The following is one of the few "serious" and "idealistic" posts you will find here at my blog. This post is based on the premise that our democratic society could succeed if one of the many messed up things about it were fixed.

I recently viewed Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004), a documentary showcasing both Mr. Murdoch's ridiculous amount of media assets and Fox News Channel's "conservative" take on the news. The film raised many questions in my mind. I wasn't so much bothered by the smothering of examples of Fox's biased news coverage: a collage of Bill O'Reilly "shut-ups," the anchor Brit Hume counting down the days until "Our President is Reelected," or the constant flashing of the "America's News Channel" graphic. To each his own, I say. Nay, I was more taken aback by the exorbitant expanse that is News Corporation itself. Being a student of the media, I have been thinking lately (!) about the modern concept of a free press.

AOL Time Warner is currently the world’s biggest entertainment and media company, with revenues of almost $32 Billion, but this is not a unique situation. Currently 25 companies own 50 percent of the U.S. media. That number is most likely to decrease in this new century, with the possibility of being reduced to a dozen or fewer. In light of this glaring fact and my recent arousal d'documentarre, I would argue that the gradual concentration of media ownership by a continually decreasing number of companies poses a threat to the ideal of a free press, and thus to our democracy itself.

What exactly is the ideal of a free press and is it crucial to democracy?
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that “Congress shall make no law....abridging the freedom of the press…” One need not look any further than the fact that this right was included in the first amendment of the Constitution to realize its importance.
Indeed, while all of our constitutional freedoms are precious, this amendment's assurance of free speech and a free press, and practicing the freedoms thereof, are fundamental building blocks of a democracy.
The men who ratified the Bill of Rights in 1791 realized that placing these liberties outside of the reach of governmental restriction was crucial to ensuring a legitimate and free society. Only through a free press can there exist a “marketplace of ideas,” the product of which is the education of the citizenry—a fundamental principle in democracy.

If the guarantee of a free press is a “building block” of democracy, then what can be construed as being a threat to that guarantee?
There are two possible threats. The obvious one would be government intrusion, i.e., censorship or governmental ownership of the media. But the trickier and less obvious is a possible corporate monopoly. This is no stranger to the American free-market economy. We have seen industries such as oil, agriculture, railroads and telephone services be monopolized through mergers or other business deals. The Supreme Court has recognized these conglomerations as threats to the very system that let them become monopolies in the first place. In his opinion for the majority in the case Standard Oil Co. v. U.S., then-Chief Justice White stated that the monopoly undermines the idea of a free marketplace:

"We think no disinterested mind can survey the period in question without being irresistibly driven to the conclusion that…an intent and purpose to exclude others was frequently manifested by acts and dealings wholly inconsistent with the theory that they were made with the single conception of advancing the development of business power by usual methods, but which, on the contrary, necessarily involved the intent to drive others from the field and to exclude them from their right to trade, and thus accomplish the mastery which was the end in view." (221 U.S. 1, 1911)

Thus it has been asserted by our own Supreme Court that a free marketplace is fundamental to our society. And that marketplace should not be limited to its purely economic definition, but also be extended to the more abstract concept of the marketplace of ideas—a marketplace with equal importance. Once that is taken hostage by monopolization, our democracy is in jeopardy.

The concentration of media ownership is a reality.
It is a fact that practically nine companies control the world’s media: GE, AT&T/Liberty Media, AOL Time Warner, Disney, News Corp., Sony, Seagram, Bertelsmann and Viacom. This concentration is not limited to broadcast. Of the 1,500-or-so daily newspapers in the country, 99 percent are the only daily in their cities. As FCC Chairman Michael Powell has pointed out, “Nobody can intellectually defend the proposition that the marketplace has not changed dramatically.”

How are these concepts related?
Finally, after noting that free speech begets free media, and that free media is key to a democratic society, and furthermore, that there is a concentration of media ownership, then if the marketplace of ideas is fundamental to a democracy, the concentration of media ownership undermines democracy. A bold claim? Yes. Ridiculous? No.

“Obviously, today there are some similarities between the role of a press constricted by an authoritarian government and that of a press constrained by a profit-driven corporation. In both cases, content and participation are narrowly constructed, albeit more by thought-manipulation than by daily brutality. Regardless, such systems both serve the ends of those who control. Corporate authoritarianism is no more appealing than any other form of tyranny.” (Where Has the Free Press Gone? Article by Mercedes De Uriate)

The current situation should make people worry. How are we to make informed decisions if the potential for being informed is threatened by who owns the media we consume? This is not paranoia; there are specific examples of media ownership conflicting with news content.

