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FCC and Anti-FCC

By Annalee Newitz

EVERYONE FROM feminists in the National Organization for Women to gun lovers at the National Rifle Association has been protesting the recent Federal Communications Commission decision to change the way it regulates media ownership. The June 2 decision allows big-media corporations like Viacom to garner more audience share than ever, permitting media companies to own several types of media outlets (like newspapers and TV and radio stations) in the same market at the same time. More important, one company can now own up to 45 percent of TV stations nationwide (this is up from 35 percent). The decision is so patently creepy that even media mogul Ted Turner and Senate Commerce Committee chair John McCain are pissed off.

While Congress ponders its next move vis-à-vis the FCC, and groups like Media Alliance ramp up for protest campaigns, an interactive-telecommunications professor at New York University named Clay Shirky has come up with a strange new way to frame the debate. Shirky is one of those smart new-media writers whose work you'll find if you hang around on blogs or go to certain geek-futurist O'Reilly conferences. For the last year or so, he's been posting work on an email list called NEC, which stands for Networks, Economics and Community--three things whose interconnection will only grow more important if the Internet continues to mediate social life across the globe.

In a recent essay called "The FCC, Weblogs and Inequality" (www.shirky.com/writings/fcc_inequality.html), Shirky manages to clarify the FCC's stance by contrasting it with those in the still-coalescing opposition movement. There are three competing camps in the FCC debate, as he sees it: people who advocate for free and equal media, people who advocate for diverse and equal media, and people who advocate for diverse and free media.

What will rankle traditional media-crit types about Shirky's argument is that he claims the FCC is part of the "diverse and equal media" group because it merely "altered regulations rather than removing them." By keeping some regulation in place, the FCC is making a very weak stab at maintaining broadcast diversity--News Corp. can't own all national TV stations, which it might if the market went unchecked.

He dismisses the "free and equal" camp as being untenable because it requires limiting the number of broadcast outlets, which isn't possible now that most TV comes to us via cable. What seems to interest him most is the potential for a "diverse and free" media movement, one that advocates for a media regime so intensely deregulated that it is controlled and owned by virtually everyone and is therefore the ultimate expression of diversity.

Where would Shirky get the idea for such a weird utopia? Why, from blogs of course. "Weblogs are the freest media the world has ever known," he writes. The cost of setting one up is minor, he contends, and one does not need to register it with some kind of "Weblog Central" that regulates the content of one's posts. He adds, "In the absence of regulation, the only defense against monopolization is to create a world where, no matter how many media outlets a single company can buy, more can appear tomorrow." If all media could be blogified (and that presupposes a lot of media access we don't have right now), the FCC's latest change in regulations would lose its punch.

But we're left with some real problems. First, one of the lessons we've learned from blogs is that free does not mean diverse. Shirky acknowledges that even without media conglomerate support, certain blogs get far more eyeball share than others. Kuro5hin (www.kuro5hin.org) may be smarter in every way than Slashdot (www.slashdot.org), but the masses go to Slashdot more often. If the unfettered audience tends to pay an unequal amount of attention to certain media outlets, how can we have a diverse media landscape? Maybe regulation is necessary to protect humans from their own worst, conformist tendencies.

Moreover, how can we be sure blogs are even a good model of how audiences function in the absence of big-media ownership? After all, the vast majority of blogs are delivered to us through large ISPs like AOL or Earthlink, and the number of people with the tech (and the time!) to blog regularly are hardly representative of the world's population. I mean, how many Chinese blogs are there relative to U.S. ones? It's possible that if a truly representative sample of the globe could engage in blogging we'd see different patterns of behavior.

These questions are moot, however, as long as we exist in the FCC's highly corrupt version of the old diverse and equal model, where diverse means only that nobody can own the majority of our TV stations nationwide and equal means, um ... I'm not sure.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who reads unpopular blogs and watches TV on her computer.

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From the June 12-18, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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