thus far). Other murky business interests followed suit—some with designs on political influence of their own, the rest hedging their bets against Babis. When the powerful Penta investment group bought a chain of regional papers in 2015, cofounder Marek Dospiva referred to the purchase as an “atomic shield.”

“I am not going to beat around the bush,” he said at the time. “The fact that we own media gives us the certainty that it will be harder for anybody else to irrationally attack us.” 

In the United States, it’s easy to find similar patterns, and decades of media consolidation offer ample opportunity for abuse. The so-called Big Six media companies—Comcast, Disney, Time Warner, CBS, Viacom, and 21st Century Fox—have long accounted for an unhealthy share of media output. With Disney set to buy 21st Century Fox and AT&T eyeing Time Warner, more consolidation is ahead. While not all these firms overtly push a political cause, raising the quality of public discourse still ranks far behind boosting dividend payments as a guiding ethos, which can have an equally toxic impact on the health of the republic. “This going to be a very good year for us,” CBS’s Moonves said in that aforementioned 2016 speech. “Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

In local television—again, the single most important news platform for American adults—Sinclair Broadcasting’s recent scandal had a Central European air about it. Amid revelations that the company ordered dozens of news anchors to read Trumpist talking points on air, Sinclair is seeking approval to buy Tribune Broadcasting’s television operations—a merger that could eventually encompass 233 stations, reaching 40 percent of American households.

Viktor Orban would be proud.

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The Economist: Before the freeze

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