A Democrat Defends Media Deregulation

One of the few topics on which the nine contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination agree is the need to overturn the FCC's recent decision to allow companies to buy and run more TV, radio, and print media.

As a life-long Democrat (save a brief, misguided foray into moderate Republicanism) who supports the FCC ruling, I urge my fellow party members to halt their politically expedient attack. By joining a chorus that includes the National Rifle Association (search), Trent Lott (search) and L. Brent Bozell's Parents Television Council (search), Democrats are abandoning the principles of diversity and freedom of the press that are core to their identity.

The FCC's ruling is, in fact, modest. Even Congress noticed that media regulations put in place from the 1940s through the '70s were ill suited to the modern digital environment, and directed the FCC (search) to reaffirm their applicability every two years. As a result, the FCC decided in larger cities to allow cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcasting assets, increase the ability of broadcasters to own multiple stations in one market, and raise the "cap" to allow a single television broadcaster to reach 45 percent rather than just 35 percent of the U.S. population.

Opponents' criticisms of those moves are confused and inconsistent, and show a lack of awareness of how media businesses and media markets operate. For example, the critics argue that without regulation, there would be a dearth of independent media voices (search). Those critics seem oblivious to the explosion of new media offerings since these rules were put in place at a time before cable (search), satellite (search) or the Internet (search).

When critics are reminded of that diversity, they respond by citing the statistic that five media conglomerates provide 80 percent of what we watch on TV. But as FCC Chairman Powell has pointed out, that is misleading: those five firms own only 25 percent of the 300 available cable and satellite channels. The fact that people elect to watch programming offered by a few sources is the result of individual choice, not a lack of choices. If Democrats want to regulate away people's choice, then they are embracing a policy that is neither Democratic or Republican but rather just facistic.

Some will try to argue that this was never about the quantity of offerings, but the quality. Here again, the facts get in the way. Despite unanimous opposition from their regular op-ed columnists, New York Times arts/cultural writer Alessandra Stanley (search) has boldly defended the FCC decision, noting, "Of all the arguments against media deregulation, perhaps the least persuasive is the oft-repeated notion that it would sap television entertainment of creativity and diversity.... Television has never been better or more diverse."

Further, studies have shown that local news produced by television stations that are owned by local newspapers is consistently more popular. If the objective is quality, why object to deregulation that will allow combinations that can invest more in local coverage than a stand-alone station?

The media industry represents a true American success story. What other industry has invested so much to develop so many new choices that respond simultaneously to the opportunities created by new technologies and the public's changing tastes? The competitive vibrancy of this marketplace is reflected in the financial and creative risk-taking that established many products we now take for granted. Gannett invested $1 billion over 10 years before USA Today broke even. The two competing satellite radio companies have each already invested more than $1 billion, and no one knows whether either will ever make money. This is not an industry that cries out for a special regulatory regime over and above that applicable to other sectors.

Evan Bayh (search) recently accused Democrats of engaging in "assisted suicide" by reverting to the discredited policies of the past. The apparent inclination to punish rather than reward U.S. businesses for their success in global media markets is reflective of this phenomenon. Democrats should be nervous about joining with far-right forces to reestablish a policy the courts have rejected. Democrats are likely to find that the conservative groups' newfound concerns about maintaining diversity are more likely a subterfuge for their concerns about how diverse the marketplace of ideas has become.

Indeed, what binds groups on the far right and the far left in their opposition to the FCC ruling is their mutual concern over the extent to which the mainstream media has challenged their radical views -- precisely the type of speech Democrats believe the First Amendment (search) protects.

Before it is too late, Democrats should reaffirm their established commitment to diversity, creativity, and free speech, and isolate the anti-business elements of the party. They should support the FCC.

Jonathan A. Knee is a senior managing director at Evercore Partners and an adjunct professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School. A longer version of this article appeared in the spring issue of Regulation magazine, published by the Cato Institute.