Wednesday, December 19, 2007

On Paul Levinson and the FCC

A contrarian stance on media consolidation points out the failures of our Fourth Estate.

My friend and fellow blog critic Paul Levinson (author of Digital McLuhan, The Soft Edge and more recently The Plot to Save Socrates) has an interesting but seemingly counterintuitive post on his blog, Paul Levinson's Infinite Regress. Under the title “FCC Ends Longstanding Ban on Cross-Ownership: Good!” Levinson applauds the FCC’s recent decision to lift cross ownership rules and allow media companies to own both print and broadcast news outlets in the same market:
So why am I applauding the 3-2 FCC ruling - a great example of even a broken clock being right twice a day?

Two reasons:

1. Media concentration is becoming less of a threat to diversity of communication in the age of the Internet. Plainly, there are many more voices on YouTube and countless other web sites than a decade ago, and the net result is even if every major broadcast medium were owned by the same organization, Americans would still have more variety in communication than ever before. The Obama Girl videos and Ron Paul's candidacy are two examples of profound developments in media that had nothing to do with broadcasting - and, in the case of Ron Paul, was actively opposed by mainstream media.

2. Even more importantly, even were the Web not providing unprecedented diversity in media, the FCC relaxation of ownership standards would be a good thing. The FCC is an affront to the First Amendment, and its injunction that Congress shall make no abridging freedom of speech or press. Much as I dislike media concentration, I see government regulation as a far worse threat to our freedom. You don't bring in a snake (the FCC) to control a rat problem (media concentration) - because, obviously, the snake can then slither around and bite you.
So to summarize Levinson’s argument, the multiplicity of alternate information sources on the internet make cross ownership of traditional media insignificant, and, FCC regulation of media ownership is contrary to the First Amendment anyway.

For those of us who are disciples of Laurence Lessig and Robert McChesney, Levinson’s stance is problematic. Clearly, the current concentration of media ownership is a contributing factor to our dysfunctional political system and quite possibly a key enabler in the attempt of the Republican Party to overthrow the Constitution. What good do First Amendment protections do us if the administration blatantly ignores the Constitution anyway? I also worry about the continuing independence of the Internet. The debate over net neutrality underlines fears that major corporations may find ways to choke off the freedom of the internet, rendering internet diversity moot.

While accepting the validity of these concerns, I think that Levinson has identified a significant trend in our information culture. Whether due to media concentration, “Beltway Village” mentality, or just plain laziness, it is apparent that the majority of our Fourth Estate have not been doing their job. As Stephen Colbert pointed out in his now famous White House Correspondence Dinner address, journalism is not stenography. Political blogs have moved in to fill a void left by the non-functioning traditional media press. At the very least, blog writers have required the traditional media to justify their ineptitude.

In addition, blog authors’ willingness to challenge conventional wisdom and deficient journalism practices has had a positive impact on the current election cycle. Though marginalized by the mainstream media, Presidential wannabees like Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and Chris Dodd have been able to use the internet to their advantage.

So we arrive at a chicken and egg question. Given current and pending concentration of our traditional mass media, if the internet didn’t exist would it have to be created? Paul Levinson would say “yes.” His theory of “media remediation” suggests that no medium impact is inevitable or irreversible. If the internet didn’t exist, the need to fill the journalism void would have precipitated other responses. Given recent United States history, I am not as sanguine.

I believe that America is on the cusp of a transition from a Republic to an Empire. In times of political crisis, some types of temporary intervention in the normal evolution of media ownership may be necessary. For example, the FCC could issue a temporary ruling restraining media consolidation until the net neutrality issue is resolved.

If we, and not our technology, are ultimately responsible for the health of our media ecology, measured interventions are appropriate.

No comments: