The Uprising of 2003
excerpted from the book
The Problem of the Media
U.S. Communication Politics in
the 21st Century
by Robert W. McChesney
Monthly Review Press, 2004, paper
The Uprising of 2003
"What democracy requires is vigorous public debate, not
information. Of course, it needs information too, but the kind
of information it needs can be generated only by debate. We do
not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions,
and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our
own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy.
The corporate media own most of the politicians and regulators
... hidden from public view in the 1990s had been a mounting concern
over media. The changes wrought by neoliberal measures such as
the 1996 Telecommunications Act only fanned the flames of this
burgeoning movement. Magazines such as The Nation, The Progressive,
and In These Times began to feature stories not only criticizing
mainstream media but also chronicling nascent efforts to change
media policies. The progressive media watch group Fairness &
Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) flourished, as did the Media Education
Foundation, the premier producer of critical videos on media.
Across the nation local media watch groups,
reform organizations, and independent media outlets began to sprout.
Critical books on media and journalism began selling better than
they had in the past. National "media and democracy"
conferences were held in San Francisco and New York in 1996 and
1997, respectively, drawing many hundreds of activists.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the media reform movement
had its first notable skirmish in the battle for low-power FM
radio (LPFM). The technology began in the late 1980s when it became
possible to transmit radio signals easily and inexpensively, and
soon several people began conducting low-power broadcasting on
the open FM dial slots in their communities. The pioneer was an
African American activist, Mbanna Kantako, who began broadcasting
to his neighborhood in Springfield, Illinois. By the 1990s scores
of people were engaging in low-power broadcasting, and they were
doing so without FCC licenses. Commercial broadcasters demanded
that the FCC stop the "pirates," and the FCC obliged-taking
legal action against several microbroadcasters. But it soon became
apparent that the low cost and ease of use of the technology made
it virtually impossible to police. That these broadcasters were
able to easily locate open slots in the FM band-and therefore
not interfere with existing stations-made LPFM no public concern.
FCC chairman William Kennard recognized
the difficulty in policing LPFM and decided to implement a widespread
but cautious program to legalize LPFM stations across the nation.
He was especially concerned with how the lifting of the radio
ownership caps in 1996 had led to a sharp decline in the number
of African American station owners. Because most minority station
owners generally held only a small number of stations, they found
it impossible to compete with emerging giants like Clear Channel
and were forced to sell out. Kennard wanted a plan that would
get LPFM licenses into the hands of community groups representing
people underserved by the commercial radio system.
After months of study the FCC released
its plan-generally regarded by LPFM advocates as being more cautious
than necessary-for the establishment of more than one thousand
LPFM stations in 2000. These noncommercial stations would be licensed
to locally based nonprofit organizations. On the surface this
looked like a clear victory for the American people: more stations,
more choice, no commercialism, and more local content. Only one
very small group of individuals disliked the plan: owners and
managers of commercial broadcasting companies. These broadcasters
did not want more competition for "their" listeners,
especially of a noncommercial and local variety. Such competition
might require them to reduce advertising and increase local content
to keep listeners from defecting, and those changes would come
directly out of their profit margins.
The NAB put a full court press on Congress
to overturn Kennard's LPFM plan. The lobby could not, for PR purposes,
admit to greed as a motive; instead it argued that one thousand
new LPFM stations would create interference with the signals transmitted
by existing broadcasters. The problem with this claim, as Kennard
futilely explained, was that the engineering plans for inserting
the new stations into the FM band were drawn largely from recommendations
made a few years earlier by engineers who represented commercial
broadcasters-when they wanted to make their own changes to the
radio dial. Those changes had been implemented without causing
The House, led by the commercial broadcasters'
chief advocate in that body, Representative Billy Tauzin, voted
to overturn Kennard's plan and reduce the number of LPFM stations
to around two or three hundred, mostly in small cities and rural
areas. The Senate was less willing to oblige corporate broadcasters,
significantly because the ranking Republican on the relevant Senate
Commerce Committee, Arizona's John McCain, refused to comply with
the NAB's wishes. Of considerable importance, too, was the appearance
of an organized lobbying effort with a significant grassroots
element provided by LPFM advocates, including the Future of Music
Coalition and the Prometheus Radio Project. This campaign drew
in a broad range of support, including organized labor, church
groups, and civil rights organizations. This organizing effort
was instrumental in mobilizing congressional support for the Kennard
In the end, the NAB won-and the number
of LPFM stations was reduced from one thousand to a few hundred.