In 1987, the then-president of NBC News, Larry Grossman, was told by GE boss Jack Welch not to use the phrase “Black Monday” to describe the year’s stock market crash on NBC News. He said it was depressing the value of GE stock.

In 1990 NBC’s Today expressed interest to Todd Putnam, editor of National Boycott News, that it wanted to do a story on boycotts. Amy Rosenberg of NBC Today asked Putnam for the “biggest boycott going on right now.” Putnam did the research and told Today that the biggest boycott was actually against GE light bulbs. Unsurprisingly, Rosenberg scrapped the idea.

A more recent example: On 9/11 terrorists used airplanes built by GE to crash into buildings partially owned/operated by GE, the events of which were then covered by a network news channel owned by GE.

But it is not just NBC. Small examples add up, too: In 1998, ABC News decided not to do a story on pedophiles who worked at the Magic Kindom Park. Both ABC and Magic Kindom Park are owned by Disney.

Something is wrong with this picture. When companies who own the media become so large that they own numerous other good and services, there is a pervasive conflict of interest. Once the conflict of interest becomes so great that the media’s parent corporations decide not to report stories then information is withheld from the public. This continuing concentration of media ownership in a decreasing amount of parent companies, whose ownership includes, but is not limited to, media and various other industries, is a threat to a free press and thus democracy as a whole.

I'll go ahead and let James Madison finish it up for me:
“A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce, or a Tragedy, or perhaps both.”

This being said, I am not proposing that everyone become another NPR, or that we implement a more British-like system (which is publically funded through an annual fee incurred by the citizens, but which is still kept separate from government). Rather, I mean to point out a pretty obvious flaw in our current system and would like to see more restrictions. Simply, prohibiting one from owning too much stuff! Is it really that difficult?


Monty said...

I do agree with your overall premise, if I understood it correctly that is, that our society would be more successful if the corporate loopholes that effect our otherwise "free" media were to be fixed. However, as you would expect, there are a few things I disagree with.

Generally, I tend not to take the "our founding fathers said" argument too seriously. We can make assumptions of how they would respond to circumstances facing modern society, but we are doing so based solely on a few remaining documents left from their time, along with a romanticized image of our nation’s history. Did the writers of the constitution and Bill of Rights intend for religion, press, speech, et al to be free? Yes, undoubtedly. Would George Washington, Ben Franklin and the rest have approved of Satanism, The Daily Show’s election coverage, and Eminem rapping about raping his mother? One would have to think not.

Unfortunately for their rotting bones, the system they set up allows for such forms of expression. And all this sort of talk reminds of one of my dad’s favorite sayings, “just because it’s free, doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay for it”, which I believe can be, interpreted a couple of ways. On the one hand, it could mean that you can say or do what you want, but you must be prepared to face the consequences of those words or actions. Dually, it could mean that even if you get or want something for free, someone somewhere is going to have to shell out the money for it. If that means that I get one less pervert-at-Disney World story because the guy who pays to keep the lights on doesn’t like it, then so be it. And besides, somebody has keep Eva Longoria on the air.

Nor do I feel that every media outlet should become NPR. After all, even NPR has to answer to somebody on a certain level, i.e. their donators. However, I do believe that there already exists a form of media that grants your wishes as well as meets the intentions of our nation’s founders. I know I’ve often touted the superlatives of so called “watch dog groups”, but I truly believe that those independent actors that fact-check politicians and news outlets are providing for the American public the sort of free media they need. (I could, and will at a later point, go on for another six or seven paragraphs about whether or not the people want a true free media.)

By the by, yours was a terrific post.

emilie said...

Thanks for the comments, Randy. A quick response:

Although I espouse with what you are saying I did mention that NPR or the BBC certainly does have its own master. However, those masters could never own something else besides NPR or the BBC. At least, I don't think we'll ever hear of NPRAirlines or BBCWidgets.

Secondly, I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that our FF's shouldn't be lauded as infallible. However they DID clearly state the importance of a free press, which they derived from both centuries of evolving political thought and the fact that they were trying to put out their own li'l pamphlets under the watchful eye of British Big Brother. In addition, my argument isn't based on the fact that the founding fathers believe free media is crucial to democracy, rather, it's that I believe it.
On a related note, I'm glad for the Eminems, the Jon Stewarts and the other things you mentioned. I wish we had more of them to continuously shake up the system.

