We typically blame the decline of the news media in the 21st century on one of two factors: the growth of the Internet as a 24/7 source of news and the proliferation of fake and false news.
But given much less attention is the consolidation of news media and news-gathering operations. It used to be that the federal government had strict regulations about the number of radio and television stations any company could own and forbade ownership of both newspapers and broadcast stations in the same town. Even when single newspapers came to dominate many towns, there were typically many different organizations searching for and presenting the local and national news. A series of laws and new regulations over the past 35 years—aka the Reagan Era—has consolidated media ownership.
The key law was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which enabled companies to own more stations. Larger companies bought smaller ones and suddenly instead of hundreds of owners of TV and radio stations across the country, there were only dozens. We saw the impact on radio as Clear Channel, and recently Sinclair Broadcasting, and other companies owned by right-wingers gained control of the editorial policies of more and more stations. Pretty soon the range of opinion on radio narrowed and moved extremely right. While Rush Limbaugh began making a name for himself before 1996, it was the consolidation of media ownership that led to the domination of talk radio by Rush and his clones—Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Michael Medved, ad nauseum.
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a major step in making the problem worse by voting to allow a single company to own both print and broadcast media in the same town. The FCC also voted to increase the number of TV stations one company can own in any given market. It was a close vote, 3-2, on party lines. Don’t be embarrassed if OpEdge is the first you’ve heard of this awful decision. It received very little coverage; the New York Times buried the news on page two of the business section.
The Obama Administration FCC also announced its intentions to end the restriction on ownership of both print and broadcast media in 2011, but eventually backed down. This time, under its brand new Trump-blessed FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, an Obama appointee to the FCC known for his pro-broadcasting industry views, the FCC has made good on the threat.
The rationales today and in 2017 are similar: That local media needs to consolidate to be able to compete against the giants of Facebook and Google. Pai, for example, has argued that local media companies would have a better chance to compete against Internet behemoths by combining local market resources.
The argument is completely specious for two reasons. First of all, most broadcast stations and daily/weekly newspapers are already owned by large chains. It’s not the case that the various media in Cincinnati will join forces to do one great job on local news. Instead, one national giant that also controls Toledo, Ohio, Syracuse, New York and four dozen other localities will end up owning all the media in Cincinnati. The new rule will surely lead to ever greater concentration of media outlets in the hands of fewer companies.
The second problem with Pai’s argument is the confusion of news-gathering with news media. Despite the alarming decrease in the number of daily newspapers over the past few decades, the number of absolute media outlets has increased: Internet news sites, cable news and specialty weekly and monthly pubs have more than made up for the decline in newspapers.
The problem is that while media outlets have increased, news-gathering on both the local and national level has decreased, as recent studies by the Pew Foundation and the FCC . And consolidation of media outlets is a major cause. When a company buys more than one newspaper, it can use the same news-gathering staff for all the news, except for the news that pertains to each newspaper’s particular readership, something most often defined by locality. All the newspapers in the Gannet or Tribune chains get the same national and international news and columnists. But each local paper has to find its own local news, typically in competition with the three or four local TV stations, the local business paper and the local alternative weekly.
Now that a single company is allowed to own all of these local properties, the company will be stronger, but primarily because it is able to cut costs through using the same news room to cover stories. The impact on overall news production will be horrific: Instead or more editorial boards deciding what is newsworthy, one will. Instead of three or more points of view on a story, there will be only one. Instead of three or more sets of reporters trying to dig deeper, only one will—that is, on those stories that the editors and business sides decide is worthy of delving. Instead of three or more sets of opinions on local issues, only one. Finally, instead of three or more organizations with ties to differing networks of national and international news gathering, there will be but one. The result will be less reporting.
Instead of actual reporting, what we’ll see once large media companies start buying up local properties is more of the same filler that has been replacing real news for the past 15 years or so, including more opinion pieces like this blog; more coverage of celebrities and sports; more repackaged how-to’s and advice columns; more part-and-parcel use of news release, fact sheets and “articles” produced by the government, rightwing think tanks, large companies and public relations firms; and more “sponsored” news reports, which are advertisements pretending to be news.
If the FCC and the current administration really cared about freedom of the press and creating a stronger marketplace of ideas, instead of allowing companies to buy more media properties, it would implement regulations and put pressure on Congressional leaders to break up the media industry oligarchy and stop the pilfering of free content that occurs on Facebook and Google News that denies news-producing media outlets needed revenues. Unfortunately, it would take Congressional action to do most of what I’m recommending:
- Limit ownership of media properties to a total of 10 properties, including television and radio stations, newspapers, news magazines, cable networks and websites, and push for expedited divestiture by the current media giants.
- Prohibit companies from owning more than three cable networks, and make all cable networks provide at least two hours of news coverage a day.
- Prohibit companies owning ISPs from also owning media outlets.
- Reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine, which used to make every broadcast television and radio outlet to devote some airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. The Fairness Doctrine was the law of the land from 1949 until 1987, when the Reagan FCC voted to end it.
- Allocate billions of dollars in aid to nonprofit or small for-profit media outlets to produce original reporting and fund it at least partially by taxing social media services and Internet service providers (ISPs) like Spectrum and FIOS for their “free use” of news.
- Legalize strict principles of journalistic ethics and start to prosecute journalists and media company executives for knowingly disseminating fake and false news. I propose to walk a fine line between censorship and responsible reporting. But by focusing exclusively on the reporting of facts and not the spouting of opinions, I think we can protect true freedom of the press.
I am not very optimistic about any of my recommendations being pursued by either a Republican or Democratic administration and Congress. Politicians of both parties have cozy relationships with the mainstream news media and conservative ones seem not to mind that so much in the rightwing media is false or fake news. Thus we face an ironic future in which there are many ways to access the same limited and somewhat flawed set of facts and conjectures about current events, society and government activity.
We like to conceive of history as a steady progress of human ingenuity solving problems and bringing an ever higher standard and quality of life to more and more people. But our 10,000 years of recorded history has seen many eras in which people were far worse off economically than the decades and centuries before, for example, during the 300 year transition from medieval times to the industrial revolution during which the world experienced the “Little Ice Age.”
In the same way, we have not seen steady progress in the spread of knowledge. After the death of Charlemagne, for example, Europe entered a centuries-long epoch in which scientific knowledge and literacy declined and intellectual activity retreated into monasteries.
It seems to me that America is are entering another intellectual dark age, in which people in general will know less, be able to reason less effectively and have less access to the gamut of human knowledge, from science to the arts. It’s not just the consolidation of the media and the decline in the number of news-gathering operations that is driving the drift towards ignorance. The large number of ideologically inclined think tanks churning out false research. The gradual starving of public schools. The increased involvement of for-profit corporations both in operating schools and in supplying material such as learning guides to public and private schools. The blurring of the distinction between the entertainment and news divisions of media companies and between advertising and news. The politicization of text books. The denial of basic scientific facts by one of our two major parties. The continued glorification of celebrity and mocking of intellectual achievement in the mass media. Virtually every trend in the marketplace of ideas is making Americans less educated, less informed and less capable of sifting through assertions and understanding which are reliably factual information and which are sheer nonsense.