Mark Twain famously quipped that everyone always talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it. (This was before global warming.) In the same vein, it is common for people to rant about billionaires, like Rupert Murdoch and Elon Musk, controlling major media outlets and using them to advance their political whims. But, no one seems to do anything about it.
There is a reason for inaction. For the foreseeable future, it is hard to envision a political scenario in which the ability of the rich and very rich to own and control major news outlets will be restricted. That means that if the goal is to prevent Elon Musk from owning Twitter (or “X,” as he now calls it), then we will likely be able to do little more than rant. (That is not entirely true.)
However, we can go the other way. We may not be able to stop the rich from owning major media outlets, but we can give a voice to everyone else. This can be done through a system of individual vouchers, where the government gives each person a sum, say $50, to support the news outlet of their choice.
One $50 voucher will not go far but thousands and millions of vouchers can support a lot of people doing journalism. The billionaires and the news outlets they control may still have more money, but there will be outlets they don’t control that will have the resources they need to do serious reporting that has a major impact.
If anyone doubts this point, just look at the work done by ProPublica or the Intercept in recent years. These two non-profit news outlets have broken story after story that were largely ignored by the major newspapers and television chains. (There are also many other great non-profit news organizations.)
ProPublica’s reporting is the reason that we know about Justice Clarence Thomas’ right-wing billionaire friends who buy him lavish vacations. But this important story is just the tip of the iceberg for the in-depth reporting they have done for more than a decade. The Intercept has also broken a wide range of stories that were neglected by corporate-owned news outlets, notably on political corruption and dubious foreign policy ventures.
The high budget news outlets may spend tens or hundreds of millions pushing fluff stories and acting as public relations vehicles for their favored politicians, but serious news outlets can do important reporting on a fraction of their budgets. They don’t need to pay buffoonish news anchors millions of dollars a year. This is why a voucher system makes so much sense.
An individual voucher system also gets around the problem of having the government decide what news should be reported. It will be up to individuals to decide which outlets get their support.
The government would only set broad parameters, comparable to what it does now with the I.R.S. determining which organizations qualify for 501(c)3 status, so that contributors can get a deduction on their income taxes. The I.R.S. only makes a determination as to whether the organization is in fact a church, a shelter for the homeless, or a think tank, or whatever else they claim to do that qualifies for tax exempt status. It doesn’t try to determine if they are a good church or think tank, that is done by their contributors.
It would be the same with the news voucher system. The agency administering the system would just determine whether the organization is in fact engaged in collecting and distributing news. It would be up to individuals to determine which organization gets their support.
At this point, there is little prospect of getting this sort of voucher system through at the national level, however it can be done at the state or local level. Just last week, Washington, DC city council members Janeese Lewis George and Brianne Nadeau introduced a bill that would set aside $11 million (0.1 percent of the city budget) for individual vouchers to support local news reporting.
The way the program is structured is that the value of the voucher, or coupon, that each individual gets would depend on how many people use them. If only a thousand people used the vouchers, each person would have $11,000 to give to the news outlet of their choice. If 100,000 of DC’s residents (its population is just under 700,000) used the vouchers, each one would have $110 to support the local news they value.
A condition of getting the money would be that all the material produced would be posted on the web and available at no cost. The idea is that the public pays for news once, we don’t give people a subsidy through the voucher and then allow them to collect a second time by charging to get around a paywall.
A voucher program to support local news in DC may seem a long way from challenging the Murdochs and the Disneys for control of the media, but it is an important first step. And, what can be done in DC can be done in other cities. Mark Histed, with the group Democracy Policy Network, has been working with groups in other cities who have similar plans.
The point is that this has to start somewhere, and if this sort of voucher system can work in one city, it can work in others. And, if it is successful and the public values it, then we can envision a similar program could be introduced nationally at some point.
If this still sounds small bore, it is worth paying a bit of attention to what the right has managed to do over the years. The privatization of Medicare began under Reagan in the 1980s, as private insurers were allowed to get a slice of Medicare dollars. The privatization was expanded gradually over the years so that the current incarnation, Medicare Advantage, now covers 44 percent of all beneficiaries. More than half of new enrollees sign up for Medicare Advantage.
If we need another example of the success of the right in starting small and building up, we can just look at the current Congress. We have states like Wisconsin, that are relatively evenly balanced in votes in national elections. (Obama won twice, Trump won in 2016, and Biden won in 2020. It has one senator from each party.) Nonetheless, its congressional delegation has six Republicans and two Democrats.
This wasn’t the result of a magic trick. The Republicans worked to get people elected to the state’s legislature over the years. These legislators then gerrymandered districts (both their own and the congressional districts) to ensure that Republicans would have a share of seats that vastly exceeded their share of the votes. This resulted from years and decades of getting people to run for relatively boring positions in the state house or state senate. It has now paid big dividends for them in national politics.
It would be great if we could do something tomorrow that would drastically reduce the income and power imbalances that have exploded in the last half century. But the list of items that would do this and have a remote chance of getting anywhere politically is pretty close to zero.
Our choice is whether to do things that have an incremental impact and can grow through time, or empty ranting into the wind. The D.C. local news voucher program fits in the first category. People who really want to do something to reduce the power of billionaires should get behind it.