Media consolidation and the free market

Posted: Jun 04, 2003 12:00 AM

It's funny: I've been reading articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the major newsweeklies about how the FCC's decision to relax some media ownership rules -primarily the part allowing companies to own TV stations and newspapers in the same market -will hurt American journalism by making it "too corporate."

What's funny about this is that the corporations that own these publications are generally in favor of the FCC's decision but don't even have enough influence with their employees to make them stop editorializing against the issue. This is just my second-favorite irony of the anti-Big Media brouhaha.

Now I should be clear: I don't think all media consolidation is a good thing for society or for the businesses involved. For example, I think it's a real tragedy that only a handful of cities have more than one newspaper these days.

Newspaper rivalries are one of the great bastions of free speech and fun journalism.

Competition makes both outlets better, and the lack of newspaper competition in many cities leaves the public poorer. Worse, it makes life more difficult for the heroic salespeople who sell this column, which makes me poorer. But, even though it would be great for me and America if there were more newspapers, I can't imagine favoring a government program to make more newspapers.

In other words, the federal government can't always make the free market do the right thing, even when we know what the right thing is, which is rare.

Many libertarians and free-market conservatives are so in love with the free market they seem to think anything it produces is better than what it replaced. Too many wonderful restaurants, bakeries and other downtown businesses have been replaced with schlock for me to believe that. I'm perfectly comfortable with the idea that free enterprise will result in "bad" things, as I see them.

But that's the nature of freedom. And this is what liberals so often seem not to understand. Apparently, they believe that economic freedom is somehow less legitimate than artistic freedom. First Amendment absolutists think it's outrageous whenever a strip club is banned, but the same people have no problem with keeping Wal-Mart or McDonald's out of their town or banning cigarette advertising.

Every time a politician proposes requiring stiffer ratings for music or video games or movies, Hollywood liberals freak out, saying government should stay out of it. Fair enough. But why are they now freaking out when the government is removing itself just a bit more from the business of regulating the journalism business?

Maybe it's because I see free enterprise as just another form of freedom; I don't ask myself if it's bad or good if certain businesses become too big, so long as they don't become monopolies and consumers have more choices. And, so far, the free market - because of, or in spite of, consolidation - has created far more choices for consumers.

When I was a kid, three networks in New York City determined the national TV news agenda for the whole country. Today, we have three cable news networks - not counting the financial and non-English-speaking networks.

Yes, some newspapers have gone out of business (even though that has more to do with too few people reading), but technology now allows us to buy The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal thousands of miles from these newspapers' bureaus. And the Internet allows us to read the Times of London and Le Monde (if you can parlez that devilish tongue).

Sure, the consolidation of the radio industry has lead to homogenization. But that homogenization has led to the explosion of Internet radio. Presumably the "nationalization" of local news outlets will not erase the demand for local news overnight. Demand still governs supply in a free society.

Time and again I hear opponents of media consolidation insist that this trend is only good for the corporations not consumers. Well, if that's true, why do so many shareholders at Time Warner want to ditch AOL? Maybe it's because consolidation isn't always a good idea for the bottom line of corporations either.

Oh, I almost forgot my favorite irony of this whole ruckus. You know where I hear critics of Big Media the most often? On C-Span: a network entirely supported by - you guessed it - Big Media. And what's really funny: They always preface their comments by saying, "Thank God for C-Span."