ON MONDAY, the Federal Communications Commission dramatically relaxed media-ownership rules that will pave the way for further media conglomeration, resulting in the gobbling up of what remains of the independent newspapers; the few independent voices left on the airwaves will surely be squeezed off as well. Publishers of daily newspapers, for instance, will now be able to purchase radio and television stations located in the same market. The same owner will be allowed to have two television stations in most markets; in larger cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, or Boston, one company will be permitted to buy up to three stations. And the barrier at which media conglomerates will be prevented from further expanding has been raised — from when the company reaches 35 percent of the national market to when it reaches 45 percent.
There’s no question that the public is getting the short end of the stick with this deal. FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who was one of two commissioners on the five-person board to dissent from the rules change, wrote in his opinion: "It violates every tenet of a free democratic society to let a handful of powerful companies control our media.... Without a diverse, independent media, citizen access to information crumbles, along with political and social participation. For the sake of our democracy, we should encourage the widest possible dissemination of free expression through the public airwaves."
It’s not like Monday’s vote was a surprise. Media observers have seen this coming for a long time. Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy sounded the warning a year and a half ago (see "Monopoly Money," News and Features, January 10, 2002). Actually, Monday’s move marks the culmination of a series of rules changes enacted since the 1980s that have made it easier for media mergers to take place. As FCC commissioner Michael Copps wrote in his dissenting opinion: "Let us remember that this is only the latest, most radical step in a twenty-year history of undermining the public interest. Step by step, rule by rule, bit by bit, we have allowed the dismantling of public interest protections and given a green light to the forces of consolidation, until now a handful of giant conglomerates are in the saddle."
Past changes by the FCC leading to more and more media concentration have occurred with nary a peep of protest. This time, however, as Kennedy notes this week (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features), the public registered unprecedented dissent with the FCC in the months leading up to Monday’s vote. Both Adelstein and Copps made significant mention of the outcry. "[T]he public reaction against the proposed changes has been unlike anything the FCC has ever experienced," Copps wrote. Adelstein noted that the agency had heard from nearly 750,000 people and that "[j]udging from our record, public opposition is nearly unanimous, from ultra-conservatives to ultra-liberals, and virtually everyone in between." Indeed, the movement to convince the FCC to keep the last remaining controls against media conglomeration in place saw the Family Research Council, a viciously anti-gay organization, team up with the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Politics do indeed make for strange bedfellows — so to speak.
All were concerned about one thing, what Copps calls the "Clear Channelization" of what remains of American media. Before the last significant FCC rules change in 1996, which shepherded in radio deregulation, the "largest company owned less than 75 stations," Copps points out. Today, Clear Channel owns "more than 1200 stations." But that’s not, by any means, the only problem with letting media companies consume each other until we’re served by, oh, two or three giants. While egregious journalistic misdeeds such as those committed by Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Mike Barnicle make the headlines, they are only the most glaring examples of journalism’s declining ethical standards. The malaise in the media that has caused the widespread loss of public trust goes far deeper than these headline grabbers.
In today’s mega-media-corporate environments — unlike in the predominantly locally based media of the past — old-fashioned accountability has been usurped by the desire to get the story, even if it means not getting it right. The profit motive that has driven news organizations to do the same or more with less has replaced the message motive. For the most part, the "news" has become more a matter of homogenized entertainment than meaningful information. Of course, it would be a mistake to focus on the sins of the monopolists — they are only doing what they do best: make money. The real culprit here is the FCC. As the guardian of our publicly owned airwaves, it shouldn’t be acting as the broker for profiteers’ unfettered access to ever more of our public assets for private gain. Or, as Adelstein puts it, the FCC shouldn’t equate "the public interest with the economic interests of media conglomerates."
Although it’s clear that the Republican-dominated FCC doesn’t understand the consequences of its vote this week, the public does. Indeed, the unprecedented public protest gives cause for hope. While the FCC commissioners may have chosen to ignore the public, it’s unlikely that Congress will do the same. Any issue that can galvanize 750,000 people to send an e-mail or write a letter and that unites the far left with the far right is a winning issue. Look at the impact it’s had on Congressman Ed Markey of Malden. In 1996, Markey, who is the ranking Democrat on the Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, described the Telecommunications Act that ushered in radio deregulation as the "best overall blueprint that any country in the world has come up with." This week he said the FCC rules changes would make "Citizen Kane look like an underachiever." Indeed, most of the Democratic presidential candidates have denounced the FCC decision, as have conservative US senators including Trent Lott of Mississippi and Ted Stevens of Alaska. US Senator John Kerry said Monday that he would file a "Resolution of Disapproval" to overturn the decision.
As Adelstein wrote in his dissent: "This is far from over. Congress may prove more responsive to the citizens who passionately plea for the independence and diversity of their media. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is not the end, or even the beginning of the end, but just the end of the beginning."
Let your US representatives know how you feel about the FCC decision. Kerry can be reached at (617) 565-8519. Senator Ted Kennedy can be contacted at (617) 565-3170. Either senator can be e-mailed by visiting www.senate.gov and clicking through to the senators’ Web pages. Markey can be reached at (781) 396-2900. US Representative Stephen Lynch can be reached at (617) 428-2000, Michael Capuano can be reached at (617) 621-6208, and Barney Frank can be reached at (617) 332-3920. Any representative can be e-mailed from www.house.gov/writerep.
What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]phx.com