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June 5, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 43




Tom Roberts Fewer voices heard in our 'marketplace of ideas'

Tom Roberts NCR editor

When Ben Bagdikian, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and media watchdog, completed research in 1982 for his book, "The Media Monopoly," 50 corporations controlled half or more of the media business. "By December 1986," he wrote in an Extra! magazine piece in 1987, "the 50 had shrunk to 29." By the early 1990s the number had shrunk to around 20.

With this week's Federal Communications Commission vote to further relax rules regulating media ownership, the big media owners are likely to get even bigger -- and the choices for the public can be expected to dwindle even further -- unless Congress acts, and that is a distinct possibility. Public outrage and bi-partisan expressions of opposition to the new rules from the Senate Commerce Committee may lead to a reversal of some of the new rules.

Absent any changes, the relaxation of decades-old regulations would allow a single company to own a TV station that reached 45 percent of U.S. households instead of just 35 percent. The new rules also end the ban on a single company owning both a broadcast station and a newspaper in the same city.

How this ultimately will play out remains to be seen, but if the run up to the recent rules change is any indication, the big media companies will spare no expense to win the right to expand their empires.

Supporters say it is a victory for free enterprise, while critics call it a defeat for free speech and a diverse marketplace of ideas.

Bagdikian put the argument in perspective back in 1987: "The safest way to ensure diversity of opinion is diverse ownership. But this ideal has been sacrificed by government devotion to the mythical doctrine of free market economics. The myth rests on the bizarre assumption that the modern American corporate scene is actually like Adam Smith's rural country market, in which all the farmers came to town to compete for the business of sharp-eyed customers."

Indeed, it is difficult to be sharp-eyed in the matter of consuming media, particularly electronic fare. When "TV Station Gobblers Inc." purchases most of the outlets in town, it won't run a streamer through all its programming saying this station is one of three owned by the same company. You may even go on thinking that the stations are competing with one another, pushing one another to new kinds of programming and new ideas. The reality may well be the outlets are working on the same, profit-tested formulas.

In fact, probably nothing unusual will happen. And that's part of the problem. Because the greatest effect of increasing the size of media conglomerates is not what happens but what doesn't happen.

It is the ideas and questions and coverage and perspectives that don't get on the air or treated on the front page or considered on the editorial page that really diminishes the public discussion. It is difficult to get upset, however, over what doesn't happen.

Meanwhile, things that may appear to be a big deal may appear so simply because one owner pushes an issue on a whole lot of stations. Bob Edwards, anchor of NPR's "Morning Edition," in speaking recently about media regulations, used the example of the country music group, the Dixie Chicks, to demonstrate the point. After one of the Dixie Chicks said she was "ashamed" to be from the same state as President Bush, a huge popular anti-Chicks protest was reported. But Edwards said the protest was driven largely by Clear Channel Radio, a Texas-based corporation that owns 1,250 radio stations around the country. Clear Channel is friends with the Bush administration and wants it to remove regulations on ownership of media properties, said Edwards.

So far, Clear Channel and other media giants have gotten what they want. The public is poorer for it.

If the news and the analysis that comes into your living room nightly seems the same, it's because it is. Same with the paper that lands on your doorstep. Most likely, there's no longer a competing paper across town to push a different set of ideas.

We are swimming in media outlets and amazing technology. But it is all put at the service of few ideas, fewer voices and ever-expanding profits.

"The American audience," wrote Bagdikian, "having been exposed to a narrowing range of ideas over the decades, often assumes that what it sees and hears in the major media is all there is.

"It is no way to maintain a lively marketplace of ideas, which is to say that it is no way to maintain a democracy."

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