M. Renaud Lambert, Observatoire français des médias, avril 2004 - 2004/04
Mr. Lambert begins his text with a wager: “Let’s bet that for the big media conglomerates that control the U.S. airwaves and news market, this is nothing but a minor setback in the unrelenting march toward the imposition of market logic in the media and elsewhere, all under the pretext of defending liberty.” Mr. Lambert’s reference is to opposition sparked by a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision in June 2003 accelerating the pace of media deregulation. Given the expansion of cable networks and the Internet, FCC ruled that there was no more reason to prohibit newspapers from owning TV stations or broadcasters from controlling over 35% of their market. But the decision set off an unprecedented wave of protest led by groups like FAIR, Media Access and Media Reform, and backed by conservative groups such as the National Rifle Association. They focused public attention on the decision, “a first for Big Media, more accustomed to dealing directly and discreetly with Washington’s powerbrokers.” Although the U.S. media universe is governed by the principle of “freedom of expression” entrenched in the First Amendment, two distinct interpretations of this principle compete for ideological dominance with regard to the government’s role in regulating media: protecting “the public interest,” i.e., maintaining a diversity of points of view and rich political debate to provide the public with the most comprehensive information and debate possible; and in contrast, establishing a “free market of ideas” safe from all forms of government interference. This latter view is generally associated with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Olivier Wendell Holmes, who argued that the “the best test of truth is competition in the market of ideas.” However, as Mr. Lambert notes, the question here and elsewhere is whether market forces are the best guarantee of freedom and pluralism, or whether, on the contrary, steps must be taken to ensure that commercial interests do not interfere with democracy.
Although the notion of protecting the public interest - i.e., putting the citizen before the market - enjoyed widespread acceptance in the U.S. until the early 80s, it wasn’t long before it “became a casualty of the neoliberal revolution”: “Media groups pushing for ‘free market’ principles to drive the development of a ‘free market of ideas’ found a receptive ear in an administration obsessed with a single goal - state disengagement […]. Media are no longer required to provide balanced coverage of political and social issues if they can prove that other players on the ‘market,’ no matter how small, are offering a different point of view, freeing the ratings-obsessed media conglomerates to distill neoliberal doctrine to the public unhindered.” This is the rationale speeding up the process whereby a handful of big media groups are taking over the airwaves under the pretext that cable and Internet expansion guarantee pluralism and put an end to the threat of media monopoly. Under the law of the “free market of ideas,” valued information or valid points of view that disappear when a media group goes under will find a new outlet on cable TV or the Internet. After the Telecommunications Act put the final touch on broadcast deregulation in 1996, the number of different radio station owners in the U.S. fell by 34%. The 44 biggest stations in the country are owned by five groups. In just a few years, for example ClearChannel went from 65 stations to 1,200. And the big five networks quickly sewed up 70% of the US prime time television market, with an emphasis infotainment and infomercials as opposed to serious analysis of major social issues. Big Media is now one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, and a major benefactor of funding-driven election campaigns. Mr. Lambert concludes that “when media groups are no longer just broadcasters, but multinationals with their own financial and economic agendas, their ability to influence not only public opinion, but lawmakers as well, is a source of serious concern.” This is the context in which FCC has attempted to speed the pace of U.S. media deregulation, fueling rising public concern over media concentration that National Rifle Association vice president Wayne LaPierre expresses as follows: “When the movies you watch, the music you listen to, the products you buy and the ideas you're sold are all screened and censored and presented by the same source, you lose. Because the airwaves belong to the American people, and the FCC's job is to protect the public interest - not Big media barons who want a monopoly on public discourse.”  (Available in French)