In the past few weeks, on different coasts, the nation's great and continuing media consolidation debate took a few big steps – in opposite directions.
Last week, here in Washington, the Federal Communications Commission announced it was again ready to review and almost certainly loosen the nation's media ownership rules. How much they will be loosened is the question.
The FCC's announcement came three years after sweeping rule changes that allowed companies to own more outlets – TV and print – in each locale and allowed each network to reach a greater percentage of the TV viewing audience. So sweeping were those 2003 changes that Congress reversed many of them, and the federal courts threw them out and requested that the FCC start over.
The rule review is required by law – an acknowledgment that technology has changed the media landscape. But critics fear that loosening the rules too much can be detrimental to democracy. They are concerned that too few owners will limit the number of voices available to consumers and lead to the thing media haters most despise, a large monolithic force controlled by a few rich people. Most owners, of course, balk at that suggestion.
First, they say, the Internet prevents those big media companies from getting too powerful. There are thousands of voices out there now. Anyone with a computer and a broadband connection can cover the news – an argument sound on a theoretical level, but one that ignores pesky realities such as how many people actually listen to each of those thousand little voices compared to the few big ones.
Second, owners argue, they are all about serving the customer. What's really better for consumers, a fragmented group of small news organizations that are short of resources, or a smaller number of big companies that can spend on the best staff, equipment, and reportage? Isn't the answer obvious?
Again, in theory, maybe. But the better question might be what's actually better for those big companies, which brings us to the news from the other coast last week.
Out in Los Angeles a company that was a poster child for "bigger media is better media," Tribune Company, is having trouble. There, members of the Chandler family, which had owned the Los Angeles Times for more than 100 years, are looking for someone to buy at least some of Tribune's media outlets, if not all of them, citing poor economic performance.