Whither Democracy?


Well, wasn't that a surprise?

Monday morning, in perhaps the most widely and keenly anticipated decision in its history, the Federal Communications Commission soberly considered the desires of large corporations, on the one hand, and the requirements of a functional democracy, on the other. Guess who won?

In this case, "considered" means "glanced at" -- not to be confused with a process in which the outcome was seriously in doubt. The FCC voted 3-2 for changes widely desired by the country's largest media conglomerates. The three "yes" votes came from the FCC's two Bush Administration appointees, and from Michael Powell, Colin's son, who was named FCC Chair when Bush assumed office and who has spearheaded the drive for further deregulation.

The suspense in the proceedings came not from a question of whether large networks and group owners would be newly allowed to buy each other, smaller chains, or additional stations, or whether the same company could own broadcast outlets and a daily newspaper in the same market, but to what extent. Would the complete abandonment of public concerns favored by Powell and his allies be mitigated by the unprecedented public and Congressional outcry? Would that outcry sway the vote of one of the two Bush appointees, Republican Kevin Martin?

No, and no. The newspaper/broadcast crossownership ban is over, a move that by the time you read this will already have sharply reduced media diversity in more than one major city. Companies may also now own two network TV stations in one market, and in larger cities, three. The one "compromise" was an easing of the television ownership limits so that one company can own stations now reaching 45 rather than 35 percent of the country. Powell had wanted the limit abolished entirely -- but give Time-Warner-AOL, Viacom/CBS, and Disney time to ramp up to the 45% limit (say, three days) and further measures can and probably will be considered.

Given the massive consolidation after the last big media deregulatory move -- the now-legendary Telecommunications Act of 1996, perhaps the most corporate welfare ever ladled out by Congress at one sitting -- critics of Monday's decision were uniformly grim. The two dissenting Democrats, FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, were unambiguous. Copps: "The more you dig into this order, the worse things get." Adelstein called the decision "likely to damage the media landscape for decades to come."

FCC Chair Powell -- continuing the Bush Administration's rhetorical tradition of taking a policy's greatest weakness and calling it a shining strength -- praised his own handiwork as a move that would "advance our goals of diversity and localism."

Advance it right out the door and into the dumpster. Every community in America experienced the effects after 1996. Radio stations that once had local DJs and news are now computer-programmed jukeboxes. Clear Channel Communications, the most successful benefactor of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, has gone from 14 stations to over 1,200 (of 10,000 in the U.S.), with many of them strictly satellite feeds running identical songs and DJs at the same time. The only "localism" is when DJs pre-record their voice tracks, with a two-second station ID that is then mixed into the generic patter. "Twenty minutes after the hour" was never heard on radio stations until the same voice was being broadcast in five time zones. Even in larger markets -- the kind where three or four local jocks or talk radio hosts might be hired for the daylight hours -- the actual programming is controlled by company HQ or a centralized consultant, and then executed by computer. The days of a DJ picking out his or her favorite song -- or even agreeing to play yours -- are long, long gone. That's the "localism" trend Powell has just accelerated.

Clear Channel, of course, has also become the poster company for the larger downsides of media consolidation: monopolistic practices and political censorship. Every large media company now has extensive holdings in a variety of media genres -- from radio and TV to newspapers, magazines, the web, books, movies, video and audio production houses, advertising agencies, concert promotion, outdoor billboards, and so on. Clear Channel has also become one of the country's largest billboard owners and by far its largest concert promoter, and has used its influence to control who gets airplay at up to eight stations in a given market and who gets access to a given city's most attractive performance venues. It's a nasty business that strikes at cultural diversity in the way only monopolies can.

Clear Channel has also figured in a number of political censorship and ethical controversies, from its notorious list of "banned" songs in the aftermath of 9/11 (e.g., "Peace Train") to its recent sponsorship, in a number of cities, of pro-war rallies intended to counter opposition to Bush's invasion of Iraq. Monopolies can do that, especially when what they monopolize is a city's largest platforms and soapboxes.

The crux of the attention and controversy, stemming from Powell's announcement last fall that the FCC would undertake a comprehensive review of media ownership regulations, has been the balance between corporate greed and the need, recognized since the Founding Fathers, for a functional democracy to rest on a well-informed citizenry. Americans, by contrast, are not well-informed about most of the public policy matters central to our lives. The months of non-coverage network TV has given to this decision were a perfect, ironic example. Moreover, we've also been taught, by repeated example, not to care -- that public policy is boring, and that we can't influence it anyway. Hey, is the ballgame on yet?

Since the Reagan Administration's first significant moves toward media deregulation two decades ago, four presidencies have championed corporate greed over these democratic necessities. Without that long-term trend, the judiciary would not now be stacked with anti-regulatory zealots. Powell's omnibus review was in turn justified by a little noticed D.C. federal appeals court decision -- four days before 9/11 -- that signaled its intent to strike down the newspaper cross-ownership rule, and by extension many other limits on companies' ability to freely buy as many media properties as they could. Such rulings, ignoring the reality that media isn't simply another for-profit industry like widget-making, put democracy in the same bought-and- sold category as any other tradable commodity.

There is some noise in Congress about trying to rein in Monday's decision; the FCC undoubtably will face legal challenges as well. But the damage will be done regardless. The FCC is now free to approve sales under its own newly-promulgated rules. If Time-Warner-AOL and Viacom decide tomorrow to buy 90% of our country's television (with Disney and Clear Channel as minority stockholders, natch), what court or legislator would be willing to later undo the sale?

It's hard to remember the last time any major public policy shift in our country clearly served to foster democracy rather than further cripple it. The Bush Administration has been particularly vicious in auctioning our country off to the highest bidders -- i.e., their friends. It has also been particularly vicious in attempting to marginalize or punish (or, at the fringes, criminalize) democratic expressions of dissent. Imagine the gratitude, and eagerness to repay favors, of the large corporations who have been given -- essentially for free -- our public airwaves, and who thus control the most widely seen and heard venues for any such opposition. Imagine, down the road, what a Fearless and Beloved Leader with the ruthlessness of Dubya and the empathy of Clinton could do with such a capacity.

And then start patronizing, supporting, and creating media alternatives to the pablum of the big companies. Popularize the notion that television and radio are largely corporate monopolies -- not the places where a marketplace of ideas can flourish -- and that the less TV we watch, the more we'll know about our world.

The alternative is an ignorant monoculture, and the ultimate perversion of democracy. It is a media landscape with ever-fewer voices, the eerie flip side of e pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

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