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Chump Change 

Monty Python, John Cleese and Graham Chapman helped create a movie called The Magic Christian in 1969. It starred Ringo Starr as an orphan adopted by a crazy rich man who proceeds to show him how anyone will willingly do anything if you pay them enough money. It was a silly movie, but I saw it on TV as a kid and it stuck with me.

There are now many rich people and corporations in this country so rich they could pay outrageous sums for just about anything.

In December, Las Vegas casino mogul and big time Republican Party donor Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas News and Review for $140 million. The paper had just been bought seven months before for tens of millions of dollars less. It had also published stories critical of Adelson, and Nevada happens to be the third presidential primary state and one of only 11 swing states — states that could decide a close national election. Republicans will caucus Feb. 23 to pick their nominee.

In media circles, the purchase was a big story, not just because Adelson paid an astronomical sum for the paper, but because he did so in a deal so secret that it took the paper's own reporters a week to figure out who their new boss was.

How worried does this make me? As far as Adelson goes, not very. I read a convincing Time Magazine piece Dec. 18 by freelance writer Steve Friess that laid out all the bad political bets Adelson made in the past. The millions he's spent supporting candidates mostly ended in victories for their opponents. (Expect Time to be bought sometime soon.)

But the potential is out there. The Chinese e-commerce giant Ali Baba just bought the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, leading some to fear that it would put the kibosh on any articles critical of the Chinese government. Amazon chair and founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013.

I used to worry that General Electric owned NBC and Disney owned ABC. Those fears seem quaint now. How many people watch network news anymore? You can say the same about newspapers. The Las Vegas paper has had declining readership for years.

Still, do you know where you get your news? If you get your news from friends, do you know where they get theirs? Do you know where the tweeters you follow get their news? Track the source of the info in your head and it will probably originate with some mainstream news organization.

When I saw the last Democratic presidential debate a few weeks, ago I kept wondering: Why hasn't Martin O'Malley gotten more attention? His positions were no more conservative than Bernie Sanders', and he seemed way more vibrant. Why wasn't the young, anti-Hillary crowd flocking to him? Maybe it had something to do with the mainstream media's lack of interest in his campaign.

If you think that mainstream media no longer has the same power it once did, you don't understand its power. Studies that go back decades have shown that while media may not have the power to change your mind about something, it can effectively get you to think about something. It frames our debates. What doesn't get into the media frame doesn't get talked about. Would Donald Trump be as viable a candidate if there wasn't story after story after story about him?

It is easy to post links to news stories on Facebook. It is more difficult to draft an original post about something more complicated than your take on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Our national social media conversations tend to be responses to stuff we find online. And the stuff we find online tends to be responses to what shows up in the news. And the news is stuff posted by news people and news organizations. Rich people and corporations own these news organizations.

I've been writing this column for 10 years. I chickened out only once and it still bothers me. It was back when local billionaire Rob Arkley owned the short-lived Eureka Reporter, which he founded to compete against the Times-Standard, then owned by Colorado billionaire Dean Singleton. The Times-Standard had chosen not to endorse Arkley's wife in a local election. A reporter at one of the papers told me that the two men not only hated each other, they compulsively emailed each other. I have no idea if that was true. But I imagined the emails. And I thought of doing an entire column of this imaginary back and forth between two fabulously rich and ridiculously petty men.

Then I put into perspective what Arkley could do to me with all his money and I came to the conclusion that he could easily buy up every house within a quarter mile of mine, raze them and turn the land into a pig farm. I decided my little column wasn't worth the stress of thinking about possible reprisals.

That's just me and I'm from Yonkers and people from Yonkers don't shrink from petty battles easily. Imagine on a national level what stories go unreported because some reporter fears annoying his editor who fears irritating the publisher who fears angering the owner?

Then imagine how cheap local news organizations are these days and how much cash some people and corporations have. Google sits on about $65 billion in cash and short-term investments. For some corporations, you have to imagine the numbers because companies like Koch Industries — the holding company owned by the Koch brothers — are privately held.

On a more positive note, there is now a way for young people to make gobs of money in journalism: Start a news publication in some small but politically important town. Then identify the richest person with the most sensitive ego. Go after that person big time and then sell the publication for more money than it is worth.

Then again, that strategy might leave you living next to a pig farm.

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. If you hate this column try offering her enough money to stop writing it.

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About The Author

Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If there's something about the media that confuses you, e-mail her at [email protected].

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