Throughout most of history, humans lived in a state of extreme information poverty. News traveled slowly, field to field, village to village. Even with the printing press’s advent, information spread at a snail’s pace. Few knew how to find printed materials, assuming that they even knew how to read. Today, by contrast, we live in a world of unprecedented media abundance that once would have been the stuff of science-fiction novels. We can increasingly obtain and consume whatever media we want, wherever and whenever we want: television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the bewildering variety of material available on the Internet.
This media cornucopia is a wonderful development for a free society—or so you’d think. But today’s media universe has fierce detractors, and nowhere more vehemently than on the left. Their criticisms seem contradictory. Some, such as Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich, contend that real media choices, information sources included, remain scarce, hindering citizens from fully participating in a deliberative democracy. Others argue that we have too many media choices, making it hard to share common thoughts or feelings; democracy, community itself, again loses out. Both liberal views get the story disastrously wrong. If either prevails, what’s shaping up to be America’s Golden Age of media could be over soon.
Back in 2003, a somewhat free-market-minded Federal Communications Commission, chaired by Republican Michael Powell, proposed to revise the arcane policies governing media ownership, which, among other things, limit how many newspapers, television stations, or radio stations a single entity can own in each community. “Americans today have more media choices, more sources of news and information, and more varied entertainment programming available to them than ever before,” the FCC observed. Allowing slightly more cross-ownership, it reasoned, would simply clear out the regulatory deadwood that artificially limited the ability of older media operators (broadcasters and newspapers) to compete with all the new media alternatives. Such a measure would do nothing to harm media multiplicity.
Despite the moderate nature of the FCC’s proposal, all hell broke loose on the left, and things haven’t really died down since. In congressional debates, Democratic lawmakers warned apocalyptically of the horrors that the FCC’s proposed reform would unleash. Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts—mentioning Citizen Kane but clearly thinking of Rupert Murdoch, whose FOX News and other media outlets have won a big audience for conservative views—implied that a few all-powerful media tycoons could soon run the world. California congresswoman Lynn Woolsey accused the FCC of trying to impose a centralized “Saddam-style information system in the United States.” Not to be outdone, New York’s Maurice Hinchey saw the new rules as a GOP-led “mind control” project. “It’s a well-thought-out and planned effort to control the political process,” he said. “It will wipe out our democracy.” Then–Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean said that he’d break up Murdoch’s media empire “on ideological grounds.”
The circus-like “town hall meetings” that followed proved even more overheated. Pushed by Democratic FCC commissioners and organized by MoveOn.org, Free Press, and other leftist advocacy groups, these sessions gave anyone with a gripe against a media company a chance to vent. Some grumbled that TV and radio featured too much religious programming; others argued that there wasn’t enough. Everyone said that local radio broadcast nothing but garbage—but everyone defined garbage differently. And many aired long lists of complaints about the multiple radio stations, television channels, and newspapers in their areas, only to conclude that their local media markets were insufficiently competitive!
The critics did agree on one thing: government had to take steps to reverse our current media predicament—whatever it was. A variety of advocacy groups then took the FCC to court and got the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to put the whole media ownership revision on hold.
Most participants in the meetings fell into the scarcity-obsessed camp. On the face of it, the scarcity critics have a tough case to make. According to FCC data and various private reports, America boasts close to 14,000 radio stations today, double the number that existed in 1970. Satellite radio—an industry that didn’t even exist before 2001—claimed roughly 13 million subscribers nationwide by 2007. Eighty-six percent of households subscribe to cable or satellite TV today, receiving an average of 102 channels of the more than 500 available to them. There were 18,267 magazines produced in 2005, up from 14,302 in 1993. The only declining media sector is the newspaper business, which has seen circulation erode for many years now. But that’s largely a result of the competition that it faces from other outlets.
Throw the Internet into the mix and you get dizzy. The Internet Systems Consortium reports that the number of Internet host computers—computers or servers that allow people to post content on the Web—has grown from just 235 in 1982 to 1.3 million in 1993 to roughly 400 million in 2006. At the beginning of 2007, the blog-tracking service Technorati counted over 66 million blogs, with more than 175,000 new ones created daily. Bloggers update their sites “to the tune of over 1.6 million posts per day, or over 18 updates a second,” according to Technorati.
