The FCC’s challenge: Separating speech and state

WASHINGTON – With a stop-off in Nashville, Tenn., in December, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continues a series of hearings debating government’s role in determining the ownership structure of major media in the US.

Currently, regulations prohibit broadcast companies from owning stations that reach more than 35 percent of the public. Other restrictions apply to local TV station ownership and to newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership.

Groups on the left, alongside conservative organizations, protest any relaxation of restrictions. They argue that media is too large and monolithic, and claim that concentrated media ownership threatens diversity, localism and democracy. Both sides support government regulation of media and want to retain and even tighten it.

What a waste of time: “Big media” is no threat in our free society. Media companies are conduits for information of every sort, but as private parties, cannot monopolize it.

Without government censorship there is no fundamental scarcity of information, nor can there be; more information can always be created, and particularly in our Internet-enabled age, nobody can silence anybody else. (Activists are even breaking through Internet information blackouts in China and other censor-happy regimes.)

The most “big media” can do is refuse to share megaphones and soapboxes, figuratively speaking, which doesn’t violate anyone’s rights or threaten democracy and expression.

Real suppression requires censorship, the prohibition of the airing of alternative views. Ironically, government-established ownership rules are a far closer relation to true censorship.

Media ownership rules were largely devised during the mid-20th century, when the broadcast landscape, nationally and locally, was drastically different. There was no thousand-channel cable television, satellite TV and radio, nor of course, the Internet and the Web, e-mail, blogging, social networking and YouTube.

Media is a business, with upstream and downstream threats and pressures — disgruntled customers, programmers, authors, artists, advertisers, Wall Street analysts and hostile takeovers.

Any media enterprise that attempts to “monopolize” faces their wrath; there’s no justifiable FCC policing role. Ownership restrictions impede that competitive discipline by blocking even those who might otherwise have seen clear to mounting a profitable challenge.

The FCC ownership waivers, such as when a newspaper or broadcaster faces financial trouble, provide tacit admission that scale can enhance the delivery of information. But waivers should not be special favors requiring pandering. The best approach is to separate speech and state entirely.

Sometimes, the “demise” of “localism” or local programming — one of the alleged concerns — may not be inherently bad. Local news can be lousy and stilted and prejudiced. Regardless, the existence of USA Today doesn’t contradict or threaten the church bulletin.

We ought not petition the FCC to tighten its regulatory grip, but rather phase out that agency’s involvement in price, entry and ownership regulation altogether. Policymaking should instead address government’s own policies that artificially restrict bandwidth and spectrum.

Media ownership rules harm consumers and speech. It will take vast resources to build the broadband networks of tomorrow and to create the increasingly narrow-casted content that consumers are demanding. Mergers and cross-ownership freedom, perhaps on an unprecedented scale, are part of the market processes needed.