A Stealth Attack on Freedom of the Press
Fourth, the FCC should not share the presumption, common to the media corporations, that whatever is most lucrative for them is also best for the American people. On the contrary: The commission ought to honor the ideals of our democracy by holding the presumption that our media should not be centralized by any sort of concentrated ownership, whether governmental or commercial. As the commissioners know, this nation was founded on--and, indeed, enabled by--the principle that centralized control over the press is incompatible with genuine self-government. The Founders understood the crucial democratic value of a press system that would give the people more than just a choice of different items penned by others, but a daily chance to speak up for themselves. A huge cartel that deals in very similar journalistic "product"--and one dominated not by citizens but by transnational corporations--was surely not what Jefferson or Adams had in mind.
Fifth, to put this another way, unless there is overwhelming evidence that letting media firms own still more media will somehow raise the quality of broadcast news and entertainment, the FCC should at least maintain the regulatory status quo--or even consider further tightening the rules. The fact that further concentration poses no immediate threat to the Republic does not justify the relaxation of the current rules. The historical record offers ample evidence that we cannot foresee the full effects of such a move, and so caution here is well advised. Trying to restore such regulations once they have been lifted would be near-impossible, so powerful are the media lobbies.
Sixth, one need only look at the current state of radio to see what's likely to ensue should the regulations be relaxed. The 1996 Telecommunications Act deregulated radio broadcasting so that any single firm could thenceforth own as many stations as it wished. (Previously the national cap had been twenty-eight.) The consequence: Over the past six years, the nation's radio stations have been gobbled up by just a handful of colossal firms, like Clear Channel and Viacom, that each own hundreds of stations--and up to eight in certain of the cities where they operate. These behemoths use their market power to standardize their fare, lower the amount of local programming (which now appears to cost too much) and jack up the amount of advertisements and overall commercialism. Small stations, unable to compete, sell out, and listeners pay the price. (Drive across the country with your car radio on, and you will hear the same thing playing everywhere.) It may be good for Wall Street and the pricey lobbyists inside the beltway, but on Main Street it means mostly trash and boredom.
Seventh, the claims of the media giants should be taken with a giant grain of salt. All their arguments are mere fig leaves, posed to hide their naked self-concern. For example, the giants claim that deregulation will spur competition, lower prices and better service. If there were any truth to that proposition, those corporations and their lobbyists would not be pushing for it. The truth is that such deregulation will permit those firms to get so much larger that they will have less fear of real competition and all the more ability to commercialize their content for the sake of greater profit. This truth is well-known in the business community, whose members categorically dismiss the cant that these firms feed the FCC in their pursuit of more deregulation.
Eighth, the media giants also claim that the emergence of the Internet moots all social, aesthetic, political and cultural concerns about increasing media concentration. After all, the argument goes, what does it matter if a few companies have massive empires when there are millions of websites operating at minimal cost competing for our attention? The problem with this argument is that the market-driven Internet has not given rise to a new generation of commercially viable media content providers. Capitalism trumps technology. It is now clear that for the Internet to provide a well-funded alternative to corporate media fare, it will require explicit policies to enable that development. And it is also clear that if the media corporations are allowed to get larger than they are already, they will be even better positioned to maintain their dominance in the digital era and to snuff out any potential challenger in its digital infancy.
Ninth, there are some--even among those who are critical of the US media system--who believe that such concerns as ours are overblown. After all, they say, media content was no better decades ago, when there was greater competition. Or, they might argue, the much-romanticized small commercial media frequently provide worse fare than what the media giants offer us. These comments are beside the point. Certainly, the concentration of the media is not the only factor that affects the conduct of the press or the quality of entertainment. Even more competitive markets in broadcasting have flaws, due to the obsessive pursuit of profit and, in particular, the reliance upon advertising as a major source of funding.
To a great extent, commercialism per se is the problem, for while the commercial media have given us some excellent material over time, there are some kinds of work--dramatic, comedic, journalistic--that they are disinclined to invest in. Moreover, the media giants' overemphasis on a few large demographic blocs has neglected many other, smaller audiences, and has contributed immensely to the dumbing down of both news and entertainment. For these reasons, we need, as a crucial complement to the commercial media, a broad range of independent, nonprofit and noncommercial outlets. Such a new resource would certainly enrich our culture and society--and so would a more competitive commercial sphere. While concentration at the top is surely not the only factor that affects the media's performance, the fact is that in nearly every instance, the overall effect of such consolidation has been negative, both for the media's workers and the audience.
Tenth, the champions of further ownership deregulation do make two noteworthy points: First, the emergence of digital technologies, which undermine the distinctions among media, has made traditional regulations obsolete. Second, it is indeed unfair that some media companies and industries cannot compete on equal terms with firms that have had the good fortune to perform in the less-regulated media sectors. The solution to this problem is, however, not to abandon media ownership regulations entirely, but to revise them to take the new technologies into consideration, and then to generate new rules that apply across all media. Such regulations can never be generated in the forums currently provided by the FCC, where high-roller lobbyists make their case behind closed doors, without participation by, or awareness of, the public.
To conclude, the FCC should not now relax the media ownership regulations to permit greater media concentration. Any hearings into the alteration of these rules should be moved well outside the beltway, with numerous public forums established for broad-based citizen participation. The commission should be openly--and proudly--biased toward media multiplicity and not further concentration, which now poses a considerable threat to our democracy.