Media policy-making, with its overwhelming bias toward corporate consolidation, dumbed-down content and bottom-line decision-making, has been properly described for some time as “scandalous.” Now the quotation marks can be removed; the scandal is official. In September came revelations that Federal Communications Commission officials had, since 2003, blocked the release of major reports that showed the danger of allowing a handful of media conglomerates to control communications. The suppression of the reports dramatically illustrates how an agency charged with protecting the public interest instead does the bidding of the telecommunications corporations it should regulate. One report found that locally owned television stations provide 20 percent more local news than stations owned by the broadcast behemoths. Another detailed a 35 percent drop in the number of independently owned radio stations following the removal of most ownership caps by the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Taken together, the reports make a powerful argument against moves by the Bush Administration and the FCC’s Republican majority to further undermine ownership limits.
After whistleblowers revealed details of the suppression of the reports, thirty-four House members demanded that the FCC’s inspector general launch an investigation. “We believe that a full accounting of the circumstances surrounding the possible suppression of these reports is essential if the FCC is to be perceived as acting in good faith on media ownership issues by Congress and the American people,” they argued. Feeling pressure, FCC chair Kevin Martin agreed to an investigation. But the scandal has not slowed Martin’s rush to promote further consolidation with a new round of rule changes that are expected to include an attempt to eliminate the ban on cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast outlets. Such a shift would allow one corporation to own newspapers, television and radio stations, the cable system and the busiest Internet sites in one community. This would create media “company towns” where the discourse is defined by a single newsroom. That means big profits for firms that own the “news,” and big democracy deficits for citizens–which is why 3 million Americans opposed an FCC move to ease ownership limits when the issue arose in 2003.
A federal appeals court blocked implementation of the changes favored by the FCC majority then, but Martin is now attempting to write rules that pass legal muster. Dissident commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein are demanding that Martin hold public hearings on proposed policies, and they’ve worked with media reformers to open up the process by organizing unofficial town meetings involving religious, senior-citizen, minority and community groups. But, as Copps notes, the expressions of grassroots opposition to further consolidation have garnered scant mainstream media coverage. Congressional pressure will help, especially if Democrats recognize that reforming media policies is smart policy and smart politics.
There is a dawning awareness that something is fundamentally wrong with the way American media operate. The Save the Internet campaign to preserve the principle of net neutrality and prevent development of a multi-tiered Internet–where websites that pay for the privilege are easily reached, while those that can’t pay are rendered inaccessible–has turned into a pitched battle to prevent old-media telephone and cable firms from colonizing new media. At the same time, communities are waking up to the crisis created by outside ownership of local newspapers, as evidenced by the fight to prevent the gutting of the Los Angeles Times by its distant Tribune Company owners. Pressure from journalists and citizens could force the sale of the Times to local investors who are exploring new ownership models.
While it’s exciting to ponder the prospect of returning so large a property as the Times to conscientious local ownership, the trend is still toward bigness and consolidation. That’s why it’s vital to expose the past failures by the FCC to uphold the public interest and to prevent the agency from further loosening ownership rules. That’s also why it is essential to elect a Congress willing to crack down on consolidation by writing rules that encourage localism, diversity of ownership, competition and a renewed commitment to fostering a democratic discourse.