We don’t know, and we don’t care.
July 30, 2003
In early June, the Federal Communications Commission relaxed its rules for owning several news outlets by individual media companies.
Some media companies had complained that the FCC’s rules were antiquated and didn’t make sense in the modern world of communications. FCC Chairman Michael Powell agreed with them and stated, “Our actions will advance our goals of diversity and localism.” But on May 13, Frank Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times, testified before the Senate Commerce Committee and said, “I think we see the beginning of the end of our democracy. All you have to do is look at the decrease in the variety of voices and investment in news and editorial and increase and concentration in the last 20 years and project it forward another 20 years.”
The Newspaper Association of America is a trade organization that represents more than 2,000 daily newspapers, including the Tribune Company and Gannett Co. Inc., which owns five daily newspapers in Louisiana and The Times of Acadiana. President John Sturm stated that although the NAA was pleased with the FCC’s decision, the relaxing of “the regulatory shackles” didn’t go far enough. Sturm stated that the FCC’s actions “will positively impact competition in local markets and provide healthy and diverse competition to large radio station owners. Local audiences will be the big winners.”
One side of the argument is that relaxing the rules will, as Powell stated, increase the diversity of news. The other side is that the new rules will make it easier for a handful of companies to control more of the news, in a landscape that is already dominated by large media corporations.
One camp paints a doomsday picture of corporate greed and power concentrated in the hands of the few, a media monopoly in which entire cities will get their news from one source, one company, one voice. The other camp describes a happier vision of “convergence,” in which news will come to you in one big pipe as your local media outlets join forces, like super heroes, to bring you the most comprehensive news.
In February, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, along with the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, surveyed 1,254 adults. One of the questions they posed was this: “How much, if anything, have you heard about a Federal Communications Commission proposal to reduce current limits on the number of news outlets one company can own … a lot, a little or nothing at all?” Four percent said that they had heard “a lot,” 23 percent said they had heard “a little” and a staggering 72 percent knew “nothing at all.” Asked their opinion on what effect the FCC’s actions would have, 11 percent thought it would be positive, 34 percent thought it would be negative and 46 percent didn’t think that it would make much difference.
By July 2, the survey was conducted again with the same questions, after the FCC’s actions made headlines. Now, 12 percent of Americans have heard “a lot” about the changes, 36 percent have heard “a little,” but still 51 percent have heard nothing about it. So even though almost half of Americans have heard something about it, most of us are still unaware. Of those who have heard “a lot” about the FCC’s actions, an overwhelming 70 percent believe that it will have a negative impact on the nation, while 6 percent believe it will be positive. Of those who had heard “a little” about the issue, 57 percent believe the impact would be negative. And 42 percent of those who had heard nothing about the issue believed that it didn’t make any difference.
So if our democracy, as the Declaration of Independence states, is based on the belief that, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” how effective is a democracy of uninformed citizens? Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and will never be.” Then again, Jefferson expressed that notion a long time ago, and maybe even the founding fathers’ ideas are antiquated and don’t make much sense in this modern world of terror.