Wednesday, July 13, 2005

U.S. Has Most Diverse Media "in the World" Concludes Canadian Research Scholar in Harvard Study

In most industries the central concern about the degree of competition is economic: the degree of pricing power that the players have. For the most part, the agenda behind the contentious issue of media ownership policies centers not on prices but around diversity of content. Except for the occasional mention of allegedly unchecked cable rates, we don’t hear people complaining about the pricing of newspapers, magazines, or, heavens knows, Internet access or content.

No, media ownership debates are at heart a surrogate for the degree of choice that viewers and readers and listeners have. That is why the F.C.C. made a valiant, if controversial, attempt to construct a “diversity index” as a piece of its supporting documentation for its ownership regulation policies.

As the debate over the F.C.C.’s index reminded us, the quantification of “diversity” does not lend itself to easy metrics. Is it measured by different formats (print, audio, online)? Different genres (comedies, news, documentaries, dramas)? Languages (available in English, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian)? By “voices” (number of different owners)? Does audience size matter? If there are 1000 equally accessible voices but 80% of the audience at any moment or any day chooses to watch/read/listen to 1% of them, does that mean there is less diversity than if the audience was equally divided among all 1000 voices/owners?

In my media myths study (see link at right) I address this to a point, citing in particular research by Mara Einstein, who found by one approach to diversity that under the F.C.C. network rules in the 1970s and 1980s, designed to promote diversity, actually lessened it. But that looks at only one piece of the elephant.

Now along comes a new study conducted at Harvard's Kennedy School, “Measuring Media Diversity: Problems and Prospects” that, as its title promises, quite successfully lays out the problems involved in grappling with a definition of media content diversity. This is a concept that its author, Richard Schultz, characterizes as a “conceptual bog.” One intriguing aspect of this study is that it was compiled by a Canadian who is a senior member of the faculty of Montreal’s McGill University. Thus, the perspective is a bit less incestuous than an American who has been immersed in the U.S.-centric debates for years. And it is from this perch that he can make this initial observation:
No country arguably has had a more explicit commitment to the promotion and preservation of media diversity than the United States. Some scholars date the adoption of diversity as a goal of public policy in the United States to the 1879 Postal Act which provided for subsidized postal rates for magazines.
Schultz’s paper explores the “meaning of media diversity and the complications that conceptualizing media diversity pose for developing a non-contestable, if such is possible, measurement system.” He parses the controversy around the F.C.C.’s attempt to develop its Diversity Index. But in my entry today I will skip down to his findings and conclusions.

First, he summarizes that “the United States today already has one of, if not the most diverse media universes, perhaps galaxies is the better word, in the world. Those who argue the opposite simply have not shown ‘the beef’.” Then he nails the real issue:
The critics are more concerned about the quality, or lack thereof, in American media and the fact that for the most part it is commercial and market-driven… In part the issue is not diversity per se or even diversity of owners but rather diversity of types of owners. The critics just don’t like corporate domination of the media….
Clearly I agree with Schultz. But here is someone who is looking at the issue from the outside and sees without blinders the implications of what the media ownership critics really want: not more choice but less. They want owners who will not give us the choice of the "O’Reilly Factor," "C-Span" or "60 Minutes," but three channels of C-Span. Their choices for films would not be “Batman Begins” “Chocolat” or “Dumb and Dumber” but ten flavors of Michael Moore. What they seem to want is not our choices but their choices.

Democracy is not just about politics and government. It is about voting -- choosing -- in our daily lives. Democracy can be and has been sloppy: we have not always made the most enlightened choices. But they are our choices. The same holds for the choices we make about what media-provided content we consume. I recommend Richard Schultz’ analysis for your open-minded consideration.

Schultz expects that his paper will be available online soon. I will provide a link when it is.

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