It was not through a majority vote on the Senate floor, but through
a rider put on the budget bill in late December 2000. "There
were no hearings. It was done in the appropriations process at
a time when all the special interests know that their power is
greatly enhanced because it is done in the dark of night,"
Kennard later explained in an interview. "You know, you wake
up the next day and legislation is written. The people who had
the most to say about it are completely cut out of the process.
If I sound bitter, I am."
The FCC announced its next biennial review of media ownership
rules in September 2002. As a result of this review, ownership
restrictions would have to be defended or else the rules would
be tossed out and media ownership would be subject only to antitrust
enforcement, like other industries. Six rules were under review,
including the prohibition against newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership
and the rules regulating the number of TV stations a single firm
could own locally and nationally. At that point, firms were permitted
to own only one TV station in a market, except in the very largest
cities, where they could own two. Firms were also prohibited from
owning TV stations that, in total, reached more than 35 percent
of the population, though both Viacom and News Corporation had
been granted waivers by the FCC to exceed that figure. These were
the rules that the industry was most eager to see relaxed or eliminated.
In the fall and early winter of 2002, organized opposition to
the relaxation of media ownership rules was already much greater
than anyone had expected. The Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation
of America, the Media Access Project, and the Center for Digital
Democracy were the main players, though a number of new groups
were beginning to surface. The Wall Street Journal even reported
that the FCC had been "flooded with letters opposing media
consolidation" during the comment period. Industry lobbyists
dismissed the input, with no sense of irony, because the number
of letters was "obviously somewhat ginned up" by the
organized campaign to publicize the process. 32 An immense amount
of organizing effort went to having the FCC extend the public
comment period; Powell finally relented and allowed for another
thirty days, until January 2, but he made it clear that it would
not derail his plans to have the review complete by the late spring
In January 2003 the tide slowly but perceptibly
began to change. Jonathan Adelstein, an aide to Senator Tom Daschle,
joined the FCC as the second Democrat and immediately demonstrated
that he shared Copps's concerns. "It violates every tenet
of a free society to let a handful of powerful companies control
our media," he stated.
Michael Powell's campaign to advance the case for loosening medial
ownership rules in the spring of 2003 was based upon contradictory
arguments constructed with dubious evidence. In the battle for
public opinion, this put him at a decided disadvantage. His arguments
did not appear to convince people who were not invested in the
system and did not share his euphoric attitude toward the U.S.
commercial media system. In years past, that wouldn't have mattered
because Americans would have been clueless about the FCC's proceedings.
But in 2003 many things had changed, not the least of which was
that FCC member Michael Copps had taken it upon himself to rouse
public interest and involvement in the issue.
"This is still, in my mind, very
much an inside-the-Beltway issue," Copps explained in February,
"It has not become one where the country is really plugged
into it and knows what's going on here. That's because the country
doesn't really know. If it did know, I think a lot of people would
be vitally interested in the outcome." Copps was blunt about
his mission: "I am trying to raise as much ruckus as I can
about it." In doing so, Copps found the public to be receptive;
people had considerable concerns about media, and when they learned
these concerns could be attached to a specific policy, their interest
grew dramatically. Fairly soon, Copps had many more allies than
he could have anticipated, far beyond the stalwart public interest
groups in Washington, D.C.
The official FCC hearing in Richmond on
February 27 was an omen. Four of the five hours were devoted to
panelists, and most of the twenty-one experts were from out of
town, including a large contingent of industry representatives.
The public then had an hour to make statements-and every speaker
opposed relaxing the media ownership rules. "What stood out
most," Copps commented afterward, "was the level of
concern on the issue and the level of dissatisfaction." Powell
immediately announced that the Richmond
Over the next three months twelve more public hearings were held
across the nation, almost all attended by Copps and many by Adelstein,
who termed this their "magical mystery tour." The events
were always nonpartisan, organized by a local university or civic
group, and featured representatives of the broadcasting industry.
Numerous activist groups, like Jeff Chester's Center for Digital
Democracy and the Benton Foundation, helped organize the events.
There were also a number of smaller events, sometimes attended
by Copps or Adelstein separately. In most cases, members of Congress
from the area participated. Some events were attended by fewer
than 200 people, as in Detroit, Chicago, and Phoenix, but most
of the rest became standing-room-only affairs with 400-1,000 attendees,
as in Seattle, Philadelphia, Burlington, Atlanta, and San Francisco.
Even more than the turnout, it was the public's comments that
caught the attention of Copps and Adelstein and energized them
as they squared off with Powell and the Republicans back at FCC
headquarters. "Of the hundreds of citizens I heard from,
many extremely articulate, not one of them stood up to say, 'I
want to see even more concentration in our media ownership.' Not
one," Adelstein observed. "The public knows instinctively
what the FCC is supposed to do-protect them from large entities
gaining too much control over critical channels of communication.
