Too Big Not To Fail

About five months ago, when the first of the big national banks began to buckle under their own weight, fanning the flames of the already smoldering economic crisis, a new idiom was born: “Too big to fail.”

Phrases like this are pure marketing genius. Meant to hint at fault (“oops, we probably should have been watching those banks a little more carefully”) and, at the same time, to reassure (“but don’t worry, we’ll fix it”) – what they do best is focus attention on one kind of problem while concealing another. Hidden behind the platitude of companies being “too big to fail” is the fact that our country – indeed, our democracy – is threatened by companies that are too big not to fail.

Over the past year, the newspapers, radio stations and TV channels that have been reporting on the economic crisis have been experiencing that crisis firsthand. In between the headlines of bank bailouts and auto company loans, the news of a news industry in crisis has been pushed below the fold. But while the crisis in our nation’s newsrooms has not topped lawmakers’ economic policy agendas it has been no less destructive to the national interest.

The massive media consolidation that began in the 1980s and escalated throughout the 1990s was often justified by Big Media executives as a way to cut costs and maximize profits for shareholders whose only measure of success was the bottom line, not the byline. This cost-cutting almost always meant job-cutting, and so, as Big Media companies got even bigger, their capacity to meet the needs of a changing nation shrank.

Fast forward to 2008: Amid the news of failing banks are numerous failing newspapers, a bankrupt Tribune Co., an indebted New York Times. Radio giant Clear Channel has been shedding stations and just announced it is cutting roughly 7 percent of its work force – the same percentage that TV conglomerate Viacom cut earlier in December.

The same sort of deregulatory policies that let Bank of America and Citigroup buy up local banks allowed companies like Tribune and Viacom to take over local stations and create a near-monopoly over the public’s airwaves. The same laissez-faire policies that fostered the financial crisis have left our media system unfit to adequately cover it.

There are many indications that this financial crisis was exacerbated by media that did not adequately fulfill their duty to hold the powerful accountable and to inform the public as the crisis unfolded. As they had with climate change and the war in Iraq, Big Media missed the boat.

For years, we have been saying that Big Media are a bad idea, and now, it would seem that even Big Media would agree. But the struggles facing Big Media do not mean success for media reformers. To be clear, Big Media is still very big, and where they are failing, that failure is hurting local communities and endangering democratic discourse and freedom of the press.

As Big Media companies shed employees, close local bureaus, replace investigative journalism and in-depth debate with shouting pundits and celebrity gossip, our communities are left with less local news and critical analysis of the issues facing us all. While Big Media may be too big to succeed, quality journalism truly is too big – that is to say, too important – to fail.

It’s time to stop the slide of our country’s media. We need a media system that invests in the kind of journalism that doesn’t just report on problems after they happen, but helps us understand them as they develop and even finds solutions. We need to shore up and support news that educates and informs, and to protect the newsgathering and analysis our communities need. We must realize that core national ideal of a free press that inspired the pluralistic, local and diverse media system our founders originally imagined.

But to get there, we need to revisit the deeply flawed policies that allowed Big Media to get so big in the first place. We need to say no to decades of deregulation run amok, to put a stop to the colossal mismanagement that brought us to this sorry state. We need to come together to establish policies that support new models, put journalists back to work, and fix our broken media system. The time is now, the need is urgent.

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