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Billionaires Buy the Media: Elon Musk is Only the Latest to Purchase Control of Information

The richest of the rich are increasing their control of information outlets in the U.S. and globally

PUBLISHED MAY 5, 2022 9:47 A.M.
Elon Musk says he wants to buy Twitter to protect ‘free speech.’

Elon Musk says he wants to buy Twitter to protect ‘free speech.’

Daniel Oberhaus / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 4.0 Share-Alike License

When the world’s richest person, Silicon Valley mega-billionaire Elon Musk, received approval to buy Twitter from the San Francisco-based company’s board on April 26, 2022, the South Africa-born Musk became the first of the world's billionaires to buy a major social media platform. 

With an estimated net worth of $273 billion, Musk has more money than all four major American sports leagues put together, or than the entire country of Pakistan which has a population of 220 million.

Musk’s $44 billion offer for Twitter was far from final, and according to paperwork filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, needed to be complete by Oct. 24 or either side could walk away (albeit paying a $1 billion fee for the privilege). Why would Musk, who already owns the electric car maker Tesla, the space-travel company Space X, and the Boring Company, which digs transit tunnels, want the headache of operating a controversy-generating social media site with almost 400 million users and which has turned a profit in only two years (2018 and 2019) since its founding in 2006?

According to Musk, it’s not about the money

“This is not a way to sort of make money,”  Musk said in a TED interview about two weeks before approval of his bid. “My strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important.” 

“So,” he says, this is about “the future of civilization, but you don’t care about the economics at all.”

Musk’s claim was that he was interested only in protecting “free speech,” which he rather confusingly defined in a tweet as “that which matches the law.” 

“If people want less free speech,” he added, “they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.” 

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution expressly prohibits the U.S. government from passing any law “abridging the freedom of speech.” There is no law forbidding companies such as Twitter from exercising their own First Amendment rights to moderate the content on their platforms. So what Musk meant was unclear. 

But was “free speech” really Musk’s motivation to take the $44 billion plunge? Or was it, in fact, part of a movement that over the past decade has seen a series of billionaires seize control of media platforms from the local level to national publications? A movement that has created alarm over what it means for a small class of the ultra-wealthy to control the flow of news and public discussion.

The Ultra-Wealthy and the Media: The Hearst Empire

Musk may be the world’s wealthiest human, but if his buyout of Twitter gets done, he’ll be only the latest in a long line of billionaires and other super-rich people to get control of a major media outlet by virtue of their bank accounts.

In 1891, California’s United States Senator and gold-mining magnate George Hearst died at the age of 70. After first striking gold in Nevada County in 1851, Hearst went on to build a fortune estimated as high as $400 million at the time of his death—equal to almost $13 billion in today’s money. 

The elder Hearst already owned the San Francisco Examiner, which he acquired as payment for a gambling debt, but he had no interest in the news business. So he gave it to his son, William Randolph “W.R.” Hearst,  to operate, supposedly as a payoff for dumping one of the numerous girlfriends who didn’t meet with George’s approval.

W.R. got the newspaper bug and just four years after his father’s death, deployed about $150,000 (a bit more than $5 million in 2022 dollars) of the family fortune to buy the financially floundering New York Morning Journal,  one of dozens of papers then published in New York City every day. He extracted the money from his mother reportedly in exchange for jettisoning yet another out-of-favor gal pal.

Over the next three decades, W.R. expanded his holdings from two small newspapers on either coast to a vast empire that included 28 daily papers, numerous magazines and radio stations, a wire service, and even a movie studio—Cosmopolitan Productions, set up to turn articles from Hearst-owned Cosmopolitan Magazine into motion pictures. (The studio also served as a vehicle to funnel starring roles to Hearst’s longtime mistress, showgirl Marion Davies.)

Hearst’s multimedia holdings, not incidentally, also functioned as a vast and expensive megaphone for his political views and ambitions. In the early 20th century, the Hearst papers championed their working class readers. Out west, they muckraked tirelessly against the Southern Pacific Railroad, the corporation that controlled California politics. Back east, Hearst targeted Tammany Hall—the corrupt political machine that held New York City in its grip. 

