Editor’s note: This commentary piece is written by Rickey Bevington, local host for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” The author’s views are her own and don’t necessarily represent those of the Global Atlanta editorial staff.
Imagine if nearly every news organization in the United States only published stories that promoted one political or social viewpoint.
In such a world, there’d be nearly nowhere to turn for objective reporting, civil debate or nuanced arguments about complex issues.
It might seem impossible in the U.S. But in some European countries, a subtle slide has already begun following a familiar blueprint: democratically elected strongmen seizing control of state-run broadcasting while allowing their wealthy friends to determine what appears on commercial media.
The journalistic dilemma is not necessarily about who runs a media company. Republicans, Democrats, universities, non-profits and private citizens have successfully owned and operated American news outlets for centuries.
Ownership only becomes problematic when executives dictate what their journalists should cover to align with their agenda or economic interests. That’s what’s happening in Hungary and to a lesser degree, Serbia, where I traveled in February to compare European and American media landscapes.
The examples I found may be extreme, but I was reminded just how vigilant we must be to preserve the precious gift our founders gave our democracy — a truly unencumbered press.
My journey was underwritten by a grant from the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Our relationship began in 2014 when I was selected as Georgia’s only Marshall Memorial Fellow. That initial trip encompassed a 24-day journey through five European nations. I learned that, for the most part, Europe and the United States are more alike than they are different.
By following up with a look at the workings of the press in the United States and two post-communist nations, my goal was to better understand the media’s role in different kinds of democracies.
Hungary is run by an elected government that’s growing increasingly authoritarian. Since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party was elected in 2010, the center-right government has rapidly dismantled checks and balances.
Fidesz’s playbook is standard for a new breed of authoritarian democracies (see: Turkey) that weaken the judicial and legislative branches of government, cripple civil society and undermine the press.
In fact, the government has deployed the media to slander opponents and promote xenophobic and Islamophobic propaganda. This campaign grew particularly anti-Muslim in 2015 with the arrival of thousands of displaced African and Middle Eastern migrants seeking refuge in Europe.
Even before that, transforming trusted news outlets into pro-government voices was “politically, a goal by Fidesz” according to Ágoston Sámuel Mráz of the government-friendly think-tank Nézőpont Intézet. During our interview, Mr. Mraz told me that it’s Hungarian tradition for the ruling party to align the media with its political messaging.
Within two years of taking power, the Fidesz-led Parliament passed new laws that combined public broadcasting into one organization run by a government-appointed executive.
To help an American audience appreciate what’s happening in Hungary, here’s a theoretical analogy: it would be like today’s majority Republican Congress hand-appointing the executives at PBS and NPR to air exclusively conservative messaging and content.
Despite the misconception that American public broadcasting is “tax-funded liberal media,” the federal government supports less than 10 percent of the budgets of PBS and NPR. The rest is paid for by millions of private donors across the political spectrum, including conservative billionaire David H. Koch.
Congress also built political neutrality into the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Unlike Hungary’s appointed public broadcasting executive, the political appointees to CPB have nothing to do with NPR and PBS programming.
Once it had control over public media, Fidesz launched a coordinated effort to control private local, regional and national news companies. According to a January report by watchdog publication Atlatzo, since 2010 more than a dozen Orbán allies have bought 11 radio stations, 20 television channels and close to 500 online and print outlets.
To illustrate this in American terms, here’s another theoretical analogy: imagine a President Hillary Clinton directing her largest donors to buy Fox News, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and every local print, digital and broadcast outlet across the country with a directive to publish only stories that further the Democratic agenda.
Again, the problem isn’t who owns the outlets; it’s that political interests are directing what the outlets publish.
If we tolerate meddling in the press by powerful people we agree with, we can’t complain when it’s done by powerful people we disagree with.
In fact, plenty of American media companies run by left-leaning executives regularly expose the career-ending misdeeds of Democrats. One significant example is the New York Times’ 2015 front page exposé on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Hungarian news producers, in contrast, report receiving pre-written articles favorable to the government or being ordered to remove stories critical of Mr. Orbán. One executive admitted to receiving daily phone calls from pro-government actors who would dictate the day’s stories. Another reporter was told to delete a story about the Pope meeting with victims of clergy sex abuse because an executive insisted pedophile priests don’t exist.
