Check and Balance

By Starr, Paul | The American Prospect, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Check and Balance


Starr, Paul, The American Prospect


FROM THE NATION'S FOUNDING, THE UNITED STATES HAS promoted communications through constitutional guarantees, favorable legislation, and extensive subsidies. There has been nothing sinister about this bias. Although the purposes have varied, the support--first for the press and later for other media--has helped to create a rich and diverse sphere of public debate and a dynamic and innovative industry. But the very success of that policy has also created a dilemma, as ownership has become concentrated in a few hands and the most powerful private interests have bent the law to their own advantage. Ideally, the media guard the public against abuses of power. It's not so clear how to guard against the power that the media themselves acquire.

As a political lobby, the media are a daunting force. Corporations in most industries enjoy influence primarily through representatives of the congressional districts and states where company headquarters, facilities, and jobs are located. The media, however, are ubiquitous, and politicians are especially reluctant to offend them because of their own needs for news coverage and publicity.

The First Amendment also puts the media in a distinctive position in relation to campaign-finance laws. Only media corporations can make what are, in effect, unlimited contributions by promoting the candidates they favor. Rupert Murdoch can put Fox and his entire empire at the service of a candidate or a cause. That's his right. But hardly anyone else can put comparable resources to political use at election time.

Although power of this magnitude usually gets its way, commercial media interests are divided in many regulatory and antitrust disputes. The effort to limit media concentration also reaches across ideological lines and enjoys wide public support (as has been evident in the fight against the Federal Communications Commission's lifting of ownership caps). For while liberals worry about Murdoch, conservatives worry about Hollywood and "liberal bias" in the news. Perhaps the one positive effect of these shared suspicions of media power is an interest in limiting the concentration of ownership.

Opponents of media concentration can also make use of another intangible asset. The United States has a tradition of actively supporting a pluralistic and decentralized press. The key institution was originally the Post Office, which long provided subsidized rates to newspapers (and later magazines) regardless of viewpoint. In the mid-19th century, Congress even allowed newspapers to send copies for free to subscribers who lived in the same county, a measure designed to protect local papers (and no doubt local politicians) against the growing metropolitan press. …

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