This attendance was all the more incredible
because the local press gave little or no advance coverage and
in most cases no follow-up coverage either-especially curious
since local media often had executives on hearing panels. "That
people even found out about these meetings," Copps acknowledged,
"is a miracle ." This pointed to a problem that faced
the activists throughout 2003: the paucity of mainstream news
coverage. As a study conducted for the American Journalism Review
concluded, in the first five months of 2003, commercial TV and
the cable networks offered "virtually no coverage" of
the FCC deliberations on media ownership.
During the buildup to the [Iraq] war, in the first three months
of 2003, the burgeoning anti-war movement spent considerable time
castigating what it regarded as the uncritical and propagandistic
nature of TV news coverage of the Bush administration's war rationale.
Phil Donahue's program was terminated by MSNBC in February; its
cancellation came in the wake of an internal NBC report claiming
that Donahue projected a "difficult public face for NBC in
time of war. He seems to delight in presenting guests who are
antiwar, anti-Bush, and skeptical of the administration's motives."
The report worried that Donahue would become "a home for
the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors
are waving the flag at every opportunity. " Cable giant Comcast
refused to air an anti-war ad during Bush's State of the Union
The concentrated world of radio was seen
as being particularly hostile to all who did not support the Bush
administration .121 Clear Channel's DJs led pro-war rallies, fired
the South Carolina 2002 "Radio Personality of the Year"
allegedly for her anti-war politics, and, along with fellow radio
giant Cumulus, dropped the Dixie Chicks from its playlists after
a member of the band criticized Bush at a concert in England.
When activists learned that the same companies that seemed most
aggressively pro-war-e.g. Clear Channel and Rupert Murdoch's News
Corporation-were leading the lobbying fight to acquire even more
media, activists started publicizing the FCC issue. Around this
time, Murdoch announced his intention to purchase DirecTV, the
firm that dominated U.S. satellite television delivery.
Probably no conservative did more to legitimize the opposition
than William Safire. Over the course of 2003, Safire wrote eight
columns in the New York Times countering Powell. At key moments
in the struggle, Safire produced column after column poking holes
in Powell's arguments and demanding that he be stopped. Mixed
in with numerous columns supporting the war in Iraq, Safire repeatedly
explained why opposition to media consolidation was a bedrock
principle for conservatives: "The concentration of power-political,
corporate, media, cultural-should be anathema to conservatives.
The diffusion of power through local control, thereby encouraging
individual participation, is the essence of federalism and the
greatest expression of democracy. " "Concentration of
power in media," Safire wrote in December, "enables
a political clique to concentrate its power. We have to resist
In February Powell had encouraged Americans to use the Internet
to let the FCC know their thoughts on media ownership. In the
past, on its most controversial issues, the FCC had received about
5,000 calls and letters. With interest picking up speed like a
hurricane crossing the open sea, the number of e-mail messages,
letters, and petition signatures reaching the FCC had climbed
to an extraordinary 750,000 by the end of May. There was so much
incoming e-mail that the FCC's computers crashed. All examinations
of the contents indicated that a good 99.9 percent opposed relaxing
the media ownership rules, and many citizens favored tightening
them. There was almost no indication that anyone in the country,
aside from big media owners, strongly favored relaxing the rules.
When the CNN business program Moneyline
with Lou Dobbs ran an on-air poll in May asking whether "too
few corporations own too many media outlets," fully 98 percent
said yes . The city councils in Chicago and Seattle passed resolutions
against the relaxation of media ownership rules-Chicago by a unanimous
vote. What was most astonishing, as a Christian Science Monitor
study determined, was that this resistance had developed with
very little press coverage, especially for a story of this magnitude.
Shamelessly, Powell boasted about the "extraordinary amount
of public comment" the FCC had received, enabling it to address
the issues "through the eyes and ears of the American public.
" But no matter how Powell tried to spin it, he had decisively
lost the battle for public opinion.
In the spring of 2003, activists intensified their pressure on
Powell to disclose the proposed rules changes so that the public
could provide input before the FCC vote. Even the trade publication
Television Week urged Powell to "bring the public into the
process." "We don't know what we're going to be working
on," a frustrated Copps said in early May. "It's like
a state secret. 11162 The new rules were finally turned over to
Copps and Adelstein on May 12, exactly three weeks before the
planned June 2 vote, the legal minimum notice. As expected, the
rules called for eliminating the ban on cross-ownership, permitting
companies to purchase two TV stations in most markets and three
TV stations in the largest markets, and letting the biggest TV
station-owning companies increase their market coverage from 35
percent to 45 percent of the population. Copps and Adelstein immediately
asked for a delay of the vote, a "traditional right of commissioners,"
which had never been denied in anyone's memory. Powell rejected
the request, citing counsel by Abernathy and Martin. Over Memorial
Day weekend, for yet another first in U.S. media history, demonstrations
protesting the FCC's impending relaxation of media ownership rules
took place in fourteen cities.
