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Mad as Hell at the FCC

The public as well as opinion leaders of diverse ideological stripes are finally so outraged by the FCC sellout that they are demanding action.
 
 
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If you've followed the media-consolidation story for lo these many years, you might discern a certain resemblance to the movie "Groundhog Day" -- with one notable difference. Bill Murray was destined merely to live out the same day over and over again. With media concentration, it gets a little worse each time, as more television channels, radio stations, and newspapers fall into the hands of ever-larger, ever-fewer corporate owners.

Thus it was this past Monday, when the Federal Communications Commission -- chaired by Michael Powell, son of the secretary of state -- voted by a three-to-two margin to loosen the few restraints that were still in place. Daily newspapers will now be able to buy television and radio stations in the same communities in which they publish, a heretofore illegal arrangement known as "cross-ownership." Conglomerates will be allowed to own television stations reaching 45 percent of the national audience, up from 35 percent. A company will be allowed to own two -- and in some larger cities three -- TV stations in the same market.

"It violates every tenet of a free democratic society to let a handful of powerful companies control our media," said FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein in a blistering dissent. "The public has a right to be informed by a diversity of viewpoints so they can make up their own minds. Without a diverse, independent media, citizen access to information crumbles, along with political and social participation. For the sake of democracy, we should encourage the widest possible dissemination of free expression through the public airwaves."

And so it goes.

But wait. This time it might be different. This time there are signs that the public, as well as opinion leaders of various and diverse ideological stripes, are finally so outraged by this ongoing power grab that they will demand action.

The public snoozed during the 1980s, when the Reagan White House eased the public-interest and equal-time provisions to the point of irrelevance. It looked the other way when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 set off a gold rush, especially in the radio sector, which was taken over almost in its entirety by a tiny handful of owners. And that somnolence was encouraged by the news media, which, whether by design or indifference, served their corporate masters by failing to cover what was happening as anything other than a routine business story.

By contrast, the run-up to Monday's vote was distinctly unquiet. Opposition to the FCC's latest deregulatory moves came from an unusually broad cross section, from liberal and reformist groups such as Common Cause, the Center for Digital Democracy, and the Consumer Federation of America to conservative organizations such as the National Rifle Association and the Parents Television Council.

And it wasn't just special-interest groups that got in on the action. More than a half-million people reportedly submitted comments to the FCC, nearly all of them opposed to deregulation. MoveOn.org, a progressive organization founded to fight Bill Clinton's impeachment, forwarded some 180,000 electronic comments to the FCC. The group, which emerged earlier this year as a leader in the anti-war movement, also took out television commercials that raised the specter of international media baron (and Fox News Channel founder) Rupert Murdoch's extending his global reach even further.

"This really is just the beginning," Eli Pariser, the Maine native who is international campaigns director of MoveOn.org, told me by e-mail. "When we decided to engage on this issue, we knew that Commissioner Powell was probably committed to the approach of railroading the rule change through. We wanted to highlight his contempt for the democratic process and raise the noise level to the point where Congress paid attention."

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, believes progressives were finally mobilized by their disgust at the rah-rah, unquestioning tone of much of the war coverage. "The most important thing post-June 2 is to take the momentum and broaden this from the coalition that we've been able to create and go after some very serious victories on legislative action," says Chester. "You have the potential for a left-right coalition here to go back to Congress and try to be serious." As an example of legislation that could ameliorate the effects of the FCC's ruling, Chester says media reformers might push for a rule requiring companies that own a newspaper and a television station in the same market to employ separate editorial managers.

Besides that, Chester adds, he and other activists intend to protest every single merger. "We will file petitions to delay. We will slow down the process," he vows.

In a country whose Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, the very idea of media regulation has an un-American ring to it. And in fact, strictly defined, "the press" -- that is, newspapers, magazines, and other print outlets -- are essentially unregulated. By contrast, the rules that govern television and radio stations are grounded in the laws of physics: there are only so many broadcast frequencies available, and they must be divvied up in such a way that one station isn't trampling on space reserved for another.

