Conan O'Brien's late night show regularly airs a segment featuring local news anchors across the country reporting on the exact same story. And more often than not, they recite the exact same copy, down to the very word. Edited together, the repetition of information is quite funny, but it also raises questions about the validity of television news itself, who controls it, and what they have to gain by airing the stories they do and by avoiding the stories they don't.
A proposed study by the Federal Communications Commission might even have been able to answer some of those questions. According to several reports, among them one in the Columbia Journalism Review by the City Paper's own Corey Hutchins, the FCC study would question local media outlets around the nation — starting with a Columbia TV station— about the criteria they employ when selecting which stories to cover. Unfortunately, that study will never happen thanks to the typical Pavlovian response of media outlets to anything that might threaten their "freedom of the press."
Looking back, the study suffered perhaps from being a bit too honest about what it was intending to do. With the study now on hold, we probably won't ever really know why the local news chooses to publicize certain types of news (high school sports, celebrities, violent crime) while under-reporting others (government proceedings, efforts at community organizing, science and technology). Instead, we've been tricked into believing that the freedom of the press somehow involves up to one-third of America's local TV news anchors repeating copy which has been sent to them from whatever media conglomerate holds the keys to the station, in addition to dozens of others. The same can be said for the daily newspaper industry where consolidation has led to papers sharing staff.
Many of the same people who argued that the government has no business overseeing the nation's newsrooms will ultimately suffer the consequences of their actions. One day they will wonder why they never knew that their local city council was about to vote on an ordinance to raze a low-to-middle income housing complex in order to build a new "mixed-use development," one that threatens the character of their town. Or that the local school district plans to add "creation science" to the curriculum and that the deadline for the public to voice their concerns or raise questions was at last night's school board meeting.
We have been led to believe that protecting the right of massive media conglomerates — organizations which effectively monopolize the media we consume — is more important than the right of the people to have a press that's free to pursue stories in the public interest. Instead, we get a dog and pony show about First Amendment rights and our patriotic duty to support the kind of dystopian propaganda machine that fiction writers have warned us about for generations.
As with almost all other modern human ventures, the news media is one that has been razed, not raised, by the introduction of the profit motive above all other considerations. That local TV stations employ the same anchors should be a wake-up call to anyone who cares about how their news is created, packaged, and — yes — sold to them. If you think this is any different from how three or four mega-corporations supply nearly every good in the supermarket, you are wrong.
And lest anyone of the "libertarian" bent claims that this is an example of the "free market" at work, remember that consolidation of power, public or private, is inherently undemocratic and most certainly not conducive to informed choice or freedom.