Friday, November 09, 2007

Senate's Media Ownership Crusade: Ignores Research, Will Have Unintended Consequences

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Senate’s latest misguided efforts to prevent the Federal Communications Commission from doing its job is the ignorance—or worse—ignoring— by the Senators of the solid data available to guide it. In a hearing on November 8 on "Localism, Diversity, and Media Ownership," the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation loaded up the testimony with advocates of greater regulation. But they once again turned a blind eye to years of research that have failed to show any pervasive ill effects of the existing media ownership structure. They fall back on anecdotes and “fear” of potential behavior while barely giving lip service to the inevitable and largely positive effects of a rapidly changing media landscape.

Senators Dorgan and Lott, Inouye and Obama, Feinstein and Snow—Democrats and Republicans-- insist on the quaint notion of “locally-owned” media, when there is no sustained body of research that demonstrates that locally owned newspapers, radio or a TV stations provide more, better or more diverse information than corporately owned media entities. The press release from Sen. Dorgan asserts that “’locally-owned' means they're invested in their communities and care about their well-being,” when reputable research does not sustain that.

The Senators applauded the position of Seattle Times owner Frank Blethen, who argued against lifting the newspaper/TV cross-ownership ban, just at the time that newspapers are fighting for their survival and TV stations are facing declining viewership.

The policy they are pursuing is populist to be sure: Thanks to the efforts of the advocacy group the Free Press and the unexamined assumptions of many journalists there is an overwhelming misperception that the mass media are becoming more concentrated, when the numbers show they are not. And there is no denying that if one asked 1000 adults at any mall “Should we allow for greater concentration of media ownership” their response would be an overwhelming “No.” And do you still beat your wife?

A few years ago the Project for Excellence in Journalism, overseen by Tom Rosenstiel, a respected former journalist, conducted a major empirical study that looked at the relationship between local TV station ownership and quality in the news. I have mentioned this study often, including in my last study of media ownership. The Project’s own conclusion was that “overall the data strongly suggest regulatory changes that encourage heavy concentration of ownership in local television by a few large corporations will erode the quality of news Americans receive.” And given the expectations of the constituency of the ongoing Project, that is presumably what it expected to find on initiating the study.

But the authors felt compelled to add some caveats (to me they sounded grudgingly added, but give credit for admitting to this). “Taken together, the findings of the study suggest the question of media ownership [as it affects local television news] is more complex than some advocates of both sides of the deregulatory debate imagine.”

Among the study’s findings:
•Stations with cross-ownership—in which the parent company also owns a newspaper in the same market—tended to produce higher quality newscasts.
• Ownership type made no measurable difference in terms of the diversity of people depicted in the news and little difference in the range of topics a station covered. In general, there is striking uniformity across the country in what local television stations define as news.
• Stations owned by the largest groups produced higher quality early evening newscasts than those owned by the smaller groups. Smaller station groups tended to produce higher quality late evening newscasts than stations owned by larger companies.
• Network affiliated stations tended to produce higher quality newscasts than network owned and operated stations.
• Local ownership offered little protection against newscasts being very poor and did not produce superior quality.
• Stations of privately-owned companies and publicly-owned companies did not perform significantly differently from each other.

Even within these overall conclusions there is something for everyone. For example, the notion of “quality” is highly dependent on the criteria used and how they are weighed. Although small company stations were found overall to have higher quality than those owned by the largest companies, those owned by this latter group rated highest on the criteria of “offering communities a variety of viewpoints in their newscasts.” And medium-sized owners were better than smaller owners when it came to enterprise reporting and the greatest localism.

I noticed that Rosenstiel was not included on the Senate’s panel. It would have been logical, as his group has some useful insights and research. Perhaps he was busy. But although the Project for Excellence in Journalism is likely in sympathy with the goals of the Senate committee, he might also have felt obligated to report findings that fly in the face of the biases of the Senators.

I have explored this territory extensively in my Media Myths study. Adam Thierer has a book with a similar theme. We have both noted that there is at least as much anecdotal evidence that local owners can be far more one sided and biased than corporate owners who tend to be more willing to be responsive to the market than to pet causes and ideologies. The latter has been well documented from publishers such as Walter Annenberg when he owned The Philadelphia Inquirer, William Loeb, owner of the Manchester (NH) Union-Leader, Col. McCormick’s Chicago Tribune and, of course the legendary William Randolph Hearst.

Nor is there convincing evidence that minority or women owned media – particularly broadcast television--are any more likely to program much differently than majority or male-controlled media. The economics and the incentives are the same for all and the research I have seen on this confirms this.

None of this is to say that media combinations are to be encouraged by regulation. What it does say is that any laws or regulation that substantially prevent market forces from operating at this time would have few, if any, known effects in promoting the goals of these legislators. And the unintended consequences—such as speeding the demise of some newspapers or blocking the introduction of local TV news where there is none now—could seriously impede the very objectives sought by the Senators and those egging them on.

This is a movement driven by emotion and populism. It is a stand that politicians like because it has no budget consequences but panders to the electorate as a bipolar issue. It is far more complicated, infected by finer shades of gray than have been presented to the mass audience. The motivation behind the Media Ownership Act of 2007 and the pressure being put on the FCC is based on misconstrued perceptions at best, a conscious avoidance of solid research at worst. It would be terrible policy, untimely law.

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