a “media ownership rule” and has thesupport of enough politicians.It is extraordinarily difficult to createor maintain such a thing as a monopolyon information. This fact is rarely con-fronted, however. Rather, the chargeof monopolization is used as an epithet,a hurled accusation, or a full-page adwith an unflattering picture of RupertMurdoch, titled “This Man Wants toControl the News in America.”
Thereality, however, is that would-bemonopolists of information would needa stranglehold on both infrastructure andcontent. That is, they would need tomonopolize the hardware of both thewired or wireless networks of today andof those yet to be—along with the infor-mation that travels across them. Thisextraordinary situation does not existand is highly unlikely in a free society.Media companies do not function in amarket vacuum and cannot escape hos-tile competition. Media is a business,with upstream and downstream threatsand pressures—disgruntled customers,programmers of content, authors, artists,advertisers, and hostile takeovers.Celebrities bolt. Sports leagues move tonew networks. If reporters feel undueinfluence, they rebel and leave. They caneven separate and form a separate news-paper, or join a competitor.In grappling with the principle thatinformation is not subject to scarcityand cannot be monopolized, it isinstructive to contemplate the imagi-nary worst-case scenario of those whowould regulate media ownership. Nevermind that AOL/Time Warner hasrecently decided to ditch the AOL fromits corporate name, due to disappoint-ment with the venture. Instead, imaginethat an insatiable AOL/Time Warnercontrolled every cable line in America.Then imagine that AOL/Time Warnerwere to proclaim that communism isthe path to social justice, that the earthis flat and the center of the universe,and that the moon is made of greencheese. What then? Under the institu-tion of a free press, Wall Street wouldsimply fund new media companies toreplace Time Warner or to competeagainst it. Advertisers, venture capitalists,programmers, disgruntled reporters, andconsumers would flee to the new enter-prise, taking their funding, talent, andattention with them. In short, the limita-tions imposed by the mobility of capitalapply to unruly media.
Today, Not Yesterday, Is theAge of Media Diversity
If ever a justification existed for mediaownership restrictions, the circumstances justifying those restrictions no longerexist. Media ownership rules were largelydevised during the middle of the twentiethcentury, from the 1940s tothe 1970s, when thebroadcast landscape, bothnationally and locally, wasdrastically different.
They emerged before theadvent of thousand-chan-nel cable television, satel-lite TV and radio, and, of course, the Internet and itsbroadcast capabilities of personal and organizational webpages,mailing lists, e-mail, weblogging, andpeer-to-peer communications.Channels provide 24x7 news, science,music, home improvement, weather,food, and sports programs; even individ-ual sports like racing (SpeedVision)areavailable. The rise of mass media com-panies means that we no longer had towait until Christmas to watch
It’s aWonderful Life
and allows Viacom’sNickelodeon to offer endless reruns of old shows. The full potential of satel-lite, Internet, and unused spectrum hasbeen barely touched. Niche markets of the future will make possible self-creat-ed stations covering ever more obscuretopics, such as a personalized fieldhockey channel on a continuous basis.
Future broadband infrastructure ventureslike fiber to the home could expand ouroptions still further.The dominance of Walter Cronkiteand the Big Three networks has disap-peared; today, not yesterday, is the age of diversity.Elvis may have left the build-ing, but Matt Drudge is in the house.
Freedom of Speech, or Else
The notion of restricting media owner-ship is contrary to the concept of democracy. Perhaps some future histo-rian or New Age logician will be ableto reconcile the claim to supportdemocracy and choice, while simulta-neously supporting centralized govern-mental control of the size and structureof private media outlets. From thestandpoint of liberty, however, the twotenets are not reconcilable.Without the FCC’s recent rule change,it remains against U.S. law for a broadcastnetwork owner to speak to 65 percent of the public via its stations.
Rather, eachremains limited to a maximum audienceof 35 percent of the viewing public.Despite this explicit regulatory limitation,the advocates of free speech do not con-demn this violation of the core principleof free speech, but want to keep therestrictions in place. Some, like CBS,NBC, and Fox, are already at the cap andwill not be able to expand.Big is not always bad, even when capsare breached. The FCC provides waiversto its rules for special circumstances, suchas when a newspaper or broadcaster isabout to go out of business.
Theseexceptions are a tacit admission that scalecan affect dissemination of speech in apositive way. The logical conclusion isthat, if companies are not free to grow,they may be forced to fold (particularly inthe smaller markets of the country), leav-ing consumers even fewer viewpointsfrom which to choose. We should notencourage a regime where waivers arespecial favors; all should be free toexpand as market circumstances propelthem. Pandering to politicians for permis-sion to expand one’s business is some-thing, but it is not free speech.Regulating media mergers is a viola-tion of free speech, to say nothing of badantitrust and communications policy.Such regulation is a needless and counter-productive declaration that people do notget to speak if their microphones are toobig—a situation that will be remedied, if necessary, in the unforgiving market-place of ideas. Of course, not everyonemay like the end results of some collec-tive market decisions, but ours isincreasingly an age of “narrowcasting”rather than broadcasting, leaving lessand less room to complain. Already themarket preserves the old and valuedwhile offering the new.With regard tonews (as opposed to entertainment),markets are surely capable of providingunbiased and unfiltered information, asdemonstrated by C-SPAN.
Media ownership rules emergedbefore the advent of thousand-channelcable television, satellite TV andradio, and the Internet.