The issue of media consolidation—the claim that the Big Media are taking over smaller media companies—is back on the front burner. We oppose Big Media just as much as anyone else. But the notion of “media consolidation” in this day and age doesn’t mean very much because it can be easily demonstrated, by pointing to cable news, talk radio, and other information sources, that people have more and more choices.
The current controversy is a follow-up to what happened in 2003, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled 3-2 that companies could expand their ownership of TV stations to reach 45% of the country, rather than the previous 35%, and that cross ownership of TV stations and newspapers could exist. But a federal court threw this decision out, and Congress settled on 39% as the number, a number equal to the percentage of the population reached by stations owned by CBS and Fox. Now the FCC is holding hearings around the country, in advance of tackling these issues again next year.
If a variety of choices is the goal for consumers of news, can anyone really argue that we have fewer choices today than any time in our past? In the 1960’s we had three broadcast networks, each with 15 and then 30 minutes a day of news, including national and international. The only so-called national newspaper, with a national circulation that reached all parts of the country on a daily basis, was the Wall Street Journal.
PBS’s show NOW ran a segment on this controversy on October 6, making the case for greater government regulation. The report showed a hearing where the crowd was overwhelmingly supporting the idea that more government control was needed. “Here’s what has media watchdog groups up in arms,” reported NOW. “They believe the FCC is again working to increase both the number and the types of media outlets that a company can own in any local market. Critics worry some communities could become company towns where the main sources of news and entertainment would be under the control of a single media conglomerate.”
For balance, the story quoted one person at a hearing, calling him a “lone voice” who said “the market should decide who wins and loses,” and it showed the crowd booing him.
Both sides should be examined. One obvious benefit of media consolidation is that larger companies can afford more news bureaus, reporters and better equipment to cover the news.
The assumption has been made that local ownership, as opposed to that of a big corporation, guarantees the quality of news coverage. But that is not necessarily the case. Much of local news coverage is about crime, weather and sports. The decisions about what to cover have to be, by necessity, made at the local level. Having a corporate parent in a different city won’t necessarily change that fact. They may decide to cover more, rather than less, of that kind of news.
The issue as presented by the NOW program is whether or not the federal government should somehow require a certain amount of coverage by local media of city council meetings, local government regulations and taxing procedures. Do proponents of this view really believe the government should tell stations what stories they must cover? An FCC study actually shows that network-owned stations carry significantly more local public affairs and news shows than locally-owned stations. So what will more government intervention do anyway?
Government regulation is viewed by many as the problem in the first place. In fact it was government regulations that kept the cable TV industry from growing until the regulations were changed in the late 1970s, making way for CNN, Turner Broadcasting and C-SPAN.
The so-called Fairness Doctrine was another government intrusion that kept a lid on radio programming during its life, from 1949 to 1987. When that was lifted in 1987, conservative talk radio exploded. The “other side” emerged in the free market.
The Internet became the next tool of liberation for consumers of news. For pennies a day, we can read hundreds, or even thousands of newspapers of all types from all over the world. The past few years have seen a rapid increase in satellite radio and TV, with new programs being added regularly. The point is, there has never been a better time for consumers of news. But for the left and other forces that support government regulation, they can’t stand the fact that conservatives have voices and venues in the media landscape.
However, as we have pointed out in a recent AIM Report, there is a strong desire by liberal Democrats to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. The effort on Capitol Hill is being led by Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter. Of course, she’s doing it to make you better informed.
Roger Aronoff is a media analyst with Accuracy in Media, and is the writer/director of “Confronting Iraq: Conflict and Hope."