But the scarcity critics have a rejoinder: the apparent diversity isn’t real, because a handful of media barons—hell-bent on force-feeding us their politically reactionary pabulum and commercial messages—control most of it (even before any FCC ownership rule changes). “You can literally say you actually have more voices, but they are the same voices increasingly,” says New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta. Even the Internet isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. The Consumer Federation of America’s Mark Cooper, author of Media Ownership and Democracy in the Digital Information Age, lambastes the Internet for failing to serve “the public interest,” for being too commercial, for not helping local communities, for hurting deliberative democracy, and for failing to enhance citizens’ ability “to define themselves and their place in everyday life.” Who knew that the Internet was so harmful to modern society?
It’s all nonsense, starting with the notion that a tiny group has a stranglehold on the media. 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. And the FCC counted all of a market’s cable channels as a single outlet (even though the typical viewer would regard each channel as a distinct one) and didn’t include national newspapers or Internet sites as media sources, so the diversity picture was even brighter than it seemed.
Nor do Americans lack a rich variety of “voices” in the media. Each new commercial media outlet must provide something at least slightly different from its rivals. If every book, magazine, TV channel, radio program, and website really said the same thing, citizens wouldn’t bother consuming any more than one or two of them. We simply wouldn’t have the media abundance that we enjoy today.
Becoming an informed citizen has never been easier. You can get up in the morning and still read your (probably liberal) local paper and several national ones—say, the Wall Street Journal (right-of-center editorial page) and USA Today (more or less centrist). Walk to the newsstand and you’ve got political magazines galore, from the Marxist New Left Review to the paleoconservative The American Conservative. On cable and satellite television: CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, FOX News, PBS, local news, the big networks (at least for now), the BBC, C-SPAN, community access shows—all offer a wide variety of news and information options, some around the clock. Turn on the car radio and Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity booms out at you from the right; or maybe you can tune in to Sirius Left on satellite.
The Internet has done more to create the sort of media that scarcity critics claim to desire than any other technology. Every man, woman, and child can have a “newspaper” or broadcast outlet today—it’s called a website, blog, or podcast. It’s hard to imagine how the political blogosphere could be more diverse, ranging from the Daily Kos and the Huffington Post on the left to National Review Online and Power Line on the right to Andrew Sullivan, Instapundit, and Buzz Machine somewhere in between. A political junkie must hustle to keep up with what RealClearPolitics posts on its site every day.
The same breathtaking abundance characterizes entertainment and lifestyle media, which now provide something for every interest under the sun. Consider a truly eclectic person—a lesbian feminist African-American who likes to hunt on weekends and has a passion for country music. Would the “mainstream media” of 25 years ago have represented any of her interests? Unlikely. Today, though, this woman can program her TiVo to record her favorite shows on Black Entertainment Television, Logo (a gay/lesbian-oriented cable channel), Oxygen (female-targeted programming), the Outdoor Life Network, and Country Music Television. “We’ve gone from a few programmers in New York and Los Angeles deciding what people will watch to the people themselves voting with their remote controls every night, really every minute, on what they want,” says David Westin, president of ABC News. And that’s just television.
The liberal scarcity worrywarts thus ignore a recent history of stunning technological innovation and marketplace evolution that has made us as information-rich as any society in history. But this is where a second group of leftist media critics enters the picture.
What information consumes is rather obvious,” Nobel Prize–winning economist and psychologist Herbert Simon remarked in 1971: “the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” Thirty-six years later, confronting a “wealth of information” that Simon could never have imagined, a growing group of left-wing critics warns about its destructive consequences. The titles of recent books by Todd Gitlin and Barry Schwartz—Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives and The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, respectively—capture the anxiety felt by these opponents of media multiplicity. It’s just too much.
Yet even if one concedes that the number of media choices can be daunting, notes Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson, the market is responding. In his 2006 bestseller, The Long Tail, Anderson celebrates the explosion of information-sorting intermediaries and filtering tools that enable us to take full advantage of the media cornucopia. Google, Netflix, Amazon.com, iTunes, or, for political information, Huffington Post and RealClearPolitics are just a few examples. “These technologies and services sift through a vast array of choices to present you with the ones that are most right for you,” Anderson points out.
But according to one of the most influential abundance-is-bad media critics, liberal law professor Cass Sunstein, Anderson’s filters only make things worse. In his 2001 book Republic.com, Sunstein notes that the hyper-customization of specialized websites and online technologies enables Americans to create a highly personalized information retrieval service—a “Daily Me,” he calls it, using a term coined by technology theorist Nicholas Negroponte. But whereas Negroponte, like Anderson, welcomes the filtering and specialization as a liberating break from traditional, force-fed media, Sunstein believes that they cause extreme social fragmentation, isolation, and alienation, and could lead to political extremism. “A system of limitless individual choices, with respect to communications, is not necessarily in the interest of citizenship and self-government,” he writes.
