CALL IT THE GREATEST story never told. According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, which keeps an eye on the unappetizing stew of politics and money, media corporations and their employees contributed $75 million to candidates for federal office and the two major political parties between 1993 and mid 2000. From 1996 to 2000, the report continues, the 50 largest media companies and four of their trade associations lobbied Congress and the executive branch to the tune of $111.3 million.
Among the goodies these media moguls sought were more-corporate-friendly copyright laws, the elimination of the estate tax, fewer restrictions on tobacco and alcohol advertising, a halt to proposals that would mandate free air time for political candidates, and, most important, the elimination of FCC rules aimed at restricting ownership.
Usually the media love such a story of greed and influence ó especially when itís spoon-fed to them in the form of a respected interest groupís report, complete with a predigested three-page summary. But chances are you didnít read, hear, or see anything about this one, titled, fittingly, Off the Record. "This is major news about the influence of an extremely powerful industry and its relationship to government and its favors from government," says Charles Lewis, executive director of the center. "And it was basically nonexistent in terms of news coverage. I donít think thatís completely coincidental. Of course, what makes the media industry so powerful is not just the amount they spend, but the fact that they control access to the airwaves and newspaper pages."
It was the power of the media lobby ó especially in the form of the National Association of Broadcasters ó that croaked a plan by the previous FCC chairman, William Kennard, to license low-wattage, nonprofit, community-oriented radio stations whose reach is measured in city blocks rather than square miles. The NAB ó joined, believe it or not, by National Public Radio ó argued, against compelling technical evidence, that these small stations would interfere with its membersí own signals, even if care were taken to locate the low-powered stations on unused portions of the FM dial. Kennardís vision, limited though it was, got nixed by Congress in the closing days of the Clinton administration, with no prospects of revival any time soon.
"Itís been shut down completely in any urban area," says Steve Provizer, who heads a tiny, grassroots outfit called Allston-Brighton Free Radio, which transmits a barely detectable signal at AM 1670. (Some of its programming is rebroadcast on WJIB, AM 740.) "Itís really a service that will only be useful in rural areas or exurban areas. God bless it for having that much usefulness, but itís largely been undermined by congressional action as instigated by NPR and the NAB." Previously, Provizer ran Radio Free Allston, shut down by the FCC several years ago for broadcasting without a license. Illegal? Well, yes. But also vital ó so much so that the station had received a commendation from the Boston City Council for broadcasting local political debates and otherwise serving the community in ways that bottom-line-obsessed commercial stations just donít care about.
The media lobbyís next target: ownership rules that prevent a company from owning more than eight radio stations in a given market, that prohibit one company from owning a cable system and a TV station in the same market, and that prevent one company from owning a TV or radio station and a major daily newspaper in the same market.
That last regulation ó known as the cross-ownership rule ó had a major role in shaping the Boston media landscape. The Boston Herald Traveler, a predecessor to todayís Herald, survived for years on the strength of its ownership of a radio station and a TV station through a waiver it had dubiously obtained from the FCC. The Globe fought back ó and in the early í70s, the Herald Traveler lost its broadcast properties. The paper fell into the hands of the Hearst Corporation, and it appeared to be dying a slow, lingering death until international media magnate Rupert Murdoch acquired it in the early 1980s. (So close did the Herald come to shutting down that work crews started ripping vending machines out of the cafeteria.) Murdoch himself ran afoul of the cross-ownership rule when he bought WFXT-TV (Channel 25) in the late í80s, and Senator Ted Kennedy, a frequent target of the Herald, blocked Murdochís attempts to obtain an FCC waiver. Murdoch sold Channel 25 only to repurchase it after selling the Herald in 1994 to his long-time protégé Pat Purcell.
To bring the story full circle, Purcell ó who a year ago bought about 100 community papers in Greater Boston and on Cape Cod ó would now like nothing better than to go into the broadcasting business in order to compete more aggressively with the Globe, whose corporate owner, the New York Times Company, also owns the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and, unless the sale is derailed, will soon own a chunk of the New England Sports Network and the Boston Red Sox as well.
"If the rule didnít exist anymore, who knows what would happen?" asks Purcell. "Itís a little early to speculate, but a whole lot of options would open up for us." Clearly, itís a subject close to his heart. His newspaper has come out against the cross-ownership rule on both its editorial page and in its business columns. And Herald reporters are already featured on Channel 25 ó just as Globe reporters are featured on New England Cable News and on Channel 4ís The Boston Globe/WBZ News Conference.
