TechKnowledge No. 79

Media Ownership Madness and the Third Person Effect Hypothesis

By Adam D. Thierer
April 20, 2004

In the debate over media ownership regulation, it has become evident that fanaticism has trumped the facts and emotionalism has won out over empirical evidence. The hyperbolic rhetoric, shameless fear-mongering, and unsubstantiated claims that have thus far driven the absurd backlash to media liberalization have absolutely no foundation in reality whatsoever. But that hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from spinning outlandish Chicken Little tales about a world in which they didn’t control the media.

For example, in what was apparently supposed to be a humorous gesture, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) proposed an amendment during a recent hearing that would have classified the FCC’s new media ownership rules as “indecent” and required Commissioners who support them to watch the movie Citizen Kane over and over again “until they flinch at the word ‘Rosebud’.” Similarly, Broadcasting & Cable magazine reported that during the debate on the House floor last summer over an amendment that would have overturned elements of the new FCC rules, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said the FCC’s tweaking of the rules was an attempt to impose a centralized “Saddam-style information system in the United States.” And Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) argued that “people with pitchforks and torches” would be protesting outside the Capitol if the amendment was defeated. There was also a reference by one lawmaker to Soviet Union-esque control of media. Finally, in recently proposing legislation to strengthen media controls and reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) argued that deregulation amounted to “mind control” by Republicans who were trying to “dumb down” the public. “It’s a well thought out and planned effort to control the political process,” he argued and, “It will wipe out our democracy.”

Get a Grip. Saddam-style information system? Mind control? The end of democracy? What planet are these lawmakers living on? Such puppet-master theories of media manipulation might have resonated more when William Randolph Hearst walked this Earth, but by what standard or measure can anyone possibly argue we are worse off today than we were in the past? Here are the facts: We have more radio and television stations than ever before, and more programs and formats being produced for them. We have cable and satellite media distribution mechanisms and hundreds of channels that fill almost any conceivable programming niche, none of which were available a quarter century ago. We have more magazines and magazine formats than at any time in history. The same goes for movies and music. We also have an interactive video game marketplace that is now growing three times faster than the motion picture industry. And then we have the Internet and the seemingly unstoppable flow of new websites, news groups, blogs, and other interactive services. In sum, far from living in a world of information scarcity, we now live in a world of information overload.

To consider just how much our modern media marketplace has evolved in recent years, ask yourself this question: If you couldn’t get to sleep one night because you were itching to know the result of an important election or a World Cup soccer game that was taking place half way around the world, what could you do about it? Twenty years ago, you would have had to wait until the next day to get the local paper and see if it contained the results, or hope that Walter Cronkite or his two competitors would squeeze a 15-second spot in their half-hour newscast about it, or go down to the library to track that information down perhaps a few days later. Today, by contrast, there’s a fairly good chance you could get that information while still in your pajamas by turning on a 24-hour news channel or download that information from a website on the Internet.

The Psychology of Media Madness. Amazingly, when confronted with such facts, the critics of media decontrol dismiss all these new choices as either irrelevant or unreliable. Whether discussing news or entertainment, the strange bedfellows who oppose liberalization all claim that media is too homogeneous for their tastes, or all controlled by the same corporate masters, so much so that these new choices essentially offer us no new real choices at all. Liberals argue that we’re all the victims of rampant right-wing bias in media, and cite conservative talk radio show host Rush Limbaugh or the Fox News Channel as evidence. Meanwhile, conservatives continue to repeat the “liberal media” mantra they have been robotically chanting for decades. As Slate editor Jack Shafer aptly concludes of this schizophrenia, “Whenever conservatives talk to liberals about press bias-or vice versa-they talk right past one another. Both factions seem to work backward from their conclusions to the evidence and damn what the other side says.” Indeed, if both sides dispassionately reviewed the evidence they’d realize they are both correct because there’s more of every viewpoint to be seen and heard today. But that doesn’t stop them from claiming we’re all victims of mind control efforts by their ideological opponents.

What’s going on here? Simply stated, critics sometimes only seem to see and hear in media what they want to see and hear. If they encounter viewpoints at odds with their own, they grow concerned about the impact of those programs on other citizens and come to believe that government must “do something ” to counter it. Consequently, many people invite media regulation because they think it will be good for others, not necessarily themselves. Psychologists label this phenomenon “third person effect” and it provides a powerful explanation for what drives much of the fanaticism behind the recent media backlash, whether it’s the ownership issue or censorship. First formulated by W. Phillips Davison in a seminal 1983 article, the hypothesis predicts “that people will tend to overestimate the influence that mass communications have on the attitudes and behavior of others” relative to themselves. He continues:

“One possible explanation for the fact that people on both sides of an issue can see the media as biased against their own point of view is that each observer assumes a disproportionate effect will be achieved by arguments or facts supporting the ‘wrong’ side of the issue. Others (the third persons), the observer reasons, will be unduly impressed by these facts or argument; they do not have the information that enables me to form a correct opinion. It is probable that, from the point of view of the partisans, balanced media presentation would require a sharp tilt toward the ‘correct’ side of the issue. This would compensate for the intellectual frailty of third persons and would, according to the partisan, ensure that the media achieved a truly balanced presentation. But, if the third-person effect hypothesis is correct, why are not the facts and arguments on the ‘correct’ sides as well as the ‘wrong’ side seen as having a disproportionate effect on others?” [emphasis added]

In other words, to correct what they believe is the overt bias of the media, critics would want to see more overt bias in their own direction. But which direction is that? And, if the scales were somehow tilted in one direction or the other by the government, the First Amendment would be betrayed. Whether it’s overt or indirect, it’s still government censorship. But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from taking steps to tighten their control over media. As the next TechKnowledge installment will report, Rep. Hinchey’s new bill, H.R. 4069, “The Media Ownership Reform Act,” is the latest and most extreme effort to date to accomplish the goal of greater government control over the structure and content of media in America.

Adam Thierer (athierer [at] cato [dot] org) is the director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. To subscribe, or see a list of all previous TechKnowledge articles, visit www.cato.org/tech/tk-index.html.