Thursday, December 02, 2004

Competition and the Media

About this Blog

This forum is about media ownership and competition. Notice I don't say media concentration. They are two sides of the coin. As more competition is generally viewed as better than less, I favor speaking about the degree of competition in the media industry.

It is also about empirical data on the subject. It seeks to add to an informed debate. Not one based on anecdotal stories or worst case scenarios. It is perhaps a cliche, but nonetheless accurate, that honest participants can haggle over the interpretation of data (see my piece about Tom Wolizen’s data). We can even have differences of what questions need to be asked. But having some hard numbers should, indeed get in the way of a good argument.

This forum also has a high regard for the First Amendment. To those who seek that the government take this or that remedy, let us recall that this lead-off amendment to our Constitution was created because of the prime fear that it was a powerful government that must be kept out of the media business. Any tinkering with any restrictions on private voices needs to be certain that it does not erode this distinction.

This forum is not about the usual laments of the perceived growing economic clout, negative social impact, worrisome cultural affect or dangerous political trends of media ownership trends. There are plenty of sites that whip up these passions. This forum does not start, a priori, that overall media competition is leading us to bad places.

The changes proposed by the FCC in broadcast ownership rules in June 2003 were only the latest in decades of government attempts to fine tune what we see, hear--and to a much lesser extent-- read. And government response to a perception of possible unhealthy growth in media ownership concentration was responded to as early as 1978, when the Federal Trade Commission held a two day public symposium on the subject. It was about that time that I was getting involved in creating an empirical look at who owned the media.

When U.S. media pundit A.J. Liebling wrote that freedom of the press belongs to those who own one he summed up the emotion that separates the media business from virtually any other enterprise. The press -- or today more generically the mass media -- stands not simply for the power to convey information, but more crucially for the assumed ability to shape attitudes, opinions and beliefs. The media are the vehicles for education--and propaganda. Who controls these outlets and what the players' intentions are for their use has been a contentious issue at least since the 15th century, when both Church and State recognized the potential of the printing press and immediately sought to control it.

Does Ownership Really Matter?

In the end, of course, one must ask whether this concern about who owns the media really matters. To what extent, if any, do changing patterns of ownership have an effect on media content, economic functions, or audience impact? We have assumed it does, but what do we really know? With your help, I aim to help address these and similar questions that are relevant to the policy debate, while commenting on current topics and issues.

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