Anyone who doubts that big media monopolies are bad for democracy should take a look at how much the Post Office charges magazines to mail issues to subscribers.
Starting next week, those rates will change in a way that punishes small, smart, independent, and down-at-the-heels publications such as the Nation (left-wing), the New Republic (centrist), and the National Review (right-wing) while favoring large, intellectually sterile, corporately owned cash cows such as People magazine.
It would be satisfying for a dedicated anti-Bush publication like the Phoenix to pin the blame for this on the cravenly anti-intellectual GOP administration. After all, it was a panel of G.W.’s appointees that was responsible for this latest travesty. And it would be equally gratifying to our generally progressive take on public affairs to point out it was lobbyists for Time Warner — not only the world’s largest media conglomerate, but also (what a surprise) the owner of People — who were granted an outrageous conflict of interest that allowed them to write new postal regulations that punish small fries.
But, though these facts are true, the big picture is more complicated: since midway through the Carter administration, and continuing through the regimes of Regan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II, big business has grown even bigger and more concentrated. The past quarter century has been one of unprecedented monopolization. And the trend shows no signs of abating. Rooted in an equally unprecedented time of technological revolution, finance and industry have been globalized, spawning a corporate rapacity that has neutralized the very idea of government regulation with Darwinian efficiency.
Granted, the result to date has been an era of affluence in the United States, in most of Europe, and in huge swaths of Asia that is likewise without precedent. But, to employ a now popular term, we are at a tipping point where those forces threaten one of our most fundamental rights: freedom of the press; the freedom to communicate and to disseminate ideas that both condemn and celebrate the forces that shape our lives.
This seemingly mundane fight over postage is, indeed, that important. For more than 200 hundred years, the Post Office has served publishers more or less equally. Yes, the market may have rewarded guilty — or intellectually dubious — pleasures such as People or Cosmo with greater financial gains than publications such as the American Conservative or Foreign Affairs. But it had not punished the high-minded. Until now.
The intricacies of the Time Warner postal scam are daunting, but it boils down to this: mailed editorial content will now be billed according to how far it travels, a method that favors huge publications that use centralized shippers and can take advantage of deep postal discounts. This will not only hurt existing independent publications, it will also discourage newcomers from entering the market. In fact, under the terms of the new Time Warner plan, Time magazine founder Henry Luce might never have gotten his once fledgling magazine off the ground.
As the late Joe McCarthy or the ever-present Bill O’Reilly might say, this is positively un-American. What practical sense does it make to have a constitutional right to publish, and to read what’s published, if there is no adequate means to distribute published material?