A Reality Check For FCC Debate

The sky won't fall if the rules change, but to say it doesn't matter is folly, too

Every time the FCC proposes new media ownership rules (as it did four years ago, and seven years before that) it’s an opportunity to witness the power of spin. Those who favor deregulation, and those who oppose it, describe the media landscape in ways that favor their position. In the swirl of these competing visions, it’s not really clear what is even being discussed. So many of the different sounds and images we take in every day can arguably be construed as “media,” that it’s easy to lose track of what the FCC actually has jurisdiction over.

Take the current the debate. The FCC is proposing to alter one of its cross-ownership rules. It’s one that was established in 1975 and prohibits a company from owning both a newspaper and a broadcast station (TV or radio) in the same city. The head of the FCC, Kevin Martin, is now proposing to do away with this law in the top twenty markets—markets that have at least eight other competing, independent TV stations.

The deregulators, led by Martin himself, tell a sad story about the financial state of the newspaper industry. As he explained in an op-ed in The New York Times the other day, he believes that this relatively minor rule change will help “restore the viability of newspapers while preserving the core values of a diversity of voices and a commitment to localism in the media marketplace.” He adds also that there are so many other media sources, from blogs to cable, that allowing a few companies to own a bit more will not squash this diversity.

Those on the other side believe Martin is being disingenuous, that he cares not for the “diversity of voices” but rather for the free market and the desire of big media companies to own more. The twenty largest markets actually reach over 40 percent of the U.S. population, the media activists say, and further consolidation would decrease diversity and localism and lead to a more homogenous media landscape.

Still, Martin and the promoters of deregulation are able to deflect these complaints and make themselves into the defenders of diversity (as Martin did in his op-ed) because of the confusion about what constitutes “media.” And this is where things get tricky.

The FCC actually regulates only a small part of the “media” we digest every day. It has power over newspaper and broadcast radio and television (NBC, CBS, ABC). Though this may seem like a few fish in a massive media sea, these fish are really more like those sharks that have thousands of guppies following in their wake, eating their leftovers. It’s the big-city newspapers and TV networks that break most national and international news, setting the news agenda for everyone still, despite the proliferation of all this other “media.” Putting them into the same category as blogs, or even talk radio, just confuses the picture.

But that is exactly what those favoring deregulation are doing. Take Matt Welch’s column in The Los Angeles Times today. He scoffs at what he calls “anti-media activists” and their “sky-is-falling brief against big media consolidation.” To disprove them he starts listing all the media he consumes on any given day. He starts with his own paper and the New York Post—the only ones that actually, consistently break news—and then goes on to name dozens of blogs, talk radio programs, and cable shows (including The Colbert Report).

Welch comes to the conclusion that all the loonies screaming about media consolidation are ignoring the richness of the media universe. But he makes the mistake of confusing quantity with quality. How much of this “media” actually makes news, uncovers stories, investigates, and still has a commitment (waning though it may be) to the public good? Very few, and the ones that do are the same ones that the FCC regulates. So it does make sense to worry and scrutinize any changes in ownership rules. They do matter if they limit the amount of real news we get.

Having said all that, I actually have no problem with the current proposed change in cross-ownership rules. The forces lined up against deregulation have become so sensitive to having the wool pulled over their eyes that it seems like some trick is being played here. But look a little closer, and you see that big media companies have been getting waivers for this particular rule since it was established in 1975. Making it official won’t change much. If anything, as Sam Zell could tell us, it will force those media behemoths to sell off some of their holdings in order to be in compliance with the new rule.

It would be nice, though, to see this ownership debate take place in language that corresponds to reality. The sky will not fall if this rule is changed, but neither should we ignore what’s actually at stake when the FCC decides the limits of media ownership.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.