Media

Billionaire Activist Tom Steyer: You Want Trump Out? Buy Clear Channel.

The billion-dollar-plus cost of iHeartMedia shows just how powerful and valuable the right-wing media machine has become.

If liberal billionaires like Tom Steyer want to have a real and lasting impact on American politics, they should seriously think about buying a nationwide radio network.

Bloomberg reports that iHeartMedia LLC, previously known as Clear Channel, is “open to takeover talks.” It’s the largest operator of radio stations in the nation.

The simple fact is that if Richard Nixon had had hundreds of radio stations in virtually every city or town in America of any consequence, with all of them running right-wing talk nonstop, it would have been difficult to impeach him.

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If Nixon had had Fox News in addition to all that radio power, he could have safely and easily pulled an Andrew Jackson (who sneered at and ignored the Supreme Court’s order to stop the Trail of Tears) and refused to turn over his tapes when SCOTUS ordered it, thus avoiding both impeachment and resigning office.

As Trump may well do when Mueller’s final reports come out. (It’s probably not a coincidence that Andrew Jackson’s portrait now hangs in the Oval Office.)

Liberty Media made a $1.4 billion offer to buy 40 percent of the debt, and effective control, of iHeartMedia (it’s bankrupt and massively in debt because of a failed takeover by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, but that’s another story) and iHeart turned it down as insufficient.

But with just a little more money, a progressive billionaire or two could own a nationwide radio network with virtually 100 percent penetration, and restore progressive voices to the nation’s largest stations.

The billion-dollar-plus cost of iHeartMedia, along with the eye-popping profit numbers and immense political influence of billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and Wall Street Journal, shows just how powerful and valuable the right-wing media machine has become.

Back in 2004 when Air America was rolled out, it was successful for as long as it was in large part because it could lease stations owned by what was then Clear Channel and is now iHeartMedia: we were on over 50 Clear Channel stations in the nation’s major markets, and drew very good ratings, even occasionally beating Rush Limbaugh and his ilk on competing Clear Channel stations.

Following a string of Democratic victories in cities and states where Clear Channel was leasing stations to Air America, the company was purchased in a leveraged buyout by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital and Thomas Lee.

Soon thereafter, Clear Channel began pulling Air America’s progressive programming off the air, dramatically cutting Air America’s audience and their advertising revenue; the new progressive network was soon bankrupt, and two years later so was Clear Channel (because of the debt load dumped on them by Bain’s business model), then reincarnated as iHeartMedia.

Meanwhile the right-wing media machine continues to elect Republicans with big funding from right-wing corporations and the billionaires that own them and fund right-wing think tanks. As Ken Vogel, et al, point out in a 2011 article for Politico, “The Heritage Foundation pays about $2 million [a year] to sponsor Limbaugh’s show and about $1.3 million to do the same with Hannity’s—and considers it money well spent.”

To the best of my knowledge, none of the talkers on the left has ever been funded in such a fashion. Small wonder that Hannity now owns a real estate empire worth tens of millions, and Limbaugh can brag of an eight-figure net worth or more. But more importantly, the influence of those two well-financed talkers has altered America’s political landscape in fewer than three decades.

What this shows is that the movers and shakers on the far right, the libertarian billionaires like the Kochs, understand the power of media.

Those of great wealth aligned with the left in America, however, have always largely ignored media, probably because they grew up in an America with the Fairness Doctrine and before the 1996 Telecommunications Act and they always just assumed that “the truth will eventually be known.”

But investing in political media can produce both a huge return on investment, and can transform the politics of the nation.

That’s certainly what Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch thought when they lost an average of $90 million a year for about five years before the Fox News Channel became profitable.

Brit Hume noted, in a 1999 interview with PBS: “This operation loses money. It doesn’t lose nearly as much as it did at first, and it’s—well, it’s hit all its projections in terms of, you know, turning a profit, but it’s—it will lose money now, and we expect for a couple more years. I think it’s losing about $80 million to $90 million a year.”

But that loss wasn’t viewed by these right-wing billionaires as a “loss”—rather, it was an investment.

It’s what Reverend Moon believed, as his Washington Times newspaper lost hundreds of millions of dollars but spread right-wing perspectives that influenced the nation. It’s how the Koch brothers have referred to the hundreds of millions they shower on right-wing politicians and causes. And it’s what the people who started Air America Radio believed, although they couldn’t get big funders to understand the stakes.

While Rupert Murdoch lost hundreds of millions of dollars (Air America’s bankruptcy was for $14 million) in its first few years, Murdoch hung on and kept pouring in the cash. And it put George W. Bush into the White House, according to several independent analyses.

As Richard Morin wrote for the Washington Post back in 2006, asking rhetorically, “Does President Bush owe his controversial win in 2000 to Fox cable television news?”

The answer was an emphatic “yes!” according to academics who did exhaustive research into what they called “the Fox Effect.”

As Morin reported:

“‘Our estimates imply that Fox News convinced 3 to 8 percent of its audience to shift its voting behavior towards the Republican Party, a sizable media persuasion effect,’ said Stefano DellaVigna of the University of California at Berkely [sic] and Ethan Kaplan of Stockholm University.’

“In Florida alone, they estimate, the Fox Effect may have produced more than 10,000 additional votes for Bush -- clearly a decisive factor in a state he carried by fewer than 600 votes.”

The analysis looked at the vote from 1996 to 2004 in 9,256 American cities and towns where Fox was available on basic cable.

“They found,” reports Morin, “clear evidence of a Fox Effect among non-Republicans in the presidential and senate races, even after controlling for other factors including vote trends in similar nearby towns without access to Fox.”

The researchers added, Morin wrote, that, “[T]he Fox effect seems to [be] permanent and may be increasing.” And that was in 2006.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1786 to his close friend Dr. James Currie, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

But ever since Ronald Reagan stopped enforcing the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1983, leading to an explosion of acquisitions and mergers, and Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, leading to an even more startling concentration of media in a very few hands, freedom of the press in America has become as much an economic issue as a political one.

This is problematic, because no democracy can survive intact when only one voice or political perspective overwhelmingly dominates any major branch of the media.

Literally hundreds of right-wing talk show hosts, both local and national, are broadcasting every day, all day, in every town or city in America.

Progressive voices, on the other hand, are few and far between; in most parts of America (and virtually all of rural America), the only radio signal that carries any progressive programming whatsoever is SiriusXM, which requires a subscription and special receiver—costs that are hard to bear among voters in the reddest states where Republican policies have destroyed unions and exported jobs overseas, thus leading to widespread poverty.

Jefferson made his comment about newspapers being vital to America just at the time he was being most viciously attacked in the newspapers.

The core requisite of democracy is debate. When there’s only a single predominant voice in the media, American democracy itself is at greatest risk, be that voice on the right or the left.

If Tom Steyer wants to see Trump impeached, wants to see a semblance of balance on our airwaves, and wants a positive, healing, life-affirming progressive message available in every town in America, he should buy iHeartMedia tomorrow morning…

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and author of more than 25 books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.