BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Media consolidation is generally viewed as a negative -- it's almost a truism that big media is bad and local independent media is good. That's why we cringe every time an AOL merges with a Time Warner or a radio giant like Clear Channel buys yet another local radio station. Well, not so fast. In his latest Newsweek column, Robert Samuelson argues that big media does not necessarily mean bad media. He says that the latest FCC ruling to loosen media ownership restrictions will not result in a dearth of choices for the public. In fact, people now have more choices than ever. Robert Samuelson joins me now. You know, we've had some trouble finding someone to argue the case for big media on this program, so an extra special welcome to the show.
ROBERT SAMUELSON: Well, I'm not arguing the case for big media; I'm really just arguing that if you look at it from the point of view of the average person, their choices have expanded enormously over the last 20 or 30 years, and the power of any media company, no matter how big, to dictate those choices has diminished dramatically. Three decades ago you essentially had no cable television. Three decades you clearly had no internet. You had not the opportunity to put a tape in a VCR machine or disk in a DVD player. So as new technologies have evolved, they have really limited and curbed the power of existing companies and created new opportunities and new companies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But aren't all of these choices ultimately emanating from fewer and fewer sources? Let's take your column as an example. It ran this week in Newsweek. It's owned by the Washington Post Company. But I read it at MSNBC.com which is a media partner. There may be diverse content, but in the end is it all coming from fewer and fewer companies?
ROBERT SAMUELSON: It's not coming from fewer and fewer sources. If you go up on the internet, just to take an example, you can read anyone's commentary from hundreds or thousands of sources! It is true that to play in this league companies generally have to be fairly large. They cannot be mom and pop operations. But it is not true that some individual who wants to create a web site and has only a few thousand dollars can't do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The FCC lifted restrictions on ownership and now there are forces working in Congress to reinstate them. You argued in your column that re-imposing the rules could actually hurt the poor!
ROBERT SAMUELSON: There is a long term issue here. And that is the question as to whether or not over-the-air broadcasting will survive. There's a significant minority -- probably 20, 25 percent of people -- who get it over the air, as we all once did. And if it's not profitable enough for networks and local stations, these stations will either disappear or their content will become so uncompetitive that no one will really want to watch them. And if over-the-air broadcasting were to disappear, then the losers would ultimately be the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society, and I don't think that's a result that anybody wants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let's focus specifically on the news media now. What about the argument that the bigger the company becomes, the more media properties it owns, the more risk-averse it is. Those sorts of stories that really penetrate to the heart of issues that perhaps advertisers or their corporate owners wouldn't like aired don't get aired!
ROBERT SAMUELSON: Well I certainly think that's conceivable. I think that back in the days when you had fewer media companies and the net-- there were only three networks -- they had more certainty of their profits. It was easier for them to resist outside pressures. And I think that that is one of the social costs of going to a more competitive deregulated marketplace. I would say on balance there are many more benefits, there are many more choices available to people -- but in some instances there will be this kind of informal censorship, and the censorship will be undertaken because of financial pressures.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I guess I calculate that social cost higher than you do. It seems that if stories critical to educating the public are left off the air because they would anger those who hold power, then you've got a serious threat to democracy!
ROBERT SAMUELSON: First place, the number of stories that are held off the air out of print are few and far between. They get a lot of publicity precisely because they're few and far between. A much greater threat, it seems to, to me to democracy existed under the more tightly regulated, less competitive media. There were an awful lot of people then -- and in fact public polls still show most people believe the media still have a liberal bias --and by making the economic marketplace more competitive, you have allowed conservative voices to be heard, and now there's irritation on both sides of the political spectrum. I think the criticism today is with more and more choice, everyone or almost everyone is going to find something to dislike, and that something in almost all cases is going to come from a big media company. But what is not true is that these companies have independently the power to dictate public tastes, and if there is an audience for this, to some extent the criticism needs to be directed at the public itself!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thank you very much.
ROBERT SAMUELSON: Okay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Robert Samuelson is a columnist for Newsweek and the Washington Post and author of Untruth: Why the Conventional Wisdom Is Almost Always Wrong.