Democracy and Deregulation of Media in America
Regulation is a term that rarely comes to mind when the subject of media is concerned. Newspapers, television, radio stations, and media outfits, for the most part, engage in a type of self regulation as a matter of policy and principle. Media regulating bodies such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and similar agencies in the country, exist to pick up where media outfits have left off.
But coming from a developed nation, and under the heading of ‘democracy,’ media is afforded certain forms of freedom, if not autonomy. Regulation easily slips through the cracks and media isn’t as closely guarded. McChesney and Alterman pronounces this assumption by writing, “Media and communication policies have been made in the most corrupt manner imaginable for generations” (203). A statement which implies that if people want a media that is unlike what McChesney and Alterman had in mind, the state should take necessary steps to police and regulate it.
Media content is largely written and produced with the best interest of certain individuals and corporations in mind because it is in these individuals and corporations where money usually comes from; and in every aspect of reality, money is power. The delivery of news and similarly significant public concerns then becomes a type of business venture instead of the noble bastion of ‘public service’ that it is generally painted out to be, especially in journalism. And while it can be argued that media is a business, and has long been one; or that ‘public service’ doesn’t necessarily entail the lack of profits, the difference between airing public concerns and serving as a mouthpiece to satisfy the interests of one corporation and a handful of people are disparately at odds with each other, and the latter is not what journalism and the dissemination of news is generally all about.
Correspondingly, giant companies along the lines of AOL – Time Warner, Disney, ViaCom, NewsCorp, Bertelsmann, and General Electric; collectively known as ‘The Big Six’, are chiefly influencing a significant part of networks and cable channels, movie productions, music distributions, newspapers, radio stations, and virtually the whole of mass media. An estimated ninety percent of network television content is fueled by these conglomerates. Control over media content is limited to a small group of business people, instead of being distributed to a larger number of individuals who can pitch in and have their respective versions of concerns addressed, which is what democracy should essentially be about. Ironically, control over the access to these essential avenues of information are more centralized than ever; new media technologies, among others, help make this a possibility. Companies are consolidating their assets to further their private interests, their causes, and most importantly, their profits (Champlin and Knoedler 211 – 212).
“News in the new age of media conglomerates is in the hands of a few mega corporations” (cited in Bagdikian 1997). The aforementioned media giants control notable news network programs on television, AOL Time Warner for instance, controls CNN; Disney controls ABC; Viacom presides over CBS; GE over NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, and so on (Champlin and Knoedler 214).
Meanwhile, the type of information that chooses to reach the public is filtered by the mammoth faces of monopoly and capitalism. The corporation who owns part or the entirety of a network or publication for instance, is likely to prioritize their respective persuasions and news that would sell better to getting prime air time or the front page, resigning what may be more relevant to the general public to the succeeding pages, or affording it airtime that is little to none. One clear cut example of this is CNN’s coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995. The news network aired coverage on the trial non-stop, and left news stories such as North Korea’s power plants inspection, untouched (Champlin and Knoedler 216). Quality of public information is then ‘taken to the back burner,’ and media is turned solely into one big advertisement and peddling venture.
Corporations are arguing however, that the trend of consolidating media is not an entirely evil prospect. But to government, it rings an acutely different tune. “No anti-democratic trend in the United States during the past quarter – century is more threatening to freedom than the takeover and control of mainstream journalism by gigantic corporations” (Dugger 226). Media is an avenue for expression and information to reach the general masses, it is a form of power, when that power resides in the hands of a few giant corporations, they may as well be called dictators. Of course, when government does regulate this power, which comes in the form of free speech, it becomes unconstitutional. But certain freedoms are only regarded as such when it doesn’t step on the boundaries of other people’s freedoms, and this is what media corporations are doing, stepping on the general public’s freedom to choose, by limiting the public’s choices to match theirs.
The advent of conglomerate media corporations limits the prospective traffic of differing views, concerns, and ideologies; curbing the beauty of variety by reducing newsworthy and potentially quality public information to a concentrated amount of material produced under the motivation of a handful of private mega corporations.
Another way of looking at the evils of corporate media lies in the area of education. The president of the University of Washington, writes in a guest column in the Seattle Times how consolidation of media, or the consolidation of information limits the possibility of growth and the free flow of ideas which should be nurtured in colleges and schools “Now, the consolidation or homogenization of information, the homogenization of the distribution of ideas around cultural creation, and the lack of diversity that comes from that homogenization of opinions are completely antithetical to the creation of new knowledge, the creation of new cultures, and the transmission of those to society” (Emmett).
It comes as the least bit surprising how profit plays an unavoidably significant part in most ventures, private or otherwise. In the case of mass media, finances, profits and numbers generally outweigh the need for quality public information, information which entails broader coverage in news and events of national concern. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, journalists are unhappy with the direction their profession is heading towards and unpleasantly acknowledges the poor coverage of news and issues in daily newspapers and local television as well as network news as a reality that exists in America today (231). This survey response implies the drought for diversity of content in news, and the limits of its coverage.
Politics also serves as a prime element in concentration of content in media. Pew surveys in 2004 for instance, show disparities between the public’s attitude towards the Bush administration and the outlook of the press regarding the subject matter. The sentiments of the general public being critical of the administration was not mirrored in the press’ coverage of the subject matter, inclining most to believe that much of media has ‘gone soft’ and its output, largely influenced by the leanings of the corporation in question (234).
Individuals in opposition to this type of media aim for restructure and transformation, but know all too well one thing, “It will not be an easy fight… this is a long-term struggle, a never-ending one.. we know that it is impossible to have a viable democracy with the current media system, and we are capable of changing this system. The future depends upon our being successful” (McChesney and Alterman 210).
But the future has arrived. An article in The New York Times finds the Federal Communications Commission circulating a plan to relax media ownership rules in the country. This includes repealing a regulation that prohibits a company to own both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city. FCC chairman Kevin Martin will be repealing the law in the next two months. A plan that once successful would be a large cause of celebration for media conglomerates (Labaton 2007).
The battle between regulating and deregulating media continues to be an ongoing matter that needs to be dealt with the sooner the better. Unfortunately, the odds at which corporate conglomerates will eventually lose footing over more diverse and distributed smaller media companies is not likely to happen anytime soon.
Government should create avenues which encourages smaller companies and other individuals to venture into media ownership. On the other hand, policies should be continually kept in place where simultaneous media-outfit ownership is concerned.
Media however, will continue to be a waterhole for public consumption. Whether or not its content will remain to be so is indeterminate. One can only hope that the general public will be able to change the way corporations compose media content. In turn, shifting views regarding the importance of deregulating media, and ultimately treading towards a better idea of democracy through a traffic of diverse ideas and information, however slowly, in struggling baby steps.
Champlin, Dell and Janet Koedler. “Operating in the Public Interest or in Pursuit of Profits?” Journal of Economic Issues. (2002): 210 – 220
Dugger, Ronnie. “Corporate Takeover of the Media.” Media, Culture and Society Vol 26. (2004): 225 – 228
Emmet, Mark.“Consolidation of Media is Unhealthy for Education” 15 December 2006. The Seattle Times. 25 November 2007 <http:seattletimes.nwsource.com>
Labaton, Stephen. “Plan Would Ease Limits on Media Owners.” 18 October 2007. The New York Times. 14 November 2007 <http://www.nytimes.com/>
McChesney, Robert and Eric Alterman. “Waging the Media Battle.” The American Prospect Magazine. (2004): 202-10
Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “Bottom-line Pressures Now Hurting Coverage, Say Journalists.” 2004.