Democracy & Debate

Last week Bill Moyers interviewed FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, and throughout the interview, Copps decried the consolidation that is occurring in media, and insisted that preserving debate is essential if we are to preserve democracy.

There are a lot of changes today – on the internet there are literally billions of new sources of media – not just extensions of every traditional media source already out there – print media, television and radio, but additional hundreds of millions of websites that are little more than personal diaries, additional millions of video clips on YouTube, and millions more that are venues for commercial endeavors. Where is the genuine media? How do you cut through the noise?


It’s no secret that traditional media is dying. The only place in-depth investigations and reporting ever were feasible were in newspapers. For over a century, newspapers held a special place in media – monopolies only barely encroached upon by radio and television. Supported by local merchants, classified ads, and subscription payments, local newspapers were highly profitable enterprises, and the journalists who they could afford to pay were able to spend months, even years, on investigative quests for truth. Back then, there were tens of thousands of people in the USA and elsewhere whose profession was based on in-depth investigative reporting, and nothing else. Not only was there debate, there was depth.

Those days are gone. Today only a handful of newspapers can still afford to employ such reporting staff. Consolidation of the retail advertisers, proliferation of free print material containing advertiser-sponsored content, the advent of cable TV, and now the internet, has shrunk the advertising base for newspapers at the same time as it has shrunk the audience for newspapers. And nothing has replaced them.

Laws to prevent consolidation of media ownership exist for good reason, but they are in conflict with an even greater imperative – without consolidation, media properties can’t survive financially. So what great debates are not being met? What information is not getting out?

For starters, the conventional wisdom of mainstream environmentalists. Here are three examples:

We should continue the debate as to whether or not anthropogenic CO2 emissions is actually the primary cause of runaway global warming. But if you scan today’s mainstream media, we must reduce CO2 emissions at any cost.

We should debate as to whether or not our energy and water supplies should be deliberately constricted and rationed, in order to reduce our “carbon footprint,” even though energy remains abundant in the world, and the cure may be worse than the disease.

We should debate as to whether or not we need to restrict nearly all development into the “footprint” of existing cities, which causes congestion, nurtures crime, and drives housing prices into the stratosphere. If you scan today’s mainstream media – open space at any cost is an article of faith. So we blithely destroy every suburb in America with ultra high-density “infill.” This “smart growth” is more than simply ridiculous, it is a hideous crime that is destroying our American way of life.

How debate on this unassailed conventional wisdom will ever be joined is the distressing question. Only here? On one, small website, indistinguishable in the noise from just another MySpace page? It is hard to imagine how that might matter or make a difference, but it is equally difficult to suggest the alternative. How will credibility and influence be acquired by new media, and will it be enough to restore debate – which in-turn is necessary to preserve a functioning, healthy democracy?


One Response to “Democracy & Debate”
  1. Coho says:

    Some very interesting questions here. I do some work with NAB, and I think that you make some good points about corporate ownership and financial sustainability. I’d also add one element that isn’t always evident – corporate ownership often leads to greater diversity. I know it might not seem evident at first, but when a media market is fragmented, each individual owner is more likely to play to the lowest common denominator. When a group of stations are afforded corporate resources, they won’t compete with each other and can diversify content. I think 94.7 The Globe in D.C., which tries to be environmentally conscience, is a good point.

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