Hearst himself had his sights set on holding office. His run for mayor of New York in 1905 was thwarted by mass voter fraud engineered by Tammany Hall. He won two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, but failed in attempts to win the presidency, as well as the governorship of New York.

By the 1930s, however, Hearst grew alarmed by the increasingly radical labor movement. His politics, and those of his newspapers, took a hard turn to the right—the extreme right. It was Hearst’s newspapers that popularized the slogan “America First.” Aviator-turned-politician Charles Lindbergh adopted the phrase as the name of his domestic fascist movement. Seven decades later Donald Trump also took “America First” as the slogan for his own brand of extremist nativism.

Meanwhile, the Hearst papers published articles by a young Adolf Hitler and openly praised Hitler’s fast-growing Nazi party, which Hearst viewed as rescuing Germany from communism, and as a model for the type of American political movement he now favored.

Rupert Murdoch’s Media Takeover

In the final year of his life, which ended in 1951 when he was 88, Hearst’s politics took a turn back toward the left, or at least the center. He ordered his newspapers to cease their anti-communist crusade, ordering that his “instructions must be obeyed to the letter.” And around the same time, albeit 10,000 miles away, another young future billionaire was building a media empire of his own that would ultimately have an even farther-reaching influence than Hearst’s.

Sir Keith Murdoch was an enterprising reporter who in 1921 was named editor of one of Australia’s most prominent newspapers, the Melbourne Herald. By the time he died 30 years later, he had built a successful chain of papers throughout Australia. But he owned very little stock in the enterprise. When his eldest son inherited the family business which was known as News Corp, he was left with just the Adelaide News and Sunday Mail. That son, also named Keith but who preferred to be addressed by his middle name, Rupert, was only 20 years old.

Rupert Murdoch overhauled his father’s newspapers to focus their coverage on scandals, controversy and celebrity news—what in today's internet age would be called “clickbait” but then became known as “tabloid” journalism. 

Rupert learned plenty from Sir Keith, most importantly how to use his newspaper and media properties to impose his political will on the countries where he operated. Keith Murdoch had shamelessly used his papers to promote his chosen political candidates and create what his biographer Tom Roberts called “a press dictatorship for all Australia with Murdoch-inspired leaders and Murdoch-trained reporters.” 

Murdoch Jr. Uses Media Empire to Promote His Politics

Keith Murdoch’s political views were driven by unabashed white supremacy. He was a passionate believer in eugenics—the discredited pseudoscience of “improving” the human population through selective breeding—and the cause of a “White Australia,” calling his goal of white racial purity “the sacred object.” 

Rupert Murdoch quickly began buying up other Australian newspapers, but he didn’t start obtaining the political influence his father wielded until he founded a new, nationwide daily broadsheet, The Australian. After some initial struggles, the paper solidified the younger Murdoch’s status as a media baron and power broker, setting a precedent for his entire career.

By the late 1960s, Murdoch was expanding News Corp to the United Kingdom. He bought the tabloid News of the World and the Sun and within a decade was using them as a platform for right-wing politician Margaret Thatcher, who with no small assist from Murdoch dominated and reshaped British politics, holding the prime minister’s office from 1979 to 1990

In 1987, according to Forbes Magazine, Murdoch was worth $2.1 billion (equal to about $5.3 billion circa 2022). That was also the year he bought the venerable American book publisher Harper & Row, merging it two years later with another publishing acquisition, William Collins and Sons, to create HarperCollins, which Murdoch still owns in 2022.

Murdoch’s masterstroke when it came to leveraging his media billions for political power came in 1996, when he was worth $3.9 billion according to Forbes ($7.2 billion in 2022 terms). That was the year he launched the Fox News Channel, a 24-hour cable news network designed to compete with CNN, but from a clearly conservative point of view—albeit a view masked under the misleading slogan “Fair and Balanced.” 

