Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ownership Rules A Threat to Free Press

As published in Broadcasting & Cable Magazine, November 12, 2007

Editor: Current media ownership rules threaten far more than Sam Zell's acquisition of Tribune ( “Time Running Out for Tribune,” Nov. 5, p. 8). The rules undermine our Constitution and exacerbate the crisis engulfing two crucial American institutions: local newspapers and broadcasting.

Broadcasters and newspaper publishers must have the ability to build enough scale in each market to remain competitive in a brutal media marketplace. Otherwise, national cable and satellite networks and new
media behemoths like Google will totally supplant local outlets. Only in the Alice In Wonderland world of Washington would a newspaper wanting to enhance its local presence or a broadcasting company wanting permission to provide free programming to more people be seen as “contrary to the public interest.”

We have a plethora of anti-trust laws governing business behavior, ably enforced by the Department of Justice and the FTC. The First Amendment, which says, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” certainly doesn't countenance a more onerous set of ownership regulations for broadcasters, or allow government officials to stifle the speech of newspapers by prohibiting them from acquiring a local broadcast voice.

Those who support newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership restrictions are also either ignorant or dismissive of the unseemly history behind those regulations. They were hatched by the Nixon administration during Watergate to punish and weaken The Washington Post—which then owned leading television and radio stations in D.C.—and to send a message to other unfriendly media owners. Now, special interest groups and politicians on both the left and the right have adopted the Nixonian paradigm: use ownership regulations to keep media organizations fearful. How is free speech, or freedom of the press, possible under such conditions?

Clearly, it's high time we step back and realize how insidious and pernicious media ownership regulation can be. The idea that it's the government's job to ensure a “diversity of voices” in media is a concept found nowhere in the Constitution. The FCC and Congress must transcend propaganda from self-anointed “media watchdogs” and rest on two simple but powerful truths.

First, however inconvenient it may be for anti-media zealots, the words of the First Amendment are unequivocal. Rules governing the media industry cannot be more restrictive or capricious than those affecting other industries; if anything, they must be less so. Second, free, over-the-air broadcasting and local newspapers are under siege. Our government should be doing everything it can to bolster, rather than bash, these vital industries before it's too late.





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