Thursday, April 06, 2006

Fair and Balanced

Does the right-wing control the media? Lately I have found myself engaged in this dicussion quite a bit. I've heard all the arguments, and frankly can't make up my mind. Part of me feels that liberals are just angry that Fox News is so incredibly popular. It's also obvious that massive media conglomerates have profit incentives that likely influence their spin on the news and selection of programming.

Last night I went to see Ned Lamont speak to the New Haven chapter of Democracy for America. During the Q&A period, Lamont was asked if he would support legislation to bring more balance to the media. He responded that more competition, and not legislation was the solution. He went on to say that the Internet (with a nod to his supporters from the Blogosphere) is a great equalizing factor.

These are two very popular arguments. Though neither really satisfies me. With regard to competition, there used to be strict regulations limiting the ownership of TV/Radio Stations and newspapers. In the 1970s, the FCC and the Federal Courts started chipping away at these limits. The 1996 Telecommunications Act blew the doors off, allowing the creation of today's media conglomerates. Most recently, an FCC review in 2003 further eased restrictions on TV and Radio ownership (these most recent changes have not yet taken effect.) Today we have a small number of companies each controlling a large chunk of the mainstream media. Thus, less competition with little opportunity for new upstarts. The few newcomers that do manage to gain traction are quickly gobbled up by the media giants. It seems pretty clear that there was less media bias, and the quality of TV and Radio news was generally better before the FCC started deregulating.

As for the Internet being the great equalizer, it's a bit too early to know for sure. But, already the same Fortune 500 companies that own the mainstream media, control a massive portion of the Internet. AOL Time Warner is the onramp for millions of Americans accessing the Internet. Fox and CNN are the most popular news destinations online. Even Google, with their "don't be evil" motto is becoming more like a media conglomerate every day (they own the site where this blog is hosted.) This isn't a criticism of Google. They have to answer to shareholders just like NBC/GE, AOL Time Warner, Fox, and the rest of the gang.

I'm certain that the Internet will continue to provide open access for sharing views and opinions. Whether it's blogging, PodCasts, or the next innovation, the barriers to entry will remain incredibly low. Individuals like me and responsible news sites like CommonDreams will always have an opportunity to put our message online. The question is whether we will be able to attract an audience.

There's only so many hours in the day. The 20 minutes a week you spend reading this blog is 20 minutes you didn't spend at Fox, CNN, or CommonDreams. The giants are not going to sit idle while millions of people get their news and entertainment from properties they don't own. No one knows exactly how it will play out. Just don't be surprised when one of them buys CommonDreams (even the greatest idealists among us have a price) or starts saturating the market advertising until the independents can't afford to compete for visibility. Already the media giants are using whizbang technology to make their online news more exciting and appealing to a larger audience. How can an independent site or upstart ever hope to compete with the sizzle of CNN Pipeline?

It would be really nice if I could wrap this up with a nice solution, or at least a conclusion. But I'm still trying to digest the problem. I do think that some type of media ownership limitations, but less restrictive and more up to date than the old 7 Radio / 7 TV station rule is in order. But, we can't legislate our way out of this problem. Plus, only a suicidal politician would dare take on this issue. After all, the media controls the message1. Remember what happened to Howard Dean when he suggested breaking up the media conglomerates2?

Another component of a long term solution would be a massive overhaul and upgrade to our educational system. I believe that a better educated America, comprised of people that appreciate the lessons of history will demand greater fairness and objectivity from our media. After all, the audience ultimately decides whether the media companies live or die. In other words...If Fox News was on TV in the forest and no one was there to watch, would Sean Hannity make a sound? Probably not.3

1. As always I welcome your e-mail and comments. Just please don't write to tell me that no one can control the message in the Blogosphere. I agree and have said it many times. But if you think that's relevant then you didn't get my point.
2. Matt Drudge doesn't need any more promotion, it's just a good transcript of a Dean interview on the subject.
3. Before you write to ask, no I don't believe that everyone who watches Fox News is stupid. Just most of them.

Special thanks to Sufi for making me think about all this, though I could have been watching TV instead.

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