If you are truly committed to serving the public interest, bet on a winner and bet on market policy." That"s what Michael Powell, chair of the Federal Communications Commission, said in a speech last year to a group of lawyers responsible for interpreting rules and regulations dealing with American media. Sounds great, right? According to the myth of American capitalism, the freer the market, the more of everything consumers will be able to buy. When it comes to entertainment, this is probably true. Nowadays, if you"ve got the cash, you can get just about anything you want - as long as a lot of other people want it, too. It"s called supply and demand: If someone wants something, there"s bound to be someone else around who will sell it to them. The best thing for the government to do in this situation is get out of the way. If our media did nothing but provide us with moving pictures of beautiful bodies in various states of pleasure and distress, then regulating it would probably seem like a waste of time. But the media is about more than entertainment. It also provides the information people use in order to define themselves as individuals and citizens. As Michael Moore pointed out in his film Bowling For Columbine, people who receive a lot of news about violent crime through the media are likely to feel unsafe in their neighborhoods - even if very little crime actually takes place there. In this country the airwaves are defined as belonging to "the people." The opportunity allowed broadcasters to not only use those channels, but to profit off that use isn"t a right, but a privilege. It makes sense for the government to represent the interests of the owners - the people, that is, not the broadcasters - in determining by whom and how our airwaves will be used. This is why we have regulations governing the number of media outlets in a community that a single corporation can control. The more sources of information you have, the more complete a picture you are likely to draw about where you live and what"s happening there. If all your news - TV, the radio and major newspapers - is coming from the same source, that picture will be more like those old maps of the world where whole continents were written off through ignorance: "There be monsters." Chairman Powell is now looking at what he can do to roll back FCC ownership rules. This has made many people nervous. The last major round of FCC deregulation, the 1996 Telecommunications Act on Radio, demonstrated that in today"s corporate media environment, lack of regulation leads not to greater diversity, but owner consolidation bordering on monopoly. The number of station owners declined 25 percent between 1995 and 2001. Westinghouse, which in 1996 was the largest radio owner in the country, held 85 stations - a number left in the dust by Clear Channel, which, by 2001, had snarfed up 1,202 stations. In Jacksonville, Fla., a market where Clear Channel owns two TV stations and seven radio stations, the media giant has initiated what it reportedly calls "a grand experiment." This involves creating a single news operation, in one building, for all Clear Channel stations. One news crew, with a lone news director, provides what is essentially the same content for all the Clear Channel stations in town. Both TV stations shoot their broadcasts in the same studio - but with different sets and anchors. As far as conglomerate media corporations like Clear Channel or AOL/Time-Warner are concerned, owner deregulation is a good thing. Not only does it enable them to dominate the news and entertainment action in a community, it also makes things tremendously efficient. Not since the days when Hollywood movie studios also controlled theaters, wrapping the production, distribution and exhibition of movies into a tidy, self-reinforcing package, have we seen anything like this. Of course, that arrangement was ruled out of bounds by the courts after the Second World War, hastening the end of Hollywood"s "studio system." In a middling-size market like Indianapolis, the efficiencies that a Clear Channel brings can, at first, seem like a bonus. Clear Channel uses its muscle to make sure we have venues in a range of sizes so that we can be entertained by a complete roster of Clear Channel-approved acts, who happen to be among the most popular artists in the land. Clear Channel also makes sure we get the hottest Broadway tours - no more complaints that Indianapolis isn"t big enough for a show like The Lion King. But the dominance that makes Clear Channel"s efficiencies possible also serves to inhibit the likelihood of locally inspired success and the enhancement of local identity. Local radio is practically an oxymoron these days. Clubs without a Clear Channel connection, while providing important alternatives, are stunted by their inability to ever book the sorts of headliners that are Clear Channel"s exclusive property. Worse, the corporate control of news media by large, multiheaded conglomerates serves to heighten complicity between media and the political powers media is meant to watchdog. As the line between pundits and policymakers blurs, the quality of our public discourse about issues is degraded. Look, for instance, at coverage of our impending war with Iraq. Even though many supporters of this war admit there is no credible link tying Saddam Hussein to the crimes of Sept. 11, 2001, our national media continues to uncritically disseminate the Bush Administration"s inconsistent and unsubstantiated assertions to the contrary. It"s no wonder, given this aura of media-driven inevitability, that people don"t feel a need to vote. Public passivity isn"t just a byproduct of media consolidation, it appears to be a goal. The effective monopolies media deregulation makes possible aren"t about choice, but control.