FCC plan to ease media ownership rules will further limit the type of news and opinions that Americans get

The Obama Administration is once again displaying its conservative feathers as proudly as any peacock might.  The same group of pseudo-progressives who overruled distribution of Plan B birth control without an I.D. and executed an about-face to gut proposed higher pollution emission standards now plans to make another assault on freedom of speech.

Obama’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to overturn its longstanding rule that limits companies from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same local market.

This rule will surely lead to greater concentration of media outlets in the hands of fewer companies. The same thing happened after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 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 other companies owned by rightwingers 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—Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Michael Medved, ad nauseum.

The FCC is arguing that it’s absurd not to let companies own both broadcast and print properties in one market since every TV and radio station is printing on the Internet and most newspapers run video on their websites.  That argument doesn’t answer the objections to consolidation because the issue is not the distribution of news, but the sourcing of it.  With fewer collective owners, there are fewer opinions and fewer definitions of what is newsworthy.  With consolidation, the owners will tend to resemble each other even more than they do now, so that the articles and opinions will come to be similar across the various media.

Freedom of speech is useless unless there is a pulpit for every opinion.  Each owner represents one possible pulpit for a variety of notions regarding our economy, political system, distribution of wealth, cultural ideas and belief systems, but each pulpit will be available to only one of each type—one set of views on the economy and politics, one idea about wealth distribution, one set of social priorities.  We need many owners to ensure that we have many pulpits for every facet of economic, political and social interaction.  Right now, a handful of companies already control most of the TV and radio stations, newspapers, movie studios and publishing houses in the country and around the world.  The Internet does offer free access to the marketplace of ideas, but successful websites that are not affiliated with big companies draw in the hundreds of thousands, a drop in the bucket.  The pulpit is there, but the tent is small compared to The Wall Street Journal or ABC-TV news.

The long suffering newspaper, as a recent Pew study showed, is the whole game, since newspapers originate 50% of all news, and a much higher percentage if we discount celebrity and local crime news and focus on political, economic, social trend and breaking news.  As newspapers decline, they are covering less news and presenting fewer opinions, so less news and fewer opinions are getting out to people. 

It may be that the FCC is thinking that revenues from TV will enable companies to keep the newspaper viable, something that seems less and less possible under current operating assumptions.  But isn’t it just as likely that television advertising and programming departments could begin to dictate the terms of coverage in newspapers, leading to a rapid debasement of content.

If the Obama Administration and the FCC really want to help newspapers survive, a better approach might be to put a limit on the number of media properties one company can own.  Make the large media conglomerates divest for the good of the country, like federal law and regulation once made oil conglomerates divest for the good of the country. The more companies there are controlling the media, the freer we will be as a people and as a society, and the less possible it will be for one group to steer the country in the wrong direction by controlling the news and opinion.  Each of these smaller media companies after divestiture might be more fragile, but the industry itself would be stronger and more diverse.

Greater government support for the news operations of local public broadcasting stations would also help to create a freer marketplace of ideas.

Finally, government could subsidize newspapers that report original news and are making the transition to the Internet model, perhaps with a tax on Internet news aggregators such as Yahoo! and Google News that make so many stories of local and national newspapers available to the public free of charge.

I urge all readers to go to the FCC website and make a comment. Tell the Obama Administration that you do not want it to concentrate media ownership further.  Instead, ask the Obama Administration to develop new laws and regulations that will break up the big media companies and diversify ownership.

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