BEFORE THE FEDERAL Trade Commission held its recent symposium on media ownership, we and many others in the news business wondered what it was up to. The symposium is now over, and we are still wondering. Despite much rhetoric about the dangers of monoploy power in our business, the two-day meeting yielded relatively little information and few new ideas on which the FTC can act.
The FTC was looking at the diminishing competition between newspaper, the growth of newspaper chains and the development of media congolmerates. If you think (as we do) that it is in the public interest to have as much competition as possible in the presentation of news and opinion. Competition between newspapers owned by different companies exists in only 35 of the 1,500 or so cities and towns in which daily papers are published. That number has been declining steadily for a decade and may decline further.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the FTC's taking a look this problem. But by deciding to examine it, the FTC has implied that it can come up with a solution. The fact is that there is precious little it can do about either the decline of competition or the growth of media congolmerates. Both are results of the laws of economics and the arrival of television-forces over which the FTC has little influence under present law.
Now it true that the FTC's meeting promoted some interesting talk about new laws to change the tax code and the small business administration act, for example.
It is possible, although by no means clear, that the passage by Congress of some of those proposals would slow down the death rate of independent newspapers and the growth rate of chains. But these proposals are in the domain of Congress, not the FTC.
Since the FTC's particular expertice is in antitrust, it was not surprising that one proposed remedy was for Congress to pass to law limiting the number of newspapers a single company can publish. Would that be constitutional? Not in our view. Given the Supreme Court's decision last spring that a corporation has a right of free speech, it is difficult to see how such legistation would not run afoul of the First Amendment.
Equally unsound the the call fo senator-elect Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) for a "Teddy Roosevelt era of trust-busting regarding chain newspapers and media conglomerates." That approach appears to ignore the fact that the antitrust laws already apply to the news media and that chains have grown and conglomerates developed not to stifle competition but, for the most part, because competition had already disappeared.
he fundamental trouble with these remedies, and with the FTC inquiry that publicized them, is that they reflect little understanding of either the policy issues that involve the news media or the limits the Constitution puts on the role of government in this area. Competition in the dissemination of news and opinion is quite different from competition in the distribution of oil and gasoline. The founding fathers made themselves quite clear on that point.