The Media Monotony

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With an assist from Reason's January cover story, Slate's Jack Shafer sticks it to the latest edition of Ben Bagdikian's The New Media Monopoly. Now in its seventh (collect 'em all) edition, TNMM is more akin to the old Ripley's Believe It…Or Not paperbacks–the same old stories dolled up with minor updates and changes.

Writes Shafer,

In the long run, competition and the dynamism of markets keep any five media conglomerates from dictating "what most citizens will learn." But corporate ownership of media so rankles Bagdikian that I doubt the variations of who's on top and who's slid into corporate oblivion make much difference to him. I'm sure my testament that for all the news media's faults, its quality and variety have never been greater, sounds Panglossian to Bagdikian. But I challenge him to name a time in America's history when the news media did a better job than it does today. Who longs for the days of William Randolph Hearst? Of three broadcast networks? Of the days before the Internet?

Whole thing here. And our January cover story about media proliferation, "Domination Fantasies," is online here.

And for real masochists on this subject, here's "the Mouth of the South" and the former Mr. Jane Fonda himself, Ted Turner, rambling on about how incredibly awful things are in the media today ever since he got tomahawk-chopped out of AOL Time Warner.

NEXT: What's a Doc, Doc?

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  1. “Media” is plural.

  2. You can’t fire the sock puppet! Noooo! That show would have to be better than Hannity’s radio show, tho. 😀

    And yeah, it took me a sec as well to realize you were talking about Ted Turner, not Jimmy Hart.

  3. i’ll stick my neck out here…

    i’d argue that competition in the demotic marketplace serves — in some ways — to drive media producers to conform, not diversify, in what they report. (please rebutt as desired.)

    in our current social configuration of unrestricted demotic consumption, the end consumer — the paper buyer, the tv watcher — determines profitability/survivability for media producers. the consumer shops to their preference — and this includes point of view. consumers (need it be said?) are The Crowd, as defined by gustave le bon, regardless of the other things the individuals who constitute it might also be. they herd. they trend. they conform — and this includes, perhaps especially, point of view.

    so a producer of information caters to a preference-crowd that has sufficient numbers to ensure profitability — and is ever after, driven by profit, seeking to broaden its popularity by increasing the numbers in its preference-crowd. as people herd in increasing numbers to a certain POV (as they are wont to do, witnessing any fad), an increasing number of producers will cater to it by adopting that POV — which may also serve, in a sort of spiral, to increase the numbers of the crowd via the propaganda effect.

    therefore, by putting consumers in charge through the unrestricted marketplace, regardless of the proliferation of the number of outlets, the largest group(s) will define the POV for the majority of the news — i.e., the best-circulated or “mainstream”.

    there will always be producers who are driven by principle and not profit (reason? lol), and there will always be those among the population who work counter to the crowd. but the majority of the news circulation is driven by profit to adopt the most common points of view of the herd — perpetually ensuring conformity in large-circulation news media, at least in the main.

    there’s also a cost consideration — everyone running the same story written by one syndicated reporter is far cheaper than everyone writing their own POV story, further disincentivized by the fact that there is less risk of alienating the large crowd POV with your own accidentally.

    under hearst, you did get HIS point of view — but it was not necessarily the demotic point of view. not suggesting that monopoly is better –simply saying that counting on the profit-driven marketplace to diversify the mainstream doesn’t seem to follow. freedom of press allows anyone to publish whatever they like, but i think you can count on mainstream press in our society being largely completely conformist for market reasons — which is why all the major news outlets not only run the same frickin’ stories virtually every day, but usually report everything from a point of view that could be called “ameri-centric”.

  4. Well, the argument isn’t that the “demotic marketplace” will neccessarily diversify mainstream media. The argument is that market driven innovation creates new media ie blogs, satellite radio etc which definitely offer various POV’s in competition with mainstream media and may well supplant mainstream media. It makes media access cheap & efficient ie Amazon, complete works of authors available online etc. Thus, in the year 2004, one can walk into Border’s Books and Music, purchase the complete works of Cicero in the orginal latin with translation on facing page for $14.95, something one could not do at the height of the renaissance or anytime else when tastes were rarified & still complain about the masses/”American idol” while doing so. What’s not to like ? I do it all the time.

  5. What the hell? You commenters are going to write off Ted Turner’s argument against media consolidation for hypocrisy?

    Have you ever heard of “Nixon goes to China?” Who is better qualified to say that media consolidation is a terrible thing for small businesses and competition than Ted Turner? The man knows that the FCC restrictions make it easy to buy out or supress the competition because he is the maestro.

    Sometimes it takes a person like Turner to speak the truth even if it paints him in a bad light: no one else could get away with it.

    When a smaller media man or an outsider makes the arguments he does, the chorus snaps to attention and they ask an excellent question: “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? Don’t you understand the free market?”

    “After all, the consumer decides what they want their commodities to look like: if the market was truly free then only the best ideas and products would survive. The media was crafted through the genius of the free market — if it was as bad as you say it is, then it would already be in the process of changing for the better.

    ” If you’ve got a problem with the way things are, take the grand pepsi challenge: start a competing business. If you’re right, you’ll be sitting in Ted’s desk someday. If you’re wrong, you’ll fail. ”

    I wish it were this easy.

    Many libertarians suffer from a failure of imagination when it comes to market failure. Please hear me out: excessively free markets with a handful of strong players _will_ turn into oligopolies.

    Suppose a new business wants to play David to Goliath. Davidco has a great new product; it is far superior to Goliathco’s. For many libertarians the story ends there — Goliathco’s days are numbered.

    However, in the real world, Goliathco still has options — almost all of which will be fatal to Davidco if the right restrictions are not placed on the market.

