Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

For a more perfect perfect media

Posted by metaphorical on 9 January 2007

Katrina Vanden Heuval in The Nation has a nice “Top 10 for a More Perfect Union” list of things for the newly-Democratic Congress to tackle. It’s hard to take issue with the title of #8: “Free and Independent Media” but I’ll disagree with her prescription for how to get there.

Representative Maurice Hinchey sponsored the Media Ownership Reform Act (MORA–HR 3302), which seeks to restore a diverse media by significantly lowering the number of media outlets one company is permitted to own in a single market. Since 1996 the Federal Communications Commission has promoted massive media consolidation by increasing that number, allowing telecommunications corporations to buy up a larger share of television and radio stations, newspapers and other media outlets, and forcing independent and local media owners out of business. There are sixteen co-sponsors of MORA in the House.

That seems like just the kind of jury-rigging that Republicans descry, and rightly so. The problem isn’t simply the size of media outlets, it’s that they’re owned by non-media companies more interested in quarterly earnings than journalism.

Here’s my proposal: let’s require that all media companies be non-profit corporations. After all, we don’t say of religions: you can only have so many churches in any one religious market; we say, you can’t be all about the money.

Back in 2003, Robert Kaye had a nice article in O’ReillyNet about the happy synergy between open-source and the non-profit corporate structure. He wrote:

The philosophies of most open source projects are not about making money, but about providing a product or service to the public, which matches the IRS’ description of a tax exempt venture perfectly. However, non profit does not mean not earning money — on the contrary. Non profits are free to earn money as a regular businesses do and to use the proceeds from this business support the people who work for the company. Non profits do not have shareholders and thus cannot pay dividends and therefore any excess money generated must be plowed back into the company or donated to other non profits.

The last two companies I’ve worked for, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the IEEE, are both non-profits. Each sells ad space, has a marketing department, runs mail-order compaigns to increase subscriptions and membership, and had active and far-thinking digital libraries that were far ahead of those of most science publishers. Libraries for which they charged a pretty penny, though nothing like the subscription rates of the Elseviers of the world (which is another point—each is chartered to serve science and the public good).

NPR and the BBC offer some pretty good proof that non-profits can produce good journalism. And the Beeb is pretty large; the problem with today’s media companies isn’t size, it’s the mission, and whether the reporters and editors are given permission and resources needed to pursue it.

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