President Donald Trump has turned “fake news” into a political rallying cry adopted by much of his own party. Now, Republicans have the chance to debate a bill that could help the same news outlets their leader often uses as a punchline.
The bipartisan legislation, called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act and introduced Wednesday, would give publishers a four-year reprieve from antitrust laws, allowing them to negotiate as a group for better deals with tech companies like Facebook and Google without fear of regulatory action. Those platforms’ growing control of the digital ad market in recent years has ravaged the media industry and contributed to widespread job losses.
The bill’s introduction also offers a glimpse of the political tightrope many Republicans find themselves navigating in the Trump Era. The president’s attacks on the media typically take aim at national outlets, which could benefit from the legislation. Its cosponsors, however, have chosen, instead, to hone in on the advantages to local press.
That’s much safer political territory, especially for Republicans known for defending the president.
“Community journalism holds a critical place in our democracy because it helps the American people understand and engage in civil society,” Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican who cosponsored the bill, said in a statement. “Through our bipartisan legislation, we are opening the door for community newspapers to more fairly negotiate with large tech platforms that are operating in an increasingly anti-competitive space.”
Collins, who became ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee this year, is a key Trump ally in Congress. On his personal Twitter account, he framed the conclusion of the special counsel's investigation as a mano-a-mano showdown between Trump and the “liberal media.” He’s also decried the “left-wing lunacy supported by the Media” and directed his followers toward Trump’s Twitter for more accurate news.
In response to questions of whether such criticisms could hamper efforts to aid local outlets, Collins said in a statement, “These negotiations have the potential to help papers everywhere, including local and community newspapers that keep large portions of America informed.” He did not address if and how he distinguishes between the monolithic media mentioned in his tweets and the community newspapers he considers worthy.
The legislation will likely counter similar awkwardness elsewhere on the House Judiciary Committee, where Republican leadership held comical hearings last year on the supposed social media censorship of pro-Trump video bloggers Diamond & Silk.
Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, who sits on the subcommittee for Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative law, has become a lead attack dog for Trump on Fox News. He’s also appeared on the conspiracy outlet Infowars and boasts that he’s “not afraid to call out the Fake News Media” on his website, despite occasionally spreading misinformation.
How publishers have suffered
A digital ad market that prizes the scale and targeting capabilities that tech platforms possess has decimated local outlets in particular. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, for example, recently announced layoffs that would reduce its headcount to just 10 percent of what it was 20 years ago. Similarly weakened publications have complained, at times, that Trump’s attacks on journalists cascade down to the local level.
“Obviously, the president’s horrible rhetoric about news isn’t helpful in any regard,” said David Chavern, president of the News Media Alliance, one of the trade groups backing the legislation introduced Wednesday. “But I think you’re seeing people, including on the Republican side, start to realize that this is a serious and pressing issue.”
Chavern’s organization represents about 2,000 news organizations, including small community newspapers and frequent national-media targets of the president, like The New York Times and Washington Post. Vice Media is also a member.
Even those large companies have struggled to convert huge audiences into advertising revenue online. In a high-profile interview with the Times in November, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti broached the idea of merging digital media companies, in part, to negotiate better terms with Facebook and Google. One employee asked Peretti in a follow-up Slack conversation why BuzzFeed and others couldn’t bargain together without a merger — but also clarified she wasn’t suggesting BuzzFeed breach antitrust regulations. “I agree we shouldn’t violate anti-trust laws. :),” Peretti responded, according to a copy of the conversation obtained by VICE News.
“The challenge in digital media right now is digital content distribution is very concentrated in the hands of Google and Facebook, but digital content creation is very fragmented between many small digital companies,” Peretti continued. “Over time, that balance needs to be corrected so the value captured by distribution and content become more balanced. This will be a long process and won’t happen overnight. You’ll see it play out over the next few years.”
Chances of success
The legislation introduced to the House on Wednesday would theoretically allow for collective action. But it’s unclear whether reporting by outlets like BuzzFeed, which has aggressively covered Trump’s various ties to Russia, could affect the bill’s chances going forward.
A number of Republicans have taken an increasingly toward the tech giants, but Trump appears unafraid of putting his thumb on the scales when critical media outlets are involved. He reportedly pressured aides in 2017 to intervene in a pending merger between AT&T and Time Warner, which owns CNN, a favorite target of the president. Trump routinely bashed the network during rallies and once tweeted a video of him tackling and punching a man whose head had been replaced with a CNN logo.
The legislation’s Democratic co-sponsor, Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, from Rhode Island, introduced a similar bill last year that languished in committee. He’s previously compared Trump’s treatment of the press to that of authoritarian leaders.
“But it’s important to note that the president has only vetoed one bill during his time in office,” added Richard Luchette, a spokesman for Cicilline. “He’s largely delegated policymaking to Congress. It would be bizarre, even by his standards, to work against a bipartisan bill like this one.”
Dislcosure: VICE Media joined the News Media Alliance, one of the trade groups backing the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, in March.
Cover image: Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, objects to Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., for summoning Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker before the Democrat-controlled panel on Capitol Hill, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)