The slogan was adopted by Murdoch’s anointed Fox News CEO Roger Ailes specifically to provoke “conniptions among liberal critics,” according to a New York Times report. (Fox News dropped the slogan in 2017 after Ailes’ departure from Fox and subsequent death.)

The Richest of the Rich Get Into Media

When Murdoch got Fox off the ground in 1996, there were 428 billionaires according to Forbes, which compiles an annual list of the richest people in the world and the United States. By 2022, billionaires were popping out of the woodwork, with 2,668 billionaires worldwide, including 735 in the U.S. alone. 

The worldwide list included 11 centibillionaires, that is, individuals whose net worth topped $100 billion. Of those men (and yes, they are all men), seven are either currently owners or prospective owners of media outlets, have been until recently, or in one case—Microsoft founder Bill Gates—are deeply involved in media through extensive philanthropic donations. 

On the top of that list, of course, is Musk with his planned takeover of Twitter, with 217 million active daily users including many high-profile media figures, writers and journalists.  Also on the list, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who remains CEO of the social media giant’s Menlo Park-based parent company, Meta.

Zuckerberg’s company claims nearly 2 billion daily users—almost 10 for every one Twitter user. According to figures culled from Facebook’s own data, over 36 percent of the world’s population uses Facebook, meaning that centibillionaire Zuckerberg’s influence reaches more than one of every three people on the planet.

Others among the richest of the billionaires have deployed their wealth to buy into what is now often referred to as “legacy media”—newspapers, broadcasting and other media that existed before the internet came along. Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos (he retains the title of “executive chairman”) paid $250 million cash for the Washington Post, one of the country’s most iconic newspapers, in 2013. 

The Billionaires' Buying Binge

The richest man in France, luxury goods tycoon Bernard Arnault (estimated worth: $156 billion), owns a group of media properties in his home country, including the daily newspaper Le Parisien. But the Louis Vuitton CEO claims to take no interest in media, telling the French senate in January 2022 that he considers his media investments mere “patronage,” intended only to keep the legacy outlets afloat as they face challenges from digital media.

Then there’s Warren Buffett, the 91-year-old investment whiz now worth a reported $117 billion who first dipped into newspaper ownership in 1977, buying The Buffalo News. Describing himself as a “newspaper addict,” Buffett scooped up another 30 papers in subsequent decades, consolidating them under the umbrella of Berkshire Hathaway Media Group. (Berkshire Hathaway is the name of Buffett’s holding company that owns a wide variety of businesses, from Geico insurance to Dairy Queen.) 

In a 2019 interview, however, Buffet expressed his disillusionment with the newspaper business, calling the industry “toast.” The next year, he sold off his media group for $140 million in cash. 

Mukesh Ambani, the richest person in India with a net worth of $101 billion, per Bloomberg, is also the most powerful media tycoon in the world’s second most populated country. Through the conglomerate he operates, Reliance Industries Limited, Ambani owns 72 television channels. His company also owns Jio, one of India’s largest telecom companies, whose app allows users to view TV channels on their smartphones.

And those are just the centibillionaires who have used their money to gain some measure of media control. Many more multi-billionaires whose fortunes run “only” into the single and double digit billions have also made significant media investments. For example, former hedge fund manager John W. Henry, with a scant $3.6 billion to his name,  bought the Boston Globe in 2003. The Globe is, of course, the hometown newspaper of the Boston Red Sox, a franchise he bought in 2001. In 2020, Henry installed his wife, Linda Pizutti, as the newspaper’s CEO.

Billionaires Flex Social Media Muscles

According to a 2020 survey by Pew Research, almost nine of every 10 Americans rely on some form of digital media for their news, and in a 2021 Pew survey, about half (48 percent) said they rely at least “sometimes” on social media platforms to receive news about the country and the world.

The same survey found that about one in three Americans regularly get their news specifically from Facebook. Next in line was YouTube, the video service owned by dominant search engine Google, with 22 percent, followed by Twitter, where 13 percent of Americans regularly get their news, according to Pew.

