Policy Debate: You Decide

Regulation of Media Ownership

In June 2003, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a set of rules that would permit major media corporations to expand their control of print and broadcast properties. Under the new rules, a company would be allowed to own newspapers and television stations that, together, could reach 45 percent of the nation’s viewers (an increase from 35 percent under the old rule). A single company would also be permitted to own the most important newspaper and as many as three television and eight radio stations in a single market, effectively dominating news coverage within that market. Various public interest groups and members of Congress were outraged by the FCC’s action, charging that the commission was promoting the development of media monopolies. Both the House and the Senate considered legislation to reverse the FCC’s decision, and several lawsuits were filed to block its enforcement. In 2004, a federal appeals court blocked implementation of the new rules, asserting that the agency had used faulty reasoning in determining how many media properties could be owned by a single corporate entity. After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the agency’s appeal, the FCC announced that it would begin developing a set of rules it hoped would pass judicial muster. In 2011, a federal appeals court directed the FCC to compile new research on barriers to entry for underrepresented groups and small businesses. As of 2012, the FCC was continuing to hold hearings on the issue.

Those who favor rules to limit the market power of media corporations make three major arguments. In the first of these arguments, proponents of rules regulating competition assert that the quality of the print and broadcast media is improved by vigorous competition among a large number of newspaper, radio, and television outlets, each striving to attract readers, listeners, or viewers. As the number of competitors diminishes, regulatory proponents argue, the quality of news and feature programming is reduced as media outlets feel less competitive incentive to aim for quality and innovation.

The second argument that proponents of regulation make concerns diversity of opinion. Regulation is needed, the argument goes, to ensure that the print and broadcast media will present as many different opinions and perspectives as possible. Concentration of ownership inevitably means that fewer perspectives will find their way into print or be presented on radio and television. This could mean that less-popular views would seldom receive media coverage. For example, during the 2003 Iraq war, the five television networks all presented favorable accounts of American military efforts. Only viewers with access to foreign television coverage were presented with alternative perspectives.

The third argument concerns political competitiveness. If there were only a handful of media companies and they united behind a single party or candidate, their influence would be difficult to overcome.

Opponents of regulation, for their part, are not against quality, diversity, and political competitiveness. They argue, however, that regulation of media ownership is unnecessary and may be counterproductive. Quality, say opponents of regulation, is enhanced by open competition in the marketplace and not by rules that give small print and broadcast companies sheltered market niches where they are safe from powerful rivals. This, they say, is a recipe for mediocrity. And as for diversity of viewpoints, opponents of regulation note that so many media outlets exist in the United States, including online magazines and thousands of blogs, that there is no danger that a single media corporation or small number of corporations can dominate coverage. Regulation, rather than market competition, say opponents, poses a threat to political and ideological diversity.

This issue is further complicated by the recent global recession, which has caused many local newspapers, radio stations, and television stations to close their doors. Opponents of regulation argue that looser rules for media ownership could allow these media outlets to survive by merging together with larger media outlets rather than disappearing. Proponents of regulation disagree, again raising concerns about the diversity of ideas and opinions.

1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of media concentration?
2. Should we seek government action to curb concentration? Or should we rely on market forces to maintain diversity?
3. Some nations restrict foreign ownership of major media outlets. Should the United States adopt such a policy?
Does the presence of Internet news sources promote enough diversity of viewpoints that we can be less concerned about the consolidation of media ownership? Why or why not?

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