The outcome of the June 2 FCC meeting
was a foregone conclusion, but the debate was far from anticlimactic.
Copps and Adelstein each delivered long and meticulous dissenting
statements that exposed the majority's arguments to be baseless
and the FCC's review to be nothing short of fraudulent. As Adelstein
put it, the review was a "results-driven process" in
which principles were nonexistent and evidence was emphasized
or ignored depending upon whether it justified the desired end.
(When analysts for the Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation
of America were finally able to spend weeks inspecting the FCC's
257-page order, the federation's research director concluded,
"The FCC cooked the books to come up with the result they
wanted-and the books aren't even half baked . Copps and Adelstein
both were clearly moved by the outpouring of popular support during
the process. "We'll look back upon this 3-2 vote as a Pyrrhic
victory," Copps concluded. "The Commission faces a far
more informed and involved citizenry. The obscurity of the issue
that many have relied upon in the past, where only a few dozen
inside-the-Beltway lobbyists understood the issue, is gone forever.""
Adelstein ended his statement by paraphrasing Winston Churchill:
"This is not the end, or even the beginning of the end, but
just the end of the beginning.
For the balance of the summer and Fall activist attention went
toward generating more public pressure upon members of Congress.
On Capitol Hill, a wide range of public interest groups conducted
the lobbying effort, led by Consumers Union, Free Press, Common
Cause, MoveOn.org and organized labor. On numerous occasions MoveOn.org
used its vast subscriber list to generate petition signatures
and telephone calls by constituents to Congress. In one afternoon
alone, House members received an estimated 40,000 dissenting telephone
calls from constituents. As Democratic Representative David Price
of North Carolina put it, his colleagues were saying, "Call
off the dogs, my office is being flooded with constituent calls
on this issue." By the calculation of the FCC commissioner
Adelstein, some 2.3 million comments or petition signatures opposing
media concentration had been registered with either the FCC or
Congress by the end of the summer.
EPILOGUE: THE HARDEST BATTLE HAS BEEN WON
If the best solution to the problem of
the media is widespread informed public participation in fundamental
media policy debate this book offers readers a happy ending. Regardless
of the outcome of the media ownership fight of 2003, the episode
was a remarkable and unprecedented moment in U.S. media history.
For the first time in generations, media policy issues were taken
from behind closed doors and made the stuff of democratic discourse
and political engagement.
... members of Congress agreed that in
2003, media ownership was their constituents' second most discussed
issue, trailing only the war in Iraq. It is unlikely that a media
policy issue has cracked Congress's top twenty list in the previous
For perhaps the first time ever, members
of Congress faced the prospect of losing votes, maybe even elections,
because of their stance on media policy issues. The change in
climate since 1996 when the corrupt Telecommunications Act had
been drafted, debated, and passed in almost total silence-could
not have been more dramatic. Most incredible of all, in January
2003 nobody anticipated this transformation.
In November 2003 the first National Conference on Media Reform
was held in Madison, Wisconsin. The conference organizers expected
a turnout of two hundred when the conference was originally proposed
in December 2002. Eleven months later it drew nearly two thousand
people from all over the nation, including the FCC's Copps and
Adeistein, John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO, Jesse Jackson, Bill Moyers,
PBS president Pat Mitchell, Ralph Nader, scores of journalists
and entertainers, and a half-dozen members of Congress. It is
amazing what a little political success does to a movement's self-confidence
and ambitions. Media reform has gone from being an abstract issue
with no sex appeal to one that is downright populist. It cuts
across the political spectrum. It allows for incremental victories-unlike,
say, campaign finance, for which any piecemeal reform invariably
leaves destructive loopholes. It can draw in allies for help on
specific measures, even though they might not support others.
It is politically flexible.
A whole cohort of media activist groups
entered 2004 energized. They drew up media reform proposals that
were proactive, and not merely defensive, and that covered a broad
range of issues. I do not mean to exaggerate the position we are
in today; many will argue that the power of organized money will
overwhelm efforts to organize people. We have a very long way
to go. But the very hardest battle has been won. Media reform
is now thinkable. Nothing will ever be the same again.
Problem of the Media