The founder of the Chinese-based app TikTok—a short-form video app with a billion users—Zhang Yiming is the second-wealthiest social media mogul behind Zuckerberg with a worth of nearly 40 billion. Zhang stepped down as chair of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance in 2021. Pavel Durov, sometimes called the “Russian Mark Zuckerberg” created and owns the privacy-oriented messaging app Telegram, and is worth more than $15 billion.

For Durov, his wealth has come with a price. He has lived in self-imposed exile from Russia since 2018, when he refused to allow the country’s security services to access messages sent by Telegram users. The founder of another encrypted messaging service, WhatsApp, is also a multi-billionaire. But Jan Koum got that way by selling his app to Facebook for $19 billion.

As for Twitter, co-founder Jack Dorsey, who stepped down from his second stint as CEO in 2021, is worth nearly $7 billion according to Bloomberg. Co-founder Evan Williams, who also served as CEO between Dorsey’s two stretches, is worth a reported $2.2 billion. After leaving an active role at Twitter, Williams went on to found and operate another social media outlet, the long-form blogging site Medium. The site has between 85 million and 100 million monthly readers, and a reported paid subscriber base between 200,000 and 400,000.

What Do the Billionaires Want?

The billionaires discussed above are just a sample of the many who have purchased or founded media companies. Biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong snapped up the Los Angeles Times in 2018. Salesforce’s Marc Benioff purchased the iconic Time magazine that same year.  And so on. Why do so many of the richest people in the world want to own media outlets?

Sometimes, the answer seems pretty straightforward. Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson shelled out $140 million of his reported $30 billion fortune in 2015 to buy the local paper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal. It took just months for employees to complain about editorial interference from the top, when an article about a lawsuit involving Adelson was slashed in half for the paper’s print edition

In comments to the New York Times, Adelson—who died in January of 2021 at age 87—said that he bought the paper only as a “financial investment.” But Adelson had a long history of backing right-wing causes. He was the largest donor to Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, showering $25 million on the campaign. He was also a backer of Israel’s former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2018, Adelson purchased a portfolio of media properties, including two newspapers and an online news site, in Israel.

Not all billionaires have exercised direct control over news content, at least not in the straightforward way seemingly favored by Adelson. But according to media critic Nolan Higdon, an author and lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, the growing proliferation of billionaires owning media outlets is a sign that America is becoming an oligarchy—a country where true political power resides in the hands of the wealthy.

A 2014 Princeton University study found that despite America’s self-definition as a representative democracy, the actual political model under which the country functions is what the researchers called “Economic-Elite Domination,” in other words “policy-making is dominated by individuals who have substantial economic resources, i.e. high levels of income or wealth.”

Economic Elites and the Town Square

What does economic-elite domination of the media mean for the type of information that the public receives? Not all billionaires hold right-wing political views. Bezos, Henry, and Buffet have supported Democratic political candidates or causes generally associated with political liberalism. But according to a study by the Guardian newspaper partly funded by the Ford Foundation, those billionaires are in the minority among the ultra-wealthy.

Studying the public statements, political activities and contributions of the 100 wealthiest Americans, the Guardian found that most “are extremely conservative on economic issues. Obsessed with cutting taxes, especially estate taxes—which apply only to the wealthiest Americans. Opposed to government regulation of the environment or big banks. Unenthusiastic about government programs to help with jobs, incomes, healthcare, or retirement pensions— programs supported by large majorities of Americans.”

Musk has called Twitter “the digital town square, where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” Should one multi-billionaire—in this case, the world’s richest—have sole control over the so-called town square?

“The fight over Twitter’s future is not really about free speech, but the political agenda the platform may end up serving,” wrote journalist and author Adam Serwer in the Atlantic, itself owned by Laurene Powell Jobs, billionaire widow of Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs. “‘Free speech’ is a disingenuous attempt to frame what is ultimately a political conflict over Twitter’s usage as a neutral question about civil liberties, but the outcome conservatives are hoping for is one in which conservative speech on the platform is favored and liberal speech disfavored.”

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