Commentary

Bipartisan Congress Works Quickly to Protect Itself from Media

In a remarkable display of bipartisanship and quick action, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on July 23 to approve legislation targeting what many lawmakers consider a grievous threat. Unfortunately, the “grievous threat” is only to lawmakers’ power to manipulate the media and control what the public sees, hears and reads.

The legislation, which passed with a veto-proof majority and now moves to the Senate, is an attempt to strike down one of a series of new rules issued by the Federal Communications Commission as part of a court-ordered relaxation of government control over the media. The new FCC rule would lift current limits and allow media companies to own enough television stations to communicate with 45 percent of the nation’s viewers. Another new rule that Congress is out to overturn would allow companies to own both a newspaper and a broadcast station in a large media market.

The new FCC rules threaten Congress because they would increase the financial resources and manpower that media firms can invest in covering the news — including the shenanigans of politicians — and they would diminish the ability of politicians to shape news coverage. That’s why the FCC drew criticism from such ideologically diverse lawmakers as Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).

Most broadcast news operations operate on shoestring budgets, with only a few reporters and news directors. Newspapers also usually have tight budgets that limit the depth and breadth of their reporting. Federal lawmakers and other politicians like that situation just fine because it limits the media’s ability to conduct in-depth, investigative reporting and news analyses. But if a local newspaper and broadcast station were to work together as part of a media company or if several television stations were to band together as part of a large regional chain, they could pool their resources and provide their audience with more-comprehensive news coverage, including increased scrutiny of politicians.

The graver threat to lawmakers is that new FCC rules would decrease politicians’ ability to bully the press, especially in small and mid-sized media markets. As many journalists can attest, media companies must be careful about how heavily they scrutinize or criticize a politician for fear the politician will cut off the flow of information from his or her office and deny requests for essential interviews. Many journalists will thus report the news in a limited, narrow way that is viewed favorably by the politicians. The reporters may also fall into covering stories “suggested” by politicians’ press officers even though the stories are not newsworthy.

Expanded and more diversified media companies could better stand up to politicians — and meet their responsibilities to the reading and viewing public. A company that owns a newspaper and broadcast station in a mid-sized market could cover a congressman far more aggressively (and honestly), and the congressman could not blacklist the company for fear of losing contact with voters in that media market. Likewise, a chain of television stations that has a combined potential audience of nearly half the nation would be large enough to stand up to the most powerful U.S. senator.

Large, diversified media corporations could more intensely scrutinize members of Congress, and could also provide more penetrating coverage of powerful special interest groups. Thus, it’s not surprising that some of the strongest supporters of Congress’ efforts to overturn the FCC rules are special interest groups that bristle at media scrutiny, including the National Rifle Association, the National Organization of Women and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Americans have long been calling for members of Congress to work together to advance important legislation. It’s too bad that last week’s display of bipartisanship was only intended to protect lawmakers and special interests.

Thomas A. Firey is managing editor of Regulation magazine, a publication of the Cato Institute.