Friday, June 25, 2004

Resisting The Monolith

As reported in today's New York Times, a federal appeals court based in Philadelphia handed down a decision that somewhat dealt a blow to the Federal Communication Commission's recently adopted rules for easing media ownership laws.

The new rules, which have the support of the Bush administration, were passed in June 2003 along party lines within the Commission with Republican commissioners, including Chairman Michael Powell the son of Colin Powell, in favor of the changes and Democratic commissioners opposed.

The controversial new rules would "have lifted a restriction on a company's owning both a newspaper and television or radio station in the same market. In the largest cities, the rules would have allowed companies to own as many as three television stations, eight radio stations and a cable operator, as well as a newspaper. And they allowed the largest television networks to buy more affiliated stations, although Congress rolled back that provision this year."

The court's decision held that since the FCC had not used proper methodology to determine the new ownership rules, and that it had a duty to do so in a manner that was not "arbitrary and capricious," it must develop a fairer method of analysis on which to base its rule changes.

"As an example of what the court deemed was a flawed analysis of the formula used by the commission, called a diversity index, the court said the index had concluded that in New York City, the Dutchess County Community College television station was accorded the same market share as the ABC station. The Dutchess station was also given greater weight than the combined share of The New York Times and a radio station, WQXR, that it acquired before the rule banning newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership took effect in 1975. The court also criticized the commission for giving too much weight to the Internet as an alternative source of local news."

While the decision did not say that the FCC couldn't ease ownership rules, implementing a more scientifically objective means of analysis will be time consuming, and it is likely that Powell's term will run out before such studies are concluded which makes it possible that this version of the rules change will die in committee so to speak.

Although temporary, this is a huge victory for the forces seeking to preserve a fair, vigorous and ethically responsible press in this country. I cannot overstate the importance of this issue in relation to the healthy functioning of democracy. The problem with media convergence, or consolidation, is that it limits the outlets for opinion, criticism and the dissemination of facts and ideas. A democracy is better served by a robust marketplace of ideas, where no one faction can influence the availability of knowledge. The potential for abuse is too high if we limit the major media outlets to a small handful of inter-related companies, and such abuse puts the very foundations of our republic in jeopardy.

Consider, as an example, the decision a few months back by Sinclair Media not to air the episode of Nightline during which Ted Koppel read the names of the 721 U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq up to that point. Sinclair was able to keep the program off the air on 8 of its stations for purely political reasons. Imagine if companies like Sinclair are able to own even more stations, and thus impose its editorial will on even more of the country. Imagine the repercussions if that problem is magnified in size and scope so that the major means of media dissemination are controlled by three or four corporations. A decision by any one of them would greatly impact the flow of ideas and jeopardize the crucial role of the media as another check on governmental power.

Furthermore, media coverage in the run-up to the war has recently been exposed as one-sided and dangerously monolithic, as was evidenced by several media sources acknowledging their transgressions with public apologies, and that was in the context of the media ownership rules as they stand without the changes proposed by Powell and the FCC. Such a major dereliction of responsibility on the part of the fourth branch of government would only be worse with fewer outlets and voices since the chances for dissent would be greatly diminished.

Consider also some of the tactics for dealing with the media employed by the current administration. They have brough secrecy to a new level, with unprecedented denials of access and restrictions of press conferences. The party line for the Bush administration has been that information on the activity of government is not for public consumption. One need not look much farther than Cheney's secret energy task force, but other examples abound.

In addition, they have been extremely successful at using the carrot and stick approach of "access to the White House" in order to browbeat many journalists into maintaining a less than critical tone in their coverage. It boils down to the threat that if you write a negative story, you won't get the same access as your less critical colleagues. In a profession where access and the scoop are everything, the intimidation has succeeded. Both of these problems would be greatly exacerbated in an environment where there are fewer voices to challenge them, and fewer outlets to intimidate. It would be easier to get two voices in lock-step than two hundred.

It is not only the left that is concerned with media consolidation. Many factions on the right feel equally threatened by the potential homogeneity of ideas. For these groups, local control of media outlets that reflect their values and beliefs is an important aspect of their citizenship and prerogatives.

Even though the Internet and other technological advancements increase the flow of ideas, it is a mistake to think that this provides adequate diversity of opinion and dissemination since in many respects the Internet serves as a high speed echo chamber of popularly broadcast news items, not necessarily a point of origin itself. Furthermore, much of the information on the Internet comes from established brick and mortar news establishments like newspapers (NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, etc.) and television news programs (,,, etc.) which are susceptible to the effects of consolidation.

I discussed, briefly, in an earlier post how Bill Moyers presented these arguments in a much more eloquent way than me, and I strongly recommend reading it to fully appreciate the magnitude of the problem.

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