News and Neurosis

How I survived media consolidation.


I was flipping absently through the newspaper Monday night when the radio, droning anachronistically in the background, announced the imminence of dystopia. "Your favorite local TV station may soon be owned by your local newspaper," warned an announcer's voice, heavy with portent. The unhappy man was, of course, goosing that day's FCC decision allowing greater cross-ownership of media within a given market. I tossed the paper aside: My literacy, I realized, was now a tool against me in the hands of unleashed media moguls.

Oh, yes: I'd heard the dire warnings about the information consolidation that will result from this decision. As Tom Shales put it in The Washington Post, the FCC was "giving away the marketplace of ideas," pulverizing the public interest, and threatening our First Amendment freedoms.

I was staring powerlessly into the black hole of media futility. But then I remembered something: My local newspaper, the very one I'd just thrown aside (the very one, as it happens, in which Shales had announced the Apocalypse), used to own a local TV station here in Washington when there were hardly any TV stations to own. In fact, it used to own the very radio station that was still droning away in the background. Indeed, it used to own one of the two-and-a-half newsweekly magazines when newsweeklies mattered. It owned all these things at the same time. I realized that, for decades, this media monster had been the gatekeeper to my brain. For me, it was too late! If media consolidation is an informational threat, then I was already its victim. Could I trust anything I thought?

It's true: Until 1975, when FCC cross-ownership rules changed, The Washington Post Company not only put out the increasingly dominant daily here, it also owned many of the city's major broadcast outlets when broadcasting was the only mass-media alternative to print.

Consider the local TV market: Obviously, there was no cable TV, and just as obviously no satellite TV, either. For years there was not even any UHF TV (and even after UHF came along, it took years to penetrate). Washington's market once consisted of four VHF TV stations, although for quite a while only two of them really mattered. (The ones that didn't were the independent that programmed mostly reruns, and an ABC affiliate that took years to get on its feet; for a long time that station didn't even begin its broadcast day until the afternoon). That left two significant stations, the NBC affiliate, and the Post-owned CBS affiliate, WTOP-TV. (And, there being no VCRs, never mind TiVo, you either lived by the stations' schedules, or you were out of luck.)

Things were not much better on the radio dial. Not many radios were built to receive FM; no car radios got it, certainly no transistor radios had FM dials, and not many tabletop models, either. The FM band was not only exotic, it was largely empty, and the few stations who broadcast on FM often just simulcast their AM programming. Until the late 60s, the radio action was limited to AM. Washington had one clear-channel, 50,000-watt AM station, WTOP-AM. Guess who owned it.

This was real market domination, because in those days the information market was so limited: There was no Internet; out-of-town papers, if you could find them, were days old (let's not even talk about foreign papers); a "big" book chain like Brentano's stocked a few thousand titles (the average Borders has 140,000). You could always turn to the three news magazines, of course, though the only time I ever saw anyone reading U.S. News was in the barber shop. That left Time and Newsweek. You know who owned (and owns) Newsweek.

Washington was hardly unique; there were a lot of U.S. cities in similar media straightjackets. But if anybody is arguing that the new FCC rules will return us to the nightmare of the pre-1975 media environment, I haven't heard about it. I have yet to hear the case against the FCC decision that even suggests that the pre-1975 media rules were problematic. I suspect there's a reason for that: The case against the FCC's decision is being advanced largely by anti-market elitists who otherwise look back nostagically to the midcentury media environment as a period of responsible, high-minded, and trustworthy journalism. Such critics can't cite the old cross-ownership rules as an example of the horrors we'll go back to, because they've spent years characterizing the period as the golden age of media gatekeeping.

The usual portrait of the pre-1975 media scene is that those were the happy days before cable speeded up the news cycle and before the Internet created Drudge. Everybody listened to Uncle Cronkite at dinner, and a handful of tweedy critics could make or break a book or movie. Thoughtful editors had the luxury of carefully considering whether to run a story, and careful reporters understood that they had to pile up their sources. Politicians were articulate, network TV took journalism seriously (say, "Edward R. Murrow"), and nobody had ever thought of the concept of "infotainment." Etc.

This is a pretty familiar refrain. The short version is that American journalism's best days were spent as the midcentury gatekeeper, and that the advent of new media has turned what was once a comfortable media hierarchy into a fast-lane mess. You can't very well evoke the period as one of market dominance without undermining both the mythology and its usefulness as a truncheon against the new media. Your best option is to ignore the historical fact that the supposed golden age coincided with an era of market dominance.

I don't suscribe to the golden-age mythology (most newspapers were terrible, especially independent ones), but then I don't believe that the new FCC rules are the apocalypse, either. Am I for media consolidation? Nope. Do I want Rupert Murdoch or Disney or Clear Channel Communications to have their thumbs on the scales in the marketplace of ideas? I don't. But I don't know what the results of the FCC rule change will be. Markets—including media markets—never reach equilibrium, something that their critics have never figured out. Left to themselves, media markets remain in flux, changing with the varying roles the media assign themselves, or are assigned by their users. Of course, there is one way to leech the dynamism out of such markets: regulate them.

But what's the point of going on? While one set of pessimists predicts media calamity because of consolidation, another has never stopped proclaiming calamity because of competitive new media. The only media news, it turns out, is bad news. Where'd I toss that Post?