War of Words

Now that Operation "Infinite Justice" is underway, am I the only one wondering who coined that phrase? (Apparently the name of the U.S. military buildup has been changed to "Operation Enduring Freedom" to avoid offending Muslims.)

It reminds me of the name change that a small radio company called Hemisphere Broadcasting underwent some years back when it renamed itself Infinity Broadcasting, a term emblematic of its ambition. Infinity was later bought by CBS, which was, in turn, acquired by Viacom.

On September 7, four days before the hell we are now coping with erupted, Infinity's Mel Karmazin and company were deep into what might be called "Operation Infinite Just-Us." Their lawyers and counterparts in other media companies were battling in a Washington, D.C. appeals court to overturn rules limiting how many TV stations they can own. For 10 years now, regulations on broadcasters have been relaxed to their benefit. Now, the Viacomese and their allies want to scuttle the rest, demanding an end to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules that limit any one company from reaching more than 35 percent of the country or from owning a TV station in an area where they own a cable company.

Competition Through Consolidation

In a cleverly worded brief, this preemptive strike for more media consolidation is wrapped in language defending diversity and free competition. According to experts cited by the Los Angeles Times, if the media moguls get what they want, only a dozen or so companies will own most U.S. stations, giving them even more control over the marketplace of ideas than they already have.

As judges wrestled with these issues in one part of the capital, the FCC across town was launching a second front in a stealth effort to transfer more media power to a relative few. Under the chairmanship of Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin, the FCC scheduled a proceeding to weaken the rules if the courts did not choose to throw them out. Policy wonks know about this but most of the public does not, because big media rarely cover issues in which their own financial interests are at stake.

And then the day that changed the world forever arrived. When the Towers fell and the Pentagon was hit, Washington was paralyzed, with only the White House, State Department and "Defense" establishment in motion. Oh, and one other key development was not suspended: the FCC's determination to serve the industry it is supposed to oversee.

Like a Broadway producer, Michael Powell decided "the show must go on," and moved full speed ahead with a planned "comment period" to solicit reaction to proposed changes. Imagine, in the middle of a national emergency, at the outset of a war, when the country is totally shocked and distracted, he expects public comments on key regulatory proposals. His stated reasons were wrapped in patriotism: "Our reaction must be to defy these dastardly acts and not cower or be deterred from our duties: to our families, to our friends, and to our countrymen. The flame of the American ideal may flicker, but it will never be extinguished. So we are here today. We will do our small part and press on with our business -- solemnly, but resolutely." Sound the trumpets!

Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracyexplains why this issue is so important: "The ownership rules on the FCC chopping block have been developed over the last fifty years. They have been an important safeguard ensuring the public's basic First Amendment rights. The rationale for these policies is that they help provide for a diverse media marketplace of ideas, essential for a democracy. They have not been perfect. But the rules have helped constrain the power of the corporate media giants."

What's The Connection?

Although the media usually like to speculate about government intent, this official comment period on cross-ownership has gone largely uncommented upon on television or in the press, perhaps because many newspapers also own TV stations.

It reminded me of a similarly unexplored story 10 years ago, when George W's dad was gearing up for the Gulf War. The media at that time reported on a public debate that included many peace sentiments, much to the displeasure of many in the administration. The vote in Congress to authorize the war was very close (in what were clearly different circumstances).

At that time, the broadcast industry was lobbying the FCC hard for a change in financial syndication rules that would enormously bolster its bottom line. They ultimately won those changes and much, much more when the Telecommunications Reform Act passed in 1996. Those changes promised big money, as do the rule changes proposed today.

When the Gulf War erupted, some aggressive questions were raised by journalists at Pentagon briefings, especially because of the restrictions imposed on media coverage in the Gulf. Network bureau chiefs in Washington, D.C., had originally agreed to those restraints but later, after the war was over, complained that they'd been had and denounced the largely successful efforts at censorship.

This spectacle of the press doing its job in 1991 infuriated some in the FCC, especially commissioner James Quello, who was seen as the TV industry's voice on the commission. Quello gave a high-profile speech to the Indiana Broadcasting Association questioning the patriotism of TV journalists for demanding hard information about the war. Here was a veteran in the television business turning on the very people who report news. His speech sent a worrying signal to the suites of media power. Later, CBS anchor Dan Rather would characterize TV journalism during the war as playing the role of "lap dogs, not watchdogs." Most TV coverage soon was marching in lockstep with government policy. The networks, and especially CNN, enjoyed high ratings and profits when they turned the Gulf War into a TV newsathon. (I tell this story in more detail in my new book, News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics, 1960-2000, from Akashic Books).

After the war, I spoke to Quello, who was pleased as punch at the networks' performance. I later spoke to a respected producer at CBS's news magazine "60 Minutes," who insisted on anonymity. He told me he had wanted their coverage to feature more debates. Higher-ups asked him to propose a plan to do it. He did, but, to his surprise, never received a response. I quoted what he said happened in a piece I wrote for "Spin," namely that a "prominent network fixer" was in the White House regularly during that period lobbying for the FCC rule change, and that there was no way the administration could be confronted when the networks had such an important economic agenda under consideration in Washington. There is no way to confirm this story but other journalists I've told it to say it sounds plausible.

What's Happening Now?

Fast-forward to the present. The FCC is, in effect, holding out the possibility of freeing the networks from restrictions on buying up more stations. At a time when the industry is hurting financially, big bucks are once again being dangled in front of media moguls. Who among them would challenge the government now on the current war effort? I think it is safe to predict the media will be chilling, in a time of more killing.

There is no way of knowing how this FCC initiative will influence news reporting in "the first war of the 21st century." Already an executive (who I know and respect) at NBC has counseled journalists there to be wary of reporting anything that can help the enemy. This is the same network news division that fired freelancer Jon Alpert when he brought back pictures showing the pain of Iraqi civilians in the aftermath of Desert Storm. NBC refused to show them.

We have experienced waves of media mergers, amidst a merger of news biz and show biz. Is a military-media merger in the offing because of economic and political forces that seem invisible to many in the media, or is it in place already? It is not naïve to fear the emergence of a new media-military industrial complex taking shape as Americans enter this next round in our quest for "Infinite Justice"?

At first glance, the relationship between media concentration and "America's New War," as CNN puts it, seems tenuous. But is it? The cutbacks in coverage of the world that left so many American uninformed and unprepared for what is happening took place amidst this greatest wave of media consolidation in history. It has already had an effect. Will it get worse?

Danny Schechter is the executive editor of MediaChannel.org. His latest book is News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics, 1960-2000 from Akashic Books.


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