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<nettime> Users are the Real Media Masters
geert lovink on Tue, 17 Jun 2003 06:42:07 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Users are the Real Media Masters

(This article comes from CATO, a fundamentalist rightist think tank in
Washington DC that saw itself forced to respond to recent protests against
the FCC ruling to loosen media ownership rules. Protests not only came from
usual liberal-left suspects but also mainstream conservative organizations
and celebrities. /Geert)

The Media Ownership Debate: Who Are the Real Media Masters?

Issue #51
June 16, 2003

by Adam Thierer and Clyde Wayne Crews Jr.
Despite the First Amendment prohibition on restricting private speech,
arbitrary caps and quotas have long governed how many newspapers and radio
and TV stations a given company can own. On June 2, the Federal
Communications Commission slightly loosened those restrictions, unleashing
hysteria from opponents who believe our thoughts are being programmed by a
handful of media barons. But such conspiratorial "puppet-master" theories of
media manipulation are misplaced. The real media masters in America are the
viewers and listeners who demand and receive an ever-broadening array of
information and entertainment choices.

Despite claims about the death of diversity, localism, and democracy, what
proponents of ownership rules really advocate is their own version of media
control and, ultimately, control of content and information. One cannot
claim to support democracy and choice and simultaneously support centralized
governmental control of the size or nature of private media outlets.
Moreover, information is not "monopolizable" in a free society, where
government does not practice censorship, and thus there is no such thing as
a "media monopoly" unanswerable to the rest of society and the economy
potentially arrayed against it. Government's energy is best directed at its
own regulatory policies that artificially generate scarcity of bandwidth and
spectrum, which can and do stand in the way of new voices.

Misplaced Fears of Media Monopoly. Considering the dismal state of media
competition and diversity just 20 to 30 years ago, today's world is
characterized by information abundance, not scarcity. Today the media are
far less concentrated and more competitive than 30 years ago. Consider two
families, living in 1973 versus 2003, and their available media and
entertainment options. The 1973 family could flip through three major
network television stations or tune in to a PBS station or a UHF channel or
two. By comparison, today's families can take advantage of a 500-plus
channel universe of cable and satellite-delivered options, order movies on
demand, and check out a variety of specialized news, sports, or
entertainment programming-in addition to those same three networks.

Today's family also has far more to choose from on the radio. Seven thousand
stations existed in 1970 nationwide. Today more than 13,000 stations exist
and subscription-based music services are delivered uninterrupted nationwide
via digital satellite. And then, of course, there's the Internet and the
cornucopia of communications, information, and entertainment services the
Web offers. Today, the Internet gives every man, woman, and child the
ability to be a one-person publishing house or broadcasting station and to
communicate with the entire planet or break news of their own. (Consider the
"The Drudge Report" and its role in leaking the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.)
Today, the library comes to us as the Net places a world of information at
our fingertips. And while the 1973 family could read the local newspaper
together, today's families can view thousands of newspapers from communities
across the planet.

Timid Tweaking of the Rules. While America's mass media marketplace is
evolving rapidly, the same cannot be said for the rules governing it.
Despite the uproar, the FCC's June 2 ruling represented a meager
liberalization effort. The national television ownership cap, which limits
how much of the national market can be served by broadcast and cable
companies, was bumped from 35 up to 45 percent. Likewise, the restrictions
on radio and television cross-ownership in a single market, and on ownership
of more than one of the top four stations in given market, have been
moderately revised. Significantly, rules preventing a company from owning a
newspaper and television station in the same market were largely lifted. But
other rules remain. For example, the Dual Network rule banning mergers
between the big broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) was preserved. A
limitation on the number of radio stations a company can own in a local
market was even tightened. Media companies continue to be forced to play by
a restrictive set of ownership rules that are imposed on no other industry.

In revising such rules previously, the courts have recognized that the
changes in the media marketplace have given citizens a diversity of news,
information, and entertainment options that undercuts the rationale behind
many of the current regulations. Moreover, the courts have stressed that the
First Amendment remains of paramount importance when considering such
restrictions of media. Forcibly limiting the size of the soapbox that media
owners hope to build to speak to the American people is violates the free
speech rights we hold sacred. The interesting question now is whether the
courts will accept the FCC's incremental changes to the existing rules, and
how Congress will respond. Hearings are already being scheduled and bills
introduced that would roll back the FCC's limited liberalization efforts.

But it would be foolish for Congress to do so. Far from living in a world of
"information scarcity" that some fear, we now live in a world of information
overload. The number of information and entertainment options at our
disposal has almost become overwhelming, and many of us struggle to filter
and manage all the information we can choose from in an average day. FCC
Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy put it well: "Democracy and civic discourse
were not dead in America when there were only three to four stations in most
markets in the 1960s and 1970s, and they will surely not be dead in this
century when there are, at a minimum, four to six independent broadcasters
in most markets, plus hundreds of cable channels and unlimited Internet

Given these market realities and a greater appreciation for the First
Amendment rights of media companies, the courts may strike down any attempt
to reinstate or strengthen the old rules. Congress would be wise to instead
focus its energies on revising cumbersome spectrum policies that
artificially limit greater innovation and competition to existing media

Big Media or Big Government? Media monopoly is not a legitimate threat in a
free society because citizens are always free to establish new media
outlets, and investors are free to fund them. The scale and scope of private
media organizations is not an appropriate target of coercive public policy,
because such policy violates free speech. Government restrictions on
ownership are themselves censorship and represent the real threat to
democracy. Diversity, independence of voice and democracy do not spring from
government control of the means of speech, but from a separation between
government and media. Information-which at bottom, is what the debate is all
about-is fundamentally not capable of being monopolized by private actors.
Information is abundant and constantly being created. Only government can
censor or prohibit free speech, or the emergence and funding of alternative
views. Citizens need not fear media monopoly, rather, in our modern
marketplace, it is the media itself that must live in fear of the power of
consumer choice and the tyranny of the remote control.

Adam Thierer (athierer {AT} cato.org) is the director of telecommunications
studies and Wayne Crews (wcrews {AT} cato.org) the director of technology studies
at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. They are the authors of What's
Yours Is Mine: Open Access and the Rise of Infrastructure Socialism. To
subscribe or see a list of all previous TechKnowledge articles, visit

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