Unleash the media

With a stop-off in Nashville on Dec. 11, the Federal Communications Commission continues a series of hearings debating government's role in determining the structure of major media in the United States. Today, for example, media ownership 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. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


When the FCC announced the hearings, the first of which was held in Los Angeles in early October, many commentators cried out against any relaxation of restrictions, protesting that media is too large, out of control and monolithic. Groups on the left, alongside conservative organizations, claim that concentrated media ownership threatens diversity, localism and democracy. Both sides support government regulation of media and want to retain and even tighten FCC's strict rules.


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 they cannot “monopolize” it. Without government censorship there is no fundamental scarcity of information, nor can there be; more information can always be created, and in a free society, particularly an Internet-enabled one, nobody can silence anybody else. Free speech 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 is not a violation of anyone's rights.


Real suppression requires censorship, the actual prohibition of the airing of alternative views. Ironically, it is precisely such censorship that government engages in by establishing ownership rules; the rules themselves are a coercive impediment to free speech and a threat to democracy and expression.


Media ownership rules were largely devised during the mid-20th century, when the broadcast landscape, both nationally and locally, was drastically different. They emerged before the advent of thousand-channel cable television, satellite TV and radio, and of course, the Internet and its Web pages, mailing lists, e-mail, blogging, peer-to-peer file sharing.


Media companies cannot escape hostile competition. Media is a business, with upstream and downstream threats and pressures – disgruntled customers, content programmers, authors, artists, advertisers, hostile takeovers. Any media enterprise that attempts to “monopolize” faces their wrath; there's no need for an FCC policing role.


The dominance of the Big Three – ABC, CBS, NBC – is gone for good; today, not yesterday, is the age of diversity. Elvis may have left the building, but Matt Drudge is in the house.


The FCC already provides waivers for special circumstances, such as a newspaper or broadcaster in financial trouble. But this amounts to a tacit admission that scale can enhance the spread of information. Waivers should not be special favors; pandering to politicians for permission to grow is not free speech.


The best approach is to separate speech and state entirely. Media ownership constraints should be abolished, not merely to allow “big media” to concentrate, but to preserve a marketplace whereby upstarts can serve national and local markets unimpeded as well. If Viacom, Disney and AOL are prevented from reaching half the country thanks to outmoded limitation rules, then so are others who might harbor a national communications business plan, who might otherwise have seen their way clear to mounting a profitable challenge. Ownership restrictions apply to diverse new voices as well – and make their emergence less likely. They're not bad just for incumbents.


In some circumstances, the “demise” of “localism” or local programming – one of the alleged concerns – may not be inherently bad. People were arguably constrained, not liberated, by locality, if one compares today to the era of Walter Cronkite and the local paper. Perhaps your local news is lousy and stilted and prejudiced. Whatever the case, in principle, the existence of USA Today doesn't contradict or threaten the church bulletin. Under the institution of a free press, the national/local dichotomy does not exist. Consumers decide what's important, be it local, national or foreign.


A genuine consumer-oriented strategy would be interested, not in petitioning the FCC to tighten its regulatory grip, but rather in phasing out that agency and getting it out of price, entry and ownership regulation altogether. If there is policy-making to be done, it ought not target ownership structures and content. Instead, government's own policies that artificially restrict bandwidth and spectrum, that truly stand in the way of new voices, should be reviewed.


If one claims to be a consumer advocate, one must advocate policies that benefit consumers. One can petition the FCC to tighten media ownership rules, but one cannot do it under the guise of aiding consumers or 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, must be part of the market processes required to make it happen.