Monday, June 02, 2003

Rights & Reason: The FCC Re-Regulates

The Federal Communications Commission finally voted on what I call their “re-regulation” package tinkering with existing media ownership rules. I’ve never been all that interested in this story despite the fact I deal with antitrust and competition law for a living. There are really only three things one needs to know about the FCC’s action: (1) the FCC had a statutory obligation to review the ownership rules in addition to several recent court decisions faulting the Commission’s regulation-writing process; (2) the actual changes won’t make a substantial difference in the ownership of any sector of the media; and (3) the only group that will enjoy substantial benefits from today’s action are antitrust lawyers (and policy analysts like myself, ironically) who will bottom-feed off the few new mergers that will occur.

Other then that, the faux-populist storm that came through Washington in anticipation of today’s announcement was a grand waste of time and bureaucrats. Still, you have to be somewhat impressed with the fact 520,000 public comments were filed with the FCC on this issue. Coming from someone who currently maintains the longest FTC streak for sole comment letters filed, I can say the political muscle behind the “Stop Big Media” campaign is not something to be casually dismissed. It would be nice, however, if some of these folks would actually pay attention to how antitrust laws are applied in the real world rather than hide behind fanciful anti-concepts of “media diversity” and the like.

Indeed, the fact that so many nominally libertarian and conservative groups lobbied against loosening the ownership rules is a testament to the cognitive dissonance that’s rampant inside the Beltway. For example, consider this ominous statement from this morning’s FCC announcement:

The FCC strongly affirmed its core value of limiting broadcast ownership to promote viewpoint diversity. The FCC stated that “the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.” The FCC said multiple independent media owners are needed to ensure a robust exchange of news, information, and ideas among Americans.

The FCC developed a “Diversity Index” in order to permit a more sophisticated analysis of viewpoint diversity in this proceeding. The index is “consumer-centric” in that it is built on data about how Americans use different media to obtain news. Importantly, this data also enabled the FCC to establish local broadcast ownership rules that recognize significant differences in media availability in small versus large markets. The objective is to ensure that citizens in all areas of the country have a diverse array of media outlets available to them.

Libertarians and conservatives will swallow an FCC “diversity index” while simultaneously expressing horror when the University of Michigan employs formulas to maintain a racist admissions program. Similarly, groups like the National Rifle Association favored greater restrictions on media ownership while serving as lead plaintiff against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill. Yet both campaign finance “reform” and media ownership restrictions arise from the same philosophy of government. It’s logically impossible to support the government censoring private acts of political speech while supporting efforts to maintain artificial barriers to entry for media ownership. The First Amendment is either an individual right or it’s not. You can’t have it both ways, or, more accurately, you can’t have it the right way only some of the time.

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