By Thane Peterson
Here's a quiz for you: Name the best-known and most influential conservative commentators in America? Rush Limbaugh? George F. Will? Bill O'Reilly? Now, quick, who are their liberal counterparts?
If you can't think of any, you're not alone. Conservatives love to rant that liberals dominate the news media. Trouble is, it's just not true. In fact, I'd argue that the biggest problem with America's public discourse today is that the left is barely represented at all on mainstream TV and radio talk shows and in major newspapers and magazines.
To my mind, that's the main reason debate in the U.S. and Europe is diverging so radically on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to genetically engineered food and capital punishment. In, say, London a much more lively debate is going on between the left (given voice in mainstream outlets such as the BBC and Guardian) and the right.
The U.S. situation is likely to get a lot worse if Michael Powell, Federal Communications Commission chairman, has his way. He wants to loosen or remove many of the last remaining restrictions on how much of the market Big Media conglomerates can control. Among other things, Powell would allow more cross-ownership of local TV stations and newspapers by the same companies. He also would let a single company own TV stations covering 45% of the national viewing audience, up from 35% now. Powell plans a vote on June 2, and the three-person Republican majority on the commission seems certain to approve the proposed changes.
This isn't good policy. The U.S. needs greater concentration of the media market like a fast-food junkie needs more fat. What we read, hear, and watch is already determined to far too great an extent a half dozen giant conglomerates: AOL Time Warner (AOL ), Viacom (VIA ), Walt Disney (DIS ), News Corp. (NWS ), General Electric (GE ), and Bertelsman. Yet Powell has held just one official public hearing on the proposed changes. And the specifics of the revisions being considered haven't been made public.
The dangers of greater media concentration are clear. Programming is likely to become even more homogenized -- and less substantive. Subscription and advertising rates are likely to shoot up as competition diminishes. Local news coverage, already feeble in many smaller towns and communities, is likely to get even feebler. And in my opinion, the conservative voices in American media are going to get even louder.
ALL QUIET ON TV.
Powell argues that such issues have gotten plenty of discussion. He points to "ad hoc" hearings and written comments submitted to the FCC. But that's disingenuous. Much of the written comment has been by media companies with a clear financial interest in more deregulation. And the most important ad hoc hearings were organized without official FCC sanction by Michael Copps, a Democratic commissioner, who is trying to slow Powell down. Powell didn't attend most of them.
One reason these proposals have gotten this far is that the political left -- the natural opposition to the changes -- has barely been heard in the mainstream U.S. media. Sure, the issue has gotten coverage in newspapers and publications such as BusinessWeek (see BW, 5/19/03, "Rewriting the Rules of Media Mergers") and The Wall Street Journal. But very little critical commentary has examined the dangers of further media concentration. And if, like most Americans, you get your news from TV -- forget about it. Aside from Bill Moyers on Public Broadcasting and a short piece recently on ABC News, the issue has received virtually no coverage.
Author Eric Alterman, a regular contributor to the liberal journal The Nation, has a theory on all this. In his new book What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (Basic Books, $25), Alterman argues that the the U.S. media has shifted markedly to the right since the Reagan revolution of the 1980s. Far from being dominated by liberals, he argues, the media are now dominated by conservatives and centrists afraid of taking any position that might offend the corporate owners of their publications.
That's especially true of broadcast media, Alterman shows. Conservatives like ex-TV newsman Bernard Goldberg, whose bestseller Bias contended that network TV is too liberal, spend a lot of time obsessing on how people like Dan Rather are closet liberals. But Alterman looks at dozens of journalists -- from celebrities like Rather and Tom Brokaw to Sunday-morning talk-show titan Tim Russert -- and demonstrates, convincingly in my view, that if they have a bias, it's not to the left.
In some ways, this is a false debate. If we're looking for liberal policy alternatives, they're not going to come from TV anchors and reporters. That's not their role. And his book is a hard slog at times, with too much anecdotal detail. But by the end, it's difficult not to agree with his conclusion that the thoughtful left in this country has been marginalized. At this point, the left's most influential representatives consist of small journals like The Nation, a handful of newspaper commentators such as Paul Krugman and Frank Rich at The New York Times, and syndicated columnist Molly Ivins.
You could say that's just market forces at work. Liberal radio hosts haven't captured much of an audience, while conservatives like Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Oliver North, Don Imus, and Armstrong Williams have attracted loyal followings that advertisers are eager to reach. Fox TV has also increased ratings by billing itself as a conservative alternative to the major networks. But polls show that the middle of the American political spectrum remains centrist -- definitely to the left of Fox and conservative talk radio.
Market forces should create alternatives. Yet, I don't see that happening in our major media, at least not in its political coverage. My theory is that big companies controlling the media just aren't much interested in creating liberal alternatives.
BAD TO WORSE.
I don't know what the best policy on media concentration would be. But I don't want it decided by the courts, which have been pushing the FCC to come up with clearer rules. And I doubt that Powell's big idea -- a "diversity index" that the FCC would apply to ensure that competition isn't entirely wiped out in smaller markets -- is the answer.
That would give the FCC an excuse for mucking around in just about every case. Too bad it has a history of making things worse whenever it has meddled in mass communication, no matter which party has control of the agenda. Just look at the 1996 radio deregulation instituted on Bill Clinton's watch. After a wave of consolidation, Clear Channel (CCU ) and Viacom control nearly half the market, local programming has virtually disappeared across the spectrum. I don't call that progress.
What's needed is some sort of market-based policy that treats the airwaves as a public trust and promotes new entrants and alternative programming of all political stripes, especially at the local level. Chairman Powell should cancel the vote until he has a plan that advances that agenda.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Doug Harbrecht