In recent years the local TV broadcast industry has amassed an extraordinary record of lobbying success. One of its biggest and most controversial wins was a clause in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-104) granting its members free use of spectrum worth tens of billions of dollars. Speak Softly explains that success as at least partly due to local TV broadcaster “media bias.”
The vast majority of scholarly research on media bias directed at influencing public policy has focused on bias motivated by very broad interests (e.g., ideological or partisan) or very narrow interests (e.g., exclusively favoring a parent company). Speak Softly focuses on bias motivated by intermediate level interests (e.g., exclusively favoring the broadcast industry), a type of bias uniquely well suited to pass under the public radar screen, yet still with a substantial impact on society.
Using principal-agent theory rather than journalistic values to conceptualize media bias, new types of research questions and data are brought into the analysis. Old distinctions between interest groups and mass media are broken down. As a political actor, what becomes distinctive about the media is not its desire to pursue bias—all information agents do that—but its resources to do so.
Speak Softly finds that broadcasters not only had the motive and means to exercise industry level media bias, but also did in fact do so when strongly tempted. The evidence relies heavily on unpublished documents, including internal documents from the National Association of Broadcasters.
First Amendment considerations have historically prevented governments from addressing problems of media market failure. Media may at times abuse their power, but elected officials have an inherent conflict of interest in regulating information designed to make themselves more accountable to voters. Consequently, using government to rectify media abuse may invite an even worse abuse by elected officials. Speak Softly concludes with a novel proposal to address this First Amendment dilemma. Instead of relying on elected members of Congress to regulate media and other activities that directly affect their re-election prospects, it proposes creating a new type of Congressional committee constituted of randomly selected citizens.