Imagine a world in which Rupert Murdoch, the publisher of the New York Post and the owner of Fox, owns all newspapers and media networks in the United States. And in this world, Murdoch presents only his views.
This imaginary world may be closer than we think. On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission plans to loosen long-standing cross-ownership rules that have prevented broadcasters from owning newspapers in the same geographical market. The FCC also plans to radically relax rules so that broadcast networks will virtually be unrestricted in size.
The elimination of the rules has to be evaluated in light of the scrapping of FCC fairness regulations in recent years. Broadcasters are now no longer legally required to present both sides of an issue. They also are no longer required to provide an opportunity to respond to an individual whose "character, integrity or honesty" has been attacked. Finally, if broadcasters endorse a candidate for office, they are no longer required to give opponents an opportunity to respond.
This deregulation has contributed to a focus on the sensational, with broadcasters going after stories proven to get high ratings. In the '90s, for instance, crime coverage increased more than 700 percent, even though crime actually decreased in the same period, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington-based think tank.
The deregulation has also led to the minimization of important civic issues. For instance, in the 2000 presidential election, both Fox and NBC opted out of carrying the first presidential debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush. A University of Southern California study noted that the top 19 stations in the top 11 markets averaged only 39 seconds a night for candidate discussion.
The self-interest of media monopolies will dictate what stories are covered. Other than C-SPAN and the business and opinion sections of newspapers, broadcast and cable networks have not covered these recent deregulatory proposals as much as they should have. And more deregulation is likely to make matters worse.
The FCC needs to retain the ownership rules for the following reasons. First, our First Amendment is designed to a create a "marketplace of ideas." Its goal is to achieve "the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources." Having widespread and unconcentrated media ownership furthers these goals by making sure that many different opinions are heard in the marketplace. But the control of newspapers by broadcasters will significantly reduce the range of opinions in some markets.
Second, we can learn from what recently happened with the relaxation of the ownership limitations on radio broadcasters. Clear Channel Communications now owns more than 1,200 radio stations. The same will likely happen with broadcasters, and lead to mergers of broadcasters and newspapers.
The elimination of these ownership rules will lead to media monopolies, and the public will have less access to diverse views. These changes will make it more difficult for the American public to make informed choices about candidates running for office and policies affecting our country.
Leonard M. Baynes, a law professor at St. John's University, was a scholar-in-residence at the Federal Communications Commission from 1998 to 2001.
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