Billionaires Have Always Owned the Media. Musk Is No Threat
TThe explosive news that Elon Musk would be buying Twitter has sparked a lot of comment. While there have been some hosannas, the general tone has tended more toward the apocalyptic, and the most common refrain has been that we are at “peak billionaire” and that Musk’s acquisition reflects a disturbing acceleration of not just inequality but of the ability of the very rich to dictate the rules of the public square and hence of democracy itself.
Although the consensus among the commentators does not mean Truth with a capital “T” it does not mean Truth. You may believe, like many, that billionaires represent a failure in capitalism to distribute gains more evenly. If that is the case, it means that much of what those who are very wealthy do is not beneficial for the majority. This is why most capitalist system’s current functioning are at worst suboptimal to a society. If, however, you accept that there is no perfect human society and that most of us are some messy mix of things that work well and things that are spectacularly awry, then it’s worth asking whether Musk buying Twitter is actually a very good thing for speech and democracy.
The idea that the free flow of information is imperiled when new mediums are owned by a few wealthy individuals resonates today, but that doesn’t make it so. Although their news empires were dominated by Joseph Pulitzer, Cyrus McCormick, William Randolph Heart, and Joseph Pulitzer, the early 20th-century newspapers of their time were undoubtedly biased. However, this was offset by the fact no newspaper had a monopoly in any particular city.
Today’s commentariat might be forgiven for forgetting such a distant past, but what of the more recent past? In the middle of the 20th century, the news outlets that were held as icons of the free press were by and large owned by…a few wealthy families: the Grahams owned The Washington PostThe Chandlers were the owners The Los Angeles TimesTaylors, owned Boston Globe…………………………..???? The New York Times. A few wealthy individuals also owned major media companies, including the Gannet family (which controls many TV stations), and the Cox family. Later, they acquired the Gannet family with its hundreds of stations. Finally, there was the Sinclair family along with their numerous stations. And, finally, there were the Murdochs and the Fox Network. The Wall Street Journal(Received from a wealthy family called the Bancrofts)
Read More: What Musk Really Believes He’s Buying With Twitter
So, during the two supposed “golden ages” of media, the first in the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when journalists were part of the great social movement toward reform and government oversight and the second from roughly the 1950s through the 1990s, private ownership by the very rich was typical. As a result, newspapers were closed down and local newsrooms shut down as the decline of the media industry was felt in the 2000s. This happened because of the loss of ad revenue due to Facebook and Google. It was the same with magazines. Many of them were also owned by wealthy families.
John Henry was the savior for those properties that were in decline over the past decade. Boston GlobePatrick Soon Shiong bought it Los Angeles TimesJeff Bezos purchased the Washington Post, Laurene Powell-Jobs AtlanticChatchaval Jiaravanon FortuneMarc Benioff is also a great choice. Time. That list is hardly comprehensive—most of the papers and platforms you likely read have similar owners, though some aren’t billionaires.
The question is, why then does Musk’s purchase of Twitter seem like such a dangerous anomaly. In part, it’s because Twitter isn’t a publication distributed in the public square (digitally or physically), it is one of the squares. In that way it’s more like a very big network than a single media property. But it commands nowhere near a monopoly, and if Musk were truly to turn it into a right-wing bro ghetto, it’s more than likely people would turn elsewhere, namely Facebook or Snap or Tiktok, all of which are already bigger than Twitter. It’s easy to set up a social media platform, although it can be difficult (as Trump demonstrated with his controversial Truth Social launch).
Partly, though, Musk’s reaction is an explosive response to public opinion and to fear that social media will continue to spread unfiltered information in order to make money, which could jeopardize democracy. That fear is palpable, but here too, that doesn’t mean it’s the right diagnosis of what ails us. The late Sixties and early Seventies were tumultuous, angry, and seemingly on the brink in both the U.S. and Europe when there was no social media, which suggests that the fact that social media is anarchic today doesn’t mean that it is a root cause of all of our collective ailments.
Undoubtedly, part of this reaction stems from Musk’s bizarre behavior and unpredictable actions. And yet, here is a man who has excelled in constructing two mega-companies—Tesla and SpaceX—that requires meticulous attention to process and detail as well as rigorous organization, recruiting and retaining immensely talented people, and high levels of internal and external accountability. Musk’s persona in no way has precluded that and he has in fact enabled the cultures that make sophisticated vehicles whose failure would result in death. At the minimum, this should indicate that Musk is an experienced manager and owner who does not let go.
Before the recent influx of wealth individuals bought these platforms and media properties, their ability as information clearinghouses was being hampered due to their inability make money. These publications and platforms are largely a result of rounding errors compared to the net worth their new owners: Bezos acquired the Washington PostHe bought the property for only $250 million. This was just a small fraction of his multibillion-dollar net worth. The reason they bought the properties was not to make a lot of money. They did it to please their egos and to show that a healthy marketplace of ideas was good for society. These platforms and publications have seen a rise in popularity over the past decade due to investments by rich private patrons. Their ownership has made society more vibrant than ever before. Even if we don’t like these billionaires owning these publications, what’s the alternative? What about government control? DAO-owned magazines?
Although Twitter will be more costly for Musk and his backingers, it will allow them to continue to manage the platform and not have to submit to Wall Street’s relentless demands to create profit margins and profits according to unpredictable public markets. The fear that Musk will somehow turn Twitter into his personal megaphone belies that fact that it already is—and that’s true for many others, too. Musk’s fear of making Twitter a sphere full of fake information is ludicrous. It has a wonderful sphere that allows users to find information, and people like them. Musk claimed that he wants to make the space more free for speech. It is possible that this will turn out false. However, that should not be the case in advance.
It is not unusual for someone of great wealth to buy a media platform. If you look back at the history of free speech, it is clear that rich patrons have often allowed for it. The uproar over Musk is predictable in our culture of outrage, but let’s pause our high dudgeon and see how this plays out before writing the obituaries and shrill pronouncements that perform so well on Twitter but do so little to advance our understanding of the world we are living in.
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