The Federal Communications Commission voted yesterday to relax rules on media ownership so that, among other things, broadcast networks can buy up more stations. Or rather, the Republicans on the commission voted that way. It was a contentious issue. I’m writing this Monday afternoon, but I expect the Tuesday papers to be filled with lamentations: This is a sad day for democracy, the country will become more and more homogenous, a few media moguls will have more and more say over what we watch, etc.
By next month, the usual scolds will have gone back to complaining that the media fragments our culture. For now, however, the media’s conversation about itself seems to be trapped in 1969. Walter Cronkite is still the most trusted man in America, everyone watches the three networks, they’re basically identical, and yet it’s scary to think what would happen if they merged.
A few questions should be asked about today’s scary scenarios. If the interests of the owners determine the content of the media, why is it that everything I’ve seen or read about the FCC vote has been against deregulation? Tom Shales had a long attack on the idea in the Washington Post’s Style section on Monday morning; he said that deregulation was a right-wing plot to enrich the networks. But his own newspaper has editorialized against the position of the company that owns it. And if Shales is right that the result of deregulation will be that Fox News takes over the universe — a vision that appears to give him cold sweats — how can it make sense for Shales to praise the farsightedness of the National Rifle Association, which opposed deregulation on the supposition that it will make the media more left-wing? They can’t both be right, can they?
A lot of our confusion in thinking through these issues is that we don’t think of the airwaves as a public resource, rather than as property. There’s no reason save habit that we have to think of them that way. Once we stop, the illiberalism of that habit becomes apparent. Adam Thierer of the Cato Institute puts it thus: “We wouldn’t limit the number of printing presses that the New York Times or National Review could use. So why limit the number of broadcast stations someone can own? We’re limiting the number of soapboxes someone can get up on.”
Deregulation is supposed to spell the death of localism. Presumably people will still want to hear about local news, sports, and weather. It is true that it will be possible for networks to buy up a bunch of local stations. That’s how Fox got started. The effect was to increase, not to reduce, competition. (Which is why Rupert Murdoch was allowed to break the usual media-ownership rules.) And when it comes to a story like the war in Iraq, it takes such networks to provide coverage. A mom-and-pop operation in the heartland isn’t going to do it. As a result of Fox’s existence, we didn’t have to rely as heavily on Peter Arnett as we did during the previous Gulf war. (We did have to put up with Geraldo Rivera, but life is full of trade-offs.)
Opponents of the FCC’s move portray its chairman, Michael Powell, as a deregulatory zealot. But let’s not forget that the same antitrust rules that apply to every other industry would still apply to the media under the new dispensation. It’s just that this one sector of the economy would no longer operate under special rules. (Actually, the rules are more particular than that, since broadcasters have been regulated more tightly than print — as Thierer’s comment above suggests.)
Powell is not acting on his own initiative, either. The 1996 telecommunications-reform act passed by Congress ordered the FCC to undertake regular reviews of its regulations with an eye to abolishing those which no longer made sense under contemporary conditions. In today’s media world, the ownership rules don’t make sense. The FCC’s review has reached the right conclusion. Congressmen are welcome to try to enact the restrictions by law if they disagree.