The FCC on Its Knees
"It's time to move away from thinking of broadcasters as trustees and time to treat them the way that everyone else in this society does, that is, as a business. Television is just another appliance. It's a toaster with pictures."
Those were the memorable droppings of a man named Mark Fowler. Ronald Reagan picked him to run the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the U.S.'s poor excuse for a media regulatory body. Echoing a historic Republican theme that "the business of America is business," he summed up how corporate think had insinuated itself into the work of an agency set up to protect the public interest from corporate self-interest.
Fowler's candor was expressed back in that watershed year of 1984, an irony that George Orwell, the author of the book that made that year infamous, would have found delicious. Perhaps it is fitting that in a sizzling summer in which folks in our nation's capital say they feel like they live in a toaster, Mark Fowler has reemerged.
Only this time his name is Michael Powell.
And its toaster time again.
Michael is an "SOG," a 38-year-old Son of a General -- Gulf War leader and current Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell the Younger is the current chair of the FCC; according to Brendan Kerner's informative story in New York's venerable Village Voice, "If he plays his cards right, he could well become the first African-American president." Among Powell Jr.'s claims to fame, Kerner writes, is that he is a "younger and brighter version of George W. Bush," as if that is saying much.
A typical Powellism does to logic what Bush does to language. When asked about the Digital Divide, he quipped: "I think there's a Mercedes divide. I'd like to have one; I can't afford one." His salary is $133,700 a year.
Brace yourself, America. You have been warned.
A Nation Asleep
Most of America is sleeping when it comes to understanding how what we see and hear on TV and radio every day is affected by what a bunch of lawyers decide in a boardroom in Washington. And it is certainly true that arcane talk of the "deployment of the infrastructure" and complicated, Byzantine standards are hard to fathom, much less keep you from dozing.
The media industries understand just how essential control over regulatory bodies is in their bid to aggregate more power. That's why they spend so much money on political contributions to congressional representatives and senators who sit on regulatory committees, and why, while media jobs are disappearing in outlets worldwide, media lobbyists are building extensions on their patios because of all the work that's being tossed their way.
These lobbyists are like bagmen spreading manna from media heaven. Media companies gave the Bush campaign over a million dollars, but there is more to it than campaign contributions. They regularly dispense favors, such as a fully paid Paris junket costing $18,910 that recently went to Powell's patron, Republican Representative Billy Tauzin, a good old boy from Louisiana and chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
But this is chump change compared to how media companies benefit when FCC decisions go their way. A recent example was the gift bestowed by the FCC on Republican Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News practically got Dubya elected (while G.W.B.'s first cousin John Ellis ran some of the right-wing network's campaign coverage). Murdoch was just given a waiver of cross-ownership rules permitting him to buy two local TV stations in New York, el numero uno media market. This despite his already owning The New York Post, a political pulpit posing as a newspaper. (Rupert's son Lachlan recently engineered the firing of that paper's best-known -- well, only -- liberal columnist, Jack Newfield, replacing him with Victoria Gotti, daughter of jailed Mafia don John Gotti. Is it possible that children, in this case Michael and Lachlan, are even more rabid than their fathers?)
Media-policy monitor Jeff Chester of the Center for Media Education was apoplectic about the FCC's latest groveling to Murdoch, noting: "What was not said by Chairman Powell in approving this media merger decision was more important than what he said. Powell ignored the merger's narrowing impact on local voices, the threats to local TV journalism, the giveaway of additional digital beachfront spectrum, and Murdoch's vital hold in Gemstar and its electronic program guide. Nor was Murdoch's attempt to further expand his media empire through the acquisition of Direct-TV included in Powell's analysis."
In an editorial on the subject, The New York Times (which does not disclose its own ownership of TV stations) deferentially calls for a Congressional "airing" of the issues. It opines gently: "Congress may now wish to explore new ways of ensuring diversity and competition in an industry of fundamental importance to free expression." Guess they consider it too radical to call for an investigation, which is what is needed, not a mere "airing." And phrases like "Congress may now wish" and "explore" brings mealy-mouthed liberalism to a new level. Don't we have enough hot air already?
Today Murdoch, Tomorrow ...?
Today, Murdoch is the beneficiary of the FCC's largesse. According to Chester, in the near future other public interest safeguards may be on the chopping block: "Likely to be either eliminated or fundamentally weakened are the national ownership cap, the local television multiple ownership rule, and the television/newspaper cross-ownership rule. These and other critical public interest rules have come under fierce legal and regulatory attack by such media giants as Viacom, News Corp., Disney, GE/NBC, and AOL-Time Warner."
Meanwhile, where are the forces with the political will to challenge these giveaways? On Capitol Hill, we have Senator Joe Lieberman, a vice presidential candidate now back to wagging his finger about vice, taking the industry to task for salacious content but avoiding key institutional issues. When so chastised, media moguls typically nod their heads with contrition and "concern," promise to tighten voluntary standards (the only kind they favor), and then continue to do whatever they want. It's been like that for years.
This is very tricky ground because it can easily slide into censorship and worse, as hip hop guru Russell Simmons told Lieberman and co. at a Senate hearing dealing with a system for rating entertainment for sex, violence and foul language. (Even though he wasn't invited to testify, he showed up anyway and was given a hearing.) "I want to make it clear: Most of the people you're indicting here today are black and are hip hop," Simmons said. "Some of the songs you may find offensive -- protest songs and other songs -- are actually a reflection of the reality that needs to be expressed."
Conservative groups like Brent Bozell's Parents Television Council rave about the sex and violence polluting our children, but they want the industry to fix it, not the government, calling for more voluntary standards. In testimony to Congress, Bozell said: "No one likes government interference. Parents are outraged over the marketing and availability to children of violent, sexually graphic and vulgar entertainment. Hollywood wants parents to be the gatekeepers of what children watch and listen to. Calls for individual and corporate responsibility continue to increase as our nation looks for reasonable solutions to the cultural crisis at hand." His solution: more voluntarism.
The industry and its boosters have another mantra: "If you don't like it, don't watch it." Some years back, as part of the disastrous telecommunications "reform" bill of 1996, they went along with a techno-fix, a congressionally mandated "V-chip" added to new TV sets that would allow parents to block objectionable content. What's happened? According to a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, though 40 percent of American parents now own a TV equipped with a V-chip, only 17 percent of them -- or seven percent of all parents -- use it. That's a joke, not a reform. The study adds that more than half of all parents have consulted TV ratings to decide which shows their kids can watch.
I wonder if they would like traffic lights to be voluntary. Sure, the government shouldn't regulate lyrics, but faith in so-called free markets has ushered in a free market in filth, too. Could music companies and TV networks produce programming that promoted social values like encouraging customers to be citizens as well as consumers and get more involved in trying to improve society and better the world? Of course, they could. Are they? No way. Why? Because they believe that the cruder the content, the higher the return. It's not true, but why let facts get in the way of their single-minded obsession with profit-making.
So where does this leave us? We can either keep clucking away at how awful it all is or get engaged in bringing other voices to the table and building a constituency for media reform. There are still three years to go before they may be playing "Hail to the Chief" to FCC wunderkind Michael Powell. That's not a lot of time.
Danny Schechter is the executive editor of MediaChannel.org. His latest book is "News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics, 1960-2000," from Akashic Books.