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When legendary media critic A.J. Liebling issued that warning some decades ago about the corrosive effect of media monopolies on the First Amendment, media ownership was a great deal more varied than it is today.
Even then, it was far more concentrated in a few hands than when the Bill of Rights was written, when "the press" was a low-capital venture, and newspapers were easily launched by those who had something to say. The founding fathers hardly anticipated today's media market, in which journalism is a vehicle for mega-corporate profits, and the diversity of opinion implied in the First Amendment is threatened less by a king or the state and far more by the motives of media barons.
Nowadays, media mega-mergers are the rage, and the Bush Administration is determined to remove legal barriers to media conglomeration that long have prevented a few giant corporations from controlling all of print and broadcast journalism. But can we count on the very news organizations whose owners are zealously pursuing profit from those mergers to also objectively cover the implications of media concentration for a free society?
The initial signs aren't promising. When America Online purchased Time Warner in the biggest media merger in US history, there was considerable analysis of the deal's business aspects but meager attention to implications for a representative democracy of having a significant portion of its media controlled by one corporation.
Previously, one could assume that Time magazine, AOL and CNN, as well as other parts of the new conglomerate, at least reflected the voices of different owners, but that's no longer the case. Also, with that merger, AOL went from being an outsider company demanding open access to cable to being the second-largest cable operator. Suddenly it muted its open access demand, leaving the perception that the news outlets now assembled under the AOL banner might also have had a change of heart as to what's important in the cable controversy.
Most recently, the new Bush FCC appointees relaxed a long-standing "dual network rule" barring one television network from buying another. The result is that Viacom, which owns CBS, will have a large stake in the UPN network. Will other broadcasters anticipating similar deals permit their news organizations to voice dissenting opinions, or launch investigations of the FCC's abandonment of its consumer watchdog role?
Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch has made clear his intention to purchase DirecTV from General Motors. If he succeeds, he'll combine the largest US satellite broadcaster with his existing satellite network, which is pervasive in much of the rest of the world. Will journalists laboring in his vast empire dare raise troubling questions about the danger of one man holding such overwhelming power in the world communications market?
Further, Bush's new FCC chairman, Michael Powell, promises to eliminate the 1975 prohibition against cross-ownership--a company owning a TV station and newspaper in the same market. That might prove immensely profitable to the Tribune Co., which, in purchasing the Times Mirror Co. last year, acquired newspapers in three markets where Tribune already owned television stations. But is cross-ownership healthy for independent journalism in those markets, which include New York and Los Angeles? Will the news outlets that are subsidiaries in the deal fully examine the journalistic implications of media concentration? Or will they only report on the wonders of what the owners celebrate as "convergence" or "synergy"?
The answer suggested by the last election is that media have difficulty covering themselves fully when the owners' financial interests are seriously in play. How else can one explain the scant attention paid to the difference between Al Gore--who opposed cross-ownership--and George W. Bush on this issue?
Also ignored in the coverage was the stake that media moguls had in the Democrats not gaining control of Congress. Had that happened, John Dingell (D-Mich.) would be chairing the House Commerce Committee, which oversees the work of the FCC. Dingell was on record as opposing the Tribune purchase of Times Mirror because such mergers lead to a "huge concentration of power in a small group of hands."
That's why Dingell and others believe that government regulation to preserve a diverse media market is essential. The rules concerning media ownership were not carelessly drawn up over the preceding decades to inconvenience the media industry. Rather, they were designed to save the media business from its worst instincts.
Regulation is a reminder that there is a public interest in the news media as in no other industry because corporate concentration threatens the competition vital to an unfettered press. The free press belongs to us all and not just to the few who own one.