If you want to start a daily newspaper, you can. It will cost many millions of dollars and you will probably fail, but no one will tell you that you aren't allowed to try. But if you want to own a TV or radio station, you'll need to buy one: nearly all the available frequencies are already being used by other broadcasters. It is this situation that gave rise to the current regulatory regime, which dates back to the 1930s. The airwaves, according to this doctrine, are finite and publicly owned. Licenses to use these airwaves are granted for a limited period of time, and must be exercised in the public interest.

That was the theory, anyway. Starting in the 1980s, though, the system began to crumble. During the Reagan presidency, public-interest programming started to disappear, as regulators made it clear that they no longer considered it a condition for license renewal. The Fairness Doctrine and equal-time provisions gave way to today's reality, in which nationally syndicated talk-show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity can openly call for listeners to vote Republican, with virtually no one on the air to take the other side.

Commercial radio was so thoroughly destroyed by the Telecom Act of 1996 that FCC member Michael Copps -- a Democrat who has emerged as Michael Powell's most outspoken opponent -- cited it as an object lesson in his 22-plus-page dissent to Monday's ruling. "Diversity of programming suffered. Homogenized music and standardized programming crowded out local and regional talent. Creative local artists found it evermore difficult to obtain play time on the air," Copps wrote, adding: "Competition in many towns became non-existent as a few companies -- in some cases a single company -- bought up virtually every station in the market. This experience should terrify us as we consider visiting upon television and newspapers what we have inflicted upon radio. 'Clear Channelization' of the rest of the American media will harm our country."

That last bit is a reference to Clear Channel, a conglomerate that has expanded its empire to some 1200 radio stations since 1996. Companies today can own as many as eight stations in a given market; Monday's ruling did not change that. Perhaps the most infamous case of radio gone bad is the town of Minot, North Dakota, where Clear Channel owns all six commercial stations. According to a New York Times report, when a 1 a.m. train derailment caused toxic gas to leak into the air in January 2002, police attempted to alert the Clear Channel station that was the town's designated emergency broadcaster -- and couldn't get their calls answered, forcing them to rouse station employees at home. Police complained that because the station was programmed by remote control, no employees were actually at the station, a charge that Clear Channel denied. Still, the story has become a cautionary tale regarding the evils of deregulation, and has transformed Senator Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) into an anti-monopoly crusader.

Incredibly, Clear Channel criticized Monday's ruling because the FCC announced that it intended to take some mild oversight steps with regard to radio. Then, too, Clear Channel went to great lengths to make sure its stations were on board with the war in Iraq, even going so far as to organize pro-war rallies. Perhaps the company's executives believe that the Bush administration is showing insufficient gratitude.

It's not just news that gets short shrift -- culture suffers as well. Donna Halper, a radio consultant and Emerson College journalism professor, saw what happened to radio firsthand. In 1974, she was music director at WMMS, in Cleveland, when she received a record in a plain brown envelope. It was by an unknown band called Rush. She put the record on the air -- and thus gave a huge boost to a band that has proved to be both highly popular and long-lived.

"If I were a music director doing my job today, I couldn't do what I did in 1974," Halper told me. "I couldn't run down to the disc jockey on the air and say, 'Hey, I just heard this great new band, we've got to put them on the air.'" Increasingly, she observes, radio stations in small and medium-size markets -- the kinds of places where music promoters used to be able to break new acts -- are programmed out of headquarters many hundreds of miles away.

This kind of gigantism can take a more malignant turn as well. Last week, ABC's Nightline -- in a segment for which Halper was interviewed -- reported that Cumulus, the second-largest radio chain (after Clear Channel), banned the Dixie Chicks from all its 42 country stations after lead singer Natalie Maines dissed George W. Bush. Now, you could argue that that was Cumulus's right, or that it might even have been a good business decision. But one company taking a group off 42 stations is considerably different from 42 separate radio-station owners making the same decision.

After all, it is nearly unimaginable that 42 different individuals would make that same decision. Which is, after all, the whole point about what's wrong with media consolidation.

As Michael Powell accurately notes, consolidation is not taking place in a vacuum. For one thing, in recent years the increasingly conservative federal court system has been knocking down various media regulations, meaning that some loosening of the rules was inevitable. For another, there are many more media outlets than ever before -- hundreds of thousands of Web sites, satellite television, and a cable universe that won't stop expanding until it's up against the current technological limit of 500 channels.

The problem with Powell's first argument, though, is that he appears far too eager to do the media conglomerates' bidding rather than test the limits of the courts' forbearance. Powell has encouraged a shockingly cozy relationship with the industry. According to a recent study by the Center for Public Integrity, "FCC officials have taken 2,500 trips costing nearly $2.8 million over the past eight years, most of it from the telecommunications and broadcast industries the agency regulates." Top destinations: Las Vegas, New Orleans, and New York.

The problem with the second argument is that, though there are more broadcast and cable outlets than ever before, the majority of them are owned by five huge companies: AOL Time Warner, Viacom/CBS, General Electric/NBC, Disney/ABC, and Murdoch's News Corporation. Studies show, in fact, that those companies control some 75 percent of the prime-time audience.

To be sure, the notion that big-is-bad is too complicated to be correct in all cases. Local media activist Steve Provizer, the founder of Allston-Brighton Free Radio and the Citizens Media Corps, notes that a study earlier this year by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that TV stations owned by newspaper companies (under "grandfathering" arrangements) tend to produce higher-quality newscasts than other stations. He also observes that WHDH-TV (Channel 7), an independently owned operation (there is a sister station in Miami), introduced the sort of whiz-bang graphics and quick hits that dragged down local news throughout Greater Boston, with the chain-owned stations emulating at least some of Channel 7's style in a desperate bid to retain audience share.

"You can throw around the big terms: democracy, civic discourse. But I'm at the point where I've been doing this a long time, and people's real choices have got to change," Provizer says. "Will people choose their media on the basis of the fact that it's an independent rather than a group owner? They never have." He adds: "In my own mind, I feel like community and alternative media have got to do some real significant work if they're going to have any impact on people's media habits."

These days, Provizer is involved in a project called the Commonwealth Broadband Collaborative, which is aimed at producing high-quality, community-based programming for public-access cable TV and the Internet.

Provizer is right: independent owners aren't always better than corporate chains, and community-based media do no good if people aren't paying attention. Still, there are limits to the amount of damage a bad independent owner can do. The FCC's stated goals of localism, diversity, and competition are far better served by a multiplicity of owners than they are by a handful of corporate titans controlling most of what we see, hear, and read.

So what's next? The new FCC rules won't actually take effect until fall at the earliest. There's been considerable speculation about what might happen in Boston, but the truth is that no one knows. The New York Times Company, which owns the Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, also owns TV stations, and editorialized in favor of dropping the cross-ownership ban. Tribune Company, which owns WLVI-TV (Channel 56), has made it clear that it would like to gobble up TV stations in cities where it already does business. Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell has publicly stated that he would like to buy a radio station. He might also find a way to do business with his old mentor, Rupert Murdoch, who owns WFXT-TV (Channel 25).

Then, too, there is a possibility -- slight though it may be -- that Congress will seek to prevent some or all of the FCC changes from taking effect. David Moulton, a spokesman for Representative Ed Markey (D-Malden), a key opponent of deregulation, says the congressman might file legislation to retain the 35 percent national-audience cap. Markey himself said in a statement that "all segments of the population will enjoy fewer and fewer options for independent news and information" as a result of the FCC decision.

Most of the Democratic presidential candidates, including Senator John Kerry, denounced the FCC decision. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a national leader in the fight against deregulation, said in a written statement that Monday's action would "limit freedom of expression and curtail discourse, which are the very tenets of freedom and democracy our nation is built on." Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), an outspoken critic of the way Clear Channel muscles musicians with its monopolies in radio and concert promotion, announced that he was considering various legislative options as well. And these progressives have been joined by such conservative Republicans as Senators Trent Lott of Mississippi and Ted Stevens of Alaska.

Like Eli Pariser and Jeff Chester, University of Illinois media scholar Robert McChesney believes the coalition that formed around the FCC's latest deregulatory steps may represent a real opportunity for those who believe in a decentralized, democratic media. McChesney is involved in a new organization, Free Press ( www.mediareform.net), based in Northampton, that is attempting to organize around issues related to media concentration and ownership.

"What we've seen this time is an extraordinary amount of activism and interest in this issue. We've had nothing like this in the last 50 or 100 years that's even remotely comparable," says McChesney. "This is not the last battle in a war that is now lost. This is the first battle in a war that is just beginning."

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.