Anyone familiar with a fundamental left-wing critique of corporate media could have foreseen Musk’s current agony. A reading of “Manufacturing Consent” by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, “The Media Monopoly” by Ben Bagdikian, or even “The Brass Check” by Upton Sinclair, published in 1919, might have better-prepared Musk for the Twitter storm. Let us begin at the very beginning. A media company’s operations necessitate financial resources.
The Musk buyout of Twitter is just one example of a privately held company that now needs advertising income to function. Ads could be used as a funding mechanism. Twitter earned $5 billion in 2021, with 90% coming from advertising. New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger has stated that advertising formerly accounted for 80% of the paper’s revenue. He has also stated that this percentage was often far higher, sometimes reaching 95%.
In a business like Twitter, the advertisers are the end consumers of the product, which is the attention of the users. Unfortunately, in Musk’s view, Twitter’s prior management were left-wing fascists who detested free speech because they knew their statist blue-hair philosophy wouldn’t hold up in the real world. Musk was confident that if he were in charge of Twitter, things would be different. For the time being, he is. I now declare the beginning of the wild and noisy political debate! There are no taboo subjects and no off-limits areas.
In contrast, Musk quickly learned that advertisers abhor open, noisy political debate. In a recent post on his time at the helm of a political news outlet, Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall gave a compelling explanation for this: Before Musk purchased it, Twitter was that way not because of the politics of its employees, but because that’s what marketers wanted. Similar to how its advertising has plummeted, this is the main reason behind it.
Over a century ago, Sinclair warned that “if the newspaper fails to defend its major advertisers, the big advertisers will get busy protecting themselves.” It’s not just that the advertising giant doesn’t want its products associated with a Turkish bot-hysterical net’s tweets calling for the genocide of Armenians. The problem isn’t even that businesses have never and will never be enthusiastically supportive of anti-business propaganda. It’s more that they want people who aren’t doing anything besides planning their next purchase when they see their ads.
The Real Deal and Company Matters
In fact, the issue is more fundamental than that. Only a few days ago, Musk told marketers that Twitter aspires to be “in the business of truth.” Indeed, even if it were what Musk wanted for himself — which he clearly doesn’t — it would be the last thing any advertiser would desire. Everyone learns at the tender age of six that advertising are dishonest when they finally get their parents to buy them a Star Wars toy that doesn’t actually fly like in the commercials.
Musk is accurate in assuming that advertisers oppose free speech, even if he doesn’t know why this is the case. So now he’s trying to monetize via subscriptions instead. He reportedly wants subscriptions to account for half or more of Twitter’s income.
Why, then, would anyone shell out money to use Twitter? Ad-blocking software is one solution. Heavy users with disposable income will be the target demographic for Twitter advertisements, but they will have to pay for the privilege. Experts at Twitter ran the figures and warned Elon Musk that the company could lose money on a large number of $8/month members.
The issue of fairness also arises. Musk has stated that he wants to establish a lively digital town square; yet, many Americans and even more of Twitter’s users outside the U.S. cannot afford the $8/month price tag. Of course, you can charge less for them, but then subscriptions won’t be as profitable.
One last potential revenue stream for Twitter is subsidies. With his personal $200 billion fortune, Musk could theoretically pay for Twitter’s massive losses out of his own pocket. ‘Citizen Kane’s’ fictional newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane admits, “I did lose a million dollars last year. I anticipate a loss of one million dollars for the year.
Next year, I anticipate a loss of one million dollars. If I continue losing a million dollars per year, I’ll have to shut down the business in 60 years. However, it appears that Musk’s fervent support for free speech stops short of going that far.
That’s why Musk is flailing around ineffectually right now. In a spirit of adventure, he eagerly impaled himself on the horns of this unsolved problem at the heart of all political discourse. If only he’d read some books with a radical perspective on the media, he could have spared his funny nightmare. However, those who take that route rarely end up as the wealthiest individuals in the planet.
Going forward, accounts engaged in parody must include “parody” in their name, not just in bio
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 11, 2022
Publicly Funded Programs
Nonetheless, there is exactly one viable option here. The government may choose to fund media organizations. You might be forgiven for thinking this is anti-American if you’ve gone to a good school and been taught correctly. Yet, in the early decades of the United States, the media got substantial subsidies, most notably free or low-cost postal rates. The reasons for this were explained in detail by the Founding Fathers.
In his inaugural address to Congress as president, Thomas Jefferson expressed his support for the idea on the grounds that it would “promote the progress of information.” A free press, and especially the widespread distribution of newspapers, is “in favor of liberty,” as Madison put it. …[Italics in original] For this reason, he argued, “postage exceeding half a penny, amounted to a prohibition… of the transfer of knowledge and information.” More than $30 billion a year was allocated by the government to support newspapers, which is a significant share of the economy.
There are clear risks associated with government support of the media. However, technological development has allowed for their near-total eradication. As one example of a good concept, economist Dean Baker has advocated giving each citizen a $100 voucher that could be used for any form of journalism or the arts.
While we wait, it’s important to keep in mind that many others have had dreams similar to Musk’s and also had to face the harsh reality he described upon waking. The New York Times op-ed page was founded in 1970 by John B. Oakes with the intention of providing a platform for unrestrained political discourse.
He reached out to everyone from John Birch Society co-founder Robert Welch and U.S. Communist Party leader Gus Hall to generals Curtis LeMay and Noam Chomsky for contributions. The page even approached Afeni Shakur, mother of Tupac, about a job. We tried that, and it failed. After the op-ed page hardened under these stresses, A.O. Sulzberger Sr., the grandfather of the paper’s current publisher, removed Oakes from his post. Sooner rather than later, Twitter’s Wall Street creditors will play the role of Sulzberger for Musk.
In retrospect, anyone versed in a basic left-wing critique of corporate media could have predicted Musk’s current anguish. Perhaps Musk would have been better prepared for the Twitter maelstrom if he had studied “Manufacturing Consent” by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, “The Media Monopoly” by Ben Bagdikian, or even “The Brass Check” by Upton Sinclair, published in 1919. So, let’s start from the very beginning. In order to run, a media organization must have access to sufficient financial means.
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