When I said "free" I did not mean in the monetary sense. I meant in the "liberty" sense. Right now most media is not free because it is tied to advertising. Not tied, rather, its whole existence is based on advertising. Indeed, commercial-based news organizations are comprised of usually two departments: news and business, the latter usually calling the shots. There could easily be a law which prohibits owning a bajillion media outlets/sectors, which would not, in my opinion, restrict the media content. It would be a business restriction, not an enroachment on freedom of the press. We already see these laws concerning other kinds of monopolies and I believe the time has come to implement these policies within the media.

Yes, watchdog groups are out there and it is up to the "consumer of news" (can you believe that's what people are referred to as??) to seek them out and make their own decisions. But if you don't have a computer and the evening news is blowing smoke up your ass, how will you ever know?

Monty said...

Perhaps the free press that the FFs intended does not exist. Not with television channels at least, but perhaps instead only within the sphere of the aforementioned fact checking groups and blogs such as yours and others. Just because ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and the like are the most well known news providers, does not mean that they necessarily have to fill the role of free media that you and I hope they would. If they are in fact business-first, that is something completely up to them. They serve no obligation to be completely fair and/or balanced, no imperative to be “free”, even if they do benefit from the rights afforded to a free press.

When the big name news companies refer to themselves as “news”, that’s just good plain business. And if they have a certain target demographic that provides them with a stable viewership and deep pocketed advertisers, than all the better for them. People want to watch what appeals to them, and in many cases that means watching television programming that affirms their own preset beliefs. When that programming carries the tag of being “news”, then it’s even more assuring. Everyone likes to see something on tv that supports their own views. I’m going to watch the Daily Show in about ten minutes because I agree with much of what it says. Yes, I can appreciate the fact that it’s funny and well written, but mostly I watch it because of a shared political slant. And yes, I do watch the O’Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes, but when I do, I’m watching from the standpoint that I know I’m watching something I generally disagree with.

I can accept these notions as true because when I go to sources that are impartial, I’m discouraged when they express views, (ideally, the view of the source would be undeterminable), that go against my own. But even I have to take the medicine once in a while.

But going back to the crotchety dead white guys, and their stressing over a free press. Have you ever considered the possibility that they were wrong? Maybe we don’t need all these horseshit “news” groups floating around, diluting peoples interests, fostering the false necessity for change.

emilie said...

Yeah. Perhaps you are in that part of discussion/debate when you keep thinking of new tangents, which is good and I appreciate them. I reach this point a lot--I get a new idea and want to argue for it.
But this time I'm finding it refreshingly easy to both understand your points, but stick completely to mine, which rarely happens:

News organizations should not be allowed to own other stuff. In fact, they should be limited even within the media industry as to the amount of stuff they can own.

Of course people will watch what they want--they'll also go to Wal-Mart and buy crappy food in bulk, especially if Wal-Mart becomes one of the only few options. I agree that news, when it comes down to it, is a business. I don't want to change this reality necessarily. But our business laws should be a little more restrictive when the product is information.

Like I prefaced, this notion is "idealistic."

Monty said...

Would you mined elaborating a little more as to why news organizations shouldn't be owned by large business conglomorates? Who do you suggest should own them? The people? Keep in mind the citizens of the United States elected W president (twice!), watch a television show that gives awards to award shows, and view and participate in professional wrestling. In case I've gotten too far off topic: Why, in your view, should big businees be not allowed to own news companies and in resonse to that, who should?

emilie said...

I think that the networks should still exist as is: huge companies which produce entertainment programming.
However, their news slots should be competed for by small, news-only organizations (which can also be private businesses but which specialize in only news production). This way, the news companies which I just invented would have to kick ass to get their product (a news program) purchased by the networks. It would be the ultimate example of the free-market system coming out on top. It would also save the networks a bundle of work/money and provide work for journalists. The competition coupled with the independence/freedom from a huge corporation would hopefully make the newscasts the best they could be. Additionally, these newscasts could be commercial-free since they are purchased by the networks, not sponsored by corporations. Essentially, the networks would be a "host" for independent news companies to broadcast their news shows.

Anonymous said...

This post contained some of the most astute and worrisome observations I've read in a blog in quite some time. I thought it was quite well written and well thought out for a medium in which one has no guarantee that anyone will even take the time to read it! I doff my cap to you, Emilie. I'm certainly going to add Outfoxed to my Netflix queue now that you've piqued my interest.

I feel obliged to inform you of the existence of my own journal, within whose pages you're sure to find commentary of a much less consequential nature.

Click here for fun!This is Jesse, by the way. As in, the State College-dwelling kid you went to high school with. Oh, and your newest friendster ;) xo

Anonymous said...

get a room!