One Hungarian journalist put it this way: the people who run these newsrooms don’t consider themselves journalists or media professionals. They consider themselves to be party activists.
To be sure, there are a handful of very small, independent online news sites in Hungary. 444.hu resembles a mix between BuzzFeed News and Vice and is popular among young people in Budapest. Atlatzo publishes investigations of government corruption. But only a fraction of Hungarians access these or any digital news sites. The nation’s 10 million people overwhelmingly get their news from the evening TV newscasts and newspapers.
Meanwhile, Americans largely expect the news media to act as an objective, independent “watchdog” to both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Recent consternation over “fake news” illustrates how much we take for granted that the news should be the complete, unbiased truth. We all agree the news should not be fabricated, and it’s encouraging to see more stringent efforts to hold social media companies accountable for disinformation on their platforms.
It’s essential to remember why this is so important: Especially since Watergate, conservative and liberal media outlets have proven to the American people that news organizations should remain independent of politicians and their parties.
But recent examples show that we can’t take for granted that what’s happening in Hungary won’t become increasingly common in the United States.
David Pecker, CEO of National Enquirer publisher American Media Inc., recently received immunity from prosecution in exchange for information about his role in squelching politically damaging stories about then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.
Mr. Pecker, a longtime Trump ally, appears to have prevented his newsroom from publishing information that could end his friend’s political career. It’s a legal practice known as “catch and kill” whereby media companies buy the exclusive rights to stories and then never publish them.
Sinclair Broadcast Group is also breaking from American tradition that owners remain detached from the content of their newsrooms. Earlier this year the company, which operates 193 television stations, took the unprecedented step of directing dozens of its local news anchors to read the same commentary on air.
Combating the erosion of press independence requires effort on both sides of the aisle. If we tolerate meddling in the press by powerful people we agree with, we can’t complain when it’s done by powerful people we disagree with.
Journalism’s traditional business model has been upended by the emergence of digital publishing and social media, imperiling independent publications that lack the deep pockets or connected friends to help weather the storms.
That means the public must be ever critical of the provenance of information presented as fact and guarded against influence peddling.
As Atlanta-based Cox looks to sell 14 television news stations, including Atlanta’s WSB-TV, now is the time for Atlantans to become more curious about who owns and influences their information sources.
What you think is just the news may one day be much more nefarious.
Rickey Bevington is a mainstay with Atlantans as local host for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Her honors include Edward R. Murrow Awards (2016, 2014) and Southeast EMMYS (2014×2). Georgia Trend Magazine and the Atlanta Business Chronicle named Bevington among the “40 Under 40” leaders making a positive impact in Georgia in 2015 and 2016.
Bevington is an internationally recognized speaker on the media, democracy and global dialogue. Her October 2017 TEDxPeachtree talk “The Future Of News Media Is In Our Hands” empowers viewers to combat fake news. In February 2018, she traveled to Hungary and Serbia to study the state of press freedoms. A few months later, she was invited to present her findings in Kiev, Ukraine at a conference on global democracy. Bevington’s work on the intersection of democracy and the news media began in March 2014, when she was the only Georgian appointed to a prestigious Marshall Memorial Fellowship by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Her prior public policy experience includes traveling in 2013 with the U.S. Department of State studying political systems of Sri Lanka and India. In 2011, Bevington journeyed to Jordan, Egypt, Israel and Greece with the Middle East Travel Seminar.
Bevington’s radio and television stories appear in national outlets including Marketplace, The Takeaway, PBS NewHour, Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Marketplace. She brings nearly two decades of media industry experience including cable entertainment at Sundance Channel and Showtime Networks, local TV news at WFSB-TV 3 (CBS) in Hartford, Conn., publishing with Fodor’s and the Hartford Courant, and reporting for NPR and PBS.
She serves on the boards of the Atlanta Press Club, Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and Dad’s Garage Theater.