Why Is The ACLU Joining Media Ownership Hysteria?

Cato has long had a strong relationship with the ACLU, an organization that has been on the forefront of efforts to protect civil liberties and constitutional government. But every once in a while, the venerable public interest organization wanders off the reservation and takes a position that’s unrelated to—if not outright at odds with—civil liberties. We saw a good example of this last week when the group threw its weight behind efforts to repeal the FCC’s absurdly timid deregulation of media ownership rules.

The proposal would allow a newspaper in one of the 20 largest cities to purchase a TV or radio station—but not one of the metro area’s four largest TV stations.  None of the FCC’s other media ownership rules would be changed. In other words, a newspaper would be allowed to buy an also-ran TV station in a cacophonous media market like New York or LA, but the vast majority of cities would see no changes at all.

Yet even that is too much for the ACLU, which issued a press release condemning the changes and urging Congress to roll them back. Unfortunately, the ACLU doesn’t appear to have done its homework, claiming that “Six major companies control most of the media in the country, including the most popular sites on the Internet.” Over at Techdirt, I point out how silly this is:

There’s just no way you can argue that these six companies own “the most popular sites on the Internet.” According to Alexa, most of the top 10 sites are owned by Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, all independent companies. Only MySpace, recently acquired by News Corp., is in the top 10. But maybe she meant the top 10 media companies? Well, a good source for the sites most discussed in the blogosphere is the Memeorandum Leaderboard. Three of the top 10 are controlled by the “Big Six”: CNN at #3, the Wall Street Journal at #9 and MSNBC at #10. Four others – the Associated Press, New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic, – are mainstream media outlets not controlled by the “Big Six.” The final three slots are held by the Huffington Post and the Politico (twice), pure Internet publications not owned by the “Big Six.”

Indeed, the whole idea that “six major companies” are gaining monopolistic control over the media marketplace doesn’t make sense. There are, in fact, a ton of independent media companies. In addition to the New York Times and Washington Post companies, there are other big, independent newspaper chains like the Tribune Company (owner of the LA Times and Chicago Tribune) and Gannett (owner of USA Today and numerous other papers). There are foreign outlets like the BBC and the Guardian. There are magazine publishers like Conde Nast, book publishers like Pearson, and music publishers like EMI. The “Big Six” own a lot of media outlets, to be sure, but it’s a big world, and there is no shortage of prominent media outlets that aren’t controlled by these major players. And as media critic Ben Compaine has documented, the media marketplace has barely gotten more concentrated at all in the last couple of decades. For example, between the mid-1980s and the late 1990s, the market share of the top ten media companies increased from 38 percent to just 41 percent. More importantly, there’s been a lot of turnover. The list of top media companies in 1988 would look very different from today’s top ten list. In short, there’s no real problem here.

The ACLU is a key ally in the fight to hold the Bush administration accountable for trampling civil liberties and the rule of law. Given the enormity of that fight, it’s troubling to see them divert scarce resources away from civil liberties—supposedly their raison d’être—to advocate more government regulation of private media outlets.