Media bigotry

Media bigotry

: Much of the sniping at big media that we’ve been reading in weblogs lately comes from three roots: Media bigotry, media jealousy, and media snobbery.

For reasons I cannot fathom, Lawrence Lessig is a media bigot. He clearly hates big media as well as big companies. He itches to do battle with big-company Microsoft. He wants to reduce media copyrights and clearly resents them. He hated the FCC’s decision to reduce regulation of big media. I don’t know why he has such a problem.

As for the anti-big-media bashing we’ve seen from webloggers — inspired lately by the FCC and by the New York Times screwups — I’ll argue that they are essentially jealous. Webloggers are nanomedia moguls with big-media aspirations. Most of them are conservative or libertarian and thus should abhor regulation, even of media. But in this case and this case only, they endorse regulation. Why? Because they hate big media. And they hate big media because it has the resources and the distribution and the audience they don’t have. Hell, big media pays; blogging doesn’t.

Unfair? Simplistic? Provocative for its own sake? Sure. But the same can be said of much of the big-media bashing I’ve been reading lately: It’s knee-jerk snarking for the sake of the snark, anti- for the sake of the anti-. And I’ve finally had my fill. And no, it’s not (just) because I work in media myself. It’s because I read and watch and listen to and love our media and I’m sick of the sniping.

Let’s just look for just a moment at how lucky we are to have the media we have.

First, our media is free. Can’t say that in Iran, Iraq, China, much of the Muslim world, parts of South America, parts of Africa. Look at how many journalists died in Iraq to bring us the news, the facts, the truth. Be grateful to them and their courage and dedication; do not belittle their loss by acting as if they do not matter. The New York Times is a damned good newspaper and we’re lucky to have it and lucky that it is free to report. Ditto even the big networks.

Second, our media is full of choice. We have far more choice than we used to — 300 hundred channels now instead of the three I grew up with and instead of the one or two Britain had until very recently. There is far more diversity and competition today than there used to be. Media is bigger than ever and big is good.

Third, our media is marked by quality. There’s a reason the rest of the world buys, envies, and copies what we produce. Our movies are great. Our TV shows are great (damnit). Our New York Times is a helluva lot more balanced than the Guardian or the Independent or the Sun or the Mirror.

The truth is that the media we have is the media the market selected. We don’t have five newspapers in every city anymore because the audience would not support them; they started watching TV instead; they took advantage of new choices. We have fewer book publishers than we used to because the book business sucks and whom can you blame for that? We have many more TV channels than we used to because we like watching TV.

Clay Shirky just published a fascinating essay on the FCC, weblogs, and inequality in which he argues that the FCC did not just deregulate media; it only shifted its regulation (“it adjusts percentages within a system of scarcity, rather than undoing the scarcity itself”). He tries to dissect the anti-media mood and what the anti-media crowd wants: Is it diversity? Is it equality? Is it choice?

Shirky says that weblogs are our first and only experiment in media deregulation. And he says that this may have led to diversity but has not led to equality. Here, Clay reprises his argument about the power law of weblogs: Glenn Reynolds is many times more popular and powerful than the next X webloggers in line:

As weblogs grow in importance, we can expect at least some members of the “diverse and equal” camp to advocate regulation of weblogs, on the grounds that the imbalance between Glenn Reynolds of and J. Random Blogger is no different than the imbalance between Clear Channel and WFMU.

I agree with Clay’s analysis but still differ with him on the measurement of power. I argue that Glenn is the king of only one kind of weblogger, the newsblogger. The truth is that on the whole, LiveJournal bloggers, to name just one group, are bigger and more powerful than Reynolds. But that’s a different argument over a different lunch.

Clay is very right in his observation that deregulated weblogs on their own do not lead to equality. And I celebrate that. I love the meritocracy of it. The audience gets to chose what they want to read and not read and link to and not link to with no meddling from government.

I love the choice and freedom and power the audience gains in the unregulated world of weblogs. And that is because I am such a damned rabid populist. I trust the audience. Big-media haters do not. They want to protect the audience from its own taste and judgment. That is media snobbery.

Mind you, I’m a liberal, not a conservative or a libertarian; I welcome government regulation in many arenas (such as, say, accounting). But I do not welcome regulation in speech; I do not welcome interference in our right to a free press, free speech, free expression, free media. There, I am utterly opposed to government regulation. There, I trust the power of the market, the intelligence of the audience.

So, yes, I would deregulate media even more. I would allow media companies to merge to deal with the realities of a business that is getting more competitive thanks to the Internet and cable and instant, worldwide digital delivery of content. I would not get all hot and bothered about consolidation in local TV news (what the hell is really local about a guy standing on a street corner at 6 am where a murder occurred 12 hours before so he can read copy that was probably written by the AP; he’s standing there just so he can look “local”; it’s an illusion, folks). I would not get all huffy about consolidation in radio (hell, what’s local about playing Jewel’s CD?). I would allow Howard Stern to say whatever the hell he pleased on the air (for if he goes too far, his audience and advertisers will reject him and he will fail).

I would do all that because I trust the audience. Media bigots and snobs do not.

: Update: When I post a long screed such as this, I read it on the blog and edit it. Before I even finished read it over — pop — there’s a Glenn Reynolds post in the comments saying more than most people can say in their whole blog all day. So go read it…

: Update: I’m glad this is leading to discussion in comments and on blogs.

Virginia Postrel busted me: I used “media” in the singular because it’s just easier. More important, she says wise things about media bashing. Go read.

Which reminds me of one thing I forgot to say: Of course, there is plenty to criticize media about (yes, including the New York Times). Hell, I’ve made a career of it. What I object to is all-inclusive media-bashing. It’s just dumb. People who say all government is bad end up squirrelling away cans of beans in a mountain cabin. People who say all science is bad end up mailing bombs to scientists. People who say all media are big and bad just aren’t being thoughtful or honest.