Normative stances in scholarship

Nietzsche spoke of philosophy as a burden. It was a thankless labor of love, carried out by a reluctant few. It was a duty to criticize prevailing beliefs and assumptions that undermined human spiritual fulfillment. Philosophers, he suggested, “have found their task, their hard, unwanted, inescapable task . . . in being the bad conscience of their time.”

I wonder if the same can be said for critical scholarship. Critical policy analysis of substance has little sway in D.C. Public interest has transformed as the video marketplace has grown increasingly governed by concentrated industry. This is due, in part, to a change in the politics of evidence; increasingly, market-based analytic tools for assessing media performance have rendered public-interest principles invisible or twisted into meaninglessness. It has been a slow erosion for sure, but the business class harnessing of media market rules seems to have quickened pace, emboldened by a generation of Reagan appointees seeing out their tenure in the appellate system. Public-interest often has the burden of proof.

In fact, the DC appellate court showed something that bordered on contempt for the FCC’s argument against Comcast. Owners at The Tennis Channel claim Comcast preferred its own sports networks over independent competition. At question was whether the refusal to grant Tennis a better tier was proof that Comcast’s new vertically integrated structure had undermined competitiveness in the A/V market. Judges in the ruling skewered the FCC’s attorney for suggesting Comcast used undue “market power” but refused to consider the argument without specific economic reports making that case.

Important measures of media success are missing from such episodes. The FCC’s claim of injury for The Tennis Channel argued that Comcast’s bad business practices would lead to an unhealthy marketplace. It was an economic rationale. The court’s decision, too, reflects a reliance on market-based reasoning. The judges chose to view the legal contest as a contract dispute between two private parties. There was no role for the government to enforce the public interest. It was a matter of the marketplace.

Measures of media “success,” beyond ratings, have always been tricky. Where they became quantifiable regulations after the civil rights era (quota systems for minority ownership, etc.) only a weak correlation could be established between ownership diversity and actual expansion of viewpoint diversity in content.

How does one measure the value of less tangible democratic functions of a media system? Can investigative journalism have a metric to know policy impact? Would it even be a good idea to do so? How to value a deep, global news bureau system? Public-interest has always been dangerously elusive in US law. The “econometrics” preferred by current industry and policy officials make the cost apparent while the public-interest value remains obscure. Current means of evaluating the performance of the US news system cannot quantify public interest save for “what interests the public” via ratings.

As a result, activists and scholars’ voices are portrayed as idealistic pablum if it is even heard. Looking at the forces bearing down on media policy in the US, critical voices sometimes seem like buzzing gadflies angrily buzzing around the lumbering ox of the policy machine. Some very fine policy analysis is lost and critical scholars can appear a Jeremiah-like voice in the wilderness. How does this change? Means of activism like Free Press and Amit’s work at the IIP point the way forward.

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