The cross-ownership rule, in fact, may need some rethinking. Allowing a media executive such as Purcell, whoís rooted in the community, to extend his franchise and spread out his costs could benefit not just him but also those who like the Heraldís brand of journalism. But simply repealing the rule could be dangerous. Who, after all, would be better positioned to buy a TV or radio station (or both) than the mighty Times Company, thus giving the Globe even more of an advantage in a market that it already dominates?
The Center for Digital Democracyís Jeff Chester says he would have no problem with allowing, say, the number-two newspaper in a market to acquire the number-three or -four TV station. But he adds that Boston ó one of the few competitive newspaper towns left in the country ó "is a unique case." Preventing one media company from amassing too much power in a given community, Chester says, is still a worthwhile goal.
BACK WHEN A.J. LIEBLING was writing about the death of newspapers, he was mainly concerned about the cuts in news coverage that monopoly publishers inevitably ordered. "Money is not made by competition among newspapers, but by avoiding it," he wrote. Thatís still true today, even when competition at least theoretically exists. Witness the foreign bureaus that were closed and the reporting positions that were eliminated during the 1990s as the Big Three networks fell into the hands of conglomerate owners ó cuts that made it difficult (although not, thankfully, impossible) to cover the war against terrorism following the September 11 attacks.
Just as important as competition or the lack thereof is the dominance of corporate over community values.
Huge radio companies compete fiercely, but they do so by offering lowest-common-denominator syndicated programming in city after city, such as Howard Stern and Opie and Anthony, and right-wing talk shows, such as Rush Limbaughís. The crude-but-intelligent Imus in the Morning is a notable exception, but even that stands in contrast to the localism that once made radio a unique medium.
A conglomerate such as AOL Time Warner produces the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcererís Stone, and then promotes it in its magazines (Time, People, Sports Illustrated), on CNN, and on the AOL Internet service.
NBC News and ABC News have to think two or three times before running any negative reports on their corporate owners, General Electric and Disney, respectively.
Newsweek is owned by the Washington Post Company, which has a content-sharing relationship with MSNBC and MSNBC.com. That will prevent Newsweek from ever again getting beaten on its own exclusive, as it was with Michael Isikoffís revelation that Bill Clinton had had sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky. But there are weeks when the magazine looks like nothing so much as a print version of MSNBC, flogging the MSNBC.com Web site on every page and, recently, publishing a piece of media criticism by that noted journalistic thinker Chris Matthews. (His verdict: the media are doing a pretty damned good job, thank you very much!)
"Who owns these companies makes all the difference," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Ownership matters profoundly. Itís not just the system of ownership, itís the human values of the people who do the owning." He adds, though, that he is concerned whenever news organizations are acquired by conglomerates whose primary businesses are not news. He notes, for example, that ABC News represents just two percent of profits at Disney.
"Thereís a lot of reason to worry about the fact that journalism is being subsumed as a minority presence inside conglomerates," Rosenstiel says. "One dark cloud of conglomeration is if you have owners who donít care about journalism. The second dark cloud is if they see their properties as an opportunity for synergy."
Michael Powell told the Wall Street Journal last September, "I think Iím a little misunderstood on the whole area of media consolidation." He added: "The public interest is not always served by strict liability and slavish commitment to a linear judgment made 30 years ago."
Big isnít always bad, and, in some respects, it makes as much sense to rail against media conglomerates as it does to boycott Starbucks, where the coffee is better than it was at the mom-and-pop shop it replaced and where the employee benefits include health insurance and stock options. Nostalgia based on blind allegiance to the past is just stupid.
But Powell needs to understand that the public interest doesnít consist merely of getting the coolest technological advances into the publicís hands as quickly as possible. A diversity of voices and a place for independent media are just as much a part of the public interest.
Thereís a reason that the First Amendment protects the media from government regulation: the framers believed that free and independent media were absolutely essential for the same public interest that Powell claims is his primary guide.
The danger is that Powell will release the media from the last vestiges of government regulation ó and then stand back and watch as the mediaís corporate masters use their power and influence to silence any voices that threaten their economic interests.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com
Issue Date: January 10 - 17, 2002