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Is the Internet the antidote to media consolidation?

by Rick Karr

Rick Karr by Robin HollandA majority of Americans (pdf) think media consolidation is a bad thing, as we report in this week's JOURNAL. So why do Republican members of the FCC want to allow more consolidation?

The answer, in two words, is "the Internet”. Let's look at the argument that leads up to that conclusion:

(guest photo by Robin Holland)

It goes like this: From the 1930s through the 90s, it made sense for government to limit how many broadcast stations a single firm could own because the number of broadcast frequencies was itself limited. In a big city, a hundred or so radio and television stations might be able cram into the available slots on the AM and FM radio and VHF and UHF TV bands, but no more. The ownership limits ensured that no individual or company could monopolize a city's airwaves.

But the Internet changed everything, according to this argument. Republican FCC appointee Deborah Taylor Tate made the case in her opening statement (pdf) at the Commission's September hearing in Chicago: Earlier in the day, she said, she'd spoken to students at Northwestern University's Law School, and asked them how they got their news:

While some of the students continue to rely on local radio and television, the most significant response might have been one that we didn't even ask about – blogs. From student responses it was clear that blogs represent a growing sector of America's news information sources. Today, the Internet enables individuals of any age to be writers, editors and publishers of news....

She could easily have added “broadcasters” to that last sentence, because of all it takes to set up an Internet radio or TV station is a decent home computer, a microphone for radio or camcorder for video, and a high-speed Internet connection. In other words, nowadays anyone can be a broadcaster; there's no longer a limit to the number of radio and TV stations that can be heard or seen in a given city. So there's less of a need to limit how many traditional radio and TV stations a single firm can own.

That's the argument. Reality is more complex.

Bloggers and online broadcasters are filling in gaps left by the traditional media – and covering topics rarely heard on radio or seen on TV. Sticking to Chicago, as we do on this week's show, and merely scratching the surface, one can find blogs on the city's real estate bubble, its blues music scene, a passionate devotee of knitting, even a blog on blogs. And some alternative news, too. The city's also home to Internet radio stations that feature music and information rarely heard on the air.

So the Internet has changed the media landscape. But traditional media still have the advantage: You can't listen to live internet radio as you drive home from work. You can't effectively read a blog as you ride a train or bus to work. And when it comes to journalism, online media lack the resources to compete with old-media giants like the Chicago Tribune, with its hundreds of reporters and editors – employees whose salaries are paid, in part, by advertising revenue generated by the newspaper's radio and TV stations.

Perhaps more importantly, radios and television sets are cheap and nearly ubiquitous; they pull signals out of thin air and turn them into sounds and pictures ... for free. Internet connections, on the other hand, aren't as ubiquitous, and they cost money. It takes a high-speed connection to receive a good web radio signal – and an even better one to broadcast online. But the phone and cable companies that provide those internet connections – again, keeping our focus on Chicago – have been slow to hook up minority neighborhoods. Even when good connections are available, they're too expensive for many residents. So the very people who say they've been shut out of the traditional media – in part as a result of consolidation, as we report on this week's show – have a hard time turning to the internet as an alternative.

One last note: The phone and cable companies that provide online service want the right to pick and choose – to decide which blogs you can easily read and which webcasters you can easily tune into. If those conglomerates get what they want, Big Media will have an even greater advantage over bloggers and webcasters. That's known as the “net neutrality” debate, and I update it in another post here.


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Comments

Thanks for the great post and great coverage of this issue as usual, Rick.

Unfortunately the link to the PDF of the poll you referenced above doesn't seem to be working, so folks can find it here on the web site of the Media and Democracy Coalition at www.media-democracy.net

As I write this, activists are turning out in full force in Seattle for the final hearing on media ownership, to be kicked off in just three short hours. Announced just seven days ago by FCC Chairman Martin, this will likely be the last official hearing where he will hear what he's heard over and over again: the public does not support increased media consolidation. Let's hope Chairman Martin listens this time. We sure know he'll get an earful.

Mr. Moyers, the media giants and the FCC are at it again. Please tell your audience who to contact and what to say to defeat the attempt by the few to control the many.

Thank you so much. And keep doing what you're doing. We appreciate you.

As one who learned to find important information through the internet, I do consider that it has been a lighthouse in the fog as corporate and governmental control of radio and television suddenly morphed into being. The younger generation doesn't know what riches we had on radio when there was more diversity of ownership. What has happened to that important educational medium is devastating. It is as if we once had universal public transportation that was no threat to the environment, and suddenly that was replaced by humvees and SUV's - oh, sorry, that has happened, hasn't it? We actually think, in this day and age when the planet is curling up its toes, that we can jet about freely, spewing our gases out indiscriminately hither and yon, ad infinitum.

The planet isn't infinitum,at least as far as us living on it is concerned.

We need to find ways to work, to eat, to have children that are not sawing away at the ecological branch on which we are all so precariously suspended.

Get the fatcats out of radio and give it back to the education and true entertainment of people in how to live sensibly, fruitfully, sustainably. We can listen as we do what we need to do, just as we were able to do in 'the good old days.'

We don't have much time.

MOYERS for PRESIDENT

In America, the Internet has replaced the journalists (broadcast and print media who used to deliver the news). Since the OJ Simpson coverage on CNN, broadcast media has taken a nasty turn that keeps getting nastier as people become less knowledgeable and educational standards erode. Since the large corporations have purchased formerly respected newspapers, conscientious and ethical reporting has taken a turn for the worse. Now, America's democracy is threatened by those who would have us believe they are our "protectors."

In my opinion, media consolidation is like "privatization," giving over more power to corporations who have no conscience or ethics and who have no accountability, because they own all the marbles.

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