Up in Flames
Americans recognize that their media are experiencing digital Wal-Martization. Like the chain that earns billions but cannot be bothered to pay employee health benefits, major media concerns in the United States brag about their profits to Wall Street but still cry poor when it comes to covering the news that matters to Main Street. A 2002 study by the Project on the State of the American Newspaper found that the number of reporters covering state capitols across the country full-time had fallen to just over 500, a figure the American Journalism Review described as "the lowest number we have seen, and probably the lowest in at least the last quarter century." Is this the market at work? Have citizens demanded, in the midst of a period of devolution that has made state governments more powerful than ever, that they get less state capitol coverage? Not at all. "It comes almost entirely as a consequence of newsroom budget cuts by companies seeking to bolster their shrinking profit margins during an economic downturn," says AJR. Those cuts parallel a decline in political coverage on television news programs, which fell in 2002 to the lowest level in decades. And what if one corporation owned the newspaper as well as TV and radio stations in the same market? "It's a given that you'll see more cuts in staffing, fewer reporters covering city halls, state capitals, Washington and the world," says Newspaper Guild president Linda Foley. "And people know that. They know that if one company owns most of the media outlets--in their town, in their state or in the country as a whole--they are going to get a one-size-fits-all news that is a lot more likely to serve the people in power than it is the public interest and democracy."
To many Americans, it seems clear that the one-size-fits-all moment has already arrived. After years of decreasing international coverage--all the major television networks have shuttered foreign bureaus over the past decade in a wave of cutbacks that Pew International Journalism Program director John Schidlovsky refers to as "perhaps the single most negative development in journalism in my lifetime"--the United States found itself in March on the verge of launching a major invasion of a Middle Eastern country that most Americans could not locate on a map.
Indeed, it was the war on Iraq that triggered some of the most intense opposition to Powell's rules changes. At Bush's last prewar press conference, the White House press corps looked more like stenographers than journalists. Even some reporters were appalled; ABC News White House correspondent Terry Moran said the reporters looked "like zombies," while Copley News Service Washington correspondent George Condon Jr. told AJR that it "just became an article of faith among a lot of people: 'Look at this White House press corps; it's just abdicated all responsibility.'" Millions of Americans agreed. "I talked to people everywhere I went who said that if the media, especially the television media, had done its job, there wouldn't have been a war," says Representative Jim McDermott.
Powell only poured gasoline on the flames when he declared that the "thrilling" TV coverage of the war proved there was nothing to be concerned about with regard to media consolidation. Antiwar groups like MoveOn.org and Code Pink, which did not share Powell's view, became prime movers in the burgeoning movement to block the rules changes, providing vehicles for communicating grassroots sentiment to the FCC and Congress via MoveOn's networks and organizing protests and petition drives across the country.
But Powell's problems involved far more than antiwar activism. Even inside the guarded palace that houses the FCC in Washington, the chairman faced opposition. Concerned that the rules changes threatened the public interest he was sworn to uphold, dissident FCC commissioner Michael Copps organized more than a dozen informal hearings around the country where academics, journalists, musicians and others spoke in virtual unanimity against the changes. Another FCC member, Jonathan Adelstein, often accompanied Copps. He too heard that rather than relaxation of the ownership rules, most people wanted them tightened. Copps and Adelstein went on to cast the two June votes against the changes. For his part, Powell refused to attend the hearings, claiming he was too busy. (Powell was indeed busy: The Center for Public Integrity revealed that the chairman, the two other GOP commissioners and their aides held dozens of closed-doors meetings with corporate lobbyists and CEOs.)
Another galvanizing force in the fight over the rule changes was the growing awareness of the damage done by the relaxation of radio ownership rules in 1996: Radio quickly came to be dominated by behemoths like the 1,200-station Clear Channel and the 272-station Cumulus Media. Musicians like Don Henley told Congress about what a disaster consolidated radio had been for popular music. And in town after town when Copps held his hearings, the standard complaint was about the elimination of local radio news, or local programming in any form. This issue struck a chord not just with liberal activists but also with conservatives, who dislike the lack of local ownership and content that come with media concentration. Conservatives also maintained that the level of vulgarity and obscenity in popular culture was being driven upward primarily by the media conglomerates. By the end of the summer, Trent Lott and Jesse Helms joined Bernie Sanders and Representative Barbara Lee in calling for overturning Powell's ownership-rules changes.
The strange-bedfellow coalitions that have developed are remarkable. But they have not yet been sufficient to win the fight. Though more than 200 Democratic and Republican members of the House have signed a letter calling for a vote to overturn the FCC rules changes, that initiative is being stalled by Speaker Dennis Hastert and majority leader Tom DeLay. MoveOn.org, Free Press and other media reform groups are conducting a major grassroots campaign to win enough signers to reach the "magic" 218 threshold that signals a majority of the House wants a vote--which could push leaders to let the House voice its disapproval. The Bush White House doesn't want that to happen, because if the overturn proposal passes, Bush's loyalty to the big media lobby would put him under pressure to use what could be his first veto to block a measure that is enormously popular. With his sliding poll numbers, that would play directly into the growing belief that Bush is an opportunist more concerned with aiding the bank accounts of his billionaire benefactors than representing the interests of the American majority.
Even if Bush backs off and the rules are overturned, however, a victory only locks in the rules that were in place on June 2. Indeed, as commissioner Copps notes, the changes represent "only the latest, although perhaps most radical step in a twenty-year history of weakening public-interest protections." Thus, win or lose, the great media reform fight of 2003 will have been less about reform than about preventing a corrupted, corporation-dominated status quo from growing even more corrupt and corporate.
It is important to win the fight against the FCC rule changes for both symbolic and practical reasons. But it is even more important to recognize that this is merely the beginning of a struggle for real media reform in America. Thus, when the first National Conference on Media Reform convenes November 7-9 in Madison, Wisconsin, the focus will be on the future. "If all we do is fight defensive battles, the best we'll ever be able to hope for is that things won't get any worse. But that's not enough," says Sanders. "What we need is an agenda to make things better."