Guest Commentary: Defense of Ownership Rules

Jun 23, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The Federal Communications Commission’s media ownership rules, adopted by a 3-to-2 majority June 2, have been the subject of praise and condemnation, but rather more of the latter than the former.
The Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union have characterized the rules as driven by “deregulatory ideology.” And these same groups, fortified by others such as the Media Access Project and Center for Digital Democracy, have issued dire predictions of imminent damage to the First Amendment, if not to democracy itself.
It doesn’t end there. Academics, former FCC officials and, most ominously, U.S. senators on both sides of the aisle are challenging, bemoaning or, in the case of the senators, threatening to undo the FCC’s rules by statute.
And what is it that so exercises these people? There are several things, but mainly: 1.) a newspaper and TV station in the same market having the same owner; 2.) two (or three) TV stations in the same market having the same owner; and 3.) an increase, enabling a reach to 45 percent of national households, in the number of TV stations any single entity may own.
Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of any or all of these rule changes. But the view from here is that taken together they represent a measured and patently nonideological response to dramatically changed circumstances. More than this, the threat they represent to the First Amendment is precisely zero.
Consider the changed circumstances. For most people of a certain age-boomers and older-today’s media landscape is so vast as to be nearly bewildering. When I was growing up in Phoenix we had four commercial TV stations (three network affiliates and an independent), two daily newspapers (owned by the same company) and, for strictly national news, Time and Newsweek.
That was about it. No 100-channel cable systems or 500-channel DBS systems. And, most assuredly, no Internet. The growth in outlet diversity, and with it content diversity, has been extraordinary-much to the benefit of everyone.
But because all these new media outlets are supported at least in part by advertising, many broadcasters are at risk because there are too many outlets chasing too few ad dollars.
Which is precisely why so many of these mergers are, in fact, vital. Absent the synergies and efficiencies that certain mergers may provide, many local TV stations, especially in smaller markets, face an increasingly bleak future.
As for the constitutional aspects, there is one thing to know: When it comes to the First Amendment, Michael Powell is the most knowledgeable and sympathetic chairman the FCC has ever had. Period.
Beyond that, there is virtually no chance that any court would undo these rules, premised on an assertion that consolidation would reduce the “dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources” to a constitutionally unacceptable level.
The courts generally understand the First Amendment to be primarily a constitutional check on the power of government, rather than a license for special-interest and single-issue groups to advance various schemes.
Another so-called public-interest argument against the rules is that consolidation will reduce the quality of local TV news. This argument was briefed, however, by some of the most highly regarded media companies in the country-to devastating effect.
By their own examples these operators showed conclusively that the merger of a TV station and a newspaper, and of two TV stations in a market, produces more and better journalism-without compromising “viewpoint diversity.” And the FCC’s own studies concurred with this assessment.
The FCC’s ownership hearings and the reaction to the subsequent decision do reveal, however, one big if rarely cited danger: As these companies grow larger they will become ever-bigger political targets, even as they themselves become politically weaker (because ultimately all politics is local).
In this environment, it isn’t hard to imagine the opportunities for policymakers who oppose some aspect of media content. They could easily threaten to withhold support for some structural or other business matter unless a media company “volunteers” to make changes in its content.
This threat by itself does not constitute a reason to deny such mergers. But it does bear watching by people inside and outside of these companies who would rue any media company acquiescence.
We live in a time when almost everyone dislikes some aspect of media content. Conservatives dislike the profane language and sexual situations in entertainment programming. Liberals don’t like the dominance by conservatives of talk radio and of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. Liberals and conservatives alike have reservations about the effects of TV violence on children.
People who understand the importance of journalism to our democratic institutions perceive a lowering of journalistic standards. And, for whatever reason, the argument that “everyone has a choice” does not seem to resonate with TV’s critics.
Taken together, these attitudes, and the people who hold them, represent an opportunity for local and national broadcasters. They can attempt to change and overcome these perceptions or they can begin now to steel themselves against the battles to come. Given the way the world works, it would probably be a good idea to do a little of both.
is president of The Media Institute in Washington. The opinions expressed in the piece are those of Mr. Maines and do not necessarily represent the views of The Media Institute, which is a nonprofit think tank specializing in communications policy and the First Amendment.