Tucker Carlson's Attack on Big Pharma and my Ads-As-Bribes Hypothesis
Ads may do much more than influence news coverage, they may drive it.
Do you have any idea how much space McCann buys in the New York Times every year? We could get them to print Mein Kampf on the front page. —Jim Hobart, head of McCann Erickson, on “Mad Men”
On April 19, Tucker Carlson did a monologue on Big Pharma and then went on to interview RFK Jr. who had just announced his presidential run.
That was a Wednesday and by the following Monday, Carlson was out at Fox. The most popular cable host was cancelled.
Kennedy would tweet about “Carlson’s breathtakingly courageous April 19 monologue” which “told the truth about how greedy Pharma advertisers controlled TV news content.”
This charge — that ads are sometimes not an actual attempt to sell a product but rather a means of molding news content — is one I’ve long suspected.
This notion first occurred to me during the buildup to the 1991 war on Iraq. Rock radio stations were airing ads for the Army. I rather doubted many were joining the Army at that point (indeed, that’s backed up by the numbers). But the government probably felt threatened by the prospect of rock stations playing antiwar songs. Buying up ads could well have been a smart way to stop that.
And I’d notice similar patterns over time. There was a spike in ad spending by various industries when they were at the center of debate.
There were a ton of ads for insurance, HMO and related companies during the 1993 healthcare coverage debate. I recall that some of them were nonsensical. One company featured old black and white slapstick comedy bits, not clearly selling a product. Indeed, this phenomenon might explain why some ads seem so weird to people. The ad isn’t the point. It’s not supposed to convince you to do or think anything. The ad may simply be a mechanism for companies in a given industry to pay off media outlets to influence the content the media company itself produces.
Similarly, there was a spike in ads for financial companies during financial "reform" debate post-2008 crash. I doubt that those ads were to get people to do business with a given financial company. They were a way — in plain sight — for financial companies to effectively bribe media companies, especially “news” media companies, to help ensure more favorable coverage.
And there was a spike for dot-com companies at the height of the tech bubble.
Many have noted that advertisers might influence news coverage at times. I’m going one step beyond that. I’m saying there are times when that might well be the point of the ads.
In the aftermath of the Occupy Wall Street movement, there was a slew of ads on Colbert’s show from Bank of America. Was Bank of America trying to woo customers? Or were they trying to ensure that Colbert’s show didn’t mock them?
In 2018, I heard an "underwriting announcement" for Amazon web services on NPR/WAMU during "Morning Edition." I'd never heard this before. It struck me as interesting timing since there was some reporting around the same time around Amazon being involved with Pentagon boondoggles and it was also making a push for public subsidies for its HQ2.
Indeed, the goal of advertising is often thought to be “to reach people most likely to be willing to pay for a company’s products or services and entice them to buy.”
So sometimes this kind of thing should be obvious when news shows carry ads from companies that are not selling consumer products. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Sunday morning news shows which have a history of having ads from companies like ADM, which clearly seek to influence policymakers and news coverage regarding subsidizing ethanol and other agribusiness interests.
And even more obviously, there are the weapons makers like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics. No member of the public buys an F-15, but the weapons makers have a serious interest in ensuring that the public is not informed about corruption and worse associated with the military industrial complex.
So, what you likely have is a corporate advertising complex.
This can be seen as an outgrowth of the Propaganda Model put forward by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, with its various filters, including advertising. As summarized by Herman biographer Wade Frazier:
Herman and Chomsky wrote that the Liberal chancellor of the British Exchequer, Sir George Lewis, in the mid-19th century observed that market forces would marginalize dissident opinion by promoting those newspapers “enjoying the preference of the advertising public.” The authors noted that, indeed, the pressure of advertising weakened the working-class press, and that the subsidy of advertising and the affluent audiences that they target, as well as the “downscale” audience that is also attracted, gives media that cater to affluent audiences an economic edge that marginalizes and drives out media that don’t attract or rely on such advertising revenue.
How to test this hypothesis that ads are sometimes not about selling a product but about influencing the content produced by the media outlet? Perhaps figure out what industries advertise when — if they advertise when they are under the policy gun or under some sort of public scrutiny — that might bear out this hypothesis. This is a PhD thesis waiting to happen.
I asked Herman about this years ago and he responded: “Very hard to measure, but one possible line of attack: the correlation of ad outlays with lobbying outlays, especially in periods when legislation threatens (or is desired). A tough empirical challenge but possible.”
This may also be a special application of Thomas Ferguson’s Investment Theory of Politics, which he generally applies to political parties getting funding from various sectors and thus reflecting their interests, but it could well apply to major media outlets. Viewed thus, Big Media acts in significant part as a consortium of other corporate interests.
I remember years ago seeing an interview with an old women’s magazine executive who recounted how tobacco companies would stipulate limits on what could appear within ten pages of a tobacco ad. So, if they had enough tobacco ads, they could ensure no such material they might deem offensive would appear in the magazine at all.
Examining the case of tobacco might be a good way to test this hypothesis since, in 1970, President Richard Nixon signed legislation banning cigarette ads on television and radio. Interestingly, tobacco companies were reportedly the single largest product advertisers on television in 1969.
In his description of the Propaganda Model and tobacco, Frazier notes:
The conflicts of interest with advertisers could reach extreme levels. For a generation, the Journal of the American Medical Association (“JAMA”) ran tobacco ads. It only stopped running them in 1954 when drug companies that advertised in JAMA, as well as physicians, complained. Drug ads appeared next to cigarette ads in JAMA’s pages, those cigarette ads featured doctors' promotion of various brands, and the ads often made health claims that made cigarettes appear to be wonder drugs. It made the drug ads look bad.
Thus, in our corrupt system, “progress” may only come when industries clash — guided by the government. This raises the question of whether the wider government targeting of tobacco might have been motivated by the coming rise of Big Pharma. Tobacco bad. Pharma good. Nicotine bad. Every other drug good. Demonizing tobacco makes the system seem benevolent, more effective and opens the door to a much greater level of manipulation.
Indeed, in 1985, the FDA rescinded the moratorium on direct-to-consumer advertising by drug companies — and they would increase dramatically in the years since. In 2019, an attempt by the Trump administration to force drug companies to at least disclose the list price of their drugs in television ads was struck down by federal judge Amit P. Mehta.
Sometimes money is just given to media companies, no ads are needed. Tim Schwab has noted the massive “philanthropic” “donations” to various media companies by Bill Gates. This has almost certainly had a massive impact on coverage of the pandemic and other issues that Gates has a stake in. And this goes for Big Tech as well — I remember a flood of ads from Gates on Big Tech platforms during critical times during the pandemic.
I spent a summer in Canada years ago and was amazed how few ads there were, I mean they would play the same half dozen ads over and over. I recall one ad being played twice during the same break. Partly, it's a smaller country, but I think it was because there were fewer sectors trying to bribe the media for policy reasons, so you didn't have health insurance companies, drug companies, the army, etc., doing pseudo-ads. Or at least I didn’t see that. All I recalled were ads for consumer products, like food — and for casinos. Actually, this might be another way to test the hypothesis, contrast ads in different countries.
All this is one reason that much media criticism doesn’t really hold up. Media are not as “ratings obsessed” as is often claimed. Lots of people would have been interested in information regarding likely lab origins of the pandemic in early 2020, and hopefully still today. But virtually no media outlet would do serious work on it then.
Tucker Carlson, who did some on those issues, got the biggest ratings in cable news, but he was cancelled. Though Carlson might have been an extreme case since the ADL and other groups worked to get advertisers to pull their support.
Still, I suspect the biggest “problem” with Carlson was likely his criticism of the establishment narrative regarding Ukraine and the pandemic. From the moment he left, I suspected Carlson was likely to end up at Rumble or such and that seems more likely by the day. Even this may end up being functional for the establishment in that his limited critique becomes seen as the “rebel” position while deeper critiques remain marginalized and shadow-banned.
Nor is “news-as-entertainment” the central problem — you could have exceedingly entertaining media content that would inform the public about important issues of the day that would scrutinize and rightfully ridicule the rich, corrupt and powerful.
But such content would be far more likely to be squashed by Big Tech colluding with government than effectively bankrolled by much of the corporate sector. The notion that it could be otherwise is absurd, which is why new media structures with new financial relationships need to be created and built upon.