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Showdown at the FCC

Despite widespread protests and the Clear Channel debacle, the FCC is about to make it easier for the nation's biggest media conglomerates grow ever larger.
 
 
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The Bush Administration will soon hand the nation's biggest media conglomerates a new give-away that will concentrate media ownership in fewer hands. On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission, run by Michael Powell (son of Colin), plans to end long-standing federal checks and balances on corporate media power.

Companies behind the measure include the powerhouses of corporate media power: Rupert Murdoch's News Corp/Fox., General Electric/NBC, Viacom/CBS, Disney/ABC, Tribune Corp and Clear Channel. Once the rules are swept away, expect to see more mergers and buy-outs of radio and TV stations, major papers and even TV networks. It will then soon be possible for a single conglomerate to control most of a community's major media outlets, including cable systems and broadband Internet service providers. There will be fewer owners nationally of all major media outlets of communications.

Right-wing powerhouses are also likely to grow more powerful soon, unless opposed. Rupert Murdoch's Fox is planning to take over the country's most powerful satellite service, Direct TV. He will be able not only to control access to millions of households, he will use it as a "Death Star" to further expand his broadcast and cable TV empires. Meanwhile, liberals -- let alone progressives -- have no ownership influence over any major media outlet.

This is all happening despite the fact that growing numbers of the public are willing to stand up and express their unhappiness with the way media conglomerates are using the public airwaves. As Neil Hickey describes in his article, " The Gathering Storm Over Media Ownership," in hearings across the country there has been a huge outpouring of public concern and anxiety about the direction of the media system.

Not surprisingly, the media conglomerates thirst for more control as they seek to end media ownership limits. What all this means for our nation hasn't been covered by the media. There has been no TV network news coverage on the impending media give-away. Nor have the major dailies explained to readers what their lobbyists are doing and how such changes will affect journalism, politics and the public's First Amendment rights to a system fostering diversity of viewpoints and expression.

A rare exception was a recent column in the New York Times by conservative pundit William Safire arguing that the media system is hiding the real story because it is unwilling to "expose the broadcast lobby's pressure on Congress and the courts to allow station owners to gobble up more stations and cross-own local newspapers, thereby to determine what information residents of a local market receive."

The proposed FCC rule changes will further weaken the ability of mainstream journalism to serve as a critical public safeguard. Soon, reporters at newspapers will have to pay attention to whether they get TV ratings, once their papers become part of larger TV empires concerned about promoting advertising and "brandwashing." More importantly, the country will have even fewer gatekeepers over the news and popular culture that informs much of public consciousness. (Read more about this problem from media mogul Barry Diller, who made many revealing statements to Bill Moyers on a recent edition of his program NOW, on PBS.)

As recent TV coverage of the Iraq war illustrates, US media companies aren't interested in providing a serious range of analysis and debate. "Embedded" reporters present information from a point of view shared with U.S. soldiers. News outlets hire retired military generals to dish up the prominent "expert" point of view. Journalists regurgitate communiqués disseminated by the Pentagon. Corporate TV stations avoid feeding viewers information and images they "don't like" such as coverage of civilian casualties and protests. The network that 36 percent of people watch for their primary war coverage (Fox News, according to a recent Gallup poll), is a deliberately conservative mouthpiece. Furthermore, for the media companies to be heavily lobbying the Bush administration for give-aways that will net them billions of dollars -- while they are providing mostly uncritical coverage of the war -- gets to the crux of our media problem. Danny Schechter of the Media Channel provides more details of this media conglomerate war cheerleading collusion in "War Coverage Rewrites History."

The FCC's Powell is also promoting massive consolidation in cable TV and with online communications for this summer. Soon just two massive cable companies -- Comcast and AOL Time Warner -- may be legally permitted to own almost all of the nation's cable TV systems. And Powell has already removed critical safeguards that will enable cable and telephone giants to dominate high-speed Internet access -- which has alarmed the ACLU (and even other monopolists like Microsoft and Disney).

Some key members of Congress may be undergoing some reality therapy as citizens are forcing them to confront the stark ramifications of the media deregulation they have enabled. One overwhelming result of their actions, for example, is the Clear Channel Communications buying spree (the company now owns more than 1200 radio stations), which has run roughshod over the nation's commercial radio system, turning it into a wasteland of conformity and commercialism. In contrast, back in 1996, the combined total of the number of stations owned by the two largest radio chains was a mere 115. Eric Boehlert, as part of a powerful and detailed series on Salon.com on media concentration, explains how the Clear Channel situation may be producing a backlash.

A less known but also disturbing trend is represented by another conservative company, Sinclair Broadcast Group, which, as Paul Schmelzer writes in " The Death of Local News," is pioneering the frightening model of local news from a central sources thousands of miles away from the market. Meanwhile, perhaps unrelated to media concentration, but clearly connected to the war, female voices have just about disappeared from the media as documented by Caryl Rivers from Women's ENews.

Despite all the bad news, Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Access Project offers: "These decisions in June are hardly the end of it. There is a real effort to keep the FCC in check going forward. Cable ownership rules are up for review this summer. There will be a spate of mergers after the rules change, and organizing may be able to beat some of them back, and pushes for legislation to gain back some of what has been lost."

But in the big picture, unfortunately, elected officials have been silent about what will be the most significant changes in media diversity rules since the Reagan era. It's time to send Congress a message that they should speak up now and defend the right to free speech, competition and ownership diversity in the digital age. To make your voice heard go to MediaReform.net, a comprehensive website that makes it easy for you to register your protest about the FCC's media deregulation policies.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.org. Jeffrey Chester is the director of the Center for Digital Democracy.