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.
Fourth, the FCC should not share the presumption, common to the media corporations, that whatever is most lucrative for them is also best for the American people. On the contrary: The commission ought to honor the ideals of our democracy by holding the presumption that our media should not be centralized by any sort of concentrated ownership, whether governmental or commercial. As the commissioners know, this nation was founded on--and, indeed, enabled by--the principle that centralized control over the press is incompatible with genuine self-government. The Founders understood the crucial democratic value of a press system that would give the people more than just a choice of different items penned by others, but a daily chance to speak up for themselves. A huge cartel that deals in very similar journalistic "product"--and one dominated not by citizens but by transnational corporations--was surely not what Jefferson or Adams had in mind.
Fifth, to put this another way, unless there is overwhelming evidence that letting media firms own still more media will somehow raise the quality of broadcast news and entertainment, the FCC should at least maintain the regulatory status quo--or even consider further tightening the rules. The fact that further concentration poses no immediate threat to the Republic does not justify the relaxation of the current rules. The historical record offers ample evidence that we cannot foresee the full effects of such a move, and so caution here is well advised. Trying to restore such regulations once they have been lifted would be near-impossible, so powerful are the media lobbies.
Sixth, one need only look at the current state of radio to see what's likely to ensue should the regulations be relaxed. The 1996 Telecommunications Act deregulated radio broadcasting so that any single firm could thenceforth own as many stations as it wished. (Previously the national cap had been twenty-eight.) The consequence: Over the past six years, the nation's radio stations have been gobbled up by just a handful of colossal firms, like Clear Channel and Viacom, that each own hundreds of stations--and up to eight in certain of the cities where they operate. These behemoths use their market power to standardize their fare, lower the amount of local programming (which now appears to cost too much) and jack up the amount of advertisements and overall commercialism. Small stations, unable to compete, sell out, and listeners pay the price. (Drive across the country with your car radio on, and you will hear the same thing playing everywhere.) It may be good for Wall Street and the pricey lobbyists inside the beltway, but on Main Street it means mostly trash and boredom.
Seventh, the claims of the media giants should be taken with a giant grain of salt. All their arguments are mere fig leaves, posed to hide their naked self-concern. For example, the giants claim that deregulation will spur competition, lower prices and better service. If there were any truth to that proposition, those corporations and their lobbyists would not be pushing for it. The truth is that such deregulation will permit those firms to get so much larger that they will have less fear of real competition and all the more ability to commercialize their content for the sake of greater profit. This truth is well-known in the business community, whose members categorically dismiss the cant that these firms feed the FCC in their pursuit of more deregulation.
Eighth, the media giants also claim that the emergence of the Internet moots all social, aesthetic, political and cultural concerns about increasing media concentration. After all, the argument goes, what does it matter if a few companies have massive empires when there are millions of websites operating at minimal cost competing for our attention? The problem with this argument is that the market-driven Internet has not given rise to a new generation of commercially viable media content providers. Capitalism trumps technology. It is now clear that for the Internet to provide a well-funded alternative to corporate media fare, it will require explicit policies to enable that development. And it is also clear that if the media corporations are allowed to get larger than they are already, they will be even better positioned to maintain their dominance in the digital era and to snuff out any potential challenger in its digital infancy.
Ninth, there are some--even among those who are critical of the US media system--who believe that such concerns as ours are overblown. After all, they say, media content was no better decades ago, when there was greater competition. Or, they might argue, the much-romanticized small commercial media frequently provide worse fare than what the media giants offer us. These comments are beside the point. Certainly, the concentration of the media is not the only factor that affects the conduct of the press or the quality of entertainment. Even more competitive markets in broadcasting have flaws, due to the obsessive pursuit of profit and, in particular, the reliance upon advertising as a major source of funding.
To a great extent, commercialism per se is the problem, for while the commercial media have given us some excellent material over time, there are some kinds of work--dramatic, comedic, journalistic--that they are disinclined to invest in. Moreover, the media giants' overemphasis on a few large demographic blocs has neglected many other, smaller audiences, and has contributed immensely to the dumbing down of both news and entertainment. For these reasons, we need, as a crucial complement to the commercial media, a broad range of independent, nonprofit and noncommercial outlets. Such a new resource would certainly enrich our culture and society--and so would a more competitive commercial sphere. While concentration at the top is surely not the only factor that affects the media's performance, the fact is that in nearly every instance, the overall effect of such consolidation has been negative, both for the media's workers and the audience.
Tenth, the champions of further ownership deregulation do make two noteworthy points: First, the emergence of digital technologies, which undermine the distinctions among media, has made traditional regulations obsolete. Second, it is indeed unfair that some media companies and industries cannot compete on equal terms with firms that have had the good fortune to perform in the less-regulated media sectors. The solution to this problem is, however, not to abandon media ownership regulations entirely, but to revise them to take the new technologies into consideration, and then to generate new rules that apply across all media. Such regulations can never be generated in the forums currently provided by the FCC, where high-roller lobbyists make their case behind closed doors, without participation by, or awareness of, the public.
To conclude, the FCC should not now relax the media ownership regulations to permit greater media concentration. Any hearings into the alteration of these rules should be moved well outside the beltway, with numerous public forums established for broad-based citizen participation. The commission should be openly--and proudly--biased toward media multiplicity and not further concentration, which now poses a considerable threat to our democracy.