The Federal Communications Commission’s decision last week to allow easier consolidation of the mass media has many First Amendment advocates expressing the fear that fewer media owners could mean fewer media “voices.”
Having fewer voices is obviously something to scrupulously avoid. Only through many competing ideas can the concept of majority rule, while protecting minority rights, truly exist in practice.
What we have seen in journalism in the last decade, however, is not fewer voices but more. A proliferation of new sources, primarily on cable television and the Internet, is challenging the old networks.
Even in entertainment — where free-speechers point to the recent decision by the conglomerate Clear Channel to ban songs by the Dixie Chicks on its more than 1,200 stations due to the country trio’s political views — competition appears to be robust. That is, the surest way to get the Dixie Chicks back on Clear Channel stations is for those who enjoy their music to switch to other stations that play it. And the Internet and satellite radio’s array of online and digitized offerings will continue to give consumers the choice of hearing the work of different artists.
Though consolidation is a fact of corporate life, there is potential cause for concern if competition is actually limited to the point where consumers have few choices, which almost always decreases quality. Why would a radio station with only two competitors program the improved play list it probably would if it had 10?
Meanwhile, the time when every American has affordable, easy access to the Internet, satellite TV or satellite radio is still far off. Until then, as we enter an era of further deregulation and more consolidation, the public should be on guard against the possibility of monopoly mass media ownership.
One company that owns a market’s major TV and radio stations and its biggest newspapers has little incentive to offer a robust forum of opinions — particularly controversial ones. That is a troubling prospect in a nation that draws strength from its differences.