Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Continuation Of Agitprop By Other Means

The New York Times today continues Paul Krugman's prior rant against Clear Channel Communications in the form of an article appearing in the news section of the paper that reports that Clear Channel finds itself fending off a new set of accusations: that the company is using its considerable market power to drum up support for the war in Iraq, while muzzling musicians who oppose it.

Despite a Times admission that even some of its most outspoken business antagonists say many of the latest accusations do not stand up to scrutiny, the article belabors the "new accusations" for three internet pages. In contrast, the New York Times itself and other liberal media outlets have been widely critized for distorting their news coverage to suit the political orientation of management, and those arguments do often stand up to scrutiny - but the Times isn't running multi-page articles on them. Perhaps most striking, this bloated article about how political leanings of management may affect corporate decisions fails even to mention whether the Clear Channel critics in the "music industry" have their own political agenda with these criticisms. Indeed, the Times article strives to suggest that the only alternative explanations here are (1) Clear Channel political bias or (2) market forces and commercial competition. Would it come as a surprise to the reader (or the Times) that many people in the "music industry" or these critics are liberal and/or Democrats? The Times doesn't care to ask, even as it quotes without comment an anonymous executive at a competing company making the absurd statement that "the government has always said that radio stations should have a balanced view of what is going on, serve the public interest and not take sides." Yes, indeed, no need for the Times to comment on an assertion that implies that the "government" has "always" disregarded the First Amendment - and that radio station companies such as the traditionally and proudly far-left Pacifica Radio have never "taken sides." But the Times really, really wants to talk a lot about Clear Channel's conservative political leanings and connections.

What about the songs? Why is there no mention of the quality of these anti-war songs that Clear Channel allegedly won't play? Are these songs any good? Is there evidence that any audience would really like to hear them? Have the songs been played to any focus groups? Was there positive response to stations that have played the songs? Neither the critics nor the Times even raises the issue.

The Times article rambles on without providing any evidence that Clear Channel holds any market power whatsoever - never mind the considerable market power the Times asserts. Having "market power" would mean that Clear Channel is insulated from competition. The Times and Clear Channel's other critics need to presume that Clear Channel has "market power" in this sense because otherwise the criticisms evaporate under the withering counterargument: Well, if Clear Channel is just imposing the political bias of its management, another competitor can just enter the market and give the public what it really wants, like lots of anti-war protest songs. The Times article does admit that other radio companies also acknowledge that the market is conservative and pro-war, - probably even more conservative than the over two-thirds of the general public that now supports the war. So playing anti-war songs wouldn't seem to make for good, mass-market business. With all that already admitted by the Times, why is this article three pages long without asking questions about the motives of the Clear Channel critics - or even mentioning that the Times' own columnist, Paul Krugman, has been one of the most severe critics?

Having "market power" isn't the same thing as being an effective competitor - which is what the Times article suggests Clear Channel has achieved, since it has grown from owning a few stations in 1996 to a very large radio company. Almost all of that growth took place during the Clinton-Gore era, which is not consistent with the Times insinuations that it is Clear Channel's Republican contacts that have given it an undisclosed competitive advantage. And the Times doesn't even suggest that Clear Channel has manipulated the Congress to its advantage. That seems to leave Clear Channel as just a good competitor, serving its market.

Indeed, if Clear Channel has prospered by shifting the message of its stations to the right, in the absence of evidence of extra-market manipulation, that just suggests that Clear Channel is meeting the market - and that the prior owners of those stations may have been imposing their own too-liberal views relative to the market prior to Clear Channel's acquisition of the station. Indeed, broadcast radio is probably not itself a real "market" in any relevant sense, since radio competes with many other forms of music distribution and communication. For example, those driving cars choose between listening to the radio and playing their own compact discs - so radio and compact discs therefore compete against each other. And that's not the end of the competition that makes Clear Channel's "market power" highly unlikely. Even the Times admits - but without making the connection to the "market power" argument - that "in the current era of the Internet and other new distribution technologies, broadcast radio is no longer the only way for recording artists to make themselves heard." And if Clear Channel has no market power, all of its practices that record companies find "galling" - such as alleged links between concerts and radio play - are perfectly legal and good for the market.

And all of that doesn't even address the more bizarre statements in the article, such as "More difficult is explaining away the 'Rally for America!' events ..." that Clear Channel has promoted. Since when has it been "difficult" for any American or American media company to "explain away" acts of free speech? And since Clear Channel's desired market seems to be pro-war, sponsorship of such events is not difficult to "explain away" from a commercial standpoint, either. Media companies routinely make obviously political choices - consider the refusal of networks to carry most abortion-related items created by third parties as just one example.

It's grotesque that one even has to make the argument against the Times' thoroughly disingenuous screed masquarading as news.

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