When the News is Bought: “Media Capture” on the Rise

In many parts of the world, special interests, from oligarchs and other elites to governments, are influencing and controlling the media for personal gain. When media is captured in this way, it is no longer independent. Captured media loses the ability to reflect the broad interests of the community and to hold power to account – the classic role of the fourth estate. Most often, media is captured by governments, plutocrats or corporations or, in many cases, a mixture of all three.

Media capture is nothing new. Internews has worked for the past 35 years in more than 100 countries to support independent media. We would be hard-pressed to find examples where media capture has not been a factor, and often a significant one.

While capture is not new, its stock is currently on the rise as it becomes a favorite tool of vested interests everywhere. As a new volume, In the Service of Power:  Media Capture and the Threat to Democracy, edited by Anya Schiffrin, lays out, media capture is now a primary strategic approach for autocrats and kleptocrats and threatens democracy in every corner of the world.

There are several key reasons for this. At the top of the list is the rise of digital media. As Marquez-Ramiro and Guerrero in the volume write, “Digitization has pulverized markets, changed consumption patterns and blurred media platforms.”  As media markets transitioned to digital, the business model collapsed, making media weak and vulnerable to capture. Media became less differentiated, particularly on social platforms. As local news and smaller organizations failed or merged, markets became less diverse and increasingly consolidated. This trend is not improving. Today, Google and Facebook consume 85 cents of every dollar spent on digital advertising, leaving very little left for media organizations to share.

At the same time as the digital transition, the 2008 global recession created a further erosion in many media markets, particularly in Europe and Eurasia, where markets have concentrated and oligarchs have been on a media buying spree. An Internews colleague in Eastern Europe remarked to me, “If you are going to be a successful oligarch in this part of the world, you have to have a Lamborghini, a Swedish model girlfriend and a media company.”

Just this past weekend, we saw the outcome of this trend in the Czech elections. Ano, the far right party formed by oligarch Andrej Babis, gained nearly 30 percent of the vote. Babis, largely assured to be the next prime minister, owns two newspapers that account for 33% of newspaper readership, and a popular radio station. He was victorious in spite of a financial scandal over his business practices, reporting that he calls a “disinformation campaign.” 

Digital media has also allowed authoritarians to evolve their models. The old model of rule by terror – of rounding people up in the middle of the night at gunpoint – is increasingly out of fashion. These days, regimes realize that media and digital information is an easier, cheaper and more effective way to control populations.

A third factor is the increase in wealth concentration around the world. Those with money want to keep their money, and the fastest way to do it is to leverage political control. It turns out it is smarter and more direct to buy the media than it is to bribe the media. Particularly when the media is struggling financially, it’s a bargain. This form of capture is particularly insidious. Schiffrin, commenting on the effect of media capture on economic inequality writes “Politicians can be voted out of office, but the rich cannot.”

As a famous Russian (who wasn’t an oligarch) once said, “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There is, as this volume and other scholarship points out, a capture playbook. But capture plays out differently according to the political, social and economic context of the particular media environment.

In the pre-digital age, the global community that cared about supporting independent, truthful media and understood its critical role in democracies, believed that diverse, pluralistic markets were the best defense against capture. In these markets, even if some of the media was captured, there was space for independent voices. Today, that answer feels incomplete.  Markets diverse and strong enough to support a range of voices and organizations are growing increasingly rare. This is cause for concern.

We need to pay close attention to how our media is captured, and by whom. We need to be clear-eyed that capture is a significant factor in most media markets. And we need to be smart and informed about who is capturing the media and what their incentives are.  Armed with that information, we can embark on the difficult conversations about what to do about it.

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Jennifer Cobb is Vice President for Strategic Outreach at Internews. A version of these remarks were presented in her role as moderator of a panel discussion hosted by the Center for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy on October 23. Watch the discussion.