Schwartz echoes the point, fearing the antisocial effects of media offering “choice without boundaries.” “In a decade or so, when [TiVos] are in everybody’s home, it’s a good bet that when folks gather around the watercooler to discuss the last night’s big TV events, no two of them will have watched the same shows,” he writes ruefully. Similarly, Bill Carrick, a media advisor for former Democratic presidential candidate Richard Gephardt, complained a while back to the Washington Post that the rise of the Internet, cable, and other new media was making it hard for politicians to reach the masses with campaign messages. “The danger for democracy,” he asserted, “is that we’re losing the universal campfire.”
When Sunstein and other liberal information-overload critics bemoan the loss of a “universal campfire” or shared watercooler experiences, they’re implicitly making the point that we were better off when just a few media outlets existed. Some even openly wax nostalgic about a supposed Golden Age of newspapers, radio, and television, when apparently we were less distracted, better informed, and enjoyed a better sense of community. This Norman Rockwell view is far more myth than reality. Was American democracy really better off when William Randolph Hearst dominated the newspaper business, or when the Big Three television networks brought us the news at a set time each night? And was community really stronger when everyone talked about the same things around the nation’s watercoolers every day, as opposed to different things?
In truth, one can make a strong case that the new media—and the Internet, above all—are facilitating a more rigorous deliberative democracy and a richer sense of community. “In modern American political history, perhaps only the coming of the television age has had as big an impact on our national elections as the Internet has,” observes Raul Fernandez, chief executive of the software firm ObjectVideo. “But the effect of the Internet may be better for the long-term health of our democracy. For while TV emphasizes perception, control, and centralization, Internet-driven politics is about transparency, distribution of effort, and, most important, empowerment and participation—at whatever level of engagement the consumer wants.”
As for community, “the Digital Age hasn’t mechanized humanity and isolated people in a sterile world of machines,” believes Richard Saul Wurman, author of Information Anxiety. The Internet, he points out, has enabled people across the globe to band together and communicate in ways previously unimaginable.
What unifies the two schools of leftist media criticism, beneath their apparent opposition, is pure elitism. Media abundance (which the scarcity critics must implausibly wave away as a mirage) has meant more room for right-of-center viewpoints that, while popular with many Americans, the critics find completely unacceptable. The fact that Bill O’Reilly gets better ratings than Bill Moyers perturbs them to no end. It’s just not fair!
Both liberal groups would love to put their thumbs on the scale and tilt the media in their preferred direction. Scarcity-obsessed Dennis Kucinich has recently introduced plans in Congress to revive the Fairness Doctrine, which once let government regulators police the airwaves to ensure a balancing of viewpoints, however that’s defined. A new Fairness Doctrine would affect most directly opinion-based talk radio, a medium that just happens to be dominated by conservatives. If a station wanted to run William Bennett’s show under such a regime, they might now have to broadcast wa left-wing alternative, too, even if it had poor ratings, which generally has been the case with liberal talk. Sunstein also proposes a kind of speech redistributionism. For the Internet, he suggests that regulators could impose “electronic sidewalks” on partisan websites (the National Rifle Association’s, say), forcing them to link to opposing views. The practical problems of implementing this program would be forbidding, even if it somehow proved constitutional. How many links to opposing views would secure the government’s approval? The FCC would need an army of media regulators (much as China has today) to monitor the millions of webpages, blogs, and social-networking sites and keep them in line.
That leftist media critics start sounding so authoritarian is no surprise. In a media cornucopia, freedom of choice inevitably yields media inequality. “In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome,” writes Clay Shirky of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Overcoming that inequality would require a completely regulated media.
When Rush Limbaugh has more listeners than NPR, or Tom Clancy sells more books than Noam Chomsky, or Motor Trend gets more subscribers than Mother Jones, liberals want to convince us (or themselves, perhaps) that it’s all because of some catastrophic market failure or a grand corporate conspiracy to dumb down the masses. In reality, it’s just the result of consumer choice. All the opinions that the Left’s media critics favor are now readily available to us via multiple platforms. But that’s not good enough, it seems: they won’t rest until all of us are watching, reading, and listening to the content that they prefer.
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