Iraq and the Myth of Media Concentration
The military world is abuzz with talk of a "revolution in military
affairs" (RMA) - the changes in technology and tactics that helped
U.S. forces subdue Iraq in less than a month. However, another RMA
was also on display during the war: a revolution in media
Despite populist warnings about media mergers and concentration,
Americans enjoyed more, and more diverse, outlets of information on
this war than any other war in history. This cornucopia of news
should be noted by the Federal Communications Commission, which
will consider changes to media ownership rules early next
The sheer volume of news coverage was impressive from the start.
Like millions of other Americans, I found myself glued to the
television as military action commenced March 19. 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. Then to CBS to get Rather's
view. That doesn't include the dozens of other sources I was too
busy to check out.
This kind of choice in news was unheard of during past conflicts.
In the 1960s, for example, the sources available to Americans for
news on the Vietnam War were far more limited. Three networks
provided a half-hour or so of news nightly, in addition to the news
offerings on a few independent channels (only in large cities), a
few AM radio stations and print media. During the first Gulf War in
1991, CNN famously made its mark. But no one else had 24-hour
Today, instead of one 24-hour news channel, there are many - plus
any number of local stations with access to satellite feeds from
overseas. As important, television is increasingly sharing the
media stage with a new competitor: the Internet.
More than half of all U.S. households are connected to the
Internet. That means Web sites are increasingly becoming an
alternative - and sometimes the primary - source of news for
Americans. According to Pew Research, a majority of Americans with
Internet access got information about the Iraq war online. Almost
one out of every six said the Internet was their primary source of
This isn't to say that all the coverage was high quality. Far from
it - one needs only to think "Peter Arnett" to know that. Choice
doesn't mean that everything will be informative, let alone
accurate. But it does mean the big providers will face constant
pressure from below to improve their product.
Critics of today's media market rightly point out that having many
outlets doesn't necessarily mean having the same number of owners.
NBC, MSNBC and msnbc.com are clearly not independent from each
other. Media firms today tend to own many 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
Moreover, there's evidence that despite these cross-media holdings,
ownership concentration has not increased. A study released by the
Federal Communications Commission last fall found the number of
separately owned media outlets (including broadcast, cable and
newspaper outlets) skyrocketed in most cities between 1960 and 2000
- growing more than 90 percent in New York, for instance.
Since 1980, ownership levels have increased slightly in most
cities. And this doesn't even account for the Internet, where
choices are almost limitless. While most Americans may select
cnn.com or msnbc.com, with a click they can reach less traditional
sources, ranging from Matt Drudge to Al-Jazeera.
Such variety shouldn't be ignored. Early next month, the FCC is
expected to vote on changes to its decades-old media ownership
rules. These include regulations on how many television stations
one company can own and cross-ownership of newspapers and radio
stations, among others.
The rules were written in a different era, when choices were more
limited. Today, they are likely doing more harm than good -
hindering innovation and efficiencies in media markets.
Debate over these rules is heated, with the FCC's five
commissioners virtually besieged by opponents of change. That
includes everyone from special interests whose market niches are
protected by the current regulations to populist demagogues making
emotional pleas against what they see as "media octopi."
But when the commissioners finally sit down, they can remember the
war in Iraq, and the cornucopia of information and perspectives
that the media market provided. That's proof enough that they
should relax the outdated restrictions, and let the free market do
Gattuso is a research fellow in regulatory policy at The