The mass market and the mass media once existed in a comfortable symbiosis. Most Americans bought, or aspired to buy, the same few brands of cars, soaps, and soups. The mass media provided the means to promote those brands: television and radio networks, magazines, and newspapers that reached vast swaths of the public simply and efficiently.
No more. The mass market has splintered, and so have the mass media. Now, with an exploding variety of choice, consumers buy precisely what they want -- all pitched to them over an almost limitless variety of media outlets, from the Internet to cable channels to specialty magazines.
Unfortunately, these changes in the structure of the media may pose dangers for democracy. First, media that serve broad audiences are losing ground to niche outlets. Many Americans now communicate only with people who have similar interests and political outlooks. Social scientists have shown that this echo-chamber effect reinforces and amplifies preexisting points of view, making compromise -- the essence of a workable democracy -- harder than ever to achieve.
Second, as the media business has become tougher, companies have raced to get bigger and diversify into more types of media. Ownership of the media has become concentrated in the hands of a few giants. So while there are more outlets, there are fewer truly independent voices. As the writer A.J. Liebling once observed, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."
Third, as the mass market dries up, so too does the advertising that supports the newsgathering operations of big newspapers, magazines, and television stations. The danger is that more and more "news" will parrot the press releases of government, corporations, and lobbyists of the left and right.
These are knotty problems. Certainly it is neither wise nor even possible to block the technological advances that have undermined mass-market advertising and permitted splinter-group "narrowcasting." Still, there are some things that can be done, and a federal appeals court in Philadelphia recently took a step in the right direction. On June 24, it slapped down media-ownership rules devised by the Federal Communications Commission under Chairman Michael K. Powell as "arbitrary and capricious." That they were. Under certain conditions, the FCC's "diversity index" would have allowed a single company to own a daily newspaper, three TV stations, eight radio stations, and a cable system in the same metro area. The formula disregarded audience size, so a tiny TV station like that of Dutchess Community College in upstate New York would have counted more than The New York Times.
Opposition to the FCC rules is widespread. The Senate voted recently to reject them, and they've been opposed by a broad coalition of groups ranging from the National Organization for Women to the National Rifle Assn.
Ultimately, preserving limits on media ownership should be part of a broader project to make sure that Americans of diverse backgrounds and beliefs can hear, debate, and ultimately understand one another. The health of American democracy is at stake.