Last week the Federal Communications Commission, under the leadership of Michael Powell, voted 3-2 to ease regulations on the number of media outlets a single corporation might control in a given American city. The vote, which broke down along Republican and Democrat Party lines, had been expected to go this way for some time. The corporate media conglomerates that wanted it claimed that lifting restrictions on ownership was necessary for their profitability. This was something Michael Powell made no bones about favoring, in spite of tens of thousands of public comments to the contrary. Now that the vote’s been taken, this opposition continues. Many believe that the new rules will be challenged in court. But many more are probably thinking something along the lines of this: that, when it comes to our everyday media consumption, these new rules actually change little or nothing. These folks, of course, are correct. And that’s the problem. The rules dealing with media ownership in this country are so tangled up with mathematical formulae and regulatory jargon they seem tailor made to send even the most intrepid observer into a stupefied trance. This makes covering the Federal Communications Commission difficult; it also enables people like FCC Chairman Powell to be both condescending and evasive when compelled to justify the actions he is recommending. On one point, though, Powell has been admirably clear. He says that media consolidation doesn’t trouble him because big media companies are providing the public with products that they want. Otherwise these companies wouldn’t be as big as they are. Since the FCC exists in order to safeguard the public’s interest in airwaves that, by law, belong to us, this must mean there’s no problem in letting a single company dominate news and entertainment in a particular town. After all, people wouldn’t support these channels or stations if they didn’t like what was being offered. Would they? So media consolidation is about letting companies that are already doing a good job informing and entertaining us — companies like News Corp. and Viacom and Time-Warner — make more money so they can do an even better job than they do now. There are at least a couple of problems with this line of thought. The first is that it completely misjudges the way most people relate to media technology. When new technologies are introduced we invariably describe them in terms of what’s come before. The automobile, for example, was called a “horseless carriage.” Television was going to be a “window on the world.” This tendency to describe the future in terms of the past helps explain why new technologies are always fraught with unintended consequences. We don’t really know what they’re going to do; all we know is that we think we want them. To the extent that there might be any doubt about this, we like to say we can always choose. Choose, that is, not to have a car. Not to have a TV. To be Amish. The problem is that new technologies are like viruses. Once you’re exposed, certain dimensions of choice are defeated. You don’t buy a TV not to watch it. You will consume programs not because they’re what you really want, but because they are the best of what you can get. To say that big media corporations are as big as they are because they are the best at what they do is naïve. This is not to say they fly in the face of public appetites. It does suggest that confusing formula-based message sending with genuine communication is foolhardy, if not downright hazardous to public health. Studies have shown that many elderly Americans are so unnerved by television’s obsession with violence, crime and death that they are afraid to leave their homes, become isolated and experience accelerated mental and physical deterioration. Indeed, although crime rates dropped markedly throughout the 1990s, two-thirds of Americans believed crime was worsening. During the same period, the number of American drug users decreased by half, yet nine out of 10 Americans were said to believe the country’s drug problem was out of control. In another study, adult Americans reportedly believed that people under age 18 commit about half of all violent crimes when the actual number was about 13 percent. “If it bleeds it leads” is the old newsroom cliché. Certainly no one can dispute that, for a host of reasons, people are fascinated and even entertained by the misfortunes of others. While this observation may be good for business it fails to address the real need of communities — and the nation as a whole — to understand and define themselves. If the fear and anxiety people feel about everyday life is any indication, big media may be doing a good job of making profits but, contrary to Michael Powell and the FCC, they can hardly be said to be doing a good job. Which brings us back to that sense of what the recent pro-consolidation ruling really means: more of the same. Powell, after all, was appointed by a president who wears a fighter pilot’s flight suit, but cuts veteran’s benefits. Who claims a tax cut will benefit all Americans, but supports making child tax credits unavailable to the 12 million kids whose parents work for minimum wage. Who goes to war with another country over its weapons of mass destruction though no such weapons can be found. This president, we are regularly reminded, enjoys great popularity even though a growing number of Americans are increasingly pessimistic about their ability to retire, care for ailing parents or their own health care crises. Odds are we will re-elect him in 2004. Voting for him will be like turning on the boob tube and watching a rerun. Michael Powell would have us think this amounts to validation of a job well done. He apparently has never heard of such a thing as a bad habit.

Recommended for you