Carlson Essay: Media Ownership and the Marketplace of Ideas

Caitlin-Carlson-Headshot
Caitlin Ring Carlson

A century ago, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes introduced the concept of the Marketplace of Ideas to U.S. jurisprudence. In his dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919), Holmes said, “the best test of truth was the power of a thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”[i]

This concept, which dates back to John Milton’s Areopagitica in 1644, is often cited as one of the primary justifications for protecting expression under the First Amendment.[ii] Better to have all ideas, even bad or false ones, enter the public sphere to compete with one another to ensure that truth eventually emerges. As John Stuart Mill said in his 1859 book On Liberty, humanity is better off when truth is left to compete with error in the open market. Ideas and opinions prove themselves only when they are challenged over time.[iii]

The marketplace of ideas of today is undeniably robust. Thanks to the internet and social media in particular, more people than ever have the opportunity for their ideas to enter the speech marketplace. However, despite the democratizing nature of online technologies, the reality is that we do not all have equal access to the marketplace. Money, notoriety, and perhaps most importantly, media ownership, all play a role in whose ideas are considered, which in turn shapes the “truth” that emerges.[iv]

Gender and Racial Disparities in Broadcast Media Ownership

While social media currently outpace print newspapers as a news source, television is still the dominant platform and the place where most U.S. adults get their news.[v] According to a 2018 report from the Pew Research Center, 49 percent of Americans often get their news from television, and 26 percent get their news via radio. Unlike print or internet media, the broadcast industry is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The reason for this is twofold: spectrum scarcity and the pervasiveness of broadcast content.

In recent decades, the broadcast industry has undergone substantial consolidation. The majority of U.S. television and radio stations are owned by only a handful of homogeneous individuals. Today, women and people of color combined own less than 12 percent of all broadcast outlets.[vi] This means that 88 percent of the U.S. broadcast media market is controlled by white males. This imbalance in ownership distorts how the marketplace of ideas functions.

Bias in Broadcast Content and Its Impact on the Marketplace of Ideas

Ownership of media outlets influences hiring and, subsequently, content.  Whether intentional or not, the reality is that people of color and women are still underrepresented in many of the most influential roles in the broadcast industry. For example, in 2019 women served as general managers for only 17.4 percent of the nation’s AM and FM stations. The majority of TV entertainment shows, 65.4 percent, have no black writers.[vii]

The absence of diverse perspectives from what scholar Carolyn Byerly calls the macro and meso levels of U.S. broadcast media means the content created by this system reflects the worldview and even the biases of those in control of the system.[viii] When the marketplace of ideas is saturated by viewpoints that are largely white and male, then the subjective “truth” that emerges is likely to reflect reality through the lens of these individuals’ experience. This is extremely troubling given the important role media content plays in shaping the public agenda and framing important issues.[ix]

Regulating Broadcast Ownership: A Federal Communications Commission Fail

The FCC has long paid lip service to addressing the inequities in broadcast media ownership, but the agency has so far failed make any meaningful changes in this area. This is doubly frustrating given that the Commission has the power to give minority owners preference in the sale of stations for the express purpose of generating viewpoint diversity in the marketplace.

The racial and gender imbalance in media ownership is compounded by the increasing consolidation in broadcast media. In 2017 the FCC moved to eliminate rules such as the eight voices test and the radio/ television cross ownership rules, which were designed to keep a single company from dominating an individual media market.[x] The Commission also said at the time that it would create an incubator program to provide mentorship to minority owners from established companies, who would then be allowed to consolidate further as a result of their participation.

Recognizing the limited influence this initiative would actually have on existing ownership inequities, a group of media activists moved to challenge the latest rule changes. This is the fourth in a series of legal actions now collectively known as the “Prometheus” cases. These lawsuits have called the FCC on its failure to adequately address the effect its actions have on ownership of broadcast media by women and racial minorities. In 2019 the Third Circuit Court of Appeals once again ruled in favor of the media activists and remanded the case back to the FCC, which was instructed to “ascertain evidence of the likely effect of any rule changes it proposes would have on ownership by women and minorities.”[xi]

Moving Forward

While we wait for the FCC to address the racial and gender disparities in broadcast media ownership, the industry continues to consolidate and the number of stations available to diverse owners keeps shrinking. Until this problem is sufficiently addressed, the marketplace of ideas will remain saturated by the perspectives of a small, homogeneous group, making it more likely that the “truth” that emerges is one that does not equally reflect all of our experiences.

About the author: Caitlin Ring Carlson is an Associate Professor of Communication at Seattle University. Her scholarship focuses on media law, policy, and ethics from a feminist perspective.

Featured image: This image was created by the nonprofit Free Press to illustrate the concept of diversity in media ownership. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

References

[i] Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919).

[ii] Milton, J. (1985). John Milton: Complete poems and major prose. M. Y. Hughes (Ed.). New York: Macmillan.

[iii] Mill, J. S. (2008) On liberty and other essays. J. Gray (Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[iv] Baker, C. E. (2001). Media, markets, and democracy. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

[v] Shearer, E. (2018, Dec. 10). Social media outpaces print newspapers in the U.S. as a news source. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/10/social-media-outpaces-print-newspapers-in-the-u-s-as-a-news-source/

[vi] FCC report on ownership of commercial broadcast stations (Data as of Oct 1, 2015) [PDF File]. Retrieved from https://www.fcc.gov/biennial-forms-323-and-323-e-broadcast-ownership-data-and-reports

[vii] Women’s Media Center (2019). The status of women in the U.S. Media 2019. Retrieved from http://www.womensmediacenter.com/reports/the-status-of-women-in-u-s-media-2019

[viii] Byerly, C. M. (2015). Women and media control: Feminist interrogations at the macro level. In C. Carter & L. Steiner (Eds.), The Routledge companion to media and gender (105-115). New York, NY: Routledge.

[ix] Scheufele, D.A. (2000). Agenda-setting, priming, and framing revisited: Another look at cognitive effects of political communications. Mass Communication & Society, 3(2 & 3), 297-316.

[x] Order on Reconsideration and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 2014 Quadrennial Regulatory Review – Review of the Commission’s Broadcast Ownership Rules and Other Rules Adopted Pursuant to Section 202 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 et al., 32 FCC Rcd 9802 (Nov. 17, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-modernizes-broadcast-ownership-rules

[xi] Prometheus Radio Project v. Federal Communications Commission, No. 17-1107 (3d Cir. 2019).

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