Robert McChesney is right: we cannot slip into defeatist realism, deluding ourselves about the potential importance of modest initiatives that do not fundamentally restructure the media industry. If we are to reconfigure the media so that it expands, deepens, enlightens, and enriches democracy, we have to think big thoughts. Consider our current media: corporate-concentrated, saturated with trivialization and entertainment. To get from this status quo to a deliberative information sector that enlivens as well as engages will require both bold proposals for structural reform and a mobilized constituency.
In addressing the issue of media concentration, it is natural to turn to antitrust policy, despite the inadequacy of existing statutes. Consider several examples. For antitrust regulators, the fact that cable consumers have 50 or 60 channels from which to choose may in itself be evidence that there is sufficient broadcasting competition. Likewise with the concepts of "potential competition" and "barriers to entry." In antitrust law and practice, a merger that will highly concentrate a market may be permitted if it is determined that new competitors can easily enter the market. The "potential competition," it is typically held, will be enough incentive for dominant market players to keep prices low. This logic is frequently used to rationalize mergers that should be prevented, but in reality "potential competition" does little to encourage existing broadcasters to air more diverse viewpoints.
The problem goes beyond the horrendous antitrust case law of the last two decades, however: antitrust asks the wrong questions to promote truly democratic media. Concentrated media markets could be more easily broken up through direct statute and regulation by the Federal Communications Commission, as was the case until recently with the tight limits on how many television and radio outlets could be owned by a single entity. This is not to deny a role for antitrust in democratizing the media. Digital broadcasting satellite (DBS) technologies offer the possibility of new conduit competitors, but TCI and Rupert Murdoch are racing to gobble up the new satellites. Antitrust policy and enforcement can help in this area.
Perhaps the most important role for antitrust, though, is in enabling the Internet and digital technologies to achieve their democratic promise. In a host of ways, Microsoft is seeking to leverage its control over computer operating systems to gain control over Internet content and transactions. Similarly, Microsoft and the Baby Bells in different ways hope to control the technologies that physically connect homes and businesses to the Internet. Antitrust enforcement should be able to stop these companies from exerting a chokehold on the Internet, and at the same time help ensure that the guiding concepts for digital technologies are interoperability and open architecture.
McChesney is right to tweak utopians who think the promise of freedom is an inherent feature of the Internet, but he is too quick to dismiss its importance. We need to prevent the corporate capture of the Internet, and doing so will require us to focus our attention on the structure of digital industries. Ensuring broad access to the Internet is not enough; we cannot assume that the democratization of traditional media will automatically have good results. And we need to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the Internet.1 While it may not be salvation, it offers new telecasting opportunities, for example, at minimal cost. It also provides interactive possibilities unlike any afforded by traditional broadcasting.
Still, for the foreseeable future, at least, it will be important to have diverse, noncommercial alternatives in the traditional broadcasting media. Between McChesney's two categories of noncommercial programming (private, independent non-profits and public television-both of which merit strong support), there is space for public, nongovernmental broadcasting: programs and networks produced and operated by government-chartered, citizen membership organizations.
The public owns the airwaves. We lease it, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to broadcasters who pay no rent. The government could take back an hour a day of prime-time television and drive-time radio from each broadcaster, and grant it to a government-chartered, nonprofit citizen membership organization. The organization, Audience Network, governed by a board of directors elected from members who pay small dues, could sell some of the television and radio time back to broadcasters to raise funds, and use the proceeds to produce programming.2 With digital technologies making possible the airing of five or six times the number of existing over-the-air channels, the government could take back whole channels and allocate them to the Audience Network.
Similarly, when cities negotiate monopoly contracts with cable companies, they could demand the companies include billing inserts that invite consumers to join a local Cable Action Group that would operate a local Audience Channel, well-funded and equipped by the cable company. Such a group would serve a dual purpose: operating the local channel and organizing consumers into a mobilized interest group to advocate for pro-consumer and pro-democracy media policy. Cable Action Groups must be just part of a much broader strategy to develop a permanently mobilized constituency for fundamental media reform.
In the absence of a mobilized constituency, even structural reforms will inevitably fall short of achieving their democratic purposes. Corporate interests will reassert themselves (or new corporate interests will arise) to corrupt even a decentralized media, and eventually chip away at the structural limitations on media concentration.
1 See www.essential.org for some early innovations in using the Internet to advance civic debate.
2 For a fuller discussion of Audience Network, see Ralph Nader and C. Riley, "Oh, Say Can You See: A Broadcast Network for the Audience," Journal of Law and Politics 5, no. 1 (1988).
For democrats, the concentration of media power and commercialization of public discourse are a disaster. If we are serious about democracy, we need to work aggressively for reform.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.