Friday, July 16, 2004

Media consolidation is bad for democracy

Why you’re right:
 
1.  It denies citizens access to a diversity of opinion.  When one company owns radio and television stations and newspapers in the same market, the same editorial viewpoint guides all these media.  Especially troubling is the fact that most people remain unaware that the content of their various news sources is ultimately controlled by the same group of executives.  As the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill argued, it is through competition between freely circulating ideas that society makes progress towards truth.  (Senator Olympia Snowe’s Office)
 
2.  It removes an important check on government power.  The founding fathers specifically included freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights, acknowledging the centrality of an independent media to a healthy democracy.  As James Madison wrote, “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”  A vibrant, independent fourth estate holds economic and political elites accountable to the people.  When a very small number of those elites control most of the dissemination of opinion, journalism is defanged.  (Federal Communications Law Journal)
 
3.  It disproportionately benefits the right wing.  In the words of former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, “Let's just say that the [Bush] administration does not think that the big winners in the media consolidation game will be either the New York Times or the Washington Post.”  Since 1995, when the FCC relaxed rules on radio station ownership, Clear Channel Communications has grown to encompass 1200 stations reaching 180 million people.  In the buildup to the Iraq war, Clear Channel used this influence to hold pro-war rallies and to punish the Dixie Chicks for their “unpatriotic” questions about the war’s legitimacy.  Of course, were consolidation to result in the suppression of right wing opinion, it would still represent a danger to democracy. (Salon)
 
Why they’re wrong:

The Federal Communications Commission, like all regulatory bodies of the federal government, ought to keep our capitalist system functioning healthily by ensuring competition.  Because of the special relationship between media and democracy, though, the importance of the FCC’s role is not solely economic.  Despite claims that consolidated media still represent diverse points of view – witness Rupert Murdoch’s assertion that Fox gives equal airtime to liberal commentators—consolidation removes the external pressure that drives them to do so.  Media conglomerates can feature many opinions if they so desire, but as long as they can opt not to, the marketplace of ideas is imperiled.