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The media’s right shift

More media consolidation is coming, and it won’t be pretty.

Out of sensitivity to our readers, I try to limit political discussions as much as possible. But when I start with a topic relevant to technologists that can’t be addressed without relating to politics, I don’t shy away from political debate. The topic of this column is media consolidation, something that affects our readers greatly because the media is increasingly involved in technology and technology’s growth is dependent on healthy media. The Federal Communications Commission is about to ease rules that limit print and broadcast media consolidation even though almost no consumer of media wants this. Why? because big media moguls like Rupert Murdoch spent millions of dollars lobbying the commission to change the rules. Let me explain why the FCC’s pending decision is a bad thing.

I have watched public opinion in this country shift to the right over the last 30 years rather dramatically. I fancy myself a moderate’s moderate, but I somehow find myself on the left of more and more debates these days. It’s difficult to even express a critical stance relative to the conservative Republican majority in all three branches of government without being branded a pinko by a number of readers.

For example, in my May 5th column , I criticized the president’s spin on the tax plan (which he’s signing as I write this) as a jobs plan. I think if you want to call it a jobs plan, it should at least include some incentives to companies that hire Americans, rather than simply reducing taxes on dividends in the hopes that investment will create jobs. This received several letters branding my alternative plan “socialism.” I’m not sure those readers understand the term.

I grew up in an age when the most conservative president of our generation (Richard Nixon) introduced price controls to stimulate the American economy and did more to enhance corporate welfare than any previous president. At the time, very few criticized the White House on what were correctly labeled socialist policies. It’s instructive to look back 30 years and see just how American political debate has changed. Even the definition of socialism has right-shifted.

I have a theory about why American opinion has shifted while most other free-world opinion (e.g., Canadian) has held pretty steady. There are a lot of factors, to be sure. But one very big factor is radio consolidation and its effects on talk radio. Thirty years ago, there were hundreds of ma-and-pa radio outlets–affiliated or not–all trying to report the news accurately. Those that did the best job held the most market share. The industry was self-correcting, more or less.

Now, the Rush Limbaughs of the world dominate American airwaves. Try to name a liberal talk show host outside of MPR. It can’t be done. Why? Because radio is consolidated into three companies, each with its own agenda, and all of them conservative. The most conservative is Clear Channel, which recently banned such musicians as Bob Dylan and James Taylor from its airwaves because their lyrics are “subversive.” While it has every right to choose its programming as it sees fit, when there aren’t any alternatives, we have a problem. It’s the commercial equivalent of state-sponsored radio, and recent events in Iraq show just how dangerous a single, unchallenged voice can be. Imagine if the only thing you could tune into on radio was Rush Limbaugh and all his clones. Oh wait– that’s what we have now.

Now imagine if TV and newspapers were like radio and all you could get is Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. I read the Wall Street Journal and even occasionally tune into Fox News. I like to get a variety of perspectives. Which is why I’m thankful for the New York Times and CNN, which are moderate, as far as I can tell. They both have left- and right-leaning commentators, and everything in between. The New York Times has Maureen Dowd and William Safire (who also is against the FCC action, by the way). Let’s say Murdoch buys the New York Times and fires Dowd, Paul Krugman, Nicholas Kristoff, and Thomas Friedman. What you would have is another Wall Street Journal. And with the troubles AOL Time Warner is going through, CNN could become another Murdoch property like Fox via hostile takeover if the FCC prevails.

Whether you are a technologist or not, the prospect of media consolidation should scare you. FCC representatives have claimed that even if TV and print go the way of radio, we have the Web to preserve balance. While blogs have a democratizing influence, the bulk of all news is still consumed via the big three. And the top news sites (CNN, New York Times, local newspapers) have their origins in other media. There is a reason for this. They have the infrastructure to gain revenue from their sites. Bloggers rarely make enough to sustain themselves. Recent polls indicate that roughly 30 percent of the population doesn’t use the Internet and has no intention to. On the other hand, everyone gets some news from radio, print, and TV.

There is no question that media consolidation will reduce the number of perspectives consumers will get. And if radio is any indicator, it will shift to the right. We’ll still get BBC.com and other foreign perspectives, but they don’t report on policies that only affect American interests, such as whether or not we should drill for oil in wildlife refuges. The information economy was supposed to make information more free and abundant. As the buzzword of the ’00s is consolidation, we are seeing the opposite affect. More and more of the information is controlled by fewer and fewer companies. Write your congressman or senator to take back some of the control over the information you consume.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com

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