Cross Ownership: That ’70s Show in the Senate

There they go again. No, not the FCC.  This time it’s the U.S. Senate, still worried after all these years that the same company might own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market.  The Senate recently passed Senate Joint Resolution 28, which cancels a very modest attempt by the FCC to relax the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rule in the nation’s top 20 media markets.

In effect, the Senate is saying that ownership of newspapers and TV stations should be restricted just as it was in 1975 when the rule was adopted – when viewers in big cities were lucky to get six over-the-air channels, and “cable” was still the “community antenna” in rural areas.

The effort to relax or even eliminate the cross ownership ban has gone on for years, even as the FCC was repealing virtually all of its other ’70s-era ownership restrictions.  The FCC’s action on Dec. 18 wasn’t much, but it was still too much for a Senate that’s apparently afraid to move out of the 1970s.

John F. Sturm, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, summed it up when he said: “It is incomprehensible that Congress would shackle local newspapers – and only newspapers – with a ban that fits the eight-track era, but not the iPod world we live in.”

There is no logical reason for the Senate to act this way.  Could the reason be political?  Congress and the FCC are routinely barraged with mass e-mails orchestrated by various interest groups.  The magnitude of these mailings can appear far greater to policymakers than it really is.  Think of the man behind the curtain in "The Wizard of Oz."

A popular policy target of such groups has been “media consolidation,” always portrayed as a looming evil.  But in today’s economic environment, multiple ownership of media outlets has become an economic necessity – a matter of survival. 

Critics fear that “consolidation” will result in fewer voices and viewpoints reaching the public.  The real danger, however, is that media voices will be lost as struggling newspapers and broadcast outlets are forced out of business, suffocated by antiquated rules that prevent them from taking advantage of the economies of scale that come with multiple ownership.

It will be ironic indeed if the anti-consolidation forces triumph, leaving us with less rather than more media diversity.  The politically timid Senate is playing right into the critics’ hands.  It’s time for our solons to pitch their eight-tracks and reach for an iPod. 

Where Are the First Amendment Champions?

First Amendment advocates must acknowledge a stark reality:  Too many players in the new generation of digital media either do not understand the First Amendment, or think the First Amendment is irrelevant to their piece of the digital action, or both.    
   
This is a dangerous situation because these digital gurus are the future of America’s media.  Are they eager to uphold constitutional principles like freedom of speech?  No.  Their interests revolve around technological innovation, software and hardware applications, content availability, distribution platforms, consumer acceptance, cost per unit … business considerations wherein technology and the marketplace trump policy concerns.  What does this bode for the future of free speech and free press as we know it?
   
Right now, the equipment manufacturers appear to be the standard bearers for the First Amendment rights of the new media.  Their Washington reps at the Consumer Electronics Association aren’t afraid to invoke free-speech arguments in policy circles.  But even within this industry, and certainly among the new media generally, we have yet to see emerge an entrepreneur or company head willing to lead the First Amendment fight in the way that William Paley championed freedom of speech in an earlier era.
   
We need a new generation of First Amendment champions.  They must, of necessity, be recruited widely from the ranks of the new media.  Before they can be champions, however, they must be educated about the First Amendment.  They must realize that the First Amendment will prove utterly and crucially relevant to all manner of digital media in coming years.  And they must be willing to embrace our cherished constitutional guarantee of free speech and free press as their unqualified ally.  

Taking Care of Business

The challenges facing broadcasting as an industry have been told so often there’s no need to recite them all here. Unfortunately, broadcasters’ understandable focus on business issues is being offered up by some as an excuse for doing little to protect the First Amendment, even in matters directly related to broadcasting, like FCC v. Fox Television Stations.

There’s no doubting the industry’s need for communications policies–in areas like ownership, public interest obligations, and carriage– that are broadcaster friendly. But that is emphatically not a good reason for broadcasters to diminish the fervor with which they promote their own, and everyone’s, freedom of speech.

Just the opposite. As policymakers consider laws and regulations governing things commercial and technological, it is all the more important that broadcasters rigorously defend constitutional principles, lest they too be swept up in the general mayhem.

Going forward, broadcasters are going to be much more in the content business than the signal distribution business. And as the Internet, like cable and satellite before it, takes on more content distribution (including broadcast content) it is going to be very important for broadcasters to be free to incorporate programming that they think best.

This is exactly what is at stake in the Supreme Court’s review of the FCC’s crackdown on indecent speech.  The FCC is looking to impose content controls on broadcasters that they would not, and cannot, impose on the Internet. This, despite the fact that actual pornography, as distinguished from “fleeting expletives,” is ubiquitous on the Net.

Broadcasting faces a commercial and technological future with which it may, or may not, be able to adapt. But there is no scenario under which broadcasting survives if its content is controlled by government, or dictated by special interest groups masquerading as “media reformers.”