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Special Report: Billionaires and Media

As billionaires take control of major media companies, are free speech and democracy at risk?
Special Report: Billionaires and Media

The power that tech giants and their billionaire owners wield in determining the parameters of discourse on the internet was the subject of much debate this week as the news of Elon Musk's agreement to purchase Twitter was announced.

"Conservatives on Twitter have greeted Elon Musk as a liberator," writes Adam Serwer for The Atlantic as "the mega-billionaire is in the process of purchasing the relatively small but influential social media network and reorienting it toward what he calls free speech."

Although "many media outlets have curiously described Musk as a 'free-speech defender,' Musk has been perfectly willing to countenance the punishment of those engaging in speech he opposes. Tesla, for example, was disciplined by the National Labor Relations Board for firing a worker who was attempting to organize a union," according to The Atlantic.

Elon Musk Isn't Buying Twitter to Defend Free Speech (Adam Serwer - The Atlantic)

Excerpt from The Atlantic: Business moguls tend to be big on "freedom of speech" in this more colloquial sense, when it comes to the kind of speech that doesn’t hurt their bottom line. When it comes to organizing their workforces, however, a form of speech that could act as a check against their power and influence, that tolerance for free speech melts away. Workers fearful of how their wealthy bosses intend to use that power should take that reality into consideration.
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"In recent years, the number of people left in control of free speech appears to have dwindled as billionaires scoop up legacy media properties in multimillion deals," reports Nicholas Gordon for Fortune. "Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s $250 million purchase of The Washington Post in 2013 arguably sparked the most recent wave of media acquisitions."

Musk’s Twitter purchase leaves global media increasingly in the pockets of a few billionaires (Nicholas Gordon - Fortune)

Excerpt from Fortune: Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, bought The Atlantic from the National Journal Company in 2017 for an undisclosed stake. Jobs made the investment through the Emerson Collective, a private company she founded to support social entrepreneurs and organizations. The unwinding of Time Inc. in 2018 also presented an opportunity for billionaires to pick up some of the U.S.’s oldest magazines including Time, which was bought by Salesforce cofounder Marc Benioff for $190 million in September 2018, and Fortune, which was acquired by Thai billionaire Chatchaval Jiaravanon for $150 million a month later.
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"The explosive announcement that Elon Musk is buying Twitter and taking it private has generated a slew of commentary," reports Zachary Karabell for TIME, remarking that "the general tone has tended more toward the apocalyptic" and "that Musk’s acquisition reflects the ability of the very rich to dictate the rules of the public square and hence of democracy itself."

However, Karabell writes that "the consensus of the commentariat does not equal Truth with a capital T. Nor does the conviction that billionaires buying media companies imperils the free flow of information and debate in a democracy."

Billionaires Have Always Owned the Media. Musk Is No Great Threat (Zachary Karabell - TIME)

Excerpt from TIME: 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. When William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer and Cyrus McCormick presided over their early 20th century news empires, their newspapers were undoubtedly partisan, but that was balanced by the fact that none had anything approaching a monopoly, even in individual cities.
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What is most interesting is that all three publications quoted in this article – The Atlantic, Fortune, and TIME – are all referenced in the above excerpts and are all owned by billionaires.