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

Christopher Lasch
"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 signal interference.

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 LPFM plan.

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 of 2003.

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 address.

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 this everywhere.

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, and organized labor. On numerous occasions 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.


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 half century.

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.

The Problem of the Media

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