More Media Disinformation? FCC
Proposes Greater Media Consolidation
by Stephen Lendman
On October 17, FCC chairman Kevin Martin
proposed lifting the 1975 media cross-ownership rule that forbids
a company from owning a newspaper and television or radio station
in the same city even though giant conglomerates like Rupert Murdock's
News Corp. and the (Chicago) Tribune Company already do. On November
13, he expanded on his earlier plan claiming changes will only
allow cross ownership "in the largest markets where there
exists competition and numerous voices."
That's not how Free Press.net's policy
director, Ben Scott, sees it in his statement on the same day
saying: "Chairman Martin's lofty rhetoric talks about saving
American newspapers and ensuring a diversity of voices. But the
devil is in the details. His new rules appear to be corporate
welfare for the (media giants) in the biggest cities (and) most
worrying....the proposed rules appear to contain a giant loophole
that could open the back door to runaway media consolidation in
nearly every market (in) another massive giveaway to Big Media."
If the ban is ended, that's what will
happen, and the trend author and journalist Ben Bagdikian documented
since 1983 will continue unimpeded. He did it in six editions
of his landmark book, "The Media Monopoly," plus his
newest 2004 update titled, "The New Media Monopoly."
Since 1983, the number of corporations
owning most newspapers, magazines, book publishers, recorded music,
movie studios, television and radio stations have shrunk from
50 to five "global-dimension firms, operating with many of
the characteristics of a cartel" - Time-Warner, Disney, News
Corp., Viacom and Bertelsmann AG based in Germany. Also large
and dominant are companies like cable giant Comcast and corporate
behemoth GE with its NBC television and radio operations.
When The Telecommunications Act of 1996
passed, its supporters claimed it would increase competition,
lower prices, improve service, and according to Vice-President
Al Gore be an "early Christmas present for the consumer."
Point of fact - it wasn't passed for the consumer or to discipline
the market. It had many anti-consumer provisions in it that included
giving media and telecom giants the right to consolidate further
through mergers and acquisitions.
Limits on TV station ownership were raised
to let broadcast giants own twice as many local stations as before.
For radio, it was even sweeter with all national limits on station
ownership removed, and on the local level one company henceforth
could own up to eight stations in a major market. In smaller ones,
two companies could own them all. The bill also consigned new
digital television broadcast spectrum space to current TV station
owners only and let cable companies increase their local monopoly
positions. The clear winners from this bill were the media and
telecom giants. As always, consumers lost out, and FCC chairman
Martin wants to make it worse by his October 17 proposal to end
the cross-ownership ban.
Further consolidation means less diversity
when there's already precious little. That's anathema to a healthy
democracy that depends on the free marketplace of ideas that's
greatly eroded since the 1980s. In 2003, the Michael Powell-run
FCC tried to weaken it further through a number of proposed changes
Congress blocked in the wake of strong public opposition to them.
That even aroused former CNN owner Ted Turner to say a further
rule relaxation would "stifle debate (and) inhibit new ideas."
The Media Access Project (MAP) also won a Third Circuit Court
June, 2004 decision in the Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC case
that ruled for diversity and democracy over greater media consolidation
and ordered the FCC to reconsider its ill-advised ownership rules
changes Powell's FCC proposed that included:
-- ending the cross-ownership ban under
consideration now that prohibits a company from owning a newspaper
and TV or radio station in the same city;
-- eliminating the previous ban on radio/TV
cross-ownership and replacing both types with a single set of
-- a concocted "diversity index"
to determine cross-media limits. It was based on assigning varying
weights to the various media to determine if markets retained
enough diversity. It would only consider ownership limits if by
its formula there wasn't enough. It was pure deception because
in major markets like New York the FCC gave equal or greater weighting
to a community college radio station than the New York Times and
local ABC affiliates;
-- cross-ownership limits only in smaller
markets. In ones with eight or more TV stations, proposed rules
changes would have no cross-ownership newspaper, TV and radio
-- a company would be able to own two
TV and six radio stations in the same market if at least 20 "independently
owned media voices" remained after a merger. If only 10 remained,
ownership would be limited to two TV and four radio stations;
-- redefining National Market Share to
mean the total number of households company TV stations reach
and raising the allowable ownership ceiling from 35% to 45%. A
39% compromise was reached to allow News Corp. and Viacom to keep
all their stations that already exceeded the allowable limit.
