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Congress Fiddles, Newspapers Burn
The Senate scorns media-ownership reform.
20 May 2008

Listening to the rhetoric of some in Washington, you’d think that we still lived in the nineteenth century and that a handful of newspaper barons still dominated our media landscape, à la William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. These critics claim that America faces its darkest hour in terms of media choices and diversity. Channeling their outmoded opinions, the Democrat-controlled Senate last week approved by voice vote a resolution that criticized the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for considering minor changes to the half-dozen media-ownership rules currently on the books.

This half-hearted reform effort, which agency chairman Kevin Martin announced last November, has to do with the FCC’s newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule. The rule, unrevised since going into effect in 1975, prohibits a newspaper operator from also owning a radio or television station in the same media market. However, waivers were granted to grandfather in some combined newspaper and broadcast operations that had existed long before the ban took effect. Martin’s current effort would simply tweak the rule to permit similar combinations in the nation’s 20 largest media markets.

Amazingly, this resulted in predictions of apocalypse. “Our nation’s media market must reflect the diverse voices of our population,” worried likely Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye warned, “When programming is the same from coast to coast, our airwaves will no longer reflect the rich mosaic of our country and our citizens.” Not to be outdone, Senator Byron Dorgan, the lead sponsor of the disapproval resolution, declared: “We really do literally have five or six major corporations in this country that determine for the most part what Americans see, hear and read every day.”

Yet contrary to the monopolistic fantasies espoused by some Senate Democrats and radical left-wing groups, media operators—and newspapers in particular—have never had less sway over our opinions. In fact, newspapers face an uncertain future precisely because, in an age of abundant media choices, they no longer control audiences the way they could in the past. For starters, daily newspaper readership is falling across every demographic group, and especially among the much-coveted 18–34 age group. The business side is suffering. Papers have lost much of their classified-advertising revenue because of competition from Craigslist, Google, and other online rivals, and their stocks are getting hammered—virtually every publicly traded newspaper stock has witnessed significant erosion in shareholder value in recent months. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, publishing industry employment has now fallen below pre-1994 levels. This sounds less like an industry seeking a tight grip on the minds of consumers than one struggling to fend off extinction. “The newspaper industry is condemned to write piecemeal its own obituary without knowing when or how—or, truth be told, if—the end will come,” says Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland.

The Senate’s hysteria over media consolidation may simply be a result of misunderstanding current media reality. Many of our elected leaders were born before World War II or shortly thereafter, after all, and they came of age in an era when newspapers held far more sway over audiences and opinions. They have little appreciation for the radical metamorphosis taking place in our modern media marketplace as new technologies, especially the Internet, revolutionize the way Americans communicate and obtain information.

But a far darker purpose likely lies behind the anti-consolidation rhetoric: the subversion of private media markets. Some of today’s congressional Democrats take their media guidance from radical agitators like Free Press, which boasts on its website, StopBigMedia.com, that its quarter-million letters to the Senate helped put the measure over the top. Free Press cofounders Robert McChesney—a prolific media critic—and John Nichols of The Nation show their true colors in their 2002 book, Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media. They argue that media-reform efforts begin with “the need to promote an understanding of the urgency to assert public control over the media. . . . Our claim is simply that the media system produces vastly less of quality than it would if corporate and commercial pressures were lessened.” At the end of the day, the Left, in and out of Congress, wants more government control of media—and by extension, more control of free speech.

All of this leaves the newspaper industry with few friends and fewer marketplace options. Many papers will continue to migrate online; some may even go all-digital in an attempt to avoid the high costs of printing and delivery. But one wonders how long some local papers have left when they are barred from restructuring their businesses or partnering with other local media operators to stem the bleeding and reinvent their business models. When newspapers start dropping like flies, we’ll know whom to blame.

Adam Thierer is a senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington, D.C. and the coauthor, with Brian C. Anderson, of A Manifesto for Media Freedom (forthcoming from Encounter Books).

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