Barack Obama's recent interview with the New York Time's Ezra Klein is rich and worth listening to fully. I wanted to focus on one passage, in particular, in which Obama expresses some doubt about whether he could win over as many white voters as he did in 2008 if he were running in today's media environment.
It's heartening that one of the most important figures in Democratic politics understands this problem on an intellectual and visceral level as a campaigner. What's frustrating is that I don't see enough people in our field trying to solve this problem by contesting for power over media infrastructure.
I'll discuss a few ideas I'd love to see people in the field take up, but first here's Obama:
The prototypical example is I show up in a small town in Southern Illinois, which is closer to the South than it is to Chicago, both culturally as well as geographically. And usually, the local paper was owned by a modestly conservative, maybe even quite conservative usually, guy. He’d call me in. We’d have a cup of coffee. We’d have a conversation about tax policy, or trade, or whatever else he cared about. And at the end of it, usually I could expect some sort of story in the paper saying, well, we met with Obama. He seems like an intelligent young man. We don’t agree with him on much. He’s kind of liberal for our taste, but he had some interesting ideas. And you know, that was it.
So then I could go to the fish fry, or the V.F.W. hall, or all these other venues, and just talk to people. And they didn’t have any preconceptions about what I believed. They could just take me at face value. If I went into those same places now — or if any Democratic who’s campaigning goes in those places now — almost all news is from either Fox News, Sinclair news stations, talk radio, or some Facebook page. And trying to penetrate that is really difficult.
It’s not that the people in these communities have changed. It’s that if that’s what you are being fed, day in and day out, then you’re going to come to every conversation with a certain set of predispositions that are really hard to break through. And that is one of the biggest challenges I think we face.
Later in the interview, Obama and Klein also discuss shallow objectivity biases in media coverage, but they don't delve into what Obama identifies as the core problems above. I find this is often a blind spot in media interviews since it's easier to armchair quarterback the practice of journalism than to offer possible solutions for a failing media system. But the system is the problem here and in my biased opinion as a progressive communications practitioner, it's what's driving a lot of the polarization Klein focuses on.
So how bad is it? Looking back at the media landscape of 2008
It's worth looking back the short 12 or 13 years since Obama's historic win to understand the scale of disruption Silicon Valley and other economic forces have brought on the media industry. Here's the data from the Pew Research Center on newspapers:
In 2008, weekday newspapers had a circulation of 48,597,000. By 2018, that dropped to just 28,554,137 per these estimates, a 41% decline.
Network news also saw more modest declines while local TV news was more even over the same time period. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who say they use at least one social media site went from 21% in 2008 to 72% today.
These are the charts I picture whenever we get trapped in a loop debating messaging. As Obama points out, even his excellent messaging in 2008 might not get a chance to break through to those same communities in 2020 or 2024 given the changing nature of the local and national media ecosystem.
The World's Greatest Message, in fact, would not win if people don't hear it. As I often caution people who think they have a winning message for climate advocates to win over conservatives, your chances of getting Sean Hannity to let you deliver that message on his show are zero. Similarly, a lot of politicians operate in relative news deserts, leaving them free from public accountability generally, let along interventions from well-meaning progressives looking to win elections.
So what can the progressive movement and Democrats do about this? A few ideas:
Democratic-aligned billionaires should buy news outlets. No, this isn't ideal, but Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and other wealthy donors could simply buy media outlets. If anyone reading this is a Democratic-aligned billionaire I encourage you to consider this option.
Workers should take over media outlets. Increasing worker power at media outlets can help ensure that those organizations work in the public interest. That can include stronger unions at news organizations as well as worker-run co-ops.
Create a public endowment for local media and tax social media companies to pay for it. In 2019, Free Press suggested several tax plans that could generate around $2 billion in revenue from social media companies, which could be used to fund a public endowment for independent non-commercial media. The governance of such an endowment would be a sticky issue, of course, but it beats the status quo. I'm not aware of any legislation that would put this idea into practice, but maybe I missed it.
Fight for power on social media platforms. Republicans have been threatening, cajoling and bullying social media companies for years now, whether it's privately lobbying Mark Zuckerberg, complaining online about how they're being censored online, or holding endless hearings with misleading claims about policy minutiae. During the Trump years, advocates stepped up their efforts to get social media sites to correct or ban misleading and violence-inciting content from Republicans, which came to a head when Trump started lying about how to vote and the election results. If the social media companies had acted sooner, they may have prevented the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Progressives and Democrats should keep pushing on this. And social media companies should take the radical step, as former Snopes editor Brooke Binkowksi has suggested, of hiring professionals who are experts in factchecking and accuracy to moderate content. (These professionals are called journalists!) As we've seen, kicking liars and violence-inciters off social media works, even when they're the president. Meanwhile, the degree to which liberal organizations and causes can proactively succeed on social media sites with their own news-like content is heavily contested. Further, in my experience, a lot of successful organic accounts are run by largely uncompensated volunteers.
Create a farm team of content creators. There's a vast array of content creators in progressive politics, but only a handful have broken through and created their own independent media that can compete with the likes of fracking-funded operations like Ben Shapiro's Daily Wire. Former Obama staffers, in fact, have been remarkably successful with producing honest, accurate, and decidedly partisan media through Pod Save America and the broader Crooked Media content universe. Importantly, partisan outlets can also serve as a farm team for larger, corporate outlets with huge audiences. Today's columnist for a Democratic-aligned blog, for instance, might be tomorrow's MSNBC host. This is a role the Think Progress blog used to play and former writers for the site have gone on to form successful independent newsletters but I often wonder about the writers who weren't able to make that jump and who instead simply had to move on to other fields. Investments in outlets like this are lacking, with political spending instead being concentrated in relatively late ad blitzes. My pitch for funders and donor advisors: consider something like a "media infrastructure fee" whenever they consider these late ad spends. And let's expand our minds about what successful media investments look like over time: For instance, do they help generate more grassroots donations for candidates? Are audiences for partisan media more likely to volunteer or get their friends to volunteer over time?