    If the cost of overhauling and improving their product is low, Goliathco can steal Davidco’s concept and then price them out of the game. Goliathco can afford to sell at a loss because in the long run the lack of competition from Davidco will outweigh that temporary red ink: think of it as Goliathco’s investment in a competition-free future.

    Suppose Davidco can get a patent and keep Goliathco at bay. Davidco’s product is so superior to his competitor’s that a mere “price out the competitor” strategy will not work. Davidco also remains a private company, so hostile takeovers are not possible.

    Davidco is in luck if consumers can choose between him and his competitor as if they were apple-sellers standing next to each other in a market. Unfortunately, the world is not that simple.

    This is where the market failure happens. Paradoxically, a free market can actually suppress innovation when commodity sellers have unequal access to the consumer. The consolidation of media will aggravate this process, diminishing real competition so severely that “media market” is a misnomer.

    Consider these examples.

    Davidco is small; its means of distribution are quite limited. Suppose he has invented a device that will replace the CD player. The new product, we will call it CD2, is vastly superior to the current format.

    Goliathco, being a conglomerate, owns electronics companies that do not want to see the CD player replaced AND a significant share of the music distribution market. If adopting the CD2 standard has the ability to harm its electronics section, why should they release CD2 format music until its dominance is assured?

    Davidco understands that if he tries to keep his patent to himself, the spread of his CD2 format will be limited. He remembers how the superior Betamax was eliminated by the inferior but more common VHS. In the end it is safer for him to lease out the patent to the large electronics companies rather than try to fight them: otherwise, his superior product will be ignored. In closing, Davidco is moderately successful, but it has not become Time Warner.

    another example: Davidco’s CEO watched the Enron scandal unfold and was surprised at the public outrage over issues of corporate malfeasance. The CEO is a smart guy: he knows there is far more where that came from. He gets an idea: he can bring more “Enron”‘s to light and the public will eat it up. He will also serve as the conscience of the corporate community, fulfilling an essential public service.

    Davidco produces a peabody-award-winning investigative show that pulls no punches. It tests well in focus groups; it gets results. Unfortunately, it will be risky to carry this show in mass media markets. Broadcasters who choose to air this program will be pensive about their advertisers bolting; even more frightening, the show may go after a company with armies of lawyers who will drive the show’s costs through the roof after the parade of lawsuits begins. The show will have its wings clipped, if it gets on the air at all.

    conclusion

    Davidco may have the superior product, but that does not insure he will succeed and pose a sincere challenge to the establishment. To get where he needs to go, he must obtain large amounts of money and make deals with distributors. There is no such thing as a free lunch: there will always be strings attached.

    Goliathco has the will and the power to keep Davidco out and there is no way the dominant company will let the smaller one join the circle unless he can be sure the costs to him will be low.

    The lesson for Davidco’s CEO is clear. He knows that companies have to adapt or die — that will always be true. However, as an avid free-marketeer he is shocked at what form this adaptation is taking: the market forces have compel him to make his products worse, not better; the adaptions he needs to make in order to survive are not determined by the will of the consumer, but by the desires of his competition. Without playing ball with his competitors, he won’t even be able to get to the consumer into the first place.

    For more information about this topic and better examples, consult Bob McChesney’s “The problem of the Media” , an excellent book.

  6. Ted Turner writes 15 pages about how consolidation is bad, then admits he was a big part of it back when he had the chance. At least he “felt something was wrong” about it while he was doing it. What a beacon of integrity.

  7. Given my infinite choices of news & opinion viewpoints on the Internet, a wide range of cable TV channels, and dozens of niche stations on my XM radio (and I won’t even mention my shortwave radio), the current supply of media looks plentiful and assorted to me.

  8. I hear the Libertarian Channel has a great morning talk show hosted by Virginia Postrel, Ted Nugent and a sock puppet with a monocle. My cable company doesn’t carry it, though. Can I get it on DirectTV?

  9. very valid points. markets are not holy, after all. they are not universally applicable nor do they produce uniformly virtuous results.

  10. Jamie S., agreed that in extreme cases, (like Turner’s) hypocrisy destroys his argument…Soros is another example, currently wimpering about Bush when just a few short years ago he tried to break the bank of england, devalued the malaysian ringgit, and engaged in similar activities that made Ken Lay look like the manager of a lemonade stand.

    And Gillespie, please make no mistake, the “mouth of the south” is pro-wrestling manager Jimmy Hart, who along with Brett Hart and Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, comprised the “Hart Foundation.”
    Ah, 5th and 6th grade, the golden age of pro wrestling.

  11. I hear the Libertarian Channel has a great morning talk show hosted by Virginia Postrel, Ted Nugent and a sock puppet with a monocle.

    Actually, we had to fire the sock puppet when we learned he got his PhD from a diploma mill.

  12. And Gillespie, please make no mistake, the “mouth of the south” is pro-wrestling manager Jimmy Hart, who along with Brett Hart and Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, comprised the “Hart Foundation.”

    Damn straight

  13. Eh, who cares.

    The media was crap when Hearst owned it.

    The media was crap when we only had three channels and a bunch of black-and-white newspapers.

    Now we have 500 cable channels and an endless supply of daily newspapers, weekly newspapers, magazines and blogs (in a variety of languages) dishing out and endless supply of left-wing news, right-wing news, celebrity news, sports news, intentionally funny fake news, unintentionally funny fake news, and plain old boring fake news.

    Guess what? it’s still crap. There’s just more of it.

  14. Don’t forget the endless political forum posts about the many varieties of news! Oh, wait…

  15. Marc, shut the fuck up.

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