Up in Flames

Up in Flames

The public revolts against monopoly media.


Poor, poor, pitiful Michael Powell. His term as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was supposed to be easy. He thought that like FCC chairs before him, his job was to jet around the country meeting at swank resorts with the CEOs of major media companies, take some notes and then quietly implement their sweeping agenda for loosening the last significant constraints on media consolidation in the United States. Nobody except some corporate lobbyists and their political acolytes would know what was going on. Then, when his term was up, he would get a cushy job with industry or another plum political appointment. Look at his predecessor, William Kennard, who now rakes in big money brokering telecommunications deals for the Carlyle Group. It was supposed to be a win-win scenario for Powell and the people he regulated.

Instead, everything went wrong. The FCC broke its traditional lockstep and experienced a very public 3-to-2 split in June votes that narrowly endorsed six media-ownership rule changes, including one that would allow a single network to control television stations reaching 45 percent of all American households and another that would allow one media company to buy up the daily newspaper, as many as three television stations, eight radio stations and (thanks to a separate court ruling) the cable system in a single market. Then, despite the fact that Powell claimed he was acting under pressure from the judiciary, a federal appeals court blocked the changes until a full judicial review could determine whether the public interest was being damaged. A few days later, while Powell continued to insist he was relaxing the rules to meet the Congressional mandate contained in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to block implementation of the changes. All his rationales have blown up in his face like a trick cigar.

And things could be getting worse for Powell. Even as the Bush White House seeks to preserve the FCC chair’s handiwork–presumably on the theory that it is payback time for big media companies, like Clear Channel, General Electric and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, that have supported Bush’s campaigns–the conservative leadership in the House is faced with an unprecedented revolt among Republicans, who are signing on to a bipartisan letter that demands a vote on whether the chamber should join the Senate in disapproving the rule changes.

Powell purports to know why things have gone awry. In a remarkable series of interviews with the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNBC, Powell said the normal rule-making process had been upset by “a concerted grassroots effort to attack the commission from the outside in.” Seemingly unaware that a public agency like the FCC could, in fact, be addressed by the public, he expressed amazement that as many as 3 million Americans have contacted the FCC and Congress to demand that controls against media monopoly be kept in place. Capitol Hill observers say media ownership has been the second most discussed issue by constituents in 2003, trailing only the war on Iraq. Following Brecht’s famous dictum, Michael Powell wants to fire the people.

Who are these attackers of the status quo who have so upset Powell’s best-laid plans? Noam Chomsky and William Safire both came out against the rule changes. So did Common Cause and the National Rifle Association. Reformer Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers Union and conservative Brent Bozell of the Parents Television Council co-wrote an op-ed opposing Powell’s rules relaxation. People who disagree on just about everything found themselves in agreement that in this debate over whether a handful of corporations should be allowed to dominate the discourse, the already fragile health of American democracy was at stake.

Powell’s attempt to co-opt this anger by organizing public hearings on insuring local content on radio and TV failed miserably. The first hearing, on October 22, in Charlotte, North Carolina, drew an overflow crowd that cheered songwriter Tift Merritt when she told Powell, “To try to talk about localism without discussing media ownership is avoiding the issue.” Independent Representative Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the leading Congressional critic of media monopoly, explains that “It is not a coincidence that everything blew up the way it did this year. The American people know they are getting less information than they had before about decisions that are being made in their name, and they know that we are passing some critical points where, if we don’t act, citizens are not going to have the information they need to function in a democracy.”

The diversity of the opposition confirms that the FCC rules have become a lightning rod for concerns not just about the specific issue of consolidation of media but also about a host of systemic flaws that have become evident as mass media have come increasingly to be defined by commercial and corporate concerns. People who have long felt shut out of the mainstream of American media–people of color, women, trade unionists and farmers–stood with families concerned about excessive violence and sexuality on television and in the movies. Journalists who found it harder and harder to do their job for reasons ranging from staffing cuts to inappropriate pressure to appear patriotic found common ground with activists still furious over the collapse of serious coverage of the 2000 election in general and the Florida recount fiasco. They were joined by masses of citizens who had watched with increasing disgust after September 11 as supine reporters unquestioningly accepted Administration contentions regarding the terrorist attacks and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that followed.

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.”

What are the pieces of that agenda?

§ Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, is right to argue for a renewed look at antitrust initiatives. Competition and diversity have been under assault for more than two decades, and it is time to consider the effect on the marketplace of ideas when reviewing media mergers. It is time, as well, for the federal government to engage in a period of study and debate leading to agreed-on caps on media ownership that are considered appropriate for a democracy. The current system of case-by-case review of proposed mergers, which frequently results in the making of exceptions for individual firms and then whole sectors of media, is an abject failure.

