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?
Unfortunately, even living in the age of the Internet likely won’t help fledgling publications as they struggle to overcome these new obstacles. The fact of the matter is, for most publications, large and small, the Internet is barely — if at all — profitable. The irony is that, for smaller magazines, which have managed against the odds to provide valuable online material, mail subscriptions are more important than or as important as advertising profits. Neither the National Review nor the Nation would be able to maintain their Web sites without their subscription revenues.
To add insult to injury, the economic ability of big companies, such as Time Warner, to offer potential readers cut-rate subscriptions, thanks to already favorable postal rates, amounts to an unintended subsidy that they can enjoy in a way that economics forbids to the little guys. Many small magazines lose money each year. The deficits are matched by committed owners, fund-raising appeals, foundations, luck, pluck, and Yankee (as well as socialist) ingenuity.
So how severe will the fallout of this new ruling be? It’s still too early to tell, but, before Time Warner worked its fetid magic, all publications were looking at an increase of 10 to 11 percent. Now, large publications will enjoy increases averaging 9.94 percent, while the American Conservative will face a 23-percent rate hike, the American Prospect a 21-percent hike, Mother Jones and the Nation 18-percent increases, the National Review 16 percent, and Commonweal 15 percent.
To put that into dollars, the Nation has estimated that postal increases will cost the publication $500,000. That’s nothing to a huge company such as Condé Nast, which pays the editors of Vogue and Vanity Fair each well over $1 million a year. But to the Nation and similar magazines publications, these new rates mean less money to pay for good articles. Fewer good articles threaten to result in fewer readers. And fewer readers lead to an even more uncertain future.