Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Fallows on Murdoch and Powell

James Fallows has a lengthy article in the Atlantic, most of it on Rupert Murdoch, but also including some interesting tidbits from an interview with Michael Powell on the recent FCC decision to loosen media consolidation rules. As I have repeatedly pointed out, the critics of that decision seem to be utterly unaware of the fact that 1) Congress created a presumption that those rules should be repealed (Section 202(h) of the 1996 Telecom Act), and 2) the FCC repeatedly lost in court because it couldn't prove that its consolidation rules actually accomplished anything whatsoever. Powell highlights those points:
"In some ways this is such a silly debate," Powell said when I asked him about assertions that the D.C. Circuit Court had not actually forced him to dismantle the ownership rules. "Let me put this in perspective. I clerked on that court. For the chief judge of that circuit! * * * He then went on to argue that anyone who really understood how courts work would know that the FCC was indeed being told to get rid of its rules. "It's not the fact that we lost that case. It's the basis on which the court relied in saying we lost that matters ... If you really, honestly read those cases, you understand that the status quo [maintaining the ownership rules] becomes extraordinarily vulnerable."

* * * Powell punctuates his explanations with "Let's be honest about this" or "Once you move past the subjectivity and emotions ..." With great nuance he laid out his case for relaxing ownership controls on the media. With less nuance the argument boils down to two big ideas:

First, cable TV, satellite TV, Internet news sites and blogs, and countless other data sources give modern Americans more choices about information than any previous society has enjoyed. Therefore, rules to ensure competition among broadcast stations matter much less than they used to.

Second, complaints about overconcentrated media are really complaints about what's on the air—and the content of news or entertainment should not be the government's concern. "Either you don't see enough of something you like, or you see too much of something you don't," Powell said. "But at the end of the day you have to ask whether you want three out of five unelected regulators saying, I want the public to see this but not that."
Exactly. Considering how much of the FCC's history was spent regulating the content of speech, it's wonderful to have an FCC chairman who talks like that.


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