§ Congress should roll back the number of radio stations a single firm can own. Senator Russ Feingold is considering sponsoring such legislation. Congress should also be pushed to pass legislation prohibiting media cross-ownership and vertical integration. There are tremendous economic benefits to media conglomeration–but they accrue almost entirely to the media owners. The public gets the shaft.

§ The regulatory process, which is in disarray and awash in corruption, must be reinvigorated. Commissioner Copps will hold a series of town meetings this fall designed to draw attention to the power that citizens still have to challenge the licenses of local broadcast outlets. “Most people do not even know that they can challenge the renewal of a local radio or television station if they believe that the station is not living up to its obligation due to a lack of local coverage, a lack of diversity, excessive indecency and violence, or for other concerns important to the community,” says Copps. Activism needs to be directed at the hometown level, where broadcast licenses can be challenged.

§ The promised expansion of access by not-for-profit groups to low-power FM radio-station licenses, which was scuttled by a back-room deal in Congress several years ago, must take place [see Kevin Y. Kim, page 22]. Parallel to this shift in policy, tax incentives should be created to aid in the development of new, community-based, noncommercial broadcasting outlets.

§ Funding for public broadcasting must expand dramatically. Only about 15 percent of funding for public radio and television comes from federal subsidies. And what funding does come from Congress is subject to great political pressures. Public broadcasting at the federal and state levels has the potential to provide a model of quality journalism and diversified cultural programming. But that won’t happen if cash-starved PBS and NPR outlets are required, as some propose, to rely on the same sort of thirty-second spot advertising that dominates commercial broadcasting.

§ Broadcasters must be forced to give candidates free air time. Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold, the authors of the only meaningful campaign-finance-reform legislation of the past decade, are now proposing such a requirement. Their initiative is essential to making not just better campaigns but better media. Currently, media conglomerates are among the most powerful lobbyists against both campaign finance reform and media reform. The system works for them, even as it fails the rest of us.

§ Media conglomerates must not be allowed to impose their will on the United States and other countries via international trade deals. Media firms are currently lobbying the World Trade Organization and other multilateral organizations to accept a system of trade sanctions against countries that subsidize public broadcasting, that limit foreign ownership of media systems or that establish local content standards designed to protect national and regional cultures. They want similar assaults on regulation inserted into the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Representative Sherrod Brown is right when he says Congress should not pass trade agreements that undermine the ability of Congress to aid public broadcasting and protect media diversity and competition.

§ Beyond specific regulatory and trade fights, the media reform movement must address what ails existing media. Still top-heavy with white middle-class men, TV news departments and major newspapers remain in thrall to official sources. Their obsessive focus on crime coverage and celebrity trials leaves no room for covering the real issues that affect neighborhoods and whole classes of people. Coverage of communities of color, women, gays and lesbians, rural folks and just about everyone else who doesn’t live in a handful of ZIP codes in New York and Los Angeles is badly warped, and it creates badly warped attitudes in society. Those attitudes shape the public discourse and public policy. Thus, media reformers must support the struggle to expand access to the airwaves and to assure that independent and innovative journalists, writers and filmmakers have the resources to create media that reflect all of America [see Makani Themba-Nixon and Nan Rubin, page 17].

This agenda is already long. And it is just the beginning. We have not even broached all the policies that will affect the Internet, such as copyright and access. That it is possible for a growing number of Americans to imagine these sorts of reforms being implemented provides a measure of recent progress. A year ago the conventional wisdom was that media reform was a nonstarter as a political issue–because even some activists feared it was too abstract for people to sink their teeth into, because the corporate lobbies owned the politicians and regulators, and because, for obvious reasons, there was next to no coverage of media policy fights. Now, the world looks very different. Media reform clearly registers with millions across the political spectrum. The range of issues being put into play provides rare opportunities for the forces of civil society to win tangible victories. Even small victories can have big meaning, but they won’t come easily. Michael Powell may be shellshocked, but the people who have grown accustomed to running media policy in this country–the media conglomerates, their lobbyists and those politicians they still manipulate like channel clickers–aren’t going to give up without a fight.

There is real work to be done. For a media reform movement that is sustainable enough, broad-based enough and powerful enough to forge real changes in media ownership patterns, and in the character of American media, it is essential to build upon the passionate base of activists who did so much to make media an issue in 2003. We have to make media policy part of the 2004 presidential debate and all the campaigns that will follow it. And we have to make it a part of the kitchen-table debates where the real course of America can, and should, be plotted. To do that, the media reform movement that captured the imagination of antiwar activists and others in 2003 must burrow just as deeply into labor, church, farm and community groups, which are only beginning to recognize how their ideals and ambitions are being damaged. If the initial challenge was one of perception–making media an issue–the next challenge is one of organization. “Media reform has become an issue for millions of Americans,” says Bernie Sanders. “Now, we’ve got to make media reform more than an issue. We have to make it a reality for all Americans.”

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