IF YOU’VE FOLLOWED the media-consolidation story for lo these many years, you might discern a certain resemblance to the movie Groundhog Day — with one notable difference. Bill Murray was destined merely to live out the same day over and over again. With media concentration, it gets a little worse each time, as more television channels, radio stations, and newspapers fall into the hands of ever-larger, ever-fewer corporate owners.
Thus it was this past Monday, when the Federal Communications Commission — chaired by Michael Powell, son of the secretary of state — voted by a three-to-two margin to loosen the few restraints that were still in place. Daily newspapers will now be able to buy television and radio stations in the same communities in which they publish, a heretofore illegal arrangement known as "cross-ownership." Conglomerates will be allowed to own television stations reaching 45 percent of the national audience, up from 35 percent. A company will be allowed to own two — and in some larger cities three — TV stations in the same market.
"It violates every tenet of a free democratic society to let a handful of powerful companies control our media," said FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein in a blistering dissent. "The public has a right to be informed by a diversity of viewpoints so they can make up their own minds. Without a diverse, independent media, citizen access to information crumbles, along with political and social participation. For the sake of democracy, we should encourage the widest possible dissemination of free expression through the public airwaves."
And so it goes.
But wait. This time it might be different. This time there are signs that the public, as well as opinion leaders of various and diverse ideological stripes, are finally so outraged by this ongoing power grab that they will demand action.
The public snoozed during the 1980s, when the Reagan White House eased the public-interest and equal-time provisions to the point of irrelevance. It looked the other way when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 set off a gold rush, especially in the radio sector, which was taken over almost in its entirety by a tiny handful of owners. And that somnolence was encouraged by the news media, which, whether by design or indifference, served their corporate masters by failing to cover what was happening as anything other than a routine business story.
By contrast, the run-up to Monday’s vote was distinctly unquiet. Opposition to the FCC’s latest deregulatory moves came from an unusually broad cross section, from liberal and reformist groups such as Common Cause, the Center for Digital Democracy, and the Consumer Federation of America to conservative organizations such as the National Rifle Association and the Parents Television Council.
And it wasn’t just special-interest groups that got in on the action. More than a half-million people reportedly submitted comments to the FCC, nearly all of them opposed to deregulation. MoveOn.org, a progressive organization founded to fight Bill Clinton’s impeachment, forwarded some 180,000 electronic comments to the FCC. The group, which emerged earlier this year as a leader in the anti-war movement, also took out television commercials that raised the specter of international media baron (and Fox News Channel founder) Rupert Murdoch’s extending his global reach even further.
"This really is just the beginning," Eli Pariser, the Maine native who is international campaigns director of MoveOn.org, told me by e-mail. "When we decided to engage on this issue, we knew that Commissioner Powell was probably committed to the approach of railroading the rule change through. We wanted to highlight his contempt for the democratic process and raise the noise level to the point where Congress paid attention."
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, believes progressives were finally mobilized by their disgust at the rah-rah, unquestioning tone of much of the war coverage. "The most important thing post–June 2 is to take the momentum and broaden this from the coalition that we’ve been able to create and go after some very serious victories on legislative action," says Chester. "You have the potential for a left-right coalition here to go back to Congress and try to be serious." As an example of legislation that could ameliorate the effects of the FCC’s ruling, Chester says media reformers might push for a rule requiring companies that own a newspaper and a television station in the same market to employ separate editorial managers.
Besides that, Chester adds, he and other activists intend to protest every single merger. "We will file petitions to delay. We will slow down the process," he vows.
IN A COUNTRY whose Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, the very idea of media regulation has an un-American ring to it. And in fact, strictly defined, "the press" — that is, newspapers, magazines, and other print outlets — are essentially unregulated. By contrast, the rules that govern television and radio stations are grounded in the laws of physics: there are only so many broadcast frequencies available, and they must be divvied up in such a way that one station isn’t trampling on space reserved for another.
If you want to start a daily newspaper, you can. It will cost many millions of dollars and you will probably fail, but no one will tell you that you aren’t allowed to try. But if you want to own a TV or radio station, you’ll need to buy one: nearly all the available frequencies are already being used by other broadcasters. It is this situation that gave rise to the current regulatory regime, which dates back to the 1930s. The airwaves, according to this doctrine, are finite and publicly owned. Licenses to use these airwaves are granted for a limited period of time, and must be exercised in the public interest.
That was the theory, anyway. Starting in the 1980s, though, the system began to crumble. During the Reagan presidency, public-interest programming started to disappear, as regulators made it clear that they no longer considered it a condition for license renewal. The Fairness Doctrine and equal-time provisions gave way to today’s reality, in which nationally syndicated talk-show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity can openly call for listeners to vote Republican, with virtually no one on the air to take the other side.
Commercial radio was so thoroughly destroyed by the Telecom Act of 1996 that FCC member Michael Copps — a Democrat who has emerged as Michael Powell’s most outspoken opponent — cited it as an object lesson in his 22-plus-page dissent to Monday’s ruling. "Diversity of programming suffered. Homogenized music and standardized programming crowded out local and regional talent. Creative local artists found it evermore difficult to obtain play time on the air," Copps wrote, adding: "Competition in many towns became non-existent as a few companies — in some cases a single company — bought up virtually every station in the market. This experience should terrify us as we consider visiting upon television and newspapers what we have inflicted upon radio. ‘Clear Channelization’ of the rest of the American media will harm our country."
That last bit is a reference to Clear Channel, a conglomerate that has expanded its empire to some 1200 radio stations since 1996. Companies today can own as many as eight stations in a given market; Monday’s ruling did not change that. Perhaps the most infamous case of radio gone bad is the town of Minot, North Dakota, where Clear Channel owns all six commercial stations. According to a New York Times report, when a 1 a.m. train derailment caused toxic gas to leak into the air in January 2002, police attempted to alert the Clear Channel station that was the town’s designated emergency broadcaster — and couldn’t get their calls answered, forcing them to rouse station employees at home. Police complained that because the station was programmed by remote control, no employees were actually at the station, a charge that Clear Channel denied. Still, the story has become a cautionary tale regarding the evils of deregulation, and has transformed Senator Byron Dorgan (D–North Dakota) into an anti-monopoly crusader.