June 13, 2003

Balanced News Under Attack

FCC Ruling a Bad Example for the Hemisphere

The Federal Communications Commision’s announcement today that most likely will  weaken regulations affecting media ownership should alarm advocates of balanced news coverage. These proposed reforms will allow conglomerates to increase their market share, and thus profits, by buying up small media outlets and allowing them to reach an ever-larger share of local audiences, at the expense of local news and public affairs programming. It will also provide a bad example for Latin America, where the media already is frequently besieged by governments and private interests.

Supporters of deregulation, on the other hand, claim that less restricted media conglomerates will be more likely to invest in services that ultimately will increase the availability of inexpensive sources of information and entertainment. But even if further deregulation would have such a therapeutic effect, the FCC would be wise to put its proposed rule changes on hold. Instead, it should be  protecting a balanced media menu, a vital element of free speech now under siege by media giants in the U.S. and abroad.

A comparative situation in Venezuela could yield germane insights. The relatively modest media empire there is owned by a tiny elite who over the past 18 months have undermined their own professional integrity by joining that country’s middle class opposition in a scorched earth campaign to force the resignation of the country’s constitutional, if controversial president, Hugo Chavez. In the process, they used their monopolistic TV channels and newspaper columns to engage in a series of unremitting partisan attacks which were so unprofessional that they even posed a threat to the country’s basic democratic institutions. During last year’s briefly successful coup, their networks backed businessmen, union leaders and self-declared President Pedro Carmona by exclusively reporting on his authoritarian decrees, while ignoring the appeals of those calling for the reversal of his suspension of the supreme court and the national assembly.

Chavez’s combative style and controversial reforms certainly merited criticism. But by ignoring substantial numbers of pro government supporters and positive stories about Chavez, a biased media denied the public fundamental information which was essential to accurately assess the nation’s ongoing political crisis.

Networks in the United States are also violating responsible journalism in order to engage in partisan loyalties. A study conducted by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting in February, demonstrates that America’s four major networks failed to indicate the depth of the country’s split over the decision to unilaterally invade Iraq, while overwhelmingly backing President Bush’s pre-emptive stance. The report found that at a time when 61% of those polled supported further diplomacy and inspections, anti-war commentators totaled a meager 1% of the sources consulted by the newscasters surveyed.

Fortunately, America’s networks are far from threatening this country’s democratic institutions. But they may be tempted to heavily favor the administration of the day’s viewpoints, especially when it makes commercial sense to their back offices. After all, Bush’s appointees have led the charge to relax regulations, particularly FCC chairman Michael Powell, who since taking office has never hidden his indefatigable backing of large media enterprises.

Ignoring evidence of a tilted press, supporters of unregulated media markets argue that the American public is best served by profit-seeking news and entertainment outlets, which will place consumer tastes above the preferences of politicians.  But more often than not, media CEO’s and their editors ignore public concerns in order to follow their commercial strategy. In its thirst for information, the public routinely fails to use its market power to demand coverage that adequately serves the community. This may explain why audiences in small town America have idly stood by as networks replace relatively high cost local programming with common nationally syndicated shows that appeal to the lowest common denominator.

At best, consumers exercise only modest influence over an industry that sells information and entertainment, commodities possessing highly elastic demand.  But how can government policies adequately defend the public interest? In order to discourage media bias, Venezuelan legislators are likely to pass a series of laws meant to evaluate media content.  But this approach may backfire, as such laws try defining “fair” coverage. A modest but more constructive approach in tune with industry realities would be to adapt policies aimed at diffusing media ownership so that a plethora of producers and station owners can decide what news is relevant and how best to deliver it to their audiences.  Such a conclusion would favor balanced coverage over the deplorable intentions of the Bush administration, in other words, preserving the status quo in order to halt the further commodification of the news and information being provided by America’s media outlets.

This analysis was prepared by Manuel Rueda, a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Issued 2 June 2003

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization.

Return to the Frontpage