Growing Media Consolidation Must Be Examined to Preserve Our Democracy
Wellstone, Paul, Federal Communications Law Journal
The proposed acquisition of CBS by media giant Viacom, along with the recent wave of mergers among media companies, raises some very troubling questions for our system of representative democracy and is an issue that deserves a much wider debate in Congress and with the public.
These media mergers warrant the highest level of scrutiny by our antitrust agencies and by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). They may also require Congress to consider a new legislative framework to address the growing problem of media concentration.
Some of my colleagues may be aware of my concerns about increasing concentration in other sectors of the economy, especially in agriculture and finance. But of all the industries where concentration is now accelerating at such a rapid pace, its really consolidation in the media and entertainment industries that should alarm us the most.
The media is not just any ordinary industry. It is the life-blood of American democracy. We depend on the media for the free flow of information that enables citizens to participate in the democratic process. As James Madison wrote in 1822, "A popular government without: popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both." That's why freedom of the press is enshrined in our Constitution. No other industry enjoys that kind of protection.
For our democracy to work, we depend on the media to do two things. We depend on them to provide citizens with access to a wide and diverse range of opinions, analyses, and perspectives. And we depend on the media to hold concentrated power--whether public or private power--accountable to the people. The greater the diversity of ownership and control, the better they will be able to perform those functions.
On the other hand, as ownership and control of the media becomes concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, the less we can rely upon the media to fulfill these basic responsibilities. Common ownership and control is not conducive to a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives. And, as these far-flung multinational corporations extend their holdings and influence into more and more other industries, how much confidence can we have that they will hold any of those interests accountable to the people?
Some have argued that the recent round of consolidation in the media and entertainment industries, especially the trend towards vertical integration, will offer consumers a more diverse array of choices. But it is important to distinguish between outlets and content. A proliferation of new media outlets does not guarantee any greater diversity of viewpoint. After all, one corporate conglomerate can still exercise control over the content of media that reaches citizens through many different outlets. The safest and best way to ensure diversity of viewpoint is through diverse ownership.
I think most people would be shocked by the degree of media concentration that has occurred in the last fifteen years. When Ben Bagdikian wrote The Media Monopoly back in 1983, about fifty media conglomerates controlled more than half of all broadcast media, newspapers, magazines, video, radio, music, publishing, and film in this country. By 1986, that number had shrunk from fifty to twenty-nine. By 1993 it had shrunk even further to twenty firms. Today fewer than ten multinational media conglomerates--Time/Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, Viacom, Sony, Seagram, AT&T/Liberty Media, Bertelsmann, and GE--dominate most of the American mass media landscape. The range and diversity of their holdings is astounding.
However, the focus of my concern is not specifically CBS or Viacom. Their merger is really part of a larger problem. Yes, this would be one of the largest media mergers in history, but these two companies undoubtedly felt compelled to act by competitive pressures--namely, the rapid vertical integration in the industry through a spate of high-profile mergers and acquisitions in recent years. …