Posted by: Laura | July 21, 2009

Consolidation and Regulation: What role should the government play?

The first amendment prevents Congress from, among other things, making any law abridging the freedom of the press. What that means depends on with which Supreme Court justice someone talks, or which side of the case gains more empathy, but most first amendment lawyers take the founding fathers’ at their word – no law means no law. The problem is that press has become an industry, and not an entirely disinterested observer –it pursues information gathering and display that might not coincide with public interest. The conundrum lies in the extent that the industry can or should be regulated as a business not as a service. Boiled down, the argument comes to big versus small government and whether or not the free marketplace of ideas will do its part to regulate public interest without the aid of government, and if power is given to the government to regulate, will it be abused.

Media conglomeration, or media as branches of a parent company that may have a stake in whether or not certain things published, is becoming more common, especially as the news industry struggles to find a stable method of income as the shift from paper to electronic media introduces advertising obstacles.

Long gone are the days when media companies were one-horse enterprises specializing only in broadcasting or publishing. Today they are multifaceted conglomerates with stakes in everything from television, radio, movies newspapers and books to the Internet, theme parks, billboards and concert promotion (Reader 117).

The news industry is struggling to stay afloat and the buoys seem to be companies that have other means of getting money. But while the interests of companies may not always coincide with the interests of the public, the interaction between politicians and the media has the potential to be much more threatening.
The battle between the press and the government is ongoing, notably in today’s news between Sarah Palin and the “liberal media,” but also historically. Richard Nixon had a similar hatred of the media as Palin does. Journalist James Callendar ruined Alexander Hamilton’s political career after Callendar exposed Hamilton’s affair with a married woman. Thomas Jefferson’s career was also attacked but not as bruised by Callendar after the famously questionably credible exposure of his affair with a slave. William McKinley and William Hearst famously clashed to the point where Hearst was blamed for McKinley’s assassination.

What if George W. Bush had the power to regulate Comedy Central by interfering with Viacom? What if loopholes allowed Congress to take Rush Limbaugh’s platform away because of a mishap with Clear Channel? The Bill of Rights was designed to protect free speech, and the use of a free press to proliferate that speech. While it may not be ethical to promote the views of a certain interest in a newscast claiming to be balanced or objective, it isn’t illegal. Media may influence politics in ways that we didn’t expect or that we don’t necessarily love, but the prospect of politics influencing how a media company is run is infringing on the freedoms that our country was founded on.
Benjamin Franklin wrote “An Apology for Printers” in 1731 in defense of the freedom of the press. He wrote, “Printers are educated in the belief … that when truth and error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.” There are a lot of cases where it seems like the press has acted in a way that isn’t entirely fair – be it the sexist treatment of Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton in the 2008 election or the editorials damning President McKinley, but the press has also done a lot of things that promote democracy as it should be: Woodward, Bernstein and Nixon; Murrow and McCarthy; Cronkite and Johnson. There may be hiccups, but in the majority of cases, truth comes out on top.

The modern press has not lost its ability to keep government in check just because the major media outlets are conglomerates. If anything, the consolidation by the big corporations has sparked a surge in alternative media – blogs, cable news, podcasts, satellite radio. People can get news filtered through whichever other interests they would like. “Deregulation advocates say that the Internet will be able to fill the gap left by any new outlets that are forced out because it is so vast it can hold as much information as Americans will ever need,” (Reader 122).
The idea of an objective newscast is not exactly a staple in the history of American journalism. Revolutionary era journalism depicted the British troops as evil-doers, almost caricatures of the enemy, exaggerating happenings in the name of independence from the crown. It wasn’t much better during the earliest years of independence, when the Federalists and the Anti-federalists had a heated press battle in an effort, originally, to get the constitution ratified. Newspaper publishers made very little effort to hide political alignment, and many of the publishers were politicians themselves. The early 20th century saw yellow journalism from William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer – not exactly the picture of balanced or even ethical reporting. Wartime journalism saw government propaganda far more frequently than it saw first-hand reports
The point is that media, like any industry, goes through cycles of change. Not every change is an improvement, but not every change is the end of honest journalism either. Self-examination by the press happens, such as The New York Times editorial on May 26, 2004, “”The Times and Iraq,” apologizing for its part in misleading coverage of the Iraq war.

We have studied the allegations of official gullibility and hype. It is past time we turned the same light on ourselves. In doing so … we found an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of. In most cases, what we reported was an accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at the time, much of it painstakingly extracted from intelligence agencies that were themselves dependent on sketchy information. … But we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. … Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged or failed to emerge.

As long as there is competition among networks, consolidated or not, and as long as there are other ways to publish news, no company can corner the market. It won’t be dangerous unless the public gets so complacent to allow it to be dangerous, but until there is proof that consolidation and real danger go hand-in-hand, a government based on freedom should air on the side of less regulation.

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