Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

03/06/2009 (3:52 pm)

The Durbin Amendment: Smart Activism or Grim Hysteria? (Updated)

This morning I sipped my wake-up coffee to the sound of Brent Bozell’s frantic plea for activism after I found a link to the following video in my in box. Listen:

Bozell, along with Sen. Jim Inhofe (R, OK,) Bobby Eberle at GOPUSA, and a number of other Republican activists, is concerned about an amendment offered by Sen. Dick Durbin (D, IL) passed by the Senate a few days ago (it was an amendment to the DC Voting Rights Act, but that’s incidental) calling on the FCC to “encourage and promote diversity in communication media ownership and to ensure that broadcast station licenses are used in the public interest.” This was passed on a straight party-line vote, 57 – 41, about an hour after Sen Jim DeMint’s (R, SC) measure banning the Fairness Doctrine was passed by a huge margin.

Like them, I am concerned about the Durbin Amendment, and I encourage participation in their activism plans. However, I also think it’s important to understand the issues that are being raised.

The Democrats have been concerned about changes in FCC regulations during the Bush years that removed restrictions on station and bandwidth license ownership in local markets. For example, before 2003, a single company was not permitted to own more than 35% of the media in a given local market (in 1996 it was 25%). The Bush FCC raised that limit to 45%, and changed the way it was figured to include TV channels, magazines, newspapers, cable, and Internet services. Also beginning in 2003, the FCC permitted a single company to own a broadcast station (TV or radio) and a newspaper in the same market, which had never been permitted before. The new rules permitted cross-ownership at levels varying by the number of broadcast media stations in the local market, but retained controls to prevent any one company from completely dominating. Limits on ownership based on the FCC’s interpretation of what was “in the public interest” were also removed (see here and here for details.)

Clearly, the Democrats want these changes reversed. They want, instead, local companies to control each local market. Their thinking on the matter seems to be dominated by Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model of media bias, which asserts that the fact that media companies are dominated by large conglomerates creates a bias in the news to favor the owners of the conglomerates, who are, naturally, all conservatives. exaspbobThe theory is too silly to warrant serious rebuttal; the claim that the 50,000 stockholders of General Electric (I’m just guessing at the number) could somehow collectively influence the content of a news program in a division that generates less than 10% of the company’s revenue, let alone the claim that they’d even want to, let alone the claim that they’re all conservatives by virtue of the fact that GE is a corporation, could only be taken seriously by somebody who has not the slightest clue how businesses really work. But Chomsky, ever the good Marxist, not only offers his predictably anti-corporation theory with a straight face, but offers with it the predictable announcement that there’s no debate about the thesis. The debate is over! (Does this sound familiar?) “I would hazard a guess that the Propaganda Model is one of the best-confirmed theses in the social sciences. There has been no serious counter-discussion of it at all, actually, that I’m aware of,” asserts Chomsky. (Snort.) And Democrats believe this crap.

In order not to sound equally silly, though, we should recall that what Sen. Durbin is talking about, when he defends his amendment, is limits that actually existed here in the US until 2003 (some of them until 1996,) and that reinstating those limits might not be the end of free speech as we know it. I’m sure the Obamatrons would like more stringent controls, but I’m not sure Durbin has that in mind, and in either case, it pays for us to make our case precisely.

Make no mistake: it’s a dangerous amendment, and needs to be defeated. As Sen. Inhofe points out in his press release, the real problem is that it’s so vague.

What, I ask, does “encourage and promote diversity in communication media ownership” even mean? I certainly can’t tell you what it means, and the legislation offers no words of clarification or specificity. If I were an FCC commissioner, I wouldn’t know what to do with this language, and in any other line of work I’d send it directly back with a little note attached asking to please be more specific. But federal agencies love this kind of language because it gives them greater leeway to interpret it however they like and impose their will upon the industry that they regulate. And my democratic colleagues who promoted this amendment like this type of language because it (1) means that they don’t have to spend the time drafting quality legislation aimed at solving a specific problem, and (2) means that they can disavow their true intention of having greater government regulation of the airwaves. This legislation is so incredibly vague and so potentially far-reaching that I can’t say with any certainty what the end result will be.

The Durbin Amendment, as it exists today, would establish at the FCC complete discretion to revoke broadcast licenses “in the public interest,” however the FCC panel decides to define that.

The Democrats’ concern over large media holding companies owning lots of radio stations is the usual Democratic Party shibboleth: it’s a contrived concern, manufactured as an issue specifically to permit them the appearance of intellectual probity while in fact they’re just complaining that Rush Limbaugh is too popular. Recent opinion suggests that it was the rise in broadcast syndication, and not the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, that gave rise to Limbaugh’s success. They’d love to shut him up. So, they invent an issue that sounds like an issue of populism and fairness, but actually specifically targets the very thing — national syndication — that makes a Rush Limbaugh possible.

National syndication creates no threat to market diversity at all. The sort of concentration that would genuinely endanger diversity of news sources would be monopoly control of a single, local market, not a broad availability of a national presence. The mere fact that Clear Channel owns 1,200 radio stations nationwide only means that people interested in their products will get a consistent product wherever they are, instead of a different conservative talk show in every market. Of course, it also means that Rush Limbaugh has a lot of influence; and since that’s the target, that’s what the Democrats have concocted an argument to address.

It’s frankly ridiculous to claim a lack of media diversity in today’s market. Whereas diversity was a real problem in 1960, with three major television networks and only one or two major newspapers in most large, urban centers, today the Internet, wireless communication, and cable TV have created a whole new world of news dissemination. In today’s market, only about 10% get their news primarily from a newspaper, and consumers have so many choices that it makes the head swim. Sure, I can hear Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, or Sean Hannity just about anywhere; then again, if I don’t like what they’re saying, I can browse Huffington Post, read Maureen Dowd, watch Keith Olbermann, or punch the channel over to All Things Considered. Concentration in today’s market cannot be segmented by media type, since we all have access to an astonishing variety of news sources.

Conservative pundits have fun claiming that Air American has failed to compete with Limbaugh because… um… Air America sucks, but that’s not really the reason. Air America faces market saturation; there’s no market for liberal talk radio because liberals entirely have their needs met already by ordinary news broadcasts, from NPR, the New York Times, ABC News, and so forth. Conservative talk radio gained traction because one could not hear a conservative point of view anywhere else at the time. The reason Democrats would like to shut up Mr. Limbaugh is not that Democrats lack an advocate, but because, at the base of things, liberals simply can’t brook any competing voices at all. That’s why we’re having this discussion. Remember this, from the campaign last October?


By all means, sign Bozell’s petition, and call your Senators. The Durbin Amendment is a turkey, and needs to get beheaded, stuffed, and cooked. However, make sure when you do that you’re discussing the matter intelligently, and not just sounding alarmist over the Stalinist intentions of the Obama Administration. Those intentions exist, but we’re only going to have a few opportunities to say so in public before the public tires of the warning. Save it for something where the claim can’t be dismissed easily by referring to rules that existed a mere 6 years ago.

UPDATE: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now touting the Durbin Amendment through the House. This is the Democrat “Hush Rush” strategy, alright.

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1 Comment »

March 7, 2009 @ 11:52 am #

The entire DC Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional and should go down in flames.

“The reason Democrats would like to shut up Mr. Limbaugh is not that Democrats lack an advocate, but because, at the base of things, liberals simply can’t brook any competing voices at all.”

This, of course, is too painfully true…even in family groups, this is exactly how things go.

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