No sooner had the Federal Communications Commission relaxed its limits on the ownership of broadcast properties than some members of the Senate Commerce Committee — Republicans and Democrats alike — issued dire warnings about the threat of an impending stranglehold on democratic society by Big Media. A possible legislative override of the decision was hinted at. Sen. Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, described the FCC’s June 2 decision as “a victory for free enterprise but it is not a victory for free speech.”
The FCC’s decision, if anything, didn’t go far enough to dismantle obsolete ownership restrictions on a news and entertainment industry that long ago outgrew a federal regulatory framework dating to the 1940s. The FCC’s decision allowed for an incrementally greater ownership concentration of TV stations and ownership of both broadcast stations and newspapers in the same city. Significant ownership limits remain in place, including a ban on the merger of two of the top four broadcast networks. Criticism of FCC policy, in fact, springs from a deep distrust of consumers and a notion of the market as a place of finite resources and possibilities. At their root, the fears of media monopoly are anti-democratic and blind to the profit-driven, entrepreneurial energy that powers media, an industry revolutionized and democratized by new technology.
Consider how the market has sustained some very important Old Media — the religion section of the local newspaper, once known as the church page. In many places, religion news has been elevated in a politically correct fashion to a much more worldly section dealing with faith, values and ethics. But news of church, synagogue and mosque is still the main fare. The section is often staffed by bright, ambitious reporters. That wasn’t always so. “The religion beat used to be the dumping ground for a burned-out reporter or as punishment for one who’d done something wrong,” said Joan Connell, a senior editor at Religion News Service, in a 1997 interview.
Why, it might rightly be asked, do newspapers set aside entire sections for this religion stuff? If, as conservatives charge, the secular media have scorn for traditional morality and ancient traditions, why all the ink spilled on matters of faith? Editors will answer, and they might even believe it, that religion news meets the needs of readers who feel faith issues deeply, want news of faith organizations in their community, etc., etc. The publisher of the same newspaper, charged with adult supervision of the organization, would answer simply: church ads. As a rising volume of advertising seeks out a certain news section (or magazine or cable channel or Web site) news coverage will tend to expand. That’s an indicator of reader interest but just as important it is a measure of economic viability for the news enterprise. Because editorial activity, if not funded by the government or the largesse of foundations, is expensive and requires a funding source. The irony here is that the marketplace will enable the gathering and distribution of news of a faith, an industry, or political party, where even the news producers will be hostile to or indifferent to the subject.
Let’s say, at that local newspaper, church advertising were to fall off precipitously and permanently. The paper, — as long as it was run by adults — would inevitably cut back on religion coverage. The section would shrink. The religion reporter might even be reassigned to night cops and religion news limited to the usual run-of-the-paper fare of Easter and Christmas perennials and the Florida retirement plans of the local bishop. Would the free expression of religious faith and sentiment be hushed? Would the monopoly power of the local paper exercise a crushing blow to local faith communities?
Preposterous? But this is exactly the line of argument behind much of the FCC criticism, especially as it emanates from anti-market “progressives” who fear that corrupt media moguls will force their reactionary views into news columns and broadcasts, shutting out dissenting voices. The Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, which opposed the FCC decision on June 2, is circulating a petition titled “Stop Murdoch’s DirecTV Takeover,” a reference to the acquisition of the satellite service by Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp., a company that also happens to own Fox News. The Center for Digital Democracy asks its Web visitors (presumably those not yet under the digital thumb of Big Media) to send an e-mail to the FCC warning that News Corp.’s DirecTV acquisition would lead to a “cross-cutting media colossus” that would “threaten our very democratic system by exerting undue influence over public opinion through its politically slanted news coverage.” Accusations of bias are, of course, everywhere leveled by conservatives against a liberal mainstream media. Something, somewhere in the news business must be in working order.
The cold hard facts of the media business hold that neither Rupert Murdoch nor for that matter Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, could possibly hope to exert “undue influence” even if that were desirable. That’s an insulting, undemocratic sentiment. What’s more, concentration of economic power to an abusive level would naturally spark a revolt of consumers and advertisers and generate competitive economic activity in ways unimaginable. Before he took up politics as a hobby, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg built a hugely successful information and news service in the face of entrenched competitors. As Bloomberg’s competition learned, a healthy market share does not come with a lifetime guarantee. As for the cross-cutting media colossus scare, look at AOL TimeWarner today. If the experience, so far, of that combination is any indication of the possibility of success, big multi-channel media conglomerations might be shunned by prudent business people in the future.
Critics of the FCC’s decision also choose to ignore, or at least denigrate, the potential of new broadband technologies and information sources such as Web sites, e-mail newsletters and blogs. It should be pointed out that not all of these new media channels are derivative of existing news organizations. The online magazine Slate , hardly an incubator of neoconservative conspiracies, saw its audience hit 6 million unique visitors in March when it was intensively covering the war in Iraq. During some of the mass protests that preceded the war (remember the scenes on Big Media?) demonstrators sent pictures and text messages to anti-war Web sites via their camera-equipped cell phones. Those who argue for keeping the regulatory clamps on media organizations simply ignore the power of human creativity.
Our harried religion reporter, painstakingly preparing yet another “preacher profile” for the local paper and politely turning down requests for stories about pancake breakfasts and church rummage sales, is in reality striking a blow for democracy and the free exercise of religion. And every now and then, in a private moment away from the prying eyes of editorial colleagues, that reporter might sneak a peek at the church ads crowding the page and breathe a sigh of relief.