Take This Media...Please!
Nicholas Johnson, an FCC commissioner from 1966 to 1973, now teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law in Iowa City.
Some thirty-five years ago ITT's attempted takeover of ABC provided my baptism into the sea of media-concentration issues. That case, including my lengthy dissents to the FCC's approval, continued through my first year as FCC commissioner. An expanded discussion for The Atlantic Monthly, "The Media Barons and the Public Interest," became a centerpiece of my book How to Talk Back to Your Television Set.
Where I live the Big Ten is an athletic conference. The Nation's "Big Ten" chart depicts far more serious stuff. What seemed evil and outrageous in the late 1960s now looks like America's Golden Age of media diversity. Media concentration is a dagger in America's heart--the First Amendment. There are at least four consequences:
First, there are fewer owners of dominant media. Fewer cities with meaningful competition. Fewer owners within each medium. Owners have ultimate control over content. So there's potentially, and actually, less diversity of information and opinion.
Second, profit pressures produce a dumbing down of journalism. News junkies must turn to the Internet, foreign press and BBC. Product placement and program-length TV commercials used to violate FCC rules. No longer. We have twenty-four-hour shopping channels. The media choose content not to educate or inform but to pander to the consumers advertisers most desire.
Third, multimedia conglomerates are a publicist's dream. Global hype of manufactured blockbusters and superstars can, and does, replace diversity, quality and new talent. A single conglomerate can orchestrate subsidiaries from magazines to books, screenwriters, film studios, movie theaters, print and broadcast critics, television networks, videotape production and rental, new TV series, cable systems and program originators.
Finally, the Supreme Court considers such conglomerates the First Amendment equivalent of a soapbox orator or tract writer 200 years ago. The only Americans with meaningful First Amendment rights today are those who own the media; The Nation's "Big Ten."
Editors and journalists don't have First Amendment rights. Freelance writers sure don't. Unless you have billions in spare pocket change and buy one of the Big Ten for yourself, you're out of the game. Silenced.
The Court says with a First Amendment right to speak goes the right to censor all others. It's OK to own the only conduit in town and also censor its content.
Think about that for a moment--and then take another look at The Nation's chart.