Without actually using the phrase, Thomas Jefferson once effectively articulated the notion behind the “Marketplace of Ideas.” During his first inauguration address, the third president of the United States said, “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Yes, if enough voices and opinions are allowed to be heard, the truth eventually will win out — a philosophy that has served our republic fairly well for the past couple centuries.
Anyway, the notion of the Marketplace of Ideas came to mind again recently in the wake of a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC has approved a rule that will greatly reduce the popular practice of business partnerships between competing local television stations.
Local stations long have used Joint Sales Agreements to work around limits on the number of stations in a market that can be owned by a single company; the Wall Street Journal reports that there are 128 such agreements across the country. The new rules state that if a broadcaster accounts for more than 15 percent of another station’s advertising sales, it will be seen as a de facto licensee of that station.
All of this might sound like insider trading gobbledygook, but the victory is a significant one for the public interest. Under the FCC’s watch, the past couple decades have seen a significant rise in media conglomerations that effectively seize a monopoly on the Marketplace of Ideas.
As then-Gov. Chris Gregoire said a couple years ago, 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.” Or, as Scott Campbell, publisher of the independently owned Columbian, once said: “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.”
Those insights still ring true, and the FCC was wise to reinforce them. The growth of media conglomerates has not only stifled the number of voices being heard in a given market, it often has shifted those voices from the local community to a boardroom some thousands of miles away. When out-of-state interests have control of local TV stations, they also have control of the editorial content, a fact that doesn’t always adequately serve local viewers.
The FCC has given broadcasters two years to dismantle their Joint Sales Agreements or seek a waiver by explaining how the agreement serves the public interest. The grace period is a reasonable concession on the part of the FCC, but when it comes to waivers the commission should remain diligent. The standard for serving the “public interest” should be stringent, because the public almost always is best served by a diversity of opinion.
The practical application of freedom of speech, one of the foundations of democracy, has been altered in recent years. The Internet has given voice to the voiceless, providing an outlet for the sharing of ideas to anybody who wishes to have one. Yet local TV stations unquestionably remain a powerful force in the marketplace, and because of that the FCC is right to promote diversity in that area.
As Craig Aaron, president of the media watchdog group Free Press, said, “For years, a small handful of powerful conglomerates has used outsourcing agreements to dodge the FCC’s ownership rules and grow their empires at the public’s expense. It’s time for conglomerates to start playing by the rules.”