These days, it’s the media conglomerates who are drunk with power–demanding a larger share of the nation’s airwaves and threatening to turn the World Wide Web into an electronic theme park–and we’re the ones with a twelve-step program. But at least with this particular regimen you won’t bore your friends with tales of self-discipline and sobriety. For this is a twelve-step plan on behalf of a more democratic media system, a collective effort to ensure that alternative, independent voices will still be heard over the growing din of conglomerate media culture.
Listed below are twelve opportunities for activism across three broad areas of concern:
Concentration and Control
Although the Information Age has blunted somewhat the force of A.J. Liebling’s famous dictum–“freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”–the consolidation of ownership across the various media remains a threat to our democracy. The public’s right to information and ideas from the widest possible range of sources means little in a world dominated by a handful of interlocking media giants. There may be more media outlets than ever before, given the enormous range of niche publications, special-interest websites and self-produced recordings, but the mass media–more massive today than ever–scarcely admit independent or alternative voices. As the Consumers Union pointed out in testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation in July 2001, mere variety is no substitute for genuine diversity, as the growth in media variety “has not been accompanied by a comparable growth of independent, diversely owned competitive communications services and media voices.”
A major component of any effort to ensure democratic media, then, is a regulatory structure that sets limits on the amount of market power that any one company can amass (and here we are more concerned with the “marketplace of ideas,” so vital to our democracy, than with ratings points or circulation figures, which often go to the highest bidder).
Unfortunately, many of the ownership safeguards established to protect the public interest have come under attack, and the reigning laissez-faire spirit in Washington, spearheaded by FCC Chairman Michael Powell, does not augur well for the preservation of these safeguards. Thus advocacy efforts are urgently needed in the following four areas:
1. Ownership Limits
One after another, the final few defenses against media oligopoly are coming up for review at the FCC (which recently indicated that it would review all of these media ownership regulations before announcing any specific policy changes). These safeguards include the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban (no single company can own both a newspaper and a broadcast outlet in the same market) and the cable ownership cap (no company can serve more than 30 percent of the nation’s cable households) that are under review. Limits on the number of TV stations a network or station group can own (currently limited to 35 percent of the national audience) are also being considered, as the powerful media lobby–lining campaign coffers with one hand, threatening negative coverage with the other–makes its case for complete deregulation. But don’t look for this revolution to be televised or covered anywhere else in the mainstream press, since media attention to this issue (which has generated literally thousands of pages of court and FCC filings) has been scant. But there are a number of organizations (including Media Access Project, Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America) that are working to stem the tide of media deregulation. For a guide to how to fight back against the media giants, see the Center for Digital Democracy’s (CDD) Take Action toolkit.