In the spring of 1990, Philip Morris circulated a top-secret proposal suggesting that the nation's biggest cigarette manufacturer acquire a news company such as Knight Ridder in order to "improve the climate for the marketing and use of tobacco products."
Luckily, Big Tobacco never acquired Big Media, and the nation was saved from the prospect of newspapers run by the Marlboro Man. Since then, the threat of special interests' owning news outlets hasn't gone away. In fact, it has come closer to reality.
Earlier this month, at its annual meeting in Pittsburgh, the National Rifle Association (NRA) launched NRANews.com, a private news company that offers a daily Internet talk show and plans to acquire TV and radio stations.
NRA President Wayne LaPierre was candid about the goal: to give the NRA's media arm the same legal recognition as a mainstream news organization, so that it can push pro-gun views and candidates without the pesky constraints of the campaign-finance law's ban on certain donations.
In the U.S., there are few legal restrictions on who can own news outlets. After all, defense contractor General Electric owns NBC. So who's to say Wal-Mart or ExxonMobil — or Philip Morris, for that matter — shouldn't own a national television network or newspaper chain? There's little stopping political advocacy groups, either.
In regards to General Electric, I can see all kinds of conflicts with a defense contractor owning a major network, and most especially because we have such a concentration of media ownership at the moment, so that owners with similar agendas or interests could steer emphasis and coverage a particular direction without worry of competition showing them up.
That's why I'm for strict limits on media ownership, in the sense of shaping laws and regulations in this area to encourage ownership and production diversification, so as to assure a healthy and competitive market that assures that all stories are created equal, in the sense of the owners of the news not having a financial interest in their own content. The mission of news media and organizations, and profit model, ought to be on how well they break stories and report on compelling issues to their customers, and ought not to be muddied by having signifigant financial interests and profit motives elsewhere that would benefit by increased coverage with a particular slant (say coverage of an impending war, while downplaying opposition sentiment, if you are a defense contractor who will profit spectacularly should such a war happen).
The difference would be news, on the one hand, and public relations and marketing, on the other. I'm not saying that this is happening today, but I'm suggesting it could. Since it could, we should assure it won't. The measure of our liberty and democracy is inevitably mediated and communicated through the freedom and integrity of our press. Since it's much easier for a possible conspiracy against our liberty and democracy to occur amongst a handful of conspirators, if even as innocent in motive as financial self-interest, so it is in our best interests, in the grassroots, to advocate that our media be much less concentrated.
Then, rather than ruminating on or debating the existence of conspiracies and elite deviance, we remove the elite from the structure of the equation and also the possibility of a conspiracy at all. Real solutions anticipate problems before they occur. Big Media is a structural problem, in the sense of the inherent potential for deviance and harm that could conceivably result. We should address the structural anomalies that put our democratic and (classical) liberal values at risk by restructuring our media laws and regulations to encourage a diversity of views and healthy competition in the news media marketplace.
It's late at night and I'm rambling, so if this doesn't make total sense, bear with me, leave a comment, and I'll fix it up in a more rested condition.