Those who get their news primarily from the television may have missed the record-breaking protests going on in Washington, D.C. over the last week. Activists hoping to bring a “Democracy Spring” to the U.S. have been demonstrating against the corrupting influence of money in politics. More than 1,400 of them have been arrested since protesting began on April 11, breaking the arrest record for “non-violent direct action protests in Washington for a single week,” according to The Nation.
But mum’s the word in corporate media. According to The Intercept, in the days following the start of protests the three major cable networks devoted less than 30 seconds of coverage to them. CNN didn’t mention them at all. MSNBC talked about them for 12 seconds. FOX News talked about them for 17 seconds. Even then the networks missed the point, characterizing the activists as pushing “for improved ballot access and voting rights.”
In the week since the protests began, corporate media’s coverage hasn’t gotten much more extensive. Google searches for the phrase “Democracy Awakening” and “Democracy Spring” paired with CNN, MSNBC and FOX News give very few relevant results. Even The Washington Post, located less than three miles from the protests, has done only four articles on them so far, only one of which quoted civilian activists.
Everything the media is normally attracted to can be found in the Democracy Spring story. There is conflict as protesters hold signs, march, chant, and come into contact with law enforcement. There is celebrity involvement from ice cream entrepreneurs Ben and Jerry and actress Rosario Dawson, who were all arrested. But instead of covering a movement to restore democracy, CNN devoted airtime last week to having their star anchor, Anderson Cooper, figure out what Taylor Swift song is Ted Cruz’s daughter’s favorite.
Social media and new media, however, have been covering the protests extensively. The Intercept reported on April 12, the day after protests began, that there had been more than 136,000 tweets. YouTube channels like The Young Turks, which regularly beats old media in ratings and boasts 37 million monthly viewers, have also covered Democracy Spring extensively. Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur even got arrested while participating in Democracy Spring. It’s tough to imagine Cooper putting himself in such a position.
This is the potential power of online media. Content doesn’t need to pass through a set of corporate media filters. People instead drive the content by promoting what they find informative or important, or even doing the reporting themselves. Much of what gets widely shared on social media is utterly inane, and there are infinite avenues on the internet that lead to ignorance for people who want to follow them. But there are also more ways to be informed and communally connected, which can lead to powerful movements like the Arab Spring.
Corporate media has good reason to ignore protests against money in politics. Political campaigns will flood corporate media with an estimated $4.4 billion in television advertising during the 2016 cycle. Communications giants like Comcast, one of America’s most hated companies and the parent company of MSNBC, are among the biggest political spenders. Comcast executive Larry Cohen held a private fundraiser for Hillary Clinton last summer, charging attendees $2,700 and granting those who brought in outside donations of more than $50,000 one-on-one meetings with the candidate.
OpenSecrets.org lists the TV, music and movies industry as Clinton’s 6th-largest donor group with more than $9 million in donations for the 2016 election. The printing and publishing industry came in 13th place, giving her $3.75 million. Those same industries gave the Bernie Sanders campaign $654,000 and $531,000, respectively. Given the sharp contrast between the two candidates on the issue of money in politics, it’s not hard to understand why media giants would give Clinton 12 times more than they have Sanders.
Corruption like this is partly what led scholars at Princeton University to declare the United States an oligarchy rather than a democracy. In an oligarchy, a handful of wealthy interests wield disproportionate influence over the political system. They get what they want from the government far more often than ordinary people get what they want. Because corporate media is such an entrenched pillar in the oligarchic class it is highly improbable they will equip Democracy Spring protesters with the coverage needed to achieve their goals.
As important as the demonstrations against money in politics are, the absence of network coverage is an equally important part of the story. While they were being arrested, some protesters chanted, “Where is CNN?” Many Americans now know they can’t rely on corporate media for information. But thanks to the growing power of new media, the Democracy Spring story isn’t going away without a fight.