Your Democracy May Be Reconstituted: A Review of Media Concentration and Democracy
by Steven Saus (written in 2008)
It was in 2004 that the Daily Show truly gained notoriety. A study by the National Annenberg Election Survey pointed out that viewers of this satirical newscast tended to be better informed about presidential candidates than those who read newspapers or regularly watch television news (Long, 2004). Despite a little bit of incredulity (and ribbing of Fox News), this report did not receive the outrage it really should have. Instead, it became the basis of ribbing between competing talk shows - especially those regularly lambasted by the Daily Show. There is a reason for that effect - and it has a lot to do with who owns the news media.
That is the primary thesis of C. Edwin Baker in the book Media Concentration and Democracy: Why Ownership Matters. In a world where political spending is conflated with the speech of political dissidents, money and ownership matters. This is a - if not the - Constitutional issue that creates the greatest effects in the political and social sphere of the United States. The author quickly sidesteps any issues of "What did a bunch of dead white landowners want?" and cuts right to the issues of "What makes a good democracy as we mean it today?" By laying these criteria for success out in the first pages of the book, then listing the values needed to meet those criteria, he provides a coherent framework for the whole work.
Mr. Baker posits that there are massive benefits to a society from a rigorous, dynamic, and diverse mass media (Baker, 2007, p. 29-32). It is a thesis that is hard to argue with. He gives several key values that the media should embody: an egalitarian premise (everyone should feel represented by some part of the media), a watchdog role as a democratic safeguard, and a methodology for mediating between the government and the people. Again, these are hard to argue with.
His framework is a conflict-centered one, where the excesses of the powerful are kept in check by the mechanism of the free press. From this viewpoint, the functionalist - and diversionary - tactics utilized by the right - ownership "rights", both over-narrow and over-broad definitions of free speech, and differing meanings of diversity - are clearly irrelevant if not outright dangerous.
He then moves on to skewer the myth of the Internet as media savior. The key, he points out, is that speech much be effective to changing public discourse (Baker, 2007, p. 121). The problem with the internet is not the typical mouthing about "quality" or signal-to-noise ratios; Sturgeon's Law - 90% of everything is crap - applies to all forms of media. The problem is in getting the message to the people.
The Internet must force a radical re-evaluation of structural functionalism; movements and niches that would be too small to survive otherwise are able to survive in far-flung online communities. The low cost of distribution to a vast geographic audience allows a greater proliferation of niches than would otherwise be sustainable. No longer must one live in a large city to find a viable community of people willing to dress up as anthropomorphic animals ("furries") or those seriously campaigning to reduce the population by encouraging suicide. The opposite of these niches are the blockbuster blogs - boingboing, slashdot, digg - whose audience is so large that an idle mention can bring a smaller website down by the mass of visitors sent there. These two effects combine and ultimately destroy diversity. While the long tail (that is, the large diversity) of the Internet is massive, the drop-off from the blockbuster blogs is precipitous indeed. Even within the tail, the low costs of distribution lead to concentration among the most successful within the niches. For example, where there might have been a "furry" 'zine in each large metropolis before the Internet; now one 'zine can be produced online for lower cost - and serving the entire persons nation wide (Baker, 2007, p. 122). Finally, though, most of those niche markets simply do not affect society as a whole. This can be seen in all sorts of Internet applications; most recently in the distribution of what applications Facebook users are putting on their pages (O'Reilly, 2007).
This same effect has also been occurring within traditional media. It is not limited to news, but that is ultimately where Mr. Baker's focus is. And it is in news that our society's candy-bar mentality becomes apparent.
Two aggregate societal effects have systematically undermined the news media in the United States. The first is our appetite for sensationalism, which is evident in everything from local news' focus on "if it bleeds, it leads" to the different production values in television reality shows imported from the UK such as Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares. The second, more pernicious effect is the oversimplified economic argument that serves as an underpinning for so many structuralist justifications for the status quo.
It is a protein bar versus a chocolate covered nougat monstrosity. Not only do humans routinely choose the latter for taste reasons, but the candy bar frequently costs half or even a third as much as the healthier alternative. In a simplistic economic world, the price in the store reflects the true cost of the item; our buying habits accurate reflect our desires. It is this that Mr. Baker takes the time to refute.
