Press policy

Ilya Somin isomin at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Fri Nov 2 14:02:58 PST 2001

This whole line of argument raises a series of broader theoretical issues:

1.  Those who criticize "excessive" media influence by the wealthy or by corporations should provide a baseline by which to measure this. What would a media without improper influence look like?

I can think of two possible answers that they might offer:

    A.  The media gives space to different views in rough proportion to their representation in the general population. 

 I think there is a whole range of serious objections to this approach, that will be obvious to most members of this list.  But one interesting implication of this view is taht the media, at least the major national media (big TV networks, the Times, the Post, the WSJ, etc.) would have to be more conservative than it currently is. I doubt that this is what most of the critics actually want. But even on "economic" issues on which the interests of the wealthy and large corporations supposedly coincide with the conservative or libertarian agenda, major media outlets rarely take a conservative line.  For example, most of them have opposed proposals to reduce (much less eliminate) the corporate income tax. If there is any one issue on which "big business" should have a common interest, one would think that it would be the corporate income tax. 

B.    Each citizen has a more or less equal "right" to influence the content of the media.

If this is the moral vision underlying the views of the critics (and I think it underpins more of their views than A), it is important to consider all of its implications.  If the critics wish to apply this approach consistently, they cannot stop at equalizing the impact of wealth.  Other sources of  preferential access to media, such as celebrity, political skills, writing ability, eloquence, and others are even more unequally distributed than money is.  Eliminating or curtailing the influence of money without addressing these other sources of inequality will only accentuate their impact. We would likely end up with even more unequal media access than we have today.

Of course, it might be argued that the possessors of nonmonetary assets "deserve" them to a greater extent than wealthy people deserve their money. I find this unpersuasive. Studies suggest that most of the wealthy are successful professionals and entrepreneurs rather than people who have just inherited large troves of cash. More importantly, many nonmonetary assets, like much money, are acquired as a result of luck, genetics, parental or other family assistance, and so forth.  This issue is well analyzed in Bradley Smith's recent book, Unfree Speech (2001).

Finally, it is important to note that money is one of the relatively few media-related resources that the  political right has more of than the left. Celebrities, intellectuals, journalists, law professors (let us not forget them here:)) and most other groups that have disproportionate "free" access to the media are predominantly left-liberal.  Thus, although the influence of money viewed in isolation may bias political discourse towards the right, viewed in the context of the full range of politically valuable resources, it may actually help promote a balanced discourse, or at least one that is more balanced than that which would exist if we established regulations to restrict the impact of money while leaving other sources of inquality alone. 

Obviously, much depends on one's own starting perspective. Left-wing radicals see a press that "excludes" their views. Libertarians like David Bernstein just as understandably want greater representation for their own positions.  There is no objective way to reconcile all these concerns, certainly none that can easily be implemented by a government agency like the FCC or the FEC. But it seems to me that we come closer to addressing them if we do not restrict the range of resources that can be used to gain media access.

Ilya Somin 
    -----Original Message-----
    From: David Bernstein <Deliotb at AOL.COM>
    Date: Friday, November 02, 2001 1:26 PM
    Subject: Re: Press policy
    There are several undefended assumptions here: 
    (1) That a survey of Fox proves anything.  Fox news has specifically set itself up as an alternative to the perceived liberal media bias. 
    (2) That there is such a thing as a "big business line."  AOL Time Warner wants massive antitrust restrictions on Microsoft.  Microsoft wants lax antitrust enforcement.  These are two of the largest corporations in America.  Which one represents the "big business line." 
    (3) That reporting is influenced more by the corporate ownership of the outlet, and less by the personal ideologies of the news writers and announcers, who are overwhelmingly liberal Democrats.  As long as Dan Rather gets good ratings, I doubt CBS cares what ideology he has or expresses on the news. 
    (4) That corporations act to promote "conservative" interests.  Studies of funding by major corporations show that the overwhelming amount of their charitable contributions go to left wing organizations.  They also tend to be the greatest champions of affirmative action/racial preference policies, for example, and were generally highly-supportive of the Clintoncare proposals. 
    (5) That left-wing criticism of the media, even if valid from their perspective, demonstrates a conservative bias in the medis.  The mainstream media--the major networks, the Times, Post, etc.--are best described as establishment liberal.  Groups further to the left are undoubtedly correct in perceiving "conservative" bias in the media from their more extreme point of view.  But that doesn't mean that if you compare the media to the median voters' ideology, that the media is conservative; almost certainly the opposite.  And as for excluding alternate perspectives, if it wasn't for John Stossel, the libertarian perspective, which is more or less adhered to by 15-20% of the population, would be basically entirely absent from the major news networks, while Bill Safire is the closest one gets to a libertarian in the Times or the Post (excluding the subtle libertarianism in Dave Barry's humor columns in the Post), and it's not very close.  How many news! stories on t.v. discuss the urgent need for more government spending on ___, compared to how many report on failed government programs (except to show that they need more money to succeed?) 
    In a message dated 11/2/2001 1:31:57 PM Eastern Standard Time, mcurtis at LAW.WFU.EDU writes: 
        There is a larger question here.  Most Americans get their news and information largely from TV or from internet sites provided by one of a very few mass media corporations.  If the head of GE decides that news must be reported in a way that advances corporate interests (eg nothing negative about nuclear power or the proposed tax benefits for corporatioons)---(as some have alleged), and if similar media conglomerates behave the same way, what is the effect on democracy as to those issues? As to left wing bias in the mass media, one might look at talk radio or at the recent survey of Fox that showed some 75% of guests on news programs conservative or at how much detail the major corporations give to which income groups benefit from tax changes (as opposed to brief dueling sound bites) or at myriad other issues one can find in books like Mega Media or Rich Media Poor Democracy. For a well functioning democracy we would want a mass media that provided substantial in! formation and alternate perspectives.  One reason that political money is increasingly crucial is that the media does less and less reporting of the typical political race--and why not?  Instead, politicians and those with the money to buy issues ads provide huge revenue for the media corporations. On economic issues the media tends toward the big business line; on social issues, it tends to be more liberal--at least that is my impression and I think what some studies show.  So both the left and right may be correct about bias--it depends on which issues.  So here, as in the cases of Murdock kicking the BBC out because it was too critical of the human rights record of the Chinese (ditto for his Haper Collins book publishing and the broken contract with the last British Gov. of Hong Kong)--he wants to sell his soaps etc to China-- and all the rest, conflicts of interest between the corporate bottom line and the role of a free press in a democracy are becomin! g acute. Nor are do the critics of corporate influence on the mass media get much mass media attention--of course.  Nor as Bob Dole and John McCain noted, did the TV media carry the speeches of those--like Dole and McCain-- who criticised the Communications Act as an outrageous give away. There are no simple answers to these problems.  But ignoring what is happening is the very  worst response. Michael Curtis 
    David E. Bernstein 
    Associate Professor 
    George Mason University 
    School of Law 
    (703) 993-8089 
    Home Page: 
    Only One Place of Redress Home Page: 

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