IF YOU EVER have a chance to go to a convention of journalism academics, skip it. I'll go for you. It's my job.
I've been to dozens over the past several years, and like allergy shots, each new one stings just a little bit less than the one that preceded it. There are free tote bags, name badges, info booths, panel discussions, "paper" presentations, "breakouts," and professors with Einstein hair--most of that last group there to replace last year's tattered tote bag. Among the topics of conversation--both casual and professional--nothing is more prevalent than "media consolidation."
Annual predictions of the coming media apocalypse are, well, predictable. When AOL merged with Time Warner a couple years ago, the anxiety reached a fevered pitch. "Beware, corporate domination," the critics shrieked. "Profits are ruining the media!" "Whither the independents," they cried in unison.
When the D.C. Appeals court struck down an FCC prohibition against owning a TV station and cable system in the same market, the ruling "set off shock waves in the journalism business," according to the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. The CJR analysis continues: "If you're a colossus like AOL Time Warner, Disney, GE, News Corporation, or Viacom, this trend is a ticket to even grander magnitude. Corporate chieftains prefer to expand their kingdoms unhampered by pesky government decrees, and that, unquestionably, is the way things have been going for years. But if you're an ordinary consumer, your news diet will be controlled by fewer and fewer owners . . . the media world is becoming more and more like a real-life Monopoly game. Do the corporate giants pass Go and gobble up more? Or will the Court of Appeals slow the process? Can the community trust be protected?" CJR even tracks media ownership on its website.
They're right about the trend. GE owns NBC. Disney owns ABC. Westinghouse owns CBS. AOLTimeWarner is "synergizing" even as I write. And Gannett continues to swallow up small and mid-sized newspapers throughout the country.
But has this "corporatization" of the media in fact produced less variety? Or resulted in poorer quality?
Journalism academics have spent years researching these trends, and with near unanimity, conclude that the answer is "yes." But an hour on my sofa watching DirecTV last Saturday suggests that they're wrong.
I first came to this conclusion watching a show on handicapped Frisbee golfers competing in California's "Master's Cup" tournament. When I flipped to the Do-it-Yourself channel (yes, there is one), I learned to build a log cabin. Moments later, over on the Home and Garden Network, I was scribbling down decorating tips for my new abode from one Christopher Lowell, an interior decorator who might be the identical twin of the 1-800-FLOWERS guy. Later, on the Food Channel, I caught a thirty-minute analysis of the different uses of wheat in America and Europe.
When I had the sports itch, I chose from the Women's College World Series, surfing, a 1970s golf match between Sam Snead and Roberto diVicenzo, a Trans-Am series auto race, the WNBA, a handful of baseball games, and even "The Best of Backyard Wrestling."
I considered the "variety" question settled. And clicked on, in search of what the hand-wringers might call "quality" television.
A history of "The Black Devils," the first special services forces, was over on the History Channel. On History International, a dual profile of David Ben-Gurion and Eamon de Valera, leaders who dreamed of "independence for their adopted nations." National Geographic offered "Living Wild," an exploration of walruses, who "reign in the icy waters of the arctic." On the Discovery Wings channel, I took in a few minutes on the building of a rudder for an airplane. Trio offered a biography of composer Phillip Glass. And on C-Span . . . you get the picture.
Late Saturday afternoon, I could have watched any one of 14 kids' channels, seven religious channels, 17 Spanish channels, or 54 movies. There were--not including the networks or the news broadcasts in Italian and German--10 news channels.
And on and on it went. Is there any question that news consumers today have more options--and more high-quality options--today than ever before? Include news websites and, more recently, smart and informative weblogs, and the "media consolidation" arguments crumble.
The critics will likely dismiss my little argument. It's admittedly not a scientific look at the "problem" of consolidation. And, after all, The Weekly Standard is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, which also owns the New York Post, Fox News and Sports, Sky News . . .
Stephen F. Hayes is staff writer at The Weekly Standard.