Even though the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, the government does regulate some media. Print media are largely unregulated, and newspapers and magazines can print nearly anything as long as they don’t slander anyone. The Internet has also gone largely unregulated, despite congressional efforts to restrict some controversial content. Broadcast media, however, are subject to the most government regulation. Radio and television broadcasters must obtain a license from the government because, according to American law, the public owns the airwaves. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issues these licenses and is in charge of regulating the airwaves.
The FCC has also established rules for broadcasts concerning political campaigns:
- The equal time rule, which states that broadcasters must provide equal broadcast time to all candidates for a particular office.
- The right of rebuttal, which requires broadcasters to provide an opportunity for candidates to respond to criticisms made against them. A station cannot air an attack on a candidate and fail to give the target of the attack a chance to respond.
- The fairness doctrine, which states that a broadcaster who airs a controversial program must provide time to air opposing views.
The FCC has not enforced the fairness doctrine since 1985, and some allege that the FCC has taken a lax approach to enforcing the other rules as well.
The government has also regulated ownership of media outlets to ensure that no one broadcaster monopolizes the market. Since the 1980s, however, the government has loosened restrictions on media ownership, and Congress passed the Telecommunications Act in 1996 to allow companies to own even more media outlets.
Due to the loosening of ownership restrictions, more and more media outlets are falling under the control of a few giant corporations, a tendency called media consolidation. The Hearst, Knight Ridder, and Gannett corporations own most of the nation’s newspapers, whereas Clear Channel Communications owns many radio stations. Large companies also own the major networks and other television stations. The Walt Disney corporation, for example, owns ABC and ESPN, along with the Disney Channel, and Viacom owns CBS and MTV. Rupert Murdoch’s Media Corporation, meanwhile, owns all of the Fox channels, several radio networks, satellite television providers, and newspapers in many countries. And Time-Warner owns dozens of magazines, including Time, Life, and Sports Illustrated, as well as the CNN and Turner television networks.
Critics of Media Consolidation
Critics contend that media consolidation limits consumers’ choices because a small number of companies own all the media outlets. They argue that consolidation is not competitive and that corporate owners might restrict or manipulate news coverage. Some critics also lament the homogenization of American culture due to media consolidation. Because radio and television formats have become increasingly uniform, people throughout the country receive the same broadcasts.
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