Take the uniformly hostile reaction this week to the proposed half-hearted loosening of the Federal Communication Commission's 1970s-era restrictions prohibiting newspapers from owning television stations in the same market. "Our media world remains desperately anemic for want of diverse ownership," activist Harold Feld wrote. "The conversation we ought to be having is, 'How do we break up the media barons the way Teddy Roosevelt broke up Standard Oil?' "
OK, Harold, let's have that conversation. Here goes: Standard Oil, unlike every "Big Media" company you despise, was a monopoly (and no, merely repeating the myth year after year does not magically make it so). End of conversation.
But where Personal Experience really disproves the anti-consolidation thesis is in the persistent notion that "our media world remains desperately anemic for want of diverse ownership." If that's true, surely it would be reflected in the media consumption habits of most everyone, media critic and fat-cat apologist alike. I'll go first:
In the morning, I read most of the L.A. Times (Tribune Co.), and scan the funny headlines from the New York Post (Dr. Evil). To see what people in the L.A. Times newsroom are gossiping about, I'll check Kevin Roderick's independently owned (or "I," from here on out) L.A. Observed. For more local scuttlebutt, I might click on Mayor Sam (I), Fishbowl L.A. (Media Bistro), LAist (Gothamist LLC) and Blogging.LA (Metroblogging.com). Since I'm a baseball fanatic and Angels partisan, if I have time before work I'll read and maybe post a comment on Halos Heaven, which is part of the interesting SB Nation family of fan-blogs launched by (believe it or not) that Great Orange Satan of the lefty blogosphere Markos "Daily Kos" Moulitsas (pssst! Media reporters! There's an interesting story there!).
If I drive to work I'll listen to (God help me) Jim Rome (Premier Radio Networks) on KLAC (Clear Channel); when commercials come on I'll either flip to Sandra Tsing Loh's science bit on KPCC (Southern California Public Radio) or to the latest Hugo Chavez speech on KPFK (Pacifica). On the way home it's usually the Angel game on KSPN (ESPN), the Dodger game on KFWB (CBS Radio), the Laker game on KLAC ... or barring sports, some rock music on the fab Indie 103.1 (Entravision). If I'm taking transit I might grab the New Yorker (Conde Nast), Reason (Reason Foundation), the L.A. Downtown News (I) or my current favorite newspaper in the world, the Los Feliz Ledger (a nice-sounding gal named Allison).
And at various times throughout the day I'm likely to catch about 10 minutes of CNN (Time Warner) before turning it off in disgust at their inane anchor-banter; watch C-SPAN (God) with the sound off in order to truly appreciate the hand-flapping genius of Robert Byrd, and top it off with the jazz stylings of Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert (Viacom).
This represents maybe one-third of my daily media diet, but I'm getting exhausted just typing in the names. So what's the ownership-diversity scorecard? Best as I can reckon, that's 20 media properties with 20 different owners; six of whom are independents (with three or four others possibly qualifying, depending on how you look at things). Six of the 20 (and probably closer to 50% of my actual media consumption) are entities that did not exist in the 20th century. So much for the "new totalitarianisms" warned of (or was it hoped for?) by lefty media grump Norman Solomon in the wake of that previous death-knell for the "independent press," otherwise known as the spectacularly ineffective AOL-Time Warner merger. In the game of Monopoly, a 5% share of the board means you're about to lose, unless you have Broadway and Park Place. But in the game of media activism, that's enough to bring out the calls for a new, media-bustin' Teddy Roosevelt.
Ah, comes the rejoinder: Even though us fancy-lad elitists may enjoy a rich palate of media goodies the likes of which the world has never seen before, and even though it's never been cheaper or easier for an individual citizen to start his or her own damned publication with the potential to permanently alter the very news cycle, what about those poor 15% or fewer of the people who don't have cable or satellite, don't have an Internet connection and get most of their current-affairs information from local TV news? You know, those lovely but ignorant other people who but for the iron hand of media consolidation would be perfectly informed and would thus vote, consume and otherwise behave the way we, the rightly guided, know they ought? Why shouldn't they get federal protection from the dreaded possibility that a single company might own both a newspaper and a television station?
The answer gets to Part Two of the Personal Experience test. Which is to say, in the world that actually exists, newspapers and television stations owned by the same parent get along about as well as Sunni and Shia, only with less inter-marrying. To cite the experience of the company most potentially affected by the FCC's ownership agonizing, when is the last time you saw Steve Lopez on KTLA's "News at Ten," talking about his violin-playing, ex-homeless pal? Why is it that when I stumble upon Times sports columnnist Bill Plaschke on television, it's on ESPN and not the local Tribune property? If synergy is choking off alternative viewpoints, where's my make-up?
The truth is that newspaper employees hate local TV news for its cheesiness almost as much as media activists hate large media corporations for their larginess. The culture of an organization especially a large, lumbering, monster-organization like a big metro newspaper does not blend easily with others. That goes even for other newspapers. (Ask any Spring Streeter how the synergy's going with the folks in Chicago, and prepare to receive an earful of spittle.)
The FCC was created seven decades ago to oversee the sensible distribution of then-scarce broadcast spectrum, not artificially limit the ownership options of newspapers in a media-rich world, or play to the paranoia of economic illiterates. Yet thanks to public pressure and good old-fashioned government mission creep, commissioners have some seriously bizarre notions of what they're there for. Thanks to all that, media deregulation in any meaningful sense is indeed dead, and the fat cats will continue having to schlep to Washington to kiss the FCC's ring (otherwise known as getting a "waiver"). So much for "Congress shall make no law...."
Matt Welch is an assistant editorial page editor; click here to read more of his Opinion Daily columns.
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