Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Re: The Big Media Boogyman

It's my 3rd post today, but I'm stoked about our upcoming Boys' Weekend and can't hold back =). (BTW, what are we cooking?)

I thought I'd offer a response to the article Barry pointed out on deregulation: The Big Media Boogyman. Thierer and Crews are attempting to show that there is a much more diverse marketplace today than 30 years ago, prior to deregulation. In doing so they state that today there are 500 TV channels, compared 5-6 in 1973. Today there are 13,000 radio stations compared to 7000 in 1970. They neglect to mention that the majority of these 500 TV channels and 13,000 radio stations, not to mention most of the record companies, movie studios, newspapers, and magazines in the country are owned by a mere 8 or 10 companies (and do click on the "Research Behind the Chart" link). Of course there are more options, the technology and the market have expanded tremendously since 1970. But all of those options are now under the control of a small number of people, people who now effectively can dominate the discourse of our deliberative democracy. Local outlets have by and large been eliminated.

They also offer access to information via the internet as an example of the explosion of new options for consumers. This is hardly a credit to the deregulated market. The internet would have arrived regardless of the regulations on TV and radio.

They claim that the regulations do not keep up with the evolving marketplace. Why, they ask, "should media companies be forced to play by a distinct set of random ownership rules that we impose on no other industry"? Perhaps they haven't contemplated the role that open discussion serves in our form of government? Or that the airwaves are a public resource, to be doled out in a manner most benefiting the public? To understand the danger of allowing unfettered private control of the media, one need only observe the lunatic who leveraged his media empire to supreme power in Italy (and believe me, I could come up with another 20 links just like these on request, the guy's a fruitcake). Why should we subject the media to special rules? Because the very existence of government depends on it.

The simplest argument I can make on this case is to simply look at Clear Channel and how they do business. What they do is buy out independent radio stations, clear out all of their staff and run them from regional studios, where they can broadcast the same content to numerous stations in different markets. This is very profitable for them. Even if some fraction of their listeners decide that the new format is crap and tune out, the cost savings is so great that it still generates significant profits. Particularly when they own all, or nearly all of the stations in town, which is not uncommon. End result is that there are fewer voices, few sources of content. When they make political decisions, which they do, regularly, there is now one corporate headquarters making the decision for thousands of stations, rather than each station deciding for themselves. With each station consumed by the mega-media conglomerates the deliberative discourse in our country grows smaller, tighter, less diverse.

I suppose it is worth noting that Thierer and Crews co-authored a book called "What's Yours Is Mine: Open Access and the Rise of Infrastructure Socialism". I don't know if I even need to describe the book, with a title like that. Basically they're arguing that allowing the government to regulate such things as requiring open access to telecommunications infrastructure (phone lines, cable networks) or disclosure of file formats or network protocols equates to socialism and is therefore Eeevil. This is a wee bit over the top and goes against most of the areas of agreement we've found with respect to deregulation, ie that each market should be scrutinized in depth to find which elements of that business should be exposed to the open market (and which parts should not) in order to promote competition that will truly benefit consumers.

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