In our simple example, the cost of the candy bar should also include a portion of every later cost that is marginally its result. The larger clothes to accommodate our waistline, the extra doctor's visit, the glucophage for high blood sugar. It is quickly apparent that the price in the store - while a useful signal of cost - does not reflect the true cost over time. These unreflected costs - that are not reflected in the market price of an item, or are not paid by the producer or consumer - are a special type of market failure called externalities. The standard economic solution is to try to have these externalities reflected in the cost of the item. Were we able to do so, it is likely that the candy bar would quickly be as expensive - if not more so - than the health bar. Our individual choices would reflect this new information, and society would begin to run more smoothly.
Realistically, that is what is proposed here. The benefits from a diverse media flow to far more people than actually purchase the media itself. This takes place through many different pathways - the power of local "consumer advocate" journalism, investigative journalism, water-cooler discussion, and the perception of those in power that they are being monitored. This alone is a clear and compelling case for subsidizing public media.
He also points out that the desired values mentioned above provide clear benchmarks for success (Baker, 2007, p. 13-16). These benchmarks go much farther towards evaluating the public good that the media does, in contrast to the FCC's recent attempts to utilize empirical tests to gauge monopoly. He examines all the ways that a free voice can be compromised through mergers and all the ways that attempting value-neutrality actually misses the point of effective media (Baker, 2007, p. 39-47). He shows how profit-driven media will invariably move towards lower quality reporting - and how mergers accelerate the process (Baker, 2007, p. 37-38).
And he covers all of this in chapter one. In these brilliant fifty-three pages, we have a sweeping encyclopedic look at the issue, how the current empiric framing of the issue misses the point entirely, and a straightforward argument why we should return to a value-driven approach.
Unfortunately, the book does not end after chapter one.
Having already demolished the arguments of "the other side" by showing the complete irrelevance of their underlying values, he feels compelled to answer their every argument point-by-point. As a result, he spends the next one hundred and fifty pages going back over the material from the first fifty, exhaustively dismantling the statements of his opponents.
In this, he is far more gracious than I. From his rebuttals alone - and the number of times that he must explicitly point out that the right wing's arguments completely miss or obfuscate the point - it becomes obvious that those he is arguing with have completely different goals.
I am reminded of the many times I found myself debating creationists. Rather than simply stating that they had different goals (faith, not science), the most vocal creationists routinely employ linguistic tricks, logical-sounding dodges, and semantic logic traps. Their goal was - and still is - not to compare and test ideas, but to capture the public's mind. Debate, after all, is more a measure of verbal strategy than a test of an idea's soundness.
C. Edwin Baker has apparently not learned this, and believes that his opponents are still acting in good faith. Therefore, he must believe that they are misinformed or mistaken, and so he rebuts all their points. Repeatedly. He has many facts and excellent analysis on his side - but it is the sheer weight of both that is the book's downfall.
I find this topic fascinating, but it was difficult for me to read much of this book in any one particular sitting. Its utilization of economic models along with its sociological analysis provides it with a great structural rigor, but also makes the last three-quarters of the book inaccessible to a public audience. Creationists can spin off more fallacious arguments in the time it takes one to explain why any one of them simply doesn't apply. Attempting to answer all their jabs is ultimately a loser's game, and Mr. Baker demonstrates why (Sonleitner, 2004). After quickly - and intensely - setting up his arguments and winning the day, he exhaustively (and exhaustingly) feels compelled to explain why his opponents are wrong. It is then that the book changes from an engaging primer on media concentration to a reference text: something to refer to when refutation is needed, but definitely not something to read on its own.
Baker, C. E. (2007). Media concentration and democracy why ownership matters. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Long, B. (2004, September 29). CNN. Retrieved October 10, 2007, from http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/TV/09/28/comedy.politics/
O'Reilly, T. (2007, October 5). Good News, Bad News about Facebook Application Market: Long Tail Rules. Retrieved October 14, 2007, from http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2007/10/facebook_long_tail_report.html
Sonleitner, F. J. (2004, November). Winning the Creation Debate. Retrieved October 14, 2007, from http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/rncse_content/vol24/5366_winning_the_creation_debate_12_30_1899.asp
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