Is Antitrust Law The Best Way To Keep American Media Free and Fair?
Ohio offers an example of a bad outcome.
This is just absurd: to comply with federal regulations barring owners of daily newspapers from also owning local broadcast stations, the owner of the venerable Dayton Daily News in Ohio may knock it down to three-times-a-week publication so that it won't count as a daily anymore. Keith J. Kelly of the New York Post spotted the story, Cox Media Group outlined the plan in a press release a few weeks ago, and Joshua Benton at Nieman Lab has more:
To increase the quality of local journalism in Ohio, the Federal Communications Commission is requiring three newspapers to stop printing daily....
Did you get that? To strengthen the local news ecosystem in Dayton, the government is making its biggest newspaper publish less.
The rules date back to 1975 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted regulations barring cross-ownership of local broadcast and newspaper properties while grandfathering in existing arrangements. It was never a good rule, but progressive social critics then as now traced countless social ills to media concentration and for-profit ownership of the press (what's new these days is that populist conservatives crusade against the corporate media too).
Don't blame today's FCC. Two years ago the agency voted to scrap the decades-old newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rules, recognizing that the local news market had gone through convulsive changes in the meantime, with new media sources cutting deeply into ad revenues and the economics of newspaper publishing taking one deep hit after another. (Local broadcasting economics has suffered too, even if not as badly.) But opponents sued, and in September a Third Circuit panel struck down the deregulatory effort, a move that immediately called into question the terms of a pending deal transferring partial control of the large Cox Media Group, which got its start long ago with the venerable Dayton paper.
Others, such as Jonathan Rauch, have pointed out that antitrust laws may need easing anyway if newspapers are to organize successful ways to finance journalism in the online economy. And as we've warned before, there are special dangers in unleashing antitrust law on the media sector, where it can leave government with a corrupting influence over whether opposition papers are profitable and who gets to own them. But does anyone really think Dayton residents are better off if their local newspaper stops publishing every day?
This article by Walter Olson first appeared at The Cato Institute.