All of this leads back to the key analytical question: what besides ownership matters? There are five likely answers. First, public taste matters. Corporations try to anticipate it and to channel it but they know very well they cannot control it. Second, professional norms, values, and courage matter. Although Wall Street provides the money to operate major media, stock traders and investment bankers do not themselves risk their lives covering Iraq or check the spelling of the name of the murder victim or sit through the city council meeting or track down the expert who might explain cancer clusters or global warming. Journalists who aren’t easily pushed around do. Third, public legitimacy matters. Even the major media depend on it and cannot entirely manipulate it; without public legitimacy, they are vulnerable to government regulation, particularly in radio and television, and they are also vulnerable to public disaffection and protest.

Fourth, there is a climate of opinion within which the media operate, to which they are bound, and on which they have only modest influence. Today’s climate of opinion is powerfully influenced by science, gives more credence to religion than it once did, tolerates a new coarseness in public expression, accords less deference to conventional authorities and canons, and endorses a view of the United States as multicultural. Fifth, the degree of consensus in the political elite matters. When there is significant, open disagreement among politicians, the media are empowered and emboldened to report critically; when politicians close ranks, as they did in the early years of the Vietnam War or in the wake of September 11, the media have no constituency for pressing alternative viewpoints.

“I believe in my bones,” says the dissenting FCC Commissioner Michael Copps in Klinenberg’s concluding paragraph, “that few priorities our country confronts have such long-term effect on our democracy as how America communicates and converses with itself and how this process has deteriorated.” “Deterioration” is not the term to apply to radio news when we have enjoyed better service through NPR stations for the past thirty years than ever before; it does not apply to national investigative reporting that is better since the Vietnam years than it ever was before; it does not apply to an Internet that is still building its public affairs muscle in remarkable ways. It’s one thing to warn that our structure for public communication is a national resource that should not be squandered; it is another thing to moan that it all just gets worse and worse.

There were five newspapers in Baltimore a century ago when H.L. Mencken began his career in journalism. Of those papers he wrote, “Four of them were cheap, trashy, stupid and corrupt. They all played politics for what there was in it, and leaped obscenely every time an advertiser blew his nose. Every other American city of that era was full of such papers—dreadful little rags, venal, vulnerable and vile.” But at least the media were not concentrated! Ownership is important. Ownership is not everything.

 

Michael Schudson teaches at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.