Undermining Effective Reporting: New FCC Proposals

Just two days after the terrorist attacks in the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission moved ahead with plans to end or weaken several long-standing policies designed to promote diversity of media ownership. Under the leadership of the new FCC Chairman Michael Powell (son of Secretary of State Colin), the commission released two proposed "rulemakings" that will have a major impact on the country's newspaper, broadcasting and cable TV industries. One TV network executive has already called for more deregulation as a way of helping the TV business recover from economic losses related to the attacks. If these proposals are approved, there is likely to be major consolidation, dramatically reducing still further the number of companies in control of major U.S. media outlets.

In normal times, similar deregulatory proposals could be viewed as media industry special-interest lobbying as usual. For over 20 years, the TV and cable industries have told policymakers to eliminate most federal rules on media ownership, arguing that success in the free market should be embraced as the ultimate public-service test. In FCC Chairman Powell, the industry now has a critically important ally who has endorsed the idea of further deregulation. Powell has placed these proposals on a very fast track.

But such policy changes are likely to have a major impact on journalism, potentially weakening the news media's ability to cover the current crisis and future developments effectively. Since the initial media deregulation of the Ronald Reagan-era, changes in FCC ownership policy have brought about drastic budget cutting in the news departments of the TV networks. There have been major reductions in staffing, including curtailing investigative units, closing of foreign bureaus and the emergence of an eviscerating bottom-line mentality that has often replaced serious reporting with a focus on ratings-generated infotainment. The print press has sometimes also been victimized by similar cost-cutting strategies, often as a consequence of media mergers by larger conglomerates.

The question must now be asked whether a new wave of media deregulation might further weaken and erode the resources of network TV news and major newspapers, just at a time when we need them to both cover the breaking news and effectively serve as a guardian of the public's right to be fully informed.

There are two federal media ownership rules now under-review. The first would either eliminate or change a 25-year-old policy that prohibits the ownership of a TV station and a newspaper in the same community. The goal for this so-called "cross-ownership" safeguard has been to ensure a community has some diverse editorial perspectives, with no single owner able to dominate with its viewpoint. The second rule under review currently places limits on the size and clout of a single cable TV company. Under one FCC proposed change, a single company might be able to control two-thirds of the nation's cable systems. Several other FCC policies, including those that limit the total number of TV stations the big networks can own, have come under legal and regulatory attack from the networks themselves, including AOL Time Warner, Viacom/CBS, NBC and Fox. If the FCC and the media giants are successful in weakening the ownership safeguards, a single owner in a community could control several TV and radio stations, a cable system and a newspaper. The networks would control more TV stations across the country, which has already raised protests from affiliates who feel such a move would threaten local programming needs.

Nowhere in its proposals on media ownership, however, does the FCC ask whether media deregulation in the past has negatively affected the quality of our news media, especially from the broadcast TV networks. But it has.

Twenty years ago, the FCC began its first major deregulatory thrust while under the leadership of Mark Fowler. Fowler terminated many of the FCC's public interest policies, suggesting that TV be viewed as a "toaster with pictures," a simple household appliance requiring little oversight. Public service requirements were ended. TV stations could renew their lucrative public license by simply sending in a postcard. Rules that had prevented the fast turnover of stations and networks were abandoned, leading to takeovers at the then-three major TV networks. Since networks could now buy more stations, their new debt-burdened owners began looking for ways to economize their operations. First on the chopping block were their news divisions, whose budgets had been protected for decades as a way of fulfilling their formerly required public interest mandate.

Hundreds of TV journalists lost their jobs. Network documentary and investigative units disappeared. Foreign bureaus were also closed or had their staffing reduced. Management consultants were brought in to help turn the news operation into a profit center. Out of this morass arose tabloid TV and soft news magazines, easy on both the budgets and ratings. With reduced staffs, the network news divisions had to band together to report on election coverage, ultimately creating the Voters News Service, which in last year's election erroneously called Florida for Al Gore.

There are more recent examples of the negative impact of media ownership changes on news. For example, last year, right after giant AOL swallowed Time Warner, the newly merged, largest media company laid off more than 400 CNN staff.

Earlier this month, while remarking on the loss of ad revenue related to the terrorist attacks, Viacom president Mel Karmazin suggested there could be a "silver lining" for his company due to the weakened position of other media companies. He called for more federal media deregulation so Viacom could purchase additional television stations and other media properties. He suggested that, in a time of war, the government should be supportive of such a move.

While there have been major changes in our media landscape over the last two decades, we have seen more outlets and channels, but with fewer owners. And despite the rise of the Internet, most Americans still rely on television as the principal source of information. That's one reason why the FCC should delay its ownership proceedings. Before we rush headlong into a new series of deregulatory moves, we must discuss, carefully and publicly, how this will affect journalism and the flow of information to the public. We need the news media more than ever today, to carefully examine what went wrong with government anti-terrorism plans, for example. There needs to be an abundance of local and national in-depth reporting, and a commitment to investigative efforts. The self-serving call for greater deregulation from Karmazin and Michael Powell need to be tempered with analysis and debate.

Jeffrey Chester is the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Newsweek named him as one of the "Fifty People Who Matter Most on the Internet."

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