In spite of mass public opposition today,
FCC Chairman Martin wants to end limits on media ownership in
a plan to take effect in weeks or sooner if not stopped. He's
been allowing public comments on the proposal since mid-November
with a Republican three to two majority FCC vote planned for December
18. His move is the latest effort to end 1940s restrictions the
New York Times said (in February, 2002) were "rooted in the
fears of the European experience at the time that the television
industry in the United States could come to be dominated by a
few powerful interests." Ownership limits were gradually
eased thereafter, and mergers and acquisitions followed.
By the mid-1980s, no network was allowed
to control local media that reached over a fourth of the nation's
households, nor could it own more than 12 stations. The Telecommunications
Act of 1996 raised the limit to 35% that made possible almost
200 TV station mergers and acquisitions that followed.
It was no different for the three giant
radio broadcasters. They were able to acquire the great majority
of the 2000 stations bought between 1996 and 2000, after which
Clear Channel Communications bought AMFM Radio to become the nation's
largest radio broadcaster with over 900 stations (plus its 19
TV stations) that combined with its international holdings makes
it the largest one in the world.
Regulatory easing had a devastating effect
on local diversity according to Free Press.net Research Director
S. Derek Turner. In testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee
on October 23 he said: "Congress must send a message to the
FCC to stop its rush toward more consolidation. Ownership rules
exist for a reason: to increase diversity and localism, which
in turn produces more diverse speech, more choice for listeners,
and more owners who are responsive to their local communities."
Free Press, the Consumer Federation of
America and Consumers Union voiced their opposition to proposed
changes by filing thousands of pages of comments October 22 against
the FCC plan. Their research shows ownership limits enhance local
news quantity and quality. It refutes FCC's "inconsistent,
incompetent and incoherent" opposite claims case and fraudulent
press release in mid-November that its proposal was just a "minor
loosening of the (cross-ownership) ban....in (only) the very largest
markets and subject to certain criteria and limitations."
Left out of its comment was the fine print Free Press exposed
below on November 26 in 10 facts:
(1) "Martin's proposal (hides) corporate
welfare for Big Media (that will) unleash a buying spree in the
top 20 (media) markets."
(2) "Loopholes (through waivers)
open the door to cross-ownership" anywhere.
(3) "Loopholes allow newspapers to
own TV stations of any size (and) top-rated stations to (buy)
(4) "FCC history shows weak standards
won't protect the public (and) the FCC hasn't denied any temporary
waiver request in years."
(5) "Cross-ownership doesn't create
more local news" as dominant companies crowd out competition.
(6) "Cross-ownership won't solve
newspapers' financial woes" that are greatly exaggerated.
(7) "The Internet is an opportunity,
not a death sentence," and media consolidation won't help
traditional media's financial problems.
(8) "Martin's plan would harm minority
media owners" by making them takeover targets.
(9) "A broken and corrupt process
creates bad policies" that are characterized by FCC's secrecy
and rush to change media ownership rules for the media barons
(10) "The public doesn't want more
media consolidation" expressed by 99% of comments to FCC
opposing letting media giants "swallow up more local media."
The Prometheus Radio Project (dedicated
to a "free, diverse, and democratic media") also expressed
its concern about Chairman Martin's plan to weaken rules to allow
"unchecked corporate power in media" and the inadequate
timeline he set for public comments. Prometheus also wants scheduled
proceedings delayed until the Localism Task Force (established
in 2003 to strengthen broadcasting localism) integrates the results
of its work into FCC's ownership proposals. It stresses that corporations
don't own the airwaves. They belong to the public and "setting
a reasonable set of limitations on ownership (won't burden) those
(given) the privilege (to) broadcast signals for the public benefit."
Prometheus wants FCC to retain current ownership rules and devote
its efforts to establish more low power radio licenses, preserve
net neutrality, expand cable access, better use unlicensed spectrum
and promote diversity and localism.
The Senate Commerce Committee is now examining
Martin's proposal, and Senator Byron Dorgan predicted it would
be greeted by "a firestorm of protest" as in 2003. Other
senators voicing concern include Republican Trent Lott and Democrat
presidential candidate Barack Obama who called "the proposed
timeline and process....irresponsible" and added "the
Commission has failed to further the goals of diversity in the
media and promote localism, and as a result, it is in no position
to justify allowing for increased consolidation of the market."
Dorgan and Lott began work on a bipartisan bill to prevent FCC
from instituting new media consolidation rules. Dorgan predicted
on October 24 he's "confident any plan to allow additional
concentration of media ownership will be rejected" by Congress.
