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May 19, 2008

ACLU Strikes A Blow Against Freedom Of Speech & Association

by Brad Warbiany

Of course, they tell you it’s all in the name of “fairness”. But their position on the media is nothing more than a blow against freedom:

“Under the pre-December FCC rules, media companies had been already consolidated to the point that threatened our marketplace and public debate. Six major companies control most of the media in the country, including the most popular sites on the Internet. Three titans, Comcast, AOL and Time Warner, own 40 percent of households with cable and a single company owns 1200 radio stations.

“With passage of Senator Dorgan’s resolution, Congress will direct the FCC to prevent further consolidation. The Murdochs of the industry argue that further consolidation will offer Americans more media outlets over the Internet, TV, radio and print. But it is still a handful of corporations controlling everything we read, watch, listen to. We urge Congress to take the lead in returning the limits on media cross-ownership to their pre-December rules.”

There are a lot of things that are wrong with the media in this country. Much of it is dominated by the lowest common denominator, as your typical Hannity & Colmes episode will show (not to mention Nancy Grace). The nightly news can’t give more than a 30 second treatment to any topic more weighty than a kitten rescued from a tree. And as Jefferson once said, “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” To say that the average American is ill-informed would be a compliment, as most are not informed at all.

The question then follows; what do we do about it? To answer that question, though, requires us to answer quite a few more. We must ask whether or not the proposed solution will actually solve the problem. In this case, will the proposed restriction on mergers improve the quality of information presented to the American public in any meaningful way? Then, we must ask about the unintended consequences of the proposed solution, to ensure that the cure won’t be worse than the disease.

Inherent in both of these questions is a trap. The idea here is that we want to make the situation better. “Better” is a subjective term, and what I view as better may not be what you view as better. The trap is whether it is morally legitimate for the we– defined as 50%+1– to take away the rights of the other 49%. Or, to put it in terms even the ACLU might understand, exactly what situation makes it legitimate for the majority to curtail the civil liberties of the minority?

Judging all of these questions, I doubt that reducing freedom would result in a more diverse media landscape. I think back to the days of the American beer market after Prohibition. A diverse market in the realm of 2000 breweries nationwide, due to government policy, dropped to under 200 (and by the 1970′s, under 100). It took the legalization of homebrewing in 1978– Jimmy Carter’s greatest achievement, IMHO– to revitalize the movement. It was purely government getting out of the way that opened the doors to the America of 2008, where there are roughly 1500 breweries nationwide, a number which is growing every year. Bland macro American lagers were replaced by microbrewed beers which push the limits of brewing in every way.

Look at the American media market. Where is it least diverse? Areas of the spectrum where Congress must regulate heavily: network television and mainstream radio. Because these areas are so heavily regulated, and the cost of entry is so high, the media must be as bland as possible for fear of losing their privileged (and lucrative for advertisers) slot. Where is more diversity found? Cable, satellite radio, and the internet– less regulated media! The rise of libertarianism online, up to and including the incredible response surrounding the Ron Paul campaign, is but one example of what these changes may bring. And many of these markets, such as the internet, are still in their infancy. The long-term impact is not yet completely understood.

But even beyond the question of efficacy is the question of propriety. Even if the outcome were to be judged “better” by a majority of Americans, does that justify the curtailing of rights to achieve the outcome? Morally, I would say no, but that point will likely be debated by many utilitarians. Legally, though, the Constitution would suggest that this curtailment would still be improper. Constitutionally, the government has not been delegated the power to engage in these actions. In fact, the founding fathers believed such freedoms as speech and association to be so important that they explicitly protected them from infringement by the government.

We’ve come a long way since 1787, and nobody listens to that old-fashioned document, but you’d think the ACLU at least would understand such issues, since they fight against censorship and for liberties on a daily basis. I guess capitalism isn’t a liberty they understand or agree with.

Hat Tip: Radley Balko, who let his ACLU membership subside due to this issue.


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6 Comments

  1. Perhaps I am being too nit-picky, but AOL and Time Warner are the same company. Plus, I find it funny they mention Rupert Murdoch, but not his company. Eh, the message is important right, not the facts?

    Comment by trumpetbob15 — May 19, 2008 @ 11:01 pm
  2. They don’t get to why the issue at hand is even a problem !

    So what if media ownership is currently amongst 5 or 6 companies ?

    Calling for regulation means that you don’t trust the public to vote with their feet and to consume the media that they feel offers the best quality.

    Comment by Jono — May 19, 2008 @ 11:03 pm
  3. While I do see your point, I think it needs to be considered that unfortunately, “the man” will not be pulling out of control of the media anytime soon. Unfortunately, this makes pieces of legislation restricting further consolidation a god send. It is rather sad though that we have to rely on such things just to preserve some level of competition in the market. In short, until the government is ready to pull it’s nose out of the market entirely, restrictions like this are going to be necessary.

    Comment by Omegis13 — May 20, 2008 @ 5:54 am
  4. Radio and television are more heavily-regulated because of the property right involved: the frequency at a certain location. I don’t agree at all with the current system of regulation, but the consolidation is probably pretty natural. What the ACLU should be pushing for is the opening of more spectrums for broadcasting.

    But, with the rise of the internet, and the decline of broadcast network news, I think the problem of media consolidation is a market response to a tougher, more crowded market. I could, if I wanted, look up AOLTW’s CNN.com or watch CNN. I could also read Counterpunch.com, BBC.co.uk, or the English website of al-Jazeera. (I read them all.)

    Comment by Joshua Holmes — May 20, 2008 @ 5:55 pm
  5. what’s your opinion of the govt’s pre-emptive swiping of the analog airwaves starting in 2009? the lost opportunity of micro-broadcasters in the future leaves much to speculation.

    Comment by oilnwater — May 20, 2008 @ 7:16 pm
  6. Hey, great post. I totally agree; however, I am interested in finding out exactly what regulations you are talking about (perhaps licenses?)that have stifled competition, just so I can have an idea possibly for a paper sometime down the road, as well as for personal reference.

    Comment by David Wilson — May 20, 2008 @ 8:26 pm

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