While every topic addressed in this special Nation issue is vital to America’s future, one issue binds them all together: media ownership reform. Whether it’s the war in Iraq or the latest Supreme Court decision, how and where Americans receive their news is critically important. But deregulation has paved the way for a few media companies to dominate the country’s information distribution system. Congress must step in to reverse the trend toward media consolidation.
Changes in media ownership have been swift and staggering. Over the past two decades the number of major US media companies fell by more than one half; most of the survivors are controlled by fewer than ten huge media conglomerates. As media outlets continue to be gobbled up by these giants, the marketplace of ideas shrinks. New and independent voices are stifled. And the companies that remain are under little obligation to provide reliable, quality journalism. Stories that matter deeply to the country’s well-being have been replaced by sensationalized murders and celebrity gossip.
How did we get here? During the Reagan Administration the Federal Communications Commission made abrupt changes to loosen media regulations. Since then our government has favored benefits to big media over the interests of the people. One of the most blatant examples came in 2003, when then-FCC chairman Michael Powell attempted to implement new rules to allow a corporation to own–in a single local market–up to three TV stations and eight radio stations, along with the area’s cable TV system, numerous cable channels and its major (or only) daily newspaper. A federal court temporarily blocked those new rules, but the door remains dangerously open for similar changes to be made under Powell’s successor, Kevin Martin. And with President Bush appointing right-wing judges, courts could easily swing in favor of the conglomerates, eliminating a last opportunity for recourse.
That makes Congressional action imperative. Last year I founded the nonpartisan Future of American Media Caucus, which holds briefings designed to give members of Congress new perspectives on pressing media issues. I’ve also introduced the Media Ownership Reform Act (HR 3302). MORA would restore the Fairness Doctrine–a provision, overturned by the FCC in 1987, that required broadcasters to offer alternative points of view on controversial issues. MORA would reinstate a national cap on radio- and TV-station ownership. It would also lower the number of outlets one company can own in a local market and require more independent programming. In addition to restoring some of the key regulations that have been axed since the 1980s, the bill would insure that broadcasters meet the needs of local communities and would mandate public outreach and public input into programming decisions.
It will not be easy to reverse our recent history of media consolidation. But unless we do, another dangerous trend will continue: the dumbing down of America.