He and Lott also said they'd seek support
in Congress for a "resolution of disapproval" to overturn
the FCC rule if it's passed. It's a rare move that was only once
before used in 2003 when the Powell-led FCC tried to change the
rules. To take effect, it would have to pass both Houses by two-thirds
margins because George Bush is certain to veto it. Presidential
vetos are rarely overridden, but that pattern may not hold up
Support is building in Congress to stop
gutting media ownership rules. On October 24, over 40 House members
sent a letter to Chairman Martin to "resolve significant
shortcomings in (FCC's) plan regarding accountability, transparency,
and scientific integrity" in its current proposal. Of particular
concern were a lack of public hearings, the dismal state of female
and minority media ownership, and FCC's tainted research to make
its case for changing the rules. Senators Nelson and Snowe also
were critical. They called media consolidation "a critical
issue (that) requires a completely transparent process" and
urged Martin to complete his proceedings on localism and minority
ownership before addressing rules changes. Senate Commerce Committee
Chairman Inouye agrees and intends to hold hearings on media consolidation,
diversity and ownership to address these vital issues.
New developments on November 8 came from
a Senate Commerce Committee hearing at which Senators Dorgan and
Lott said they'd introduce legislation to quash the FCC's rush
to gut current rules. The bipartisan bill with many co-sponsors
is called the "Media Ownership Act of 2007." The Senate
Commerce Committee unanimously passed it on December 4, and it
now goes before the full Senate. If it becomes law, it will require
the FCC to publish any proposed rule changes in the Federal Register
90 days prior to a vote, give the public 60 days to comment and
another 30 days for reply comments. If the FCC fails to do this,
the bill voids any changes it approves. It also directs the FCC
to conduct a separate proceeding on localism and create an independent
minority and female ownership task force ahead of any efforts
to change the rules.
This development, growing public opposition
and calls for the FCC to complete its long-running study of how
broadcasters serve local communities should have delayed the December
18 vote Chairman Martin wants. Instead, it's now on the agenda
to be ruled on according to a December 12 FCC release that puts
the agency on a collision course with key lawmakers in Congress
who want more time to study the issue and greater public input.
Martin is also defying A Media and Democracy Coalition poll released
October 31 that showed 70% of respondents opposed media consolidation,
and 57% said owning a newspaper and TV station in the same market
should be illegal.
Then there's the StopBigMedia.com Coalition.
It's made up of grassroots "groups across the spectrum that
agree to a set of principles and have banded together to stop
the FCC from allowing a handful of giant corporations to dominate
America's media system." It's principles state:
-- democracy depends on a "free and
vibrant media full of diverse, local and competing voices;"
-- media ownership consolidation "has
dangerously reduced the number of (media) voices (that) seek to
minimize competition" and promote profits over the public
-- Congress and the FCC must ensure that
our media system is "an uninhibited marketplace of ideas
in which truth will prevail."
We have a long way to go to achieve these
goals, but the StopBigMedia.com Coalition is committed to doing
it. Its bottom line: "If we want better media, we need better
media policies" that are made by Congress and FCC. But they
won't come out of this FCC that's totally beholden to the media
It shows in its practices and reports
of its biased research, false claims, and a long history of ignoring
the public interest. That has growing numbers on Capitol Hill
saying FCC failed to make a case for further consolidation. It
now remains to be seen if Congress and the courts will back the
public interest the way they did in 2003.
Not if the Wall Street Journal's editorial
page view prevails as it weighed in on this issue prominently
on October 25. It accused Senators Dorgan and Lott of "shilling
for local broadcasters who don't want the competition," when,
in fact, that's exactly what they want. It also attacked the "political
left's ideological paranoia (over) corporate media ownership"
saying it has "no such objection to the left's operational
control of National Public Radio or PBS" when, in fact, both
broadcasters are corporate America tools and never met a US-led
war they didn't love and support.
All the Journal can do is shill for the
media giants and note how it's "long favored letting the
free market determine the size of a company." It further
cites media concentration as a fait accompli new technologies
will allow to continue. By Journal logic (and the Martin FCC):
"This has led not to monopolies but to a media landscape
that is more diverse than ever (with) more news and entertainment
options." Media theorist Neil Postman had a different view.
He once called Americans the most over-entertained, under-informed
people in the world and wrote about it in books like "Amusing
Ourselves to Death." Further media consolidation guarantees
much more of the same with the public, as always, the loser.
Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate
of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago
and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also visit his blog site at www.sjlendman.blogspot.com
and listen to The Steve Lendman News and Information Hour on
www.TheMicroEffect.com Mondays at noon US Central time.
Stephen Lendman is a frequent contributor
to Global Research. Global Research Articles by Stephen Lendman