The Structure of the Mass Media and Government Regulation

For the most part, the mass media in the United States are privately owned. Public radio and public television, which receive part of their revenues from the federal government through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), represent a comparatively small share of the market. Private ownership ensures considerable, but not absolute, freedom from government oversight. It does raise questions, however, about how the mass media operate.

Concentration in the mass media

As a result of competition, increasing costs, and mergers, the number of newspapers in the United States has dropped sharply. Many major cities are served by only one daily paper. In addition, the number of independent newspapers has declined as chains such as Gannett purchase additional properties. At issue is whether concentration discourages diversity of opinion and ultimately leads to the management of the news by media corporations. The three major TV networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) do not own their own affiliate stations, and they face real competition from new networks, such as Fox, as well as from a growing number of all-news and entertainment cable stations. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was supposed to promote competition in the broadcast media. It eased the restrictions on the number of television stations a single company could own and lifted all limits on radio station ownership except to prevent control of a market or geographic area. The legislation led to more concentration in the industry.

Hard news versus entertainment

Television is audience driven. The larger the audience, the higher the rates charged for commercial time and the greater the profits. Critics have charged that this situation reduces hard news coverage and requires flashier packaging of the news. For example, local TV stations give considerably less airtime to political news than to the weather report, sport scores, and human interest stories. Indeed, the line between news and entertainment programming is becoming increasingly blurred. Growing numbers of young viewers say they receive their political information from comedy programming like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.

Newspapers and magazines are largely protected from government interference by the First Amendment. In 1971, the Nixon administration attempted to prevent The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers, classified documents on American policy in Vietnam. The Supreme Court refused to block their publication, noting that prior restraint was a violation of freedom of the press. The press cannot print stories that are known to be false or are intentionally damaging to a person's reputation, however. Content is also controlled by obscenity statutes.

Regulation of radio and television

Practically from its inception, the broadcast media has been subject to regulation. During the early days of radio, stations operated on the same frequencies and often jammed each other's signals. The Federal Radio Act (1927) set up licensing procedures to allocate frequencies under the premise that the airwaves belong to the public. The current regulatory framework was established by the 1934 Federal Communications Act, which established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The FCC regulates the industry in several ways. It limits the number of radio and television stations a company can own, has rules governing public service and local programming, and reviews station operations as part of licensing process. Under the equal time rule, stations are required to give all candidates for political office access to airtime on the same terms. The fairness doctrine obligated broadcasters to present conflicting points of view on important public issues, but the FCC abolished the doctrine in 1987 with the support of President Ronald Reagan for two reasons: 1) it was considered a violation of freedom of the press, and 2) competition in the broadcast media ensured diversity of opinion. In recent years, the FCC levied significant fines on broadcasters for profanity and indecency. Attempts by the Congress to regulate the content of the Internet have not passed Supreme Court review.