The Cost of Media Consolidation

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington is making media policy for the nation. It is throwing out old ownership rules designed to preserve competition by pressuring the Federal Communications Commission to dismantle the remaining barriers to the merging of broadcast, cable, and newspaper companies. The Court of Appeals, FCC Chairman Michael Powell, and media-company executives argue that digital cable, satellite television, and the Internet have sharply increased the diversity of news sources to the public, so consolidation is no threat. American citizens will get all the information they need to make democracy work. We question that supposition.

Advocates of media deregulation are confusing the proliferation of channels with diversity of news and analysis. There's no denying that consumers can get hundreds of channels on cable and plug into thousands of Web sites, but most people get their news and views from a handful of trusted media outlets that survive by selling ads. On September 11, most Americans didn't turn to channel 642 or nuttyideas.com to learn what was happening and how it affected them.

The truth is that when big media conglomerates own most, if not all, the mass-market outlets in a community, diversity will probably suffer. Without restraints, media companies will naturally seek the largest audience and advertising base possible. Independent voices will be less able to sustain themselves financially. And conglomerates will tend to cut back on their own news programming because it's simply not as profitable as entertainment. Walt Disney Co., owner of ABC Inc., was being true to itself in trying to replace Ted Koppel's Nightline with David Letterman.

Proliferation of channels is not the same as diversity of information. The Court of Appeals and the FCC should look beyond their legal and ideological agendas to see what media consolidation will really cost the nation.

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