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America's Real Media Power Problem

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Beatrice Public LibraryThe Left and the Right have a common enemy. It is the mainstream media. For the Left, the dominant media are a "corporate media" that express the views of big business. For the Right, they are a "liberal media elite" that express the views of a small cabal of privileged progressives. Both sides agree, however, that the dominant media wield an unwelcome degree of undemocratic power.

Both sides are right about the existence of the problem. The mainstream media are a concentrated power bloc that muffles the voices of the majority. The "big three" newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal), for example, alone have a combined daily circulation of 4 million, while their regular opinion columnists can be syndicated in hundreds of smaller newspapers. Compare this to the acceptance rate for op-eds submitted to these "big three" newspapers by ordinary intelligent people. It is always lower than one in a hundred, and sometimes as low as one in a thousand. These are a lot of unheard opinions compared to the few opinions that regularly reach millions.

But while both the Left and the Right are correct about the existence of this problem, neither is correct in its diagnosis of it. The concentration of power in the media is really just a reflection of and response to the concentration of power in the United States itself.

Consider all the attention currently being directed to the US presidential election. If you care about it more than you care about the 18 other presidential elections in the world held this year, you might ask yourself why. Although you could claim that you only care because the dominant media have rammed it down your throat through nonstop coverage, you are more apt to say you care because the outcome is important. The President of the United States has a lot of power, possibly more power than anyone else in the world, a reality that makes the presidential election pretty darn important.

But what happens when tens or even hundreds of millions of people all care about the same issue at the same time in the same place? The public forum instantly becomes too crowded for all of them--even a small fraction of them--to express their views.

Let's do some hypothetical math. If the only people who care about the US presidential election are the 130 million or so Americans who can be expected to vote, and only one in every 10,000 of them has an opinion important enough to merit the attention of others, there are 13,000 voters the rest of us ought to give a listen to. Suppose that by some waive of the media magic wand we could figure out a way to give each of these 13,000 voters a five-minute major media soapbox at some point during the five-month campaign. The result would require the rest of us to spend over seven hours everyday for five consecutive months listening to a steady stream of five-minute opinions.

Well, we aren't going to sit still seven hours a day listening this barrage of opinions. Instead, we will let the consolidated major media whittle down the number of opinions we are exposed to from the nearly 87 per day that would be expressed in the above scenario to maybe eight or nine. Thus, instead of listening to the opinions of one in 10,000 voters, we'll only hear the opinions of one in 100,000. However, we're going to let the major media reduce the number different opinions we are exposed to more severely than this. For reasons of efficiency, the major media like the predictability of regular contributors, and in order to capture as large a market share as possible, the major media prioritize opinions that appeal to the wide middle swath of the market rather than to the smaller fringes. As a result, instead of hearing the opinions of one in 100,000 voters, we'll probably hear ten opinions from one pundit and none from a million, while most of the one-in-a-million opinions we hear will be middle-of-the-road views.

Sure, we'll pitch a fit about the concentration of media power every time it dishes up a viewpoint we don't like. If we're especially feisty, we will occasionally turn to alternative media (and even contribute to it). However, for the most part we're going to consume the mainstream media for the very reason it exists: It cuts the welter of viewpoints in an overcrowded public forum down to a manageable few.

The problem therefore isn't the media, it's the nation-state. As long as power affecting hundreds of millions of people is concentrated in a single nation-state, media power will concentrate too.

America's Founders anticipated this problem and had a remedy ready. It was to design a federal system in which multiple small and semi-autonomous democratic-republics would be loosely joined together into a nation that was only supposed to play umpire (and wouldn't even have a standing army). This way, most of the issues that affect people would exist on a small enough scale for most able people to weigh in on them in suitably-sized public forums.

Had the Founders' design prevailed, this year's US presidential election would still be important, and probably more important than the other 18 presidential elections held around the world. But it wouldn't be of such overwhelming importance that over half (17 of 31) of the articles posted on even the other day would focus on the presidential election. Instead, there might be two or three. This would free up space in the national public forum for attention to be directed to other important national and global issues. Meanwhile, people would be more concerned than they are about gubernatorial elections and mayoral races, and there would be more local media with more local empowerment fostering more manageable public forums and more vibrant local democracies.

But neither the Left nor the Right liked the federal system very much, and for different reasons both busily built a powerful nation-state to replace it. (The US now maintains one of the largest standing armies in the world, despite the Constitutional prohibition against that.) Then, go figure, both the Left and the Right complain about a media that are no more concentrated or undemocratic than is the imperial nation-state.

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Kenneth E. Morris is a former professor, drummer, and cook who expatriated to Costa Rica after the reelection of George W. Bush. His most recent books are "On American Freedom: A Critique of the Country's Core Value with a Reformg Agenda" (more...)

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