Since 1996 an unprecedented spate of media mega-mergers has made it difficult for anyone to know which conglomerate owns what outlet, even in our own cities and towns. Meanwhile, aspiring media giants that don’t appear on the map–corporations such as Clear Channel Communications (which owns around 1,200 radio stations and provides programming for 5,000 others), Tribune Company (the only corporation to own a newspaper and broadcast television station in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago) and Sinclair Broadcast Group (which owns, operates, programs or provides sales services to fifty-eight television stations in thirty-six markets)–have aggressively lobbied Congress and worked the courts to eliminate the few remaining ownership caps. If The Nation runs a twentieth-anniversary consolidation chart in 2016, they want to be on it.
Unfortunately, most Americans no longer need a map to know that consolidation has degraded the media ecosystem on which the nation’s democratic and cultural life depends. During the past decade, as chains and conglomerates took over locally owned and -operated newspapers, radio stations and television stations everywhere, Americans experienced the downside of concentration firsthand. The local reporters, veteran TV anchors, producers and live DJs who once provided the stories, sights and sounds that made our hometowns feel like home have become endangered species in the age of Big Media, replaced by the same wire copy, digitally voice-tracked radio programs, video news releases and other canned content that runs in every market, coast to coast.
No one, except the owners of conglomerates, benefits from concentrated control of local media, and in the past decade public outrage over the costs of consolidation has helped turn the embryonic media reform movement into the nation’s fastest-growing bipartisan political project, uniting progressives from MoveOn.org and Common Cause with conservatives from the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association, and everyone in between. When former FCC chairman Michael Powell tried to gut the nation’s already feeble media ownership restrictions in 2003, he set off a torrent of popular dissent so strong that some 3 million letters of complaint, written by members of an expansive bipartisan coalition, poured into the capital over the next two years, while citizens packed town halls in big cities and small towns to protest.
This summer it’s prime time for the media reform movement once again. On May 26 the Senate confirmed Robert McDowell’s appointment as the third Republican commissioner on the five-member FCC. Like the current chairman, Kevin Martin, McDowell is a former Bush campaign worker, and he pledges to eliminate the “cumbersome underbrush of unnecessary government regulation.” Analysts expect that chairman Martin will soon initiate a new process to further relax media ownership rules. Since Americans overwhelmingly oppose more media deregulation, Martin’s success depends on whether he can work with Congress to change the laws quickly and quietly, without stirring up much public debate. If Big Media has its way, the policy decision that will help shape the future of democracy in America will be made without any democracy at all.