Take This Media...Please!
James Fallows, the national correspondent of The Atlantic Monthly, published Breaking the News in 1996.
As a concept, pure free-marketism reached a high-water mark in January 1995. That was when the new Republican majority assumed control of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich was elected its Speaker and the technology-and-finance boom got under way in earnest.
The financial boom chugged ahead for several more years, but the romance of laissez-faire began to run into complications. The international version of this theory--"unregulated markets and increased global trade will bring democracy and harmony"--didn't fit realities in Eastern Europe, in Southeast Asia, at World Trade Organization meetings or in much of the Islamic world. The domestic-policy version--"Let's forget about regulations and safety nets, since the new economy has eliminated the business cycle"--has had its own problems: the NASDAQ collapse, the California energy disaster and the Enron shell-game, the sudden rise in unemployment and the dramatic shift of the federal budget from surplus to deficit. Newt Gingrich was gone as the symbol of the Republicans four years after his rise to glory, replaced by a man who at least campaigned as a "compassionate" conservative. And these past few months, no politician has pushed the atomized, Ayn Rand-style vision of ideal social life.
What is left, as a kind of geologic artifact of that bygone era, is the radical free-marketism of policy toward the media. Until the 1990s, the idea had been that news organizations in particular, and the communications business in general, were logically similar to transportation, higher education and medical care. In fields like these, private enterprises did most of the work, often as profit-making businesses. But the broad social effects of such businesses were so great that the standards and service were not left wholly to the market. An airline couldn't decide to fly defective planes for lower fares and let the market reveal its risk preference. (As it turned out, airlines did lowball their security-screener contracts, which illustrates the point.)
The Nation's chart shows the result of letting the communications business operate strictly as a business. With the end of limits on concentration and chain ownership, the media biz has sorted out into a few big conglomerates, as has happened in the automobile and apparel industries. The Gap is allied with Old Navy and Banana Republic; similarly, CNN touts stories from Time publications, with links on the AOL home page. The idea of the mid-1990s has been discredited; its effects live on.
Nancy Kranich is the immediate past president of the American Library Association and was formerly associate dean of libraries at New York University.
Within hours of the terrorist attacks on September 11, people rushed to libraries and cleared the shelves of materials about the Taliban, Islam, Afghanistan and terrorism. The most obscure books on these topics had close to 100 holds pending at just one small branch library in downtown Manhattan. Most remarkable, few of these titles were produced by any of the Big Ten media corporations. In fact, most were published by university presses, the federal government or small independents. During such a crisis, the public sought background materials, not bestsellers, to foster understanding and cope with this horrific event by leaning on a trustworthy, reliable source--the library.
Democracy needs not only an abundance but also a diversity of information to thrive, particularly when facing economic and security crises. Public discourse during this time of trial depends upon sources outside the mainstream--sources unlikely to return the level of profit needed to satisfy the mass-market strategies of multinational conglomerates.
The Nation's 2001 "Big Ten" chart dramatizes the extent of media consolidation and conglomeration, but it does not depict all the ways in which the public is denied access to information essential to global understanding, economic well-being and participation in democratic processes. Organizations supporting the production of specialized information--organizations like libraries--are among the first cut in an economic downturn. When library budgets get slashed, small media companies suffer most. Without the market created by libraries, these independent and scholarly producers face downsizing or even extinction.
The spiral of declining library budgets and disappearing small-media producers carries with it more than the loss of esoteric titles. Democracy itself suffers. The debates yet to come--on the Taliban, on Afghanistan, on terrorism and on any new order to emerge--will thrive or founder on the quality of the ideas brought into the arena. As fewer conglomerates dominate the mainstream media market, we cannot assume that libraries will be able to continue offering alternatives. Robust public debate depends upon the survival and symbiosis of libraries with small-media producers. Without the ideas from these sources, public discourse will languish in conventionality and ignorance.