If FCC chairman Kevin Martin gets his way, News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch will be able to go into the largest American city and buy the daily newspapers, the “alternative”
weeklies, the neighborhood and suburban weeklies, the eight biggest radio stations, the most watched TV stations and the most popular websites. Then he can start making real money by producing the news and commentary for those different forums from one downsized, dumbed-down but dominant “local” newsroom.
That’s a local problem, with profound ramifications for already undercovered urban and low-income areas. But there’s a national threat as well. Representatives, senators, even Presidents are elected on a region-by-region, state-by-state basis, so when the dominant media in a battleground state speak with one voice, the owner will shape not just the local agenda but the national debate.
The dream of attaining such power and profit is what makes Murdoch, Tribune Company-buyer Sam Zell and other media moguls refuse to take no for an answer from Americans who recognize the nightmarish prospect of this threat to diversity, discourse and democracy. Don’t forget that when Martin’s predecessor, Michael Powell, moved in 2003 to eliminate cross-ownership limits, nearly 3 million Americans of all political stripes– from the NRA to Code Pink–united in a media democracy movement to protest. The courts blocked the change, citing the “arbitrary and capricious” nature of the FCC’s changes. But the companies kept cajoling the Bush White House and its FCC appointees. Now Martin says the commission will attempt to redraw the ownership rules before Christmas.
There’s no debating Martin’s intentions. Consumer Federation of America research director Mark Cooper says, “The chairman has already decided what rule changes he wants to make–he is just going through the motions.” Public comment is the last thing Martin wants, as town hall meetings in recent months have revealed overwhelming opposition to lifting limits on cross-ownership. Dissident FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein will highlight citizen opposition as they seek to prevent Martin’s rush to rewrite the rules. But the two Democrats are outnumbered by three Bush appointees. The only way to maintain media diversity is for Congress and the public to join the debate. Martin’s scheming should be challenged at every turn by Nation readers and citizens in grassroots campaigns like that of the StopBigMedia.com Coalition.
Presidential candidates must be pressed to use their bully pulpits to denounce this power grab by Big Media and to stake out a prodemocracy approach to media issues and the kinds of appointments they would make to the next FCC. Congress must schedule oversight hearings to highlight the commission’s failure to study the damage already done by media consolidation and the threat posed by more.
Hearings should be part of a broader crackdown on federal giveaways to the telecom industry–including the current attempt by the Administration to secure immunity from civil lawsuits for telephone and Internet providers that tap Americans’ phones and computers without court approval. Even if scrutiny does not cause Martin to back down, sustained public outcry will strengthen the case for judicial intervention.
This is not just a fight about media ownership. It is a fight about whether the bedrock of self-governance–a free, diverse, responsive and responsible press–will survive. If Kevin Martin has his way, Americans will be stuck with one-size-fits-all media and a downsized democracy.