Magazine article The American Prospect

Whose First Amendment? Media Conglomeration as Free Speech

Magazine article The American Prospect

Whose First Amendment? Media Conglomeration as Free Speech

Article excerpt

WITH THE RISE OF SO-CALLED REALITY TELevision in recent years (proving that truth is tawdrier than fiction, too), it might well be asked what all of the TV writers are up to these days. Some, it would seem, have lent their fertile imaginations to a TV-industry lobbying and litigation campaign that, like the medium itself, often strains credulity.

How else to explain industry's argument that the modest federal caps on ownership of stations and other media outlets violate corporate free-speech rights? Never mind the public's right to "the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources," in the words of the Supreme Court, which in 1945 deemed that such a free flow of information is "essential" to our welfare. That principle, apparently, is now to be superseded by a corporation's right to corner whatever markets it can.

This raises the specter that other media will follow the path of radio and publishing toward oligopoly. Five conglomerates command 80 percent of all book sales, while a mere two radio giants--with well over a thousand stations between them--control more than a third of all radio advertising revenue nationally, and up to 90 percent in some markets. Even a cursory tour up and down the radio dial reveals the homogenization that has leveled that medium--a sobering portent of what may soon become television's fate.

"Radio is the model," warns Reed Hundt, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). "That's the harbinger for what's going to happen to TV." And if that sounds implausible, it shouldn't. For once the safeguards preventing further consolidation and sale of broadcast, cable, and newspaper empires are dismantled entirely--and they are currently under court challenge and FCC review--the "Let's Make a Deal" live tour will be off to a rousing start.


If any additional evidence of life imitating entertainment is needed, look no further than Mel Karmazin, president of CBS's parent, Viacom, whose company's profits will merely match last year's $5 billion rather than reaching its projected $5.6 billion. In a recent stand-up routine at a Goldman Sachs investor briefing, Karmazin suggested that given the current state of war (with media advertising revenues dropping faster than bombs over Afghanistan), his industry merits special consideration from Washington regulators. Such consideration would include relaxing the restrictions that bar companies such as his from owning stations that reach more than 35 percent of the viewing public (or from owning a TV station and a cable system, or a TV station and a newspaper, in the same community). Ever the optimist, Karmazin not only expressed confidence that Washington would accede to these demands but also managed to find a silver lining in the tragic events of September 11, citing the depressed media stock prices that will allow Viacom to scoop up new acquisitions at bargain-basement rates. If it wasn't exactly "What's good for Viacom is good for the country," Karmazin's remarks nonetheless made clear that his conception of the public interest revolves narrowly around the interests of Viacom shareholders.

And so it goes at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue these days, a time when the terrorist attacks have become a convenient leitmotiv to the media titans' expansionist plans. It's a not-so-subtle quid pro quo--we'll wave the flag, you waive the regulations--that couldn't ask for a cozier setting than contemporary Washington. After lining the campaign coffers of both sides of the aisle (contributing more than $131 million in the 2000 election cycle alone), the media and technology giants are now answering the government's call for more patriotic, responsible fare in the ongoing war against terrorism. And the conglomerate soldiers couldn't have asked for a kinder, gentler drill sergeant over at the FCC than they have in the person of Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. …

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