The potential for more diverse, democratic voices in local news has either just gotten better thanks to the Federal Communications Commission, or been set back in an FCC corporate Christmas giveaway.
So go the differing interpretations of this week's votes to change the rules that govern the complex and fast-changing US media landscape.
In a contentious, late-night meeting on Tuesday, a split commission voted to allow some newspapers to also own a television or radio station in the same market, which partially lifted a ban that's been in place for more than 30 years. In an equally controversial vote, though, the FCC also decided to increase regulation of the cable market, passing a rule that would cap at 30 percent the portion of cable stations that can be owned by one company.
So what does it all mean to the reader, viewer, and Web surfer? It depends on where that person sits. Everyone agrees on the goal, which is to ensure plenty of diverse voices in the public sphere. But the question is, in this digital world where TV can now be watched on the computer, either through a high-speed phone line or a cable connection: What's the best way to guarantee no one group gets too much power over what people see?
"The simple math is that if you consolidate, you have fewer voices," says Monroe Price of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "But that's hard to tell empirically.... Things are changing so fast."
Still, there are clear ideological lines. Consumer advocates and Democrats in general applaud the FCC's decision to increase regulation of the cable industry, which they believe has been taking advantage of customers.
For years, cable rates have been going up faster than the rate of inflation, and the industry opposes allowing consumers to pay only for the channels they want – instead of a set package. In addition, cable giants such as Time Warner and Comcast have now allied themselves with large content producers like Viacom, Disney, and Fox, giving them enormous power over which cable channels thrive.
"Basically, if you don't get carried on their systems in their towns, you can't make it as a national channel," says Ben Scott, the policy director of Free Press, a grass-roots and media policy group in Washington, D.C.
The cable companies, including Comcast, see things rather differently. They believe the regulatory cap is "unconstitutional," in the words of Comcast's executive vice president, David Cohen. He argues there's already a plethora of ways for different voices to get to the public – the phone companies, direct broadcast satellite, and, yes, even YouTube.
As for prices shooting up, the cable industry says that's just because consumers now have more channels.
"Every time you put another channel on, you have to pay for it," says a cable-company executive who asked her name not be used. "The price per channel has gone down dramatically compared to what you got 10 years ago."
On the issue of newspapers being allowed to own broadcast companies, the divisions are just as deep. Consumer advocates and some media scholars are opposed, saying it sets up a scenario where one local company could dominate news and debate.
"This is just giving big business what it wants," says Edwin Baker, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania. "All of the democratic values at stake favor the dispersal of media over consolidation."
Business interests, including the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), dispute that. They believe that if newspapers – which are struggling to survive the loss of subscribers and advertisers to the Internet – can partner with local television stations, they can improve and enhance local news. "And it's not a giveaway to big business: The newspaper industry is the least consolidated and most diverse of any media outlet," says John Sturm, president and CEO of NAA.
But all these arguments could be moot. Both of the FCC rule changes have to be approved by a federal court. And members of Congress are already lining up to write legislation to block one or the other of the new rules.