The Internet was supposed to democratize speech, giving anyone with online access a chance to spout off about anything. And, of course, it has in a very real way. But ironically, the Internet’s everyone-in-the-pool qualities are being used to squeeze many voices out of traditional media. Claiming Americans get their fix of diverse viewpoints on the Internet, media conglomerates are using the Web as an excuse to consolidate their power in the offline worlds of television, radio and print media.
The Internet was supposed to democratize speech, giving anyone with online access a chance to spout off about anything. And, of course, it has in a very real way.
But ironically, the Internet’s everyone-in-the-pool qualities are being used to squeeze many voices out of traditional media.
Claiming Americans get their fix of diverse viewpoints on the Internet, media conglomerates are using the Web as an excuse to consolidate their power in the offline worlds of television, radio and print media.
At least that’s the argument the FCC is making in its effort to tear down decades-old laws that have prevented Big Media from growing even bigger.
Citing technology, the Federal Communications Commission has made a sharp about-face in its position on media ownership in recent months, effectively reversing decades of legislation intended to promote diversity in the media. And so far, the Supreme Court seems to be behind it.
A federal court has already reversed a rule that set limits on how large a cable company can grow in a given market and the extent to which it fills its channels with programming from its affiliates. And on Thursday, the FCC is set to do away with a regulation that for the past 26 years has prevented one national television network from buying another.
What next? How about your hometown newspaper getting bought by the same media conglomerate that owns a local TV station? That’s already the case in some cities, but in the interests of “corporate free speech,” the FCC is working on loosening the restrictions on cross-media ownership.
“The increasing concentration of the owners of media is the gravest danger to democracy today,” said Dean Alger, author of the 1998 book Megamedia: How Giant Corporations Dominate Mass Media, Distort Competition, and Endanger Democracy.
A spokeswoman for one of the major conglomerates said that deregulation is nothing new, whether on the Internet or in traditional media, and further consolidation is inevitable. She didn’t want her name or company mentioned by name.
In this debate over media ownership, “corporate free speech” or “freedom of the press” — or whatever you want to call it — has very little to do with the media’s right to inform citizens. Instead, it’s becoming synonymous with the right of one monolithic media corporation to dominate any given market.
Drawing comparisons with the courts’ abandonment of affirmative action over the last two decades, consumer advocates say diverse and decentralized media is a cornerstone of democracy, and FCC protections are a necessary safeguard.
What’s more, they say, this battle has nothing to do with the Internet, except that the giants of traditional media are using it as an excuse to push their perennial agenda: dominating the world’s communications channels through any available medium.
“I think we need to be very concerned about looking at this debate through the lens of the Internet,” said Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
There’s still a digital divide, and Internet access is far from universal, Felling said, which makes it premature to say that there’s no longer a need for diversity in traditional media. And the fact that many Americans can’t afford to pay for Internet access undermines the “mass” aspect of it as a media, he said.
For those reasons, “it’s self-serving and dangerous for the media to draw an analogy between the Internet and broadcast media,” Felling said. “It’s part of the script media conglomerates have handed the FCC to argue on their behalf.”
The FCC did not return calls for comment.
Media analysts agree that the vast majority of Americans don’t get their news from the Internet, favoring old-fashioned newspapers, radio and TV news. With online news sites drying up on the vine for lack of advertising revenue, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
And, of course, traditional media giants pretty much control online media too.
In March 2001, the top online news sites ranked by unique users in March 2001 were MSNBC.com (a joint venture by Microsoft and NBC), CNN.com (property of AOL Time Warner), and ABCNews.com (property of Disney), according to Jupiter Media Metrix. An earlier Jupiter study found that AOL Time Warner’s online properties accounted for nearly one third of all time spent on the Internet in January 2001.
While the power of conglomerates such as AOL Time Warner has penetrated nearly every American household, the extent to which ownership of traditional media has consolidated in recent decades would surprise most people, consumer advocates say.
Already, 98 percent of the country’s media markets are served by just one daily newspaper, many of which are owned by large media conglomerates. In Chicago, for example, three media conglomerates control 15 radio stations, two prime TV stations and the dominant newspaper, the Chicago Tribune.
“If your city has just one daily newspaper,” Alger said, “and it’s conjoined with the local TV station, which is owned by one of the big three networks, how will you get independent checks on the TV stations and the newspapers?” Alger asked. “You won’t.”
Media analysts seem to agree that the emergence of the Internet has very little to do with the age-old trend of industry consolidation.
“I don’t think there’s an Internet argument,” said Jupiter analyst David Card. “The case for one network buying another — Viacom buying UPN, for example — has nothing to do with the Internet.”
Even so, this isn’t the first time the industry has invoked the argument that technology is changing the rules of business to rewrite laws in its favor. In 1995, the industry lobbied the FCC to loosen the restrictions on radio ownership, which had said that no single company could own more than 18 AM and 18 FM stations, or a total of 36 stations nationwide.
Today, a little-known company called Clear Channel Communications owns over 1,000 stations nationwide. And Infinity Broadcasting, a division of CBS’s parent Viacom, owns over 180 radio stations nationwide, commanding a third or more of all radio advertising revenue in top markets including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
“There are six or seven media conglomerates that rule the world,” Card said. “It’s been that way for some time. But how many companies do you need to provide programming to mass audiences? Six companies should be enough. At least it’s not two.”
Not yet, that is.
Author: Aparna Kumar
News Service: Wired News