January 14, 2003

Is Big Media Really Bad News?

Foreign Policy magazine, in an article that challenges the assertion that global media companies are inherently bad for news coverage, regional culture and press independence, calls the notion that "corporate ownership is killing hard-hitting journalism" a "bright red herring."

One of the arguments against big media, one that is heard frequently in the context of the debate over relaxation of rules on cross ownership, is that mega-media companies will lead to the dumbing-down of journalism.

Robert W. McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois and a vociferous critic of media mergers, tells Columbia Journalism Review that "in this debate, the range of possible outcomes runs from bad to terrible. There's no possible argument that this could be good for the quality of journalism. There's no upside. The only question is how bad the downside will be."

Benjamin Compaine, a consultant with the MIT's Technology's Program on Internet and Telecoms Convergence, counters the argument that corporate ownership takes the punch out of hard-hitting journalism with this somewhat cynical, but regretfully accurate question in Foreign Policy:

"When exactly was this golden age of hard-hitting journalism? One might call to mind brief periods: the muckrakers in the early 20th century or Watergate reporting in the 1970s. But across countries and centuries, journalism typically has not been 'hard-hitting.' With more news outlets and competition today, there is a greater range of journalism than was typical in the past. Further, a 2000 comparison of 186 countries by Freedom House, a nonprofit devoted to promoting democracy, suggests that press independence, including journalists' freedom from economic influence, remained high in all but two members (Mexico and Turkey) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, where global media's markets are concentrated.

"Also underlying the complaint that news has been 'dumbed down' is an assumption that the media ought to be providing a big dose of policy-relevant content. Japan's dominant public broadcaster, NHK, does so, yet is Japan a more vibrant democracy as a result? More to the point, with so many media outlets today, readers and viewers can get more and better news from more diverse perspectives, if that is what they want. Or they can avoid it altogether. The alternative is to limit the number of outlets and impose content requirements on those remaining."

Finally, Compaine challenges the validity of connecting ownership with quality.

"The third problem with this notion of corporations killing journalism is that it assumes ownership matters. In the old days of media moguls it may have: William Randolph Hearst, William Loeb, and Robert McCormick were attracted to the media because they each had political agendas, which permeated their newspapers. Corporate-owned newspapers may actually provide better products than those that are family owned. Research suggests that large, chain-owned newspapers devote more space to editorial material than papers owned by small firms."

Certainly, it is better to have more voices rather than fewer. But does concentrated ownership also reduce the quality of journalism? That's a difficult argument to make. Quality journalism requires commitment from ownership because excellence doesn't come cheap, but it also demands a newsroom culture that discourages mediocrity and encourages a collaborative identification with distinction.

There were plenty of bad newspapers in the "good old days." The question is, Are there fewer good ones now?

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 Foreign Policy

Posted by Tim Porter at January 14, 2003 04:43 PM