Thoughts, links, and essays from Peter Merholz
petermescellany   petermemes


Archives before June 13, 2001

RSS Feed

Adaptive Path (my company!)

About peterme

Most of the Time
Oakland, CA

American history around the time of the Revolution, figuring out how to marry top-down task-based information architecture processes with bottom-up document-based ones, finding a good dentist in San Francisco Oakland
Designing the user experience (interaction design, information architecture, user research, etc.), cognitive science, ice cream, films and film theory, girls, commuter bicycling, coffee, travel, theoretical physics for laypeople, single malt scotch, fresh salmon nigiri, hanging out, comics formalism, applied complexity theory, Krispy Kreme donuts.

Click to see where I wander.

Wish list
Show me you love me by
buying me things.

Track updates of this page with Spyonit. Clickee here.

[Editor's note: began as a site of self-published essays, a la Stating The Obvious. This evolved (or devolved) towards link lists and shorter thoughtpieces. These essays are getting a tad old, but have some good ideas.]
Reader Favorites
Interface Design Recommended Reading List
Whose "My" Is It Anyway?
Frames: Information Vs. Application

Interface Design
Web Development
Movie Reviews

The Media Amoeba. Posted on 09/08/2001.

This bothers me in so many ways. My gut tells me that, if anything, companies controlling our mass media need more regulation, not less. Anyone who has read The Media Monopoly will understand what I'm saying.

It's further bothersome to see Big Media wrap this issue of deregulation in the first amendment. A lawyer for Fox said, "The national broadcast rules prohibit the networks from exercising their First Amendment rights to speak to 65 percent of the nation's households." If access to households is now a first amendment issue, an outcome of this case better be that pirate and underground radio stations are free to broadcast at will--they have the same "rights" to speak to our nation's households.

The first amendment, if I'm not mistaken, was not about access. Let's look at it:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

A founding tenet of our democratic society is ensuring a forum for the exchange of a wide range of ideas. This is what the first amendment is all about. To see Big Media twist the wording is disgusting.

6 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "Achtung!"
Next entry: "Visceral writing."


Like yourself, I have long been distressed with the press and the arrogance of their estate. This power of the press was what caused Edmund Burke to identify the media as The Fourth Estate, a ruling power on a level with the three previously recongnized estates: the Clergy, the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

While you can criticize and attack the media for their usually venal abuses of this power, I don't think you can challenge their rights under the U.S. Constitution. In general this document is a hodge-podge of regional and parochial positions pertaining to the perceived well-being of a limited group of colonial land (and slave) owners in the mid to late 1700s. Its flaws and oversights required an immediate addition of amendments and over the centuries has required many more amendments and re-amendments in order to keep pace with developing realities. Yet it is still open to legitmate interpretation and re-interpretation through the interests and attentions of thousands of lawyers and judges over the centuries.

As a particular example, you feel that the First Amendment does not guarantee access, yet the line including: "Congress shall make no law... prohibiting... or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." can easily be interpreted as guaranteeing access without limitation. What I am suggesting is--don't get caught in the trap of Constitutional arguments to support you positions. Leave those interpretations to the manipulators and scoundrels who try to use the U.S. Constitution in much the same way they try to use the primitive writings of the Bible to control and overpower others.

BTW, a few years ago a new and Fifth Estate was consensually identified: Scientists. I would now like to nominate my candidate for the Sixth Estate--Bill Gates. All by himself.
Posted by BJMe @ 09/09/2001 09:58 AM PST [link to this comment]

A Maureen Dowd OpEd in the NY Times echos a related concern with media, business, and government roughly all appearing to take the same view point.

The freedom of press was to keep a voice open to counter the government's views to inform and therefore possibly protect, We the People. If all of these entities are acting as one, who represents the people?
Posted by Open Source Media @ 09/09/2001 06:29 PM PST [link to this comment]

The ownership of media companies matters very little. Don't be dazzled by the lights and cameras--we're talking about companies, which only exist to make a profit.

That means that just two factions have any say over what is in the media: viewers and advertisers. The owners of media outlets, no matter who they are, will simply say whatever pleases those two factions.

(There do exist rare exceptions where companies are willing to lose money to promote their ideas, e.g. the New Yorker. Ownership matters there--when Si Newhouse dies, who knows what will happen to it. But it's funny, I've never heard a single complaint about that magazine from the big-media-blaming crowd...)

More media regulation would be redundant--tv, magazines, and newspapers are already tightly constrained by their viewers and advertisers.
Posted by anon. @ 09/10/2001 07:49 AM PST [link to this comment]

Hmmm...I don't think so, anon. Yours is too simplistic a view of the reticulate Media infrastructure that sometimes USES either advertisers or viewers as a platform for extending the reach of their influence and power.

The mass media can choose to keep us mindlessly uninformed--as shown by their years of indifference to the Firestone/Ford Explorer tire problems; or they can choose to fire us up with massive doses of inflammatory mis, or dis-information as in the McMartin scandal. They can even sometimes go to war with a sitting President as with the Washington Post's Watergate coverage. or the New York Times' publishing of the Pentagon Papers.

None of these major stories were generated or constrained by advertisers or viewers. They were either passive or active expressions of the power of the press to publish what it pleases and to influence public opinion, be it for good or bad.

And I am citing only a few very familiar items. I am not citing the thousands of items that are either published or not published every day, as the Media so wishes; nor how much spin or slant is put on each item that is published. Even the wealth of a Tom Cruise or a Bill Gates can't buy them a single day without a false statement about them appearing somewhere in the Media.
Posted by BJMe @ 09/10/2001 11:55 AM PST [link to this comment]

To respond to comment #4:

Your examples of overplayed/underplayed stories are equally well explained by viewer and advertiser preferences. The crowd-pleasingly lurid McMartin story and anti-corporate Firestone story are in fact exactly what I'm talking about.

I'm guessing that you've never worked for the media and that you don't know anyone from a media company. The idea that you can just push a point of view without regard to viewers or advertisers is flat-out ridiculous.

If you want evidence for what I'm saying, look at the magazine failures and successes of the past few years. You'll see a bunch of aborted attempts--Fuse, Offspring, etc.--to sell a particular elite, Manhattan-centric set of beliefs. The editors of these magazines were smart, experienced people who worked insanely hard to push their point of view--yet in the end they totally failed to produce a saleable product.

On the other hand, consider O, the Oprah magazine: celebrity-focused, aimed accurately at middle America, and friendly to advertisers, this is now the 800-pound gorilla of the magazine world... and everyone is trying to copy it.

All of this goes to show that it just doesn't matter which company owns the TV station you watch or the magazine you read--no matter who it is, they'll be driven by the same market forces. Stories are covered or ignored with implicit consent of readers and advertisers. Trust me, if readers had yawned at the Washington Post's Watergate coverage, investigative journalism would have died then and there.
Posted by anon. @ 09/10/2001 01:57 PM PST [link to this comment]

Please forgive me if I don't trust you, anon, but then I am usually more suspicious than trusting of hidden identities.

I have worked in the media--on and off for fifty years, in fact.

Pandering to public taste is a far cry from being constrained by it. It is actually like throwing out a flashy bit of bait to lure your fish to your hook. I'd like you to spend a moment thinking about that analogy before you read on.

The McMartin case is one that proves my point, not yours. If you followed the case at all you know that a local ABC reporter created the primary media firestorm out of whole cloth. He personally and solely whipped the issue into the frenzy that it became while all other venues, including 60 Minutes proceded with a relatively calm and uninflammatory converage. And this reporter, Wayne Satz did it to pursue his own personal agenda of romance and fame; all of which has been well reported both during and after his exercise in media fornication. The reporter created the story, not the public that reacted to it. Loving scandal is not the same as creating it.

And the Firestone/Ford missed coverage may very well have been a collusive decision among the corporate media to squelch some corporate-damning bad news. That is still an arrogant media decision to decide what it wants to offer its viewership. But there were so many opportunities by non-advertising dependent media outlets, like Consumer's Reports and others, that missed this story that its lack of early coverage still mystifies me. Though there is nothing mystifying about the mass media's-reaching later coverage.
Posted by BJMe @ 09/10/2001 06:30 PM PST [link to this comment]

Add A New Comment:


E-Mail (optional)

Homepage (optional)

Comments Now with a bigger box for text entry! Whee!

All contents of are © 1998 - 2002 Peter Merholz.