As a matter of general principle, we at PK don't get into media ownership issues. There are plenty of fine folks engaged in those issues, such as our friends at Free Press and the Media Access Project.
On the other hand, we are involved in the Net Neutrality issue as you know, and a current controversy has valuable lessons in both policy areas.
According to news reports, NBC won't air a commercial for the documentary, “Shut Up and Sing” about the experiences of the Dixie Chicks following lead singer Natalie Maines' comments in 2003 right before the start of the Iraq war. The reason, according to the Weinstein Company, which distributes the film, is that the film contains material “that disparages President Bush.” At a concert in London, Maines said she was ashamed that President Bush was from Texas, setting off a firestorm of controversy, criticism and even generating death threats.
There is the obvious irony of a film about the consequences of free speech being suppressed. But here in the media policy world, the implications go a little farther. First, as broadcasters try to extend their reach by having what little regulation is left on their ability to own even more stations lifted, this heavy-handed approach won't serve their purposes. It may curry favor with the Bush Administration in the short term, but also will give powerful ammunition to those, like FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, and some on Capitol Hill who question the control of so many media outlets by so few companies.
For us, the context is different. The incident shows the need for the Internet to remain open and free without gatekeepers. In the Internet context, we're talking Net Neutrality, and the ability of telephone and cable companies to favor some content over others.
If anything, the situation is even more threatening online than it is on TV. Commercials for the documentary will probably be shown on other outlets. NBC can't keep it off of every station, as abhorrent as their reasons for keeping it off are, but it can limit the reach of the commercials drastically. But for the Internet to fulfill the role as an outlet for free speech, the telephone and cable companies can't be allowed to pick favorites or to favor some content over another. Most people have fewer choices of broadband providers than they do of TV channels — even if they have over-the-air TV.
In the spirit of the Net, here is what NBC thinks you shouldn't see, brought to you courtesy of www.shutupandpost.com. That site could put up the trailer, the Weinstein corporate site could put it up. Director Barbara Kopple's site could post it, as could the Chicks' site. Any site can link to it, including us and including you, and the commercial or trailer will come to you without any interference from the telephone company or cable company.
Just for the record, the movie is terrific. The film tells a very compelling and revealing story of how the reaction to Maines' anti-war comment affected the singers and changed their lives and their music. It's much more about Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison than it is about the president.