A Stealth Attack on Freedom of the Press
The Federal Communications Commission is presently conducting an inquiry--a "rulemaking"--to determine whether to relax, or even to eliminate, the remaining few regulations that limit how many media entities a single company may own. Regulations still standing include: prohibiting the ownership of a TV station and a newspaper in the same community; limiting a company to owning not more than 35 percent of all TV stations in the United States; and limiting a single company to providing cable TV services to no more than 30 percent of the US population. The FCC will likely reach a decision by the summer. This rulemaking is going on in virtual secrecy, with powerful corporate lobbyists dominating the deliberations. The stakes are extremely high. For the firms, such a relaxation could mean a dramatic rise in company value almost overnight. For the public, further deregulation will lead to another wave of media consolidation, with all that that suggests for the marketplace of ideas.
The case opposing further deregulation is being organized by the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Digital Democracy. The following was written to be part of their brief:
We have read the various reports and filings before the Federal Communications Commission concerning the proposed relaxation, or elimination, of the last restrictions on media ownership. Our purpose here is not to lay out any new empirical data in support of a position. Rather, we wish to offer a few general points concerning the importance of these rules--observations based on our combined four decades of research as media scholars.
First, there are no grounds in either law or history for the notion that cable and broadcasting are essentially "free-market" enterprises, in whose affairs the government must never intervene. The very fact that these are now commercial enterprises was itself determined not by God or nature, but at a certain point in time by public policy. Such markets could not even exist without government licensing of monopoly rights to spectrum or cable franchises. When the government allocates these privileges, it does not set the terms of competition so much as it selects the winners of that competition. The issue, therefore, is not whether government will play a role, but the precise identity of those whom it will serve by intervening. To put it bluntly: Will it serve the people--and, if so, how--or will it serve a few large profit-making entities? It is that question which the policy debates are meant to answer.
Second, for communication policy to be most effective in a functioning democracy, it requires the greatest possible degree of informed participation by the public. If the hearings on these regulations are restricted to self-interested commercial parties, with only marginal participation by any other interests, the outcome will surely be agreeable to those well-fixed insiders--and no one else. Given the importance of these regulations, it is imperative that the FCC and Congress act to open up such hearings to the general public, and to facilitate their contribution to the ongoing debate. The commission certainly should not relax the rules concerning media ownership without the informed consent of the American people.
Third, in these times of excessive corporate influence on US politics, the FCC must be particularly vigilant against corruption of its policy-making. The same large private firms that have been lobbying aggressively for relaxation of these rules are also among the largest donors to the campaigns of Congressional and presidential candidates. (They are also among the main beneficiaries of outlandish campaign spending, as TV stations profit hugely from political advertising, and therefore lobby hard against campaign finance reform.) Thus there is a powerful whiff of impropriety to this whole process--especially since these hearings are unknown to nearly all Americans. The commission must do everything within its power to ensure that it does not lose popular respect. In our view, hearings should be held in communities across the nation rather than in tightly controlled Washington offices.
Along these lines, we should add that during the course of discussing media issues with several members of Congress in January 2002, it became clear that virtually none of them, including a member of the committee that oversees the FCC, are aware of the current FCC hearings, despite the fact that these hearings rank among the most important in the FCC's sixty-eight-year history. This has the earmarks of the sort of backroom politicking that has marked some of the darkest chapters in American history.