Media Ownership Madness and the Third Person Effect Hypothesis

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In the debate over media ownership regulation, it has becomeevident that fanaticism has trumped the facts and emotionalism haswon out over empirical evidence. The hyperbolic rhetoric, shamelessfear-mongering, and unsubstantiated claims that have thus fardriven the absurd backlash to media liberalization have absolutelyno foundation in reality whatsoever. But that hasn't stopped somelawmakers from spinning outlandish Chicken Little tales about aworld in which they didn't control the media.

For example, in what was apparently supposed to be a humorousgesture, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) proposed an amendment during arecent hearing that would have classified the FCC's new mediaownership rules as "indecent" and required Commissioners whosupport 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 thedebate on the House floor last summer over an amendment that wouldhave overturned elements of the new FCC rules, Rep. Lynn Woolsey(D-Calif.) said the FCC's tweaking of the rules was an attempt toimpose a centralized "Saddam-style information system in the UnitedStates." And Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) argued that "people withpitchforks and torches" would be protesting outside the Capitol ifthe amendment was defeated. There was also a reference by onelawmaker to Soviet Union-esque control of media. Finally, inrecently proposing legislation to strengthen media controls andreinstate the Fairness Doctrine, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.)argued that deregulation amounted to "mind control" by Republicanswho were trying to "dumb down" the public. "It's a well thought outand planned effort to control the political process," he arguedand, "It will wipe out our democracy."

Get a Grip. Saddam-style information system?Mind control? The end of democracy? What planet are these lawmakersliving on? Such puppet-master theories of media manipulation mighthave resonated more when William Randolph Hearst walked this Earth,but by what standard or measure can anyone possibly argue we areworse off today than we were in the past? Here are the facts: Wehave more radio and television stations than ever before, and moreprograms and formats being produced for them. We have cable andsatellite media distribution mechanisms and hundreds of channelsthat fill almost any conceivable programming niche, none of whichwere available a quarter century ago. We have more magazines andmagazine formats than at any time in history. The same goes formovies and music. We also have an interactive video gamemarketplace that is now growing three times faster than the motionpicture industry. And then we have the Internet and the seeminglyunstoppable flow of new websites, news groups, blogs, and otherinteractive services. In sum, far from living in a world ofinformation scarcity, we now live in a world of informationoverload.

To consider just how much our modern media marketplace hasevolved in recent years, ask yourself this question: If youcouldn't get to sleep one night because you were itching to knowthe result of an important election or a World Cup soccer game thatwas taking place half way around the world, what could you do aboutit? Twenty years ago, you would have had to wait until the next dayto get the local paper and see if it contained the results, or hopethat Walter Cronkite or his two competitors would squeeze a15-second spot in their half-hour newscast about it, or go down tothe library to track that information down perhaps a few dayslater. Today, by contrast, there's a fairly good chance you couldget that information while still in your pajamas by turning on a24-hour news channel or download that information from a website onthe Internet.

The Psychology of Media Madness. Amazingly,when confronted with such facts, the critics of media decontroldismiss all these new choices as either irrelevant or unreliable.Whether discussing news or entertainment, the strange bedfellowswho oppose liberalization all claim that media is too homogeneousfor their tastes, or all controlled by the same corporate masters,so much so that these new choices essentially offer us no new realchoices at all. Liberals argue that we're all the victims oframpant right-wing bias in media, and cite conservative talk radioshow 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. AsSlate editor Jack Shafer aptly concludes ofthis schizophrenia, "Whenever conservatives talk to liberals aboutpress bias-or vice versa-they talk right past one another. Bothfactions seem to work backward from their conclusions to theevidence and damn what the other side says." Indeed, if both sidesdispassionately reviewed the evidence they'd realize they are bothcorrect because there's more of every viewpoint to be seen andheard today. But that doesn't stop them from claiming we're allvictims of mind control efforts by their ideological opponents.

What's going on here? Simply stated, critics sometimes only seemto see and hear in media what they want to see and hear. If theyencounter viewpoints at odds with their own, they grow concernedabout the impact of those programs on other citizens and come tobelieve that government must "do something " to counter it.Consequently, many people invite media regulation because theythink it will be good for others, not necessarily themselves.Psychologists label this phenomenon "third person effect" and itprovides a powerful explanation for what drives much of thefanaticism behind the recent media backlash, whether it's theownership issue or censorship. First formulated by W. PhillipsDavison in a seminal 1983 article, the hypothesis predicts "thatpeople will tend to overestimate the influence that masscommunications have on the attitudes and behavior of others"relative to themselves. He continues:

"One possible explanation for the fact that people onboth sides of an issue can see the media as biased against theirown point of view is that each observer assumes a disproportionateeffect will be achieved by arguments or facts supporting the'wrong' side of the issue. Others (the third persons), the observerreasons, will be unduly impressed by these facts or argument; theydo not have the information that enables me to form a correctopinion. It is probable that, from the point of view of thepartisans, balanced media presentation would require a sharp tilttoward the 'correct' side of the issue. This would compensatefor the intellectual frailty of third persons and would, accordingto the partisan, ensure that the media achieved a truly balancedpresentation. But, if the third-person effect hypothesis iscorrect, why are not the facts and arguments on the 'correct' sidesas well as the 'wrong' side seen as having a disproportionateeffect on others?" [emphasis added]

In other words, to correct what they believe is the overt biasof the media, critics would want to see more overt bias in theirown direction. But which direction is that? And, if the scales weresomehow tilted in one direction or the other by the government, theFirst Amendment would be betrayed. Whether it's overt or indirect,it's still government censorship. But that hasn't stopped lawmakersfrom taking steps to tighten their control over media. As thenext TechKnowledgeinstallment will report, Rep. Hinchey's new bill, H.R. 4069, "TheMedia Ownership Reform Act," is the latest and most extreme effortto date to accomplish the goal of greater government control overthe structure and content of media in America.