Dispersed media ownership serves democratic values
Special to The Times
The Federal Communications Commission is considering whether to reduce restrictions on broadcast-station ownership, an action that would permit greater media and press concentration.
This is a bad idea. Bad for audiences, for citizens, and for democracy. Dispersed media ownership, ideally local ownership, serves democratic values, while conglomerate ownership and media mergers, which would be the result of reduced ownership restrictions, do the opposite.
Equality — one person one vote — provides the proper standard for the distribution of power and voice in a democracy. Maximum dispersal of media ownership can enable more people to identify a media entity as in some sense speaking for and to them.
Dispersed ownership also reduces the danger of inordinate, potentially demagogic power in the public sphere. As the FCC once recognized, many owners creates more independent decision makers who can devote journalistic resources to investigative reports. Finally, dispersal reduces — without eliminating — potential conflicts of interests between journalism and an owner's economic interests.
In contrast, media mergers put papers and broadcasters into the hands of executives whose career advancement depends on maximizing profits. Mergers require owners to squeeze out more profits to pay off debt created by the high bid made to secure the purchase. As too many recent examples show, the most consistent method to reduce expenses is to fire journalists.
Smaller owners, free from the financial burden of paying for mergers, have more room to maintain a commitment to quality. They can be interested in how their paper contributes to their community, not merely to their family's wealth. While certainly not true in every case, research shows that, holding other factors constant, smaller owners tend to hire more journalists and commit more resources to journalism than do the conglomerate owners.
For the media to have a single-minded emphasis on the bottom line is dangerous for democracy. Unlike many companies whose main business is providing individual consumers with goods they value, the press provides value to the public at large. Non-readers benefit when the press identifies government corruption or corporate malfeasance. News organizations that practice aggressive investigative reporting can benefit the public without even producing a story to sell readers when their reputation for reporting deters wrongdoing.
Of course, the newspaper does not profit from providing these benefits to those who do not purchase the paper. Papers concerned primarily with profits have inadequate incentives to provide this kind of beneficial journalism. Only a commitment to traditional journalistic values leads to the commitment of the journalistic resources necessary to provide this public good.
It is precisely because the press can provide the public with these kinds of benefits that it is the only private business to receive special constitutional protection. This explains why the FCC has long restricted concentration of ownership of broadcast stations and the cross-ownership of a local broadcast station and a newspaper within a community.
Large media companies often claim that any restraint on their freedom to merge violates their rights under the First Amendment. But in writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Hugo Black, famous for his absolute commitment to the First Amendment, rejected this claim, stating: "Surely a command that the government itself shall not impede the free flow of ideas does not afford non-governmental combinations a refuge if they impose restraints upon that constitutionally guaranteed freedom ... Freedom of the press ... does not sanction repression of that freedom by private interests."
The Supreme Court strikes down any law censoring what the media can say. At the same time the court consistently follows Black's logic by upholding any law that can be reasonably defended as furthering a more democratic structure of the press.
Rather than reduce restrictions on media ownership, the FCC should expand ownership restrictions and create regulatory preferences for more diversified and more local ownership.
The FCC or Congress could extend the ban on cross-ownership to prohibit ownership both of a national newspaper or a large newspaper chain and of a national broadcast or cable network. This rule would, as it should and constitutionally could, require undoing the recent purchase by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation of The Wall Street Journal.
Widely dispersed ownership of independent media serves both democracy and the First Amendment. It embodies a commitment that is good for everyone in a democratic society.
C. Edwin Baker, author of "Media Concentration: Why Ownership Matters," is a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company