The Threat of Media Reform as Effective Media Control


Your party will win the next election and you want to make sure the media keeps providing you with reliably un-critical if not favorable coverage– here is your media strategy: you promise to change the regulatory status quo of the media before the election, and you renege on the proposed reform following your victory. The media behaves with deference for fear of reform, and treats you favorably once entreaties by media lobbyists to “delay” reform are met.

On December 20th 2010 President Lula asked the party’s National Executive Committee to dedicate itself to three efforts: media and communication reform, political reform (writ large, apparently), and youth programs. Before and during her election campaign, President-elect Dilma Rousseff echoed Lula’s long-held promise to reform the media, especially the electronic media.

The influence of the country’s most popular television station, Globo, is legendary: it is third largest in the world by audience numbers, only surpassed by NBC and CBS in the much larger U.S. market. Globo is a media juggernaut, exerting incalculable influence over the country’s politics and political culture. It controls large holdings in radio, newsprint, and broadband, among other interests.

On January 6th 2011, Rousseff and her Secretary of Social Communication, Paulo Bernardo, reneged on their party’s promise to introduce reform. Instead, they will “open it up for public discussion” (front page and page 15 of Jornal Globo– e.g.).

Media reform–or the threat thereof–hangs like a damocles sword over the media in any country. The promise of media reform is an age-old political trick designed to cow the media into relative submission. The promise of media reform is perhaps the most effective means of ensuring favorable or moderately un-critical coverage.

There are normative and economic lines of reasoning for media’s aversion to reform. First, reform can potentially restrict the liberty of expression. For example, “ethics” councils might be established, presiding over what content is and is not permissible. Reform also changes the economic equilibrium. Under the old rules, media firms learn to “optimize the utility” of regulation. Introducing new rules imposes transaction costs. Reform may, for example, limit ownership in certain sectors, or rules prohibit one-firm from owning radio, television and print interests within one geographic region.

The promise of media reform can explain why media owners may back-off certain delicate topics. It certainly provides one explanation for why the news media has been so reluctant to cover access to public information reform.

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