ACTIVISTS FIGHT MEDIA CONSOLIDATION: FCC DROPPING OWNERSHIP LIMITS by Aliza Dichter

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Under intense lobbying pressure and lawsuits brought by corporate media, the federal government is now considering removing the last few media-ownership limits. These rules–intended to protect diversity of viewpoints, competition and local ownership– keep major TV networks from merging into one and prevent a single company from dominating the local TV market or owning a town’s local newspaper, TV and radio station.

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency that regulates electronic media, is required by law to seek public comments before eliminating these rules. But the FCC has refused to hold public hearings, the comment process is arcane and technical and the clock is rapidly ticking.In response, activists and organizers are quickly building coalitions and preparing their petitions against what Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt has called “the most radical view of media consolidation that any democracy has ever supported … exclusively driven by ideology and business interests.”

Big media see the current FCC as an ally. Running the show is FCC Chairman Michael Powell, along with two other Republican commissioners and two Democrats. (The second Democratic seat was just recently filled, after being held up in Congressional crossfire over appointing judges). Michael Powell is the son of Colin Powell, not only the Secretary of State, but a former AOL board member who resigned the day before his son and other commissioners voted to approve the AOL-Time Warner merger — which increased dad’s AOL stock value by around $4 million. Appointed by George W. Bush to oversee the agency that regulates all U.S. electronic media, Michael Powell is an outspoken opponent of government regulation who has dismissed the concept of the public interest as “an empty vessel” and swears “the market is my religion.”

What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Media regulation should be a prominent public policy issue. The First Amendment is designed to protect the public’s right to be informed through uncensored media and diverse voices. In this digital age defined by the Internet, cell phones, satellites and wireless technologies, the FCC has become one of the most powerful bodies in Washington, and media policy is one of the most high-priced issues in politics. In the 2000 election cycle, Communications and Electronics industries donated over $132.5 million to candidates and parties. Lobbying expenses for the communications industry stand at roughly $125 million, more than twice the amount spent by defense firms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But for all the attention inside Washington, media regulation is rarely treated as an issue of public concern. Media File’s article on the FCC’s rapid moves to privatize the public airwaves was chosen by Project Censored as the most important news story not reported by the mainstream media in 2001. Perhaps it should be no surprise that media policy debates aren’t covered by big media.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat who has dissented from many of his agency’s pro-merger decisions, called for public hearings as part of the media-ownership review process. But FCC chair Powell rejected the idea, despite a petition in support of public hearings from 40 local and national consumer groups. Now Copps plans to hold his own, unofficial hearings in major cities around the country.

The FCC asserts that market research, not public comment, is the most important factor in reconsidering media ownership rules. The agency recently released the results of 12 studies which suggest media concentration may not be a problem. But critics, including Commissioner Copps, say the FCC is getting that answer by asking the wrong questions. The studies don’t examine the implications of concentration for informed democracy, access for independent producers or creative and cultural diversity. Several labor and advocacy groups are currently analyzing the FCC data and conducting their own studies, although the FCC has allowed them less than 60 days –over the holidays– to respond.

Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers’ Union worries that Powell’s FCC will eliminate rules “with selective review of facts in the marketplace, disregarding the importance of independently-owned, separate media outlets to our democracy.”

What The Critics Say
Ever since this latest wave of ownership deregulation began with 2000, public-interest advocates, consumer groups and labor unions dedicated to these issues have been waging resistance. Ownership charts showing increased concentration are passed around in classrooms and conferences. Activist groups such as the Billionaires for More Media Mergers and the Angels of the Public Interest have been strategizing campaigns and protests, including a March, 2002, demonstration at the FCC headquarters (see sidebar). The Center for Digital Democracy and the Media Access Project, the leading D.C.-based media advocacy groups, have been working overtime to coordinate FCC filings, letters to Congress and legal challenges. A new coalition of children’s advocates and medical groups, led by Children Now, is organizing parents and teachers and petitioning the FCC to examine how media concentration impacts children’s programming.

Media-workers unions have warned that media mergers mean lost jobs and that ownership limits may be needed to protect diversity of views in the media. “The FCC is considering eliminating the rules that prevent a few corporations and wealthy individuals from gaining a veritable chokehold on free expression and public discourse over America’s public airwaves,” argued Victoria Riskin, president of the Writers Guild of America, west. A report prepared in 2001 for the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights concluded that deregulation has not only led to reduced media ownership by women and minorities, but also less community-driven programming.

Writers and musicians groups argue that media concentration blocks out independent artists and prevents cultural diversity. The Future of Music Coalition just released their major study of radio industry consolidation, which found that the deregulation of the 1996 Telecommunications Act has resulted in less competition, fewer viewpoints, and less diversity in programming.

The erosion of U.S. journalism in the corporate media has sounded alarms from veteran news anchors, publishers and J-school deans. Eliminating ownership limits could accelerate this trend, driving up the price of media outlets and increasing demands for profit returns, leading to fewer foreign news bureaus, investigative reporters and resources for journalists. “We already have seen the adverse impact of media conglomerates on the quality and depth of journalism,” said Linda Foley, President of TNG-CWA. “Any relaxation of ownership restrictions will further denigrate the quality and diversity of information received by the public and will have grave consequences for the free and open debate necessary to sustain a democratic society.” Says media historian Robert McChesney, “There’s no possible argument that this could be good for the quality of journalism. There’s no upside. The only question is how bad the downside will be.”

The leading rationale for ownership deregulation, much touted by the broadcast industry, is that the Internet has transformed the media landscape, providing the needed diversity. But the facts belie this conclusion: Of the top 20 news sites in the US this summer, according to audience statistics from Nielsen/NetRatings, the only ones not associated with newspapers or television networks were Slate, which is owned by Microsoft (which in turn co-owns MSNBC with General Electric), Yahoo!, which primarily features news from AP, Reuters, The New York Times, USA Today, etc., and the Drudge Report (listed at #20) which also mostly links to mainstream news sources. The rest were all owned by major media corporations and mostly represent the online versions of existing newspapers and TV news stations. So much for the Internet as a bastion of alternative voices or a challenge to old media power. ABCNews.com and CNN.com are advertised for free on their parent TV stations all day long. Indymedia.org or GVNews.Net might provide vital alternative news but it matters little if audiences don’t know about these sites or can’t access them. And with media conglomerates increasingly controlling Internet access through broadband cable monopolies, their self-promotion and preferential treatment for their own content will only increase.

These are vital concerns, certainly worthy of public debate. But with almost no coverage of these issues in the mainstream media and a government agency that’s not designed for or interested in citizen participation, the FCC may forge ahead with its decisions, behind closed doors with no accountability to the public.

How To Get Involved: What You Can Do
For more information, visit MediaChannel’s Issue and Action Guide on U.S. Media http://www.mediachannel.org/ownership/index.shtml

SPREAD THE WORD!: Copy this article and hand it out. Print additional articles from the Web. Share this information with friends and colleagues. Talk to the press. Write op-eds and letters to the editor, call talk shows and speak out about media concentration and FCC deregulation. Ask reporters to cover this issue.

Write or call Congress: Tell your representatives that you are concerned about media concentration and urge them to hold public hearings on the issues and ensure the FCC upholds its public-service mandate.

File a comment with the FCC: The public comment period on eliminating ownership rules was extended to January 2nd. You can file a comment directly at www.fcc.gov or use the simple form at www.democraticmedia.org, which also has suggested questions to consider. Read comments from other concerned citizens on ReclaimTheMedia: http://www.reclaimthemedia.org/

Support public hearings: Find out how you can attend a media ownership public hearing or advocate for one in your town. Contact jeff@democraticmedia.org.

GROUPS: Join the Media Diversity Campaign. For more information visit www.reclaimthemedia.org or contact inja@mediatank.org.

ACTIVISTS: Join the Angels of the Public Interest: Stage a street demonstration in your community or help plan public events. To organize protests and discuss strategies, sign up for the Media Activist email list at www.mediatank.org.

Donate Your Time Or Money: Groups working on these issues need your support. To find out how you can give money or volunteer, contact Media-Alliance or your local media advocacy group.

Aliza Dichter (liza@mediachannel.org) is the Senior Editor of MediaChannel.org, a nonprofit public-interest Web site connecting more than a thousand groups worldwide concerned about media. A shorter version of this article appeared in the NYC Indypendent.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Hymn of The Angels of The Public Interest

‘God Bless Ye Bold Commissioners’

God Bless Ye Bold Commissioners.

Deregulation Rules You’ve abandoned public service.

You are corporations’ tools We won’t let you kill

Democracy — do you think that we are fools?

CHORUS

No more ru-lings that just serve industry. industry

No more ru-lings that just serve industry

Radio has been destroyed,

TV news is now a joke

Diversity is not the same as Pepsi versus Coke

We won’t stand by and let you hide

the mandate that you broke

No more rulings that just serve industry. industry

No more rulings that just serve industry

With every word that Powell speaks the

Moguls they rejoice

But O the poor con-su-mer

who never has a choice

Minorities, Communities are left without a voice

No more rulings that just serve industry. industry

No more rulings that just serve industry

Cor-por-ations bought and wrote the Act of ’96

With money and their lobbyists they’re up to same old tricks

What must we do to prove to you it’s something we must fix?

No more rulings that just serve industry. industry

No more rulings that just serve industry

You must protect the media made independently

Monopolies repress debate and creativity

The Angels Cry From Up On High:

Information Must Be Free!

NO MORE RULINGS THAT

JUST SERVE INDUSTRY

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