The phrase, apparently, first appeared in a Supreme Court opinion written by Justice William Brennan in 1965.Yet the concept behind the “Marketplace of Ideas” dates back centuries. Certainly, at least, to the time when Thomas Jefferson delivered his first inauguration address and said, “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
The idea is that if many voices and many dissenting views are allowed to be heard, the truth eventually will come to light and will be accepted by the public. It is one of the foundational concepts of a democracy, and it remains one of the bedrock philosophies of our culture.
Yet the Federal Communications Commission might be on the verge of chipping away at that foundation. Federal regulators are poised to ease restrictions on media ownership in the nation’s largest cities, allowing companies to simultaneously own newspapers and TV stations and radio stations in the top 20 markets.
This is the third time in the past decade the FCC has flirted with this idea. Logic has prevailed and pushed back the previous efforts, but there appears to be little opposition to the plan this time around.
The thinking behind the proposal is that it would improve the business climate for the struggling newspaper industry, creating a new market of potential buyers. The reality is that it would generate media monopolies in major markets, and therefore would stifle the Marketplace of Ideas.
As Scott Campbell, publisher of the independently owned Columbian, said in 2003: “The free flow of information in a democracy is not served by having fewer owners. Localness, diversity and accountability ought to be the foundation of media ownership.”
As Gov. Chris Gregoire said last year, consolidated media ownership “stifles creativity and content. It narrows perspectives available to each of us as citizens, and it is unhealthy in a society that rests on principles of equality and diversity.”
Undoubtedly, the media marketplace has been altered in recent decades. The newspaper industry no longer has a monopoly on local news; the Internet has given voice to the voiceless. But there is an old axiom attributed to Mark Twain about never picking a fight “with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” and it still holds some truth today. If the people who buy ink by the barrel in a city also own local TV and radio news operations, then dissenting opinion is effectively quashed. If those same people happen to be located in an office 3,000 miles away, then the veracity of local voices is effectively diminished.
We live in a country that welcomes and, indeed, embraces those of differing backgrounds and differing opinions and differing experiences. It is through the recognition and the melding of these differences that we are able to reach a consensus of thought and achieve the ability to move forward. It is through the Marketplace of Ideas that differing versions of the truth are vetted and examined.
This, as much as the pursuit of liberty, is central to the core of our nation; there is a reason that freedom of speech is included in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is a stretch to think that the FCC proposal would stifle that freedom, but it certainly would shackle the opportunity to be heard, which is nearly as important.
In the end, media monopolies in large markets would shrink the Marketplace of Ideas. And that would provide a dangerous blow to the notion of democracy. That is why the FCC should retain the valuable restrictions on media ownership.