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p>While the typical American family is at home watching their favorite show, surfing the Internet, text messaging their friends, or even downloading local news and weather to their cell phones, the Federal Communications Commission will be holding hearings to discuss media ownership, an idea that evolved out of the world of rabbit ear antennas, over the air television broadcasts, and radios that did not involve satellites.
In today’s world of YouTube downloads, blogs, and podcasts, those rules no longer make sense. Discussions of who can own some of the media outlets in their communities are woefully incomplete, ignoring the explosion in communications that has occurred in the last decade.
Despite the growth in diversity and the number of media outlets, a small but vocal group will turn out in force for the FCC’s hearings, asking for greater government control of the nation’s broadcast media. The “Free Press,” as they are called are calling for new restrictions on the media that will ultimately reduce the choices available to American families.
Ironically, the Free Press’s actions belie the contradiction of their arguments. While calling for greater control over radio and television in order to ensure diversity, they actually rely on the Internet and email to disseminate their message, as do thousands of bloggers, non-profits, and others who reach a wide audience on an amazing array of issues.
The irony is telling. The Free Press argues that media consolidation constrains the free flow of information to Americans, threatening the very future of our democracy, yet they practice a very sophisticated form of democratic activism with only a minimal use of mainstream media.
What exactly is their agenda? Their website says the Free Press is working to “… produce a more competitive and public interest-oriented media system with a strong nonprofit and noncommercial sector.”
Yet today’s communications market is thriving and outdated government regulations are actually impeding competition by making it difficult for old-line broadcasters to compete with the slew of new competitors that technology has spawned. Cable, satellite, and broadband providers are a potent threat to incumbent broadcasters that compete directly with the local programming the Free Press claims to promote.
Ironically, the Free Press’s views are anything but free, calling for more government intervention into the market and a larger role for government in allocating speech. This inevitably leads to more taxpayer-funded public broadcasting and a government required to moderate speech and access to the airwaves. Political interests replace viewers’ interests, with bureaucrats potentially determining whose speech gets heard.
For all their democratic posturing, the Free Press and related groups are promoting extremely anti-democratic policies. They claim to speak for the public, but their agenda is really anti-choice.
For example, the Free Press warns us that 80 percent of viewers during primetime watch the major networks -- ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC. But the typical viewer today has more options than ever before -- more channels, more programs, more choice. If Americans predominately watch major network shows, that is because they choose to watch those programs. The Free Press wants to take that choice away.
In order to justify these actions, Free Press and others need to demonstrate that there is a compelling public interest. Thus, we are subjected to the overheated rhetoric of their supporters.
“I don’t think I exaggerate at all,” Democrat FCC Commissioner Copps told an audience in Ashville, North Carolina, “in saying that the issue is whether a few large conglomerates will be ceded content control over our music, entertainment and information; gatekeeper control over the civil dialogue of our country; and veto power over the majority of what we and our families, watch, hear and read.”
Not exaggerating at all? Well, maybe just a little bit. Far from suffering from a lack of information, the biggest challenge facing most Americans today is wading through innumerable options to find both a media outlet and a voice that speaks to them and their needs. And their options have never been so diverse. Broadband and the Internet have created new markets and new media, providing anyone with a blog or a website access to millions of potential listeners and viewers.
Nonetheless, the Free Press’s rhetoric plays well at these regulatory gatherings. In past forums, we learned that media consolidation is responsible for racism, slow economic growth, and the inability of certain artists to get their work aired.
The Free Press supporters may not agree on much, but they do agree that the government should take away radio stations from private companies and give the spectrum to someone they like better, like themselves. This slanted discourse could result in ceding control of the nation’s airwaves to groups that will perpetuate the attack on market economies and the values that allow those economies to work so well.
Broadcast media is not the dominant source of news and information it used to be, and new broadband technologies will do even more to challenge incumbent broadcasters. But for anti-market advocates, it represents their last viable opportunity to use the power of government to force us to listen to them. The government can take positive steps to help all viewers and listeners, but not by taking control of the airwaves. Instead, the government can move to increase competition and choice by removing archaic laws that are out of step with the fundamental changes occurring in the marketplace.