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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Manifesto for Media Freedom

Americans are blessed with access to an unprecedented variety of media–not to mention ways in which information can be stored and the points of view and ownership interests represented.

As documented in the brisk book A Manifesto for Media Freedom, this cornucopia of media options has led not to celebration of the marvelous diversity that free choices and technology have brought us. Rather, it has prompted forces from both sides of the conventional ideological spectrum to agitate for regulation and restriction of the ownership and delivery of information and entertainment.

The Manifesto, by Brian C. Anderson of the Manhattan Institute and Adam D. Thierer of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, is a quick and useful survey of various media regulation realities and proposals, and of cogent explanations of why such regulations range from unnecessary to powerfully damaging to American media users.

The book’s greatest virtue is how thoroughly and compactly it delivers the good news about the scope and availability of media. Many antimarket liberals in America are obsessed with fears of too few owners controlling too many different kinds of media outlets, and thus plump to further tighten federal rules about media ownership concentration. (Earlier attempts by the FCC to liberalize those rules were knocked out by a federal appeals court back in 2004, and this year Congress squashed a new attempt by the FCC to loosen them.) Obsession with ownership rules is based on the same misunderstanding that allows for government regulation of broadcast media of a sort that would never be tolerated for other media: that an inherent scarcity requires government to manage distribution and ownership, despite the First Amendment.

As Anderson and Thierer point out, scarcity is far from an issue when it comes to how Americans get their information and entertainment nowadays. America has nearly 14,000 terrestrial radio stations, twice the number in 1970. (And we now have satellite radio as well.) Cable and satellite TV reach 86 percent of American households. And they are not all controlled by a small cabal of sinister megaconsortiums. As they note, a “2002 FCC survey of ten media markets–from the largest (New York City) to the smallest (Altoona, Pennsylvania)–showed that each had more outlets and owners in 2000 than in 1960.”

New means of consuming, storing, and using media are spreading with wildly increasing speed. It took telephones 70 years to go from introduction to 50 percent household saturation; it took Internet access around 15, and MP3 players (which allow portable listening of not only music but all sorts of news and information “podcasts” available for free) even fewer. And the average price for every variety of contemporary electronic media device has fallen anywhere from 17 to 41 percent in the last five years.

All that good news misses the best and most important aspect of our media present and future–the uncountably huge number of websites where everyone everywhere is able to communicate with everyone else. Such a world of free media plenitude doesn’t seem to need much in the way of managing.

But such wondrous profusion of cultural richness–and no one person is going to value or approve of all of it, but that’s exactly the point–means nothing to elites who lament that everyone isn’t consuming the media that they think people should be consuming. This manifests itself in all sorts of regulatory moves, from attempts to censor or hobble innovations such as video games and social-networking sites, to the desire to force us all to pay for “public” broadcasting that can’t survive in the marketplace. As Anderson and Thierer note, the political world is rife with people who “won’t rest until all of us are watching, reading, and listening to the content that they prefer.”

They are savvy in pointing out the most dangerous “media regulation” of all, masquerading as “campaign finance reform,” which restricts all except the owners of officially approved media from speaking out freely on candidates and issues within an arbitrary period before an election–and trace the dangerous moves to enforce such tyranny on websites and radio.

The authors are, I think, alarmist in insisting that the Obama administration or the current Democratic Congress will move to reinstate the clearly damaging and unconstitutional Fairness Doctrine (though the Supreme Court unconscionably upheld it in the 1969 case Red Lion v. FCC). But they are dead on about how it crippled, and would cripple again, lively discussion by enforcing “equal time” on broadcast media in political controversies.

The overall message of this book is optimistic: “The new media abundance will improve democracy, fire creativity, and expand individual and communal knowledge and know-how.” But the authors know this will only remain true if citizens make sure those who would regulate away the advantages of free-flowing new media are kept in line.