The War Between Civil Beat and Star-Advertiser on the Con-Con Referendum
by J.H. Snider, Ph.D., Hawaiʻi State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse
Thank god that Hawaii has at least some newspaper competition. Case in point is the current debate over whether Hawaii on Nov. 6 should call a constitutional convention. You’d think that Hawaii’s two leading newspapers, the Honolulu Civil Beat and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser live in different universes.
Civil Beat v. Star-Advertiser
Civil Beat ran eight editorials over a ten-month period favoring a yes vote, while the Star-Advertiser ran one—just one day before early voting on the referendum was to begin.
Civil Beat ran 15 news articles, including ad watches, over the same ten-month period, while the Star-Advertiser ran two news articles during the last two months and no ad watches.
Civil Beat conducted three scientific polls over the same ten-month period covering both the convention and potentially popular convention agenda items such as term limits and the initiative. The Star-Advertiser conducted none.
Civil Beat, a nonprofit, doesn’t publish ads whereas the Star-Advertiser, which earns most of its revenue from ads, ran six convention related ads—all in opposition—beginning on October 14, 2018.
Despite Civil Beat’s strong support for a convention, it ran numerous op-eds both for and against calling a convention. In contrast, the last supportive op-ed the Star-Advertiser published was mine on June 14, 2018—more than four months ago. It has since refused to publish any more supportive op-eds. Between September 30 and October 26, it ran five opposition op-eds along with its own opposition editorial. The first two were published on Sundays, which have the greatest readership.
In the Sunday edition on October 14, 2018—eight days before early voting began—it ran a reader poll on the convention question the same day as three large no opposition ads and an op-ed that echoed the messages of those ads. It was an extraordinary opposition blitz, encompassing the trifecta of the Star-Advertiser’s news, ad, and editorial pages.
The Star-Advertiser has provided no fact-checking news analysis of the numerous and expensive ads opposing a convention run in its own pages starting on October 14. Only opposition ads would have to be fact checked given that, as of October 26, there had been no ads supporting a convention in any mass media in Hawaii.
Given its much greater size in comparison to Civil Beat, the paucity of the Star-Advertiser’s news coverage of the convention referendum is striking. In contrast, the Star-Advertiser’s much greater news coverage of the other constitutional question on the ballot, an amendment to increase property taxes, approximately matched that of Civil Beat’s.
The Star-Advertiser is the 14th largest daily newspaper in the United States ranked by daily circulation. That extraordinary feat of size for the eleventh smallest state in the U.S. ranked by population is due to arguably the highest concentration of media ownership of any state in the U.S. The Star-Advertiser’s parent company, Oahu Publications, has revenue about 20 times that of Civil Beat. Oahu Publications is a subsidiary of Black Press, a privately held company with some 150 newspapers.
Perhaps no other newspaper company in the United States benefits more from the Federal Government’s newspaper anti-trust exemption than Oahu Publications. The exemption was originally granted to preserve First Amendment values (we want to be very careful granting the government the power to regulate newspapers). But in cases of extreme market power, such as Oahu Publications, the exemption may come at a great cost to public deliberation and democracy more generally.
Oahu Publications also benefits from Hawaii State government subsidies and policies that bolster its monopoly power. The most notable subsidy it benefits from are government mandated legal notices, which may constitute more than 10% of its profits. The laws mandating such subsidies do not mandate public transparency and thus accountability. But newspaper companies know the value of these subsidies and fight for them below the public radar like a lion guarding her cubs. Not only does Oahu Publications benefit from such government mandated subsidies, but the laws are written to specifically advantage it over potential competitors in winning such subsidies.
With the development of modern information technology, this type of public notice has become highly inefficient, ineffective, and anti-democratic. It survives because of Oahu Publications’ lobbying prowess over state legislators, who know the famous political maxim that it is never politically wise to “pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton.”
More generally, the structure of Hawaii’s obsolete right-to-know laws benefits local mass media publications such as Oahu Publications at the expense of civil society and democratic participation more generally. For example, any law that relies on the court of public opinion for its practical enforcement (as opposed to, say, proactive online disclosure) is inherently biased to favor established mass media and wealthy special interests at the expense of civil society. There are also many other ways, including informal ways, that government information systems have come to favor the Star-Advertiser at the expense of potential competition, including civil society.
These are among the issues that a Hawaii State constitutional convention could address but that the Star-Advertiser would view as a direct threat to its bottom line. Expecting the Star-Advertiser or the State Legislature to initiate a genuine discussion of such issues has proven politically unrealistic.
From my perspective, much of newspapers’ talk about their public service mission and journalistic ethics amounts to BS. I don’t doubt that many journalists sincerely believe such talk and that such public avowals probably have a salutary influence on their work. But given the crooked timber of humanity, the journalistic safeguard that is most important for a community to have is competition. If you doubt that, just compare Civil Beat’s and the Star-Advertiser’s coverage of Hawaii’s constitutional convention referendum.
J.H. Snider is editor of the The Hawaiʻi State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse and a former fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
LINK: Articles by J H Snider PhD