June 26, 2003

Will the FCC let us be?

By: AFF Editors

As the Federal Communications Commission prepares to vote today on relaxing cross-ownership rules for media conglomerates, critics have been ominously warning that the action would allow an oligopoly to influence how Americans think by controlling everything from what we watch, to what we read, and what we hear. This is not only disingenuous, it is insulting to our intelligence as individuals.

Some conservatives like William Safire have made cogent arguments against the FCC’s proposal, which would allow newspaper and television and radio broadcast companies to own more stations and more papers within a geographical area. But the vast majority of knee-jerk naysaying has come from the radical Left. Putting aside the theoretical arguments for a moment, a careful look at the motivations behind these protests would reveal a purely partisan agenda that belies the pious rhetoric about “diversity” and “competition” in the media. In short, the Left’s objections are based not so much on the media industry’s structure as they are on its content. And when it comes to matters of speech, content-based policymaking is inherently suspect.

Just as the Left does not have a monopoly on paranoia, the Right does not have a monopoly over vast conspiracies. In this case, the first warning flag should be the sponsorship behind the coordinated opposition. One should ask, why are MoveOn.org and Common Cause–one an anti-war group and the other a latter-day Gestapo seeking to strip away the right to political participation–allied in a multi-million dollar advertising assault against the FCC proposals? Their full-page newspaper ads, plastered with unflattering pictures of Rupert Murdoch, reveal that their ire stems from having been beaten in the marketplace of ideas.

“This Man Wants to Control the News in America. The FCC Wants to Help Him,” the ads warn. But one wonders, were it not for the phenomenal success of the Fox News Channel, which has trounced CNN, MSNBC, and the broadcast news networks in the free market, would we be seeing the same kind of hysteria from these groups? The fact that they chose Rupert Murdoch to be their whipping boy instead of Ted Turner, Michael Eisner, or Richard Parsons speaks volumes about their motivations.

At the other end of the broadcast spectrum, the Left’s poster boy for media monopolization is Clear Channel Communications, which owns 1,200 radio stations across America and contributes generously to Republican candidates. When Clear Channel stations yanked the Dixie Chicks following their anti-war stance, critics cried bloody censorship. Again, one must ask: if Radio Pacifica, NPR, or the BBC had earned the same king of market dominance as Clear Channel, would we be seeing the same kind of opposition?

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle’s effort last week to stop the FCC from approving the merger between Univision and the Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation was further proof that the media ownership controversy is really partisan politics cloaked in the rhetoric of antitrust. Despite Daschle’s claim that the merger would hurt diversity in the media (the presence of a major Hispanic media network apparently is not diversity in itself), his real beef was that the president of Univision is a major Republican contributor and the network tends to tack to the Right. Rather than nurture the healthy political independence that Hispanics are demonstrating, Democrats are outraged that a once-beholden constituency is leaving their ranks.

While there are those on the radical fringe, notably Noam Chomsky, who indiscriminately protest all “corporate news” sources from CNN to Fox News, the opposition to the FCC proposals is driven not by a fear of monopoly in itself, but rather by the Left’s fear of losing the battle for hearts and minds. This is even more apparent when viewed in the context of the recent efforts by Clinton campaign contributors to build a network of liberal talk show hosts to rival Limbaugh and Hannity and liberal think tanks to counter Heritage and Cato. The fact is, Rupert Murdoch’s success, rather than hindering diversity, has injected a healthy dose of ideological competition in the rabidly liberal media.

As for the paternalistic pieties about protecting the purity of our minds, woe to us if we are so impressionable that we cannot decide for ourselves what to watch, read, or listen to without the government’s help. If the current regulations against cross-ownership of media outlets continue to stand, we should all heed the words of the eminent philosopher Eminem, who aptly notes, “The FCC won’t let me be, or let me be me.”