March 26, 2003

March 26, 2003 | Commentary on Regulation

Who to Watch? The Iraqi War and the Myth of Media Concentration

In Washington, the crowd of lawyers, lobbyists, and think tank analysts have gone through the motions of their usual routines this week, talking and writing about the vast multitude of policy issues that make Washington Washington. Yet, despite outward appearance, only one issue is on people's minds: the war in Iraq.


Like millions of others across America, I found myself glued to the television last Wednesday night, watching media reports on the launch of military action. And, like many others, one outlet wasn't enough. Starting with CNN, I watched Aaron Brown's comforting coverage of the unfolding events. Perhaps it was too comforting, I thought, so I switched to Tom Brokaw, who had a more urgent tone. Then to Fox for the conservative spin.  Then to Rather, for the, uh, Rather spin.


For better or worse, media coverage of this conflict is comprehensive and diverse. This is an inconvenient fact for those arguing that the mega-mergers of recent years would lead to a dangerous concentration in media. To the contrary, sources and outlets available for news are broader and more varied than ever before. In the 1960s, for example, the sources available to Americans for news on the Vietnam War fairly limited. Three networks provided a half-hour or so of news nightly, in addition to the news offerings on a few independent channels (in large towns only), a few AM radio stations, and print media. By the time of the first Gulf War in 1991, the landscape had changed considerably. Cable TV had arrived, allowing CNN to make its mark on the news landscape.


Between 1991 and today, the world has changed by nearly as much again. Instead of one leading 24-hour news channel, there are three leading channels plus a number of smaller ones. As important, television is increasingly sharing the media stage with a new competitor: the Internet. With over half of all U.S. households now connected to the Internet, websites are increasingly becoming an alternative - and sometimes the primary - source of news for Americans. Thousands of people now get their news first from Drudge or a blogger instead of waiting for Brokaw or Jennings.


Critics of today's media market, of course, rightly point out that many outlets doesn't necessarily mean many owners.  NBC, MSNBC and are hardly independent voices. It's no secret that because of mergers and internal expansion, media firms today tend to own a multitude of outlets - putting broadcast, cable, print and even Internet outlets under the same roof. But such "media empires" may actually be good for consumers, providing each outlet with the resources needed to do a better job.


Moreover, there's evidence that despite these cross-media holdings, ownership concentration is not increasing. A study released by the Federal Communications Commission last fall found that the number of separately owned media outlets skyrocketed between 1960 and 2000 - increasing over 90 percent in New York, for instance. Since 1980, levels have increased slightly in most cities.


This is more than an idle debate. In a few months, the FCC is expected to decide whether to ease several of its current media ownership limits. The debate promises to be a controversial one - rankling special interests whose market niches are protected by current rules as well as demagogues warning of growing media octopi. The debate will be filled with endless factoids and pleadings. But, just perhaps, when the commissioners finally sit down to assess the media marketplace, they will remember these days in March, and the cornucopia of information and perspectives that the market provided.

--James L. Gattuso is a Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy at The Heritage Foundation Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

This piece was originally published on the website for the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

About the Author

James L. Gattuso Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies