The Media Ownership Debate: Who Are the Real Media Masters?

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Despite the First Amendment prohibition on restricting privatespeech, arbitrary caps and quotas have long governed how manynewspapers and radio and TV stations a given company can own. OnJune 2, the Federal Communications Commission slightly loosenedthose restrictions, unleashing hysteria from opponents who believeour thoughts are being programmed by a handful of media barons. Butsuch conspiratorial "puppet-master" theories of media manipulationare misplaced. The real media masters in America are the viewersand listeners who demand and receive an ever-broadening array ofinformation and entertainment choices.

Despite claims about the death of diversity, localism, anddemocracy, what proponents of ownership rules really advocate istheir own version of media control and, ultimately, control ofcontent and information. One cannot claim to support democracy andchoice and simultaneously support centralized governmental controlof the size or nature of private media outlets. Moreover,information is not "monopolizable" in a free society, wheregovernment does not practice censorship, and thus there is no suchthing as a "media monopoly" unanswerable to the rest of society andthe economy potentially arrayed against it. Government's energy isbest directed at its own regulatory policies that artificiallygenerate scarcity of bandwidth and spectrum, which can and do standin the way of new voices.

Misplaced Fears of Media Monopoly. Consideringthe dismal state of media competition and diversity just 20 to 30years ago, today's world is characterized by information abundance,not scarcity. Today the media are far less concentrated and morecompetitive than 30 years ago. Consider two families, living in1973 versus 2003, and their available media and entertainmentoptions. The 1973 family could flip through three major networktelevision stations or tune in to a PBS station or a UHF channel ortwo. By comparison, today's families can take advantage of a500-plus channel universe of cable and satellite-delivered options,order movies on demand, and check out a variety of specializednews, sports, or entertainment programming-in addition to thosesame three networks.

Today's family also has far more to choose from on the radio.Seven thousand stations existed in 1970 nationwide. Today more than13,000 stations exist and subscription-based music services aredelivered uninterrupted nationwide via digital satellite. And then,of course, there's the Internet and the cornucopia ofcommunications, information, and entertainment services the Weboffers. Today, the Internet gives every man, woman, and child theability to be a one-person publishing house or broadcasting stationand to communicate with the entire planet or break news of theirown. (Consider the "The Drudge Report" and its role in leaking theClinton-Lewinsky scandal.) Today, the library comes to us as theNet places a world of information at our fingertips. And while the1973 family could read the local newspaper together, today'sfamilies can view thousands of newspapers from communities acrossthe planet.

Timid Tweaking of the Rules. While America'smass media marketplace is evolving rapidly, the same cannot be saidfor the rules governing it. Despite the uproar, the FCC's June 2ruling represented a meager liberalization effort. The nationaltelevision ownership cap, which limits how much of the nationalmarket can be served by broadcast and cable companies, was bumpedfrom 35 up to 45 percent. Likewise, the restrictions on radio andtelevision cross-ownership in a single market, and on ownership ofmore than one of the top four stations in given market, have beenmoderately revised. Significantly, rules preventing a company fromowning a newspaper and television station in the same market werelargely lifted. But other rules remain. For example, the DualNetwork rule banning mergers between the big broadcast networks(ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) was preserved. A limitation on the numberof radio stations a company can own in a local market was eventightened. Media companies continue to be forced to play by arestrictive set of ownership rules that are imposed on no otherindustry.

In revising such rules previously, the courts have recognizedthat the changes in the media marketplace have given citizens adiversity of news, information, and entertainment options thatundercuts the rationale behind many of the current regulations.Moreover, the courts have stressed that the First Amendment remainsof paramount importance when considering such restrictions ofmedia. Forcibly limiting the size of the soapbox that media ownershope to build to speak to the American people is violates the freespeech rights we hold sacred. The interesting question now iswhether the courts will accept the FCC's incremental changes to theexisting rules, and how Congress will respond. Hearings are alreadybeing scheduled and bills introduced that would roll back the FCC'slimited liberalization efforts.

But it would be foolish for Congress to do so. Far from livingin a world of "information scarcity" that some fear, we now live ina world of information overload. The number of informationand entertainment options at our disposal has almost becomeoverwhelming, and many of us struggle to filter and manage all theinformation we can choose from in an average day. FCC CommissionerKathleen Abernathy put it well: "Democracy and civic discourse werenot dead in America when there were only three to four stations inmost markets in the 1960s and 1970s, and they will surely not bedead in this century when there are, at a minimum, four to sixindependent broadcasters in most markets, plus hundreds of cablechannels and unlimited Internet voices."

Given these market realities and a greater appreciation for theFirst Amendment rights of media companies, the courts may strikedown any attempt to reinstate or strengthen the old rules. Congresswould be wise to instead focus its energies on revising cumbersomespectrum policies that artificially limit greater innovation andcompetition to existing media companies.

Big Media or Big Government? Media monopoly isnot a legitimate threat in a free society because citizens arealways free to establish new media outlets, and investors are freeto fund them. The scale and scope of private media organizations isnot an appropriate target of coercive public policy, because suchpolicy violates free speech. Government restrictions on ownershipare themselves censorship and represent the real threat todemocracy. Diversity, independence of voice and democracy do notspring from government control of the means of speech, but from aseparation between government and media. Information-which atbottom, is what the debate is all about-is fundamentally notcapable of being monopolized by private actors. Information isabundant and constantly being created. Only government can censoror prohibit free speech, or the emergence and funding ofalternative views. Citizens need not fear media monopoly, rather,in our modern marketplace, it is the media itself that must live infear of the power of consumer